Competing Conceptions Of Reform In Bosnia – Analysis


By Jasmin Mujanović

This past Friday marked the release of the first of two policy briefs on constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) by the International Crisis Group (ICG). As far as “peace building” think tanks are concerned, the ICG is certainly among the most esteemed – its board of trustees and advisers is a virtual who’s who of international diplomacy. In short, its policy recommendations carry serious weight.

It is thus all the more frustrating that their recent report on BiH, ‘Bosnia’s Gordian Knot: Constitutional Reform’, has reproduced most of the same fallacies which have informed the international community’s attempts to “deal” with the country since (at least) 1991-92. Ostensibly, the brief concerns the as yet unimplemented Sejdić-Finci reforms which have been demanded by the European Court of Human Rights and the European Union itself for BiH to advance in its “ascension” talks with the Union. However, as the authors note, the “ruling raises fundamental questions about Bosnia’s constitutional architecture” which go beyond the simple parameters of extending basic democratic rights to BiH’s growing “minority” population(s).

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina

As much as it may pain members of the international policy community, however, in order to truly grasp why the ICG’s report should be a cause for concern – or at least disappointment (as well as the impending arrival of its second, more thorough brief in early 2013) – it is necessary to develop an appreciation for the origins of BiH’s current constitutional order. This is also a necessary step before we can seriously consider alternative arrangements.

A history of betrayal

In the academic literature on the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), as well as the outbreak of war in BiH, there has emerged something of a broad consensus among the leading scholars in the field. If it had not been already clear by the late eighties, then certainly the past twenty years have served to establish a clear narrative, and it follows.

Brokered (or imposed, rather) by the international community, the so-called Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, brought to an end a war in BiH. It was a war that had not been the result of the unbridled and millennial ethnic hatreds of its peoples, but rather the engineered and orchestrated machinations of an unaccountable political elite seeking to secure its political and economic survival in a period of immense social crisis – this point is made most succinctly in V.P. Gagnon’s The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s’. This ideological project was constructed and conceived by some of the brightest minds of the Serbian intelligentsia in response to the perceived failures of the post-1974 attempts at decentralization in Yugoslavia, and centered on the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU). The “failure” in question, as Gagnon points out, lay not only in the dispersal of political authority among the six republics, in particular, but also in the progressive “liberalization” of Yugoslav social and political life. By cleverly spinning the growing desire for reform across the country as an attack on “the Serb nation,” an opportunistic cabal of reactionary political hard-liners and ultra-nationalists engineered the dissolution of what had been, by most accounts, the leading candidate for first entry into the “new Europe.”

While the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and later Kosovo, which marked the dissolution of Yugoslavia, would take on a seemingly self-evident ethnic character in the popular Western imagination, their ideological and political basis remained obscured. Scholars like Josip Glaurdić, in particular, but also Robert Donia, Marko Atilla Hoare, Brendan Simms, Noel Malcolm and David Campbell (to name but a few) have all convincingly argued that from the onset of the Yugoslav crisis in 1987 (at least), significant elements of the international community advocated a foreign policy based on perserving a vaccous conception of “stability” and “unity” rather than a principled insistance on democratization and human rights.

In practice, what this meant was that even before the arrival of Milošević on the political scene of Yugoslavia, for instance, the international community had sent strong signals to the country’s leadership that an increased role by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) would be a welcome step towards checking some of their growing concerns about the stability of political authority in the country in the post-Tito period. Glaurdić’s recent text, ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia’, is a marvelous, if infurating, study of how essentially anti-democratic the foreign policy of the then European Community (EC), as well as the United States, was towards Yugoslavia and its later successor states.

The result for BiH, especially, was that the international community’s “proposed partition of Bosnia into ethnic–national cantons meant that the first peace proposal for Bosnia embodied, prior to the outbreak of open and widespread conflict in Bosnia, the very nexus between identity and territory upon which the major protagonists in the later conflict relied.” This assessment by Campbell is one shared by Glaurdić, who descirbes the Carrington-Cutileiro plan in question in stark detail.

The February 1992 “peace plan” proposed by Portugal’s Jose Cutileiro and Britain’s Peter Carrington damaged the prospects for peace and co-existence in Bosnia in a manner “that cannot be overstated. By accepting the ethnic principle for the reorganisation of the republic, Cutileiro in essence recognised the platforms of the SDS, and the Boban wing of the HDZ and opened a Pandora’s box of ethnic division that still mars Bosnia to this very day.” As the author notes, “Cutileiro’s intent was obviously to appease the Bosnian Serbs and their Belgrade sponsor into not implementing their massive war machinery. However, instead of lowering tensions and giving the three parties an impetus to keep negotiating, the plan actually gave them a ‘charter for ethnic cleansing.’” Under the guise of accepting “ethnic reality,” the plan was “in fact inducing the parties – and especially the Bosnian Serbs, who had the military backing of Serbia and the JNA – to create new ethnic realities on the ground.”

Aside from implicating large segments of the international community in the horrors that befell the whole of Yugoslavia, but BiH in particular, this point is immensely important to keep in mind as attention once again turns to the question of constitutional reform.

Unsurprisingly, as the eventual Dayton Peace Agreement, which brought to an end the war in BiH (and fully embraced the above-mentioned segregationist tendencies), was a product of the specialized, foreign policy community, it was “the poster child for international reconstruction efforts. It was routinely touted by U.S. and European leaders as proof that under the right conditions the international community could successfully rebuild conflict-ridden countries.” As obvious flaws have emerged, however, proponents have been forced to admit that while “[the] Dayton peace agreement is a model to emulate because it ended the violence and built the conditions for a return to normal life for many,” it likewise “…offers a cautionary tale of the potential for institutional structures to create perverse incentives, spawn extremists, and eventually undermine national unity.”

However, this guarded reading ignores the history established by all of the above scholars – that the war in BiH was not actually the product of organic “inter-ethnic” animosities. It was a manufactured, orchestrated political conflict, and while one cannot negate the deeply traumatic experiences of the war on the local population, neither can one subscribe to the belief Dayton’s success in “keeping the peace” is somehow novel. As Sonja Biserko notes, the Bosnian war ended when the Serb nationalist establishment understood that it was on the brink of defeat and, ultimately, accepted Dayton as a means of preserving their ill-gotten gains which they had only recently lost in Croatia and would soon lose in Kosovo. As “inter-communal animosity” or violence, as it is popularly imagined, was never the cause of the war in BiH or even the wider dissolution of Yugoslavia, the problem Dayton sought to address with the establishment of its apartheid-like logic was entirely the product of warped chauvinist policies and propaganda, and the disappointing proclivity of the international community to become handmaidens to this process.

As such, the dominant “peace building” literature, which so blithely ignores the deeply reactionary character of Dayton as well as the deeply hypocritical history of the international community’s involvement in the region, is but the institutional reflection of a broader trend of ­­anti-democratic policy making in BiH over the past twenty years – both on the part of local and international actors.

Competing conceptions – a short survey

With respect to what is on offer from this most recent brief by the ICG (though final recommendations are still pending, given the forthcoming second report), one should note that there are some tentative reasons for optimism. While the report remains mired in the pointlessly complicated and obscurantist language of “ethnic consociationalism,” the authors do seem to end up endorsing a kind of reformed federalism – whereby economic and geographic divisions slowly overtake strict ethno-territorialisation. There is likewise an understated though clearly present sense that the present political establishment in BiH, as a whole, is completely and utterly incompetent and corrupt. This is a point I have written on previously, and one I shall return to momentarily.

The recognition of what is called “the fourth constitutive people,” is also an interesting point, wherein the authors note the growing tendency among citizens of the country to identify as (constitutionally defined) “Others” and/or simply as citizens of BiH, thereby rejecting the dominant Bosniak-Croat-Serb paradigm. Of course, this also reminds us of the absurd reality that Dayton has created a system where civic-minded Bosnian citizens feel like a minority in their own country. Moreover, there is the lasting issue of consistently greater emphasis placed on the ethereal goal of “joining the European Union” (and NATO) rather than more immediately pressing material concerns of the country’s population.

As such, the ICG brief occupies a sort of “mushy middle” when it comes to the question of constitutional reform.  The authors do not seem to be prepared to embrace more ambitious approaches, like the recently unveiled reforms proposed by the Naša Stranka (Our Party) – which nonetheless, however, embrace a federal motif themselves. Specifically, Naša Stranka envisions a BiH constituted through four “highly autonomous” federal units, organized on the basis of geographic, economic and demographic concerns, as well as two districts – Sarajevo and Brčko (a proposal which also includes scrapping the names “the Federation of BiH” and “Republika Srpska”). Using the European Union as a model, the Party endorses a trend towards, what they consider, sensible “regionalization.” In one sense, there are significant points of contact between what seems to be emerging as the ICG’s preferred model and the reforms promoted by the Naša Stranka, at least on the question of federalism—though how said federalism is to be implemented is likely to remain a point of contention.

On this topic, much is made of the need for “consensus” and “compromise” in BiH – though the question of consensus and compromise among whom is rarely addressed. Historically, this has meant that such actions have been expected on the part of local political elites – which as the above discussion should illustrate, has had disastrous consequences. By investing petty, self-interested and chauvinistic political elites like Milorad Dodik and Fahrudin Radončić with absolute authority, support and confidence (despite many facile “lectures” on “responsible governance” and the need to behave like “Europeans”), the international community has ensured that democratic reforms in BiH have been essentially non-existent.

In any case, this has created a situation whereby projects like The Chicago Initiative for a New Bosnia and Herzegovina might seem to uninformed observers or otherwise well-meaning interlocutors as a truly novel approach. The Chicago Initiative is promoted by the World Engagement Institute and while featuring several intriguing proposals (several empowered Ombudsman positions, as well as a legislature with seats partially allocated on the basis of age – with equal representation for all age groups) it quickly slips into the truly bizarre.

For one, their respective imagined federal divisions seem to mimic the borders of Saskatchewan or perhaps Western Australia – which is to say, perfectly vertical and horizontal lines. They also endorse the creation of several “free enterprise zones” and the desire to have these constitutionally enshrined – as though BiH did not have enough problems without becoming Europe’s sweatshop. Finally, there is the truly ludicrous proposal of changing the country’s name from “Bosnia-Herzegovina” to “Zajedno” (the local word for “together”). The authors argue that such a change “would send a resounding signal that the peoples of BiH are ready to tackle their problem together.”  A more likely scenario is that it would bring the country together in one of the first post-war collective fits of screeching laughter – which, I suppose, is not all bad.

While the ICG proposals appear to represent the more conservative end of the spectrum of potential constitutional reforms, the Naša Stranka still more ambitious interpretations, and the Chicago Initiative finally the most comically bizarre suggestions – there is, I believe, a point of agreement among all of them. Namely, the position of individual citizens as the actual source of political legitimacy and authority is severely understated. Reversing this trend, I argue, ought to be the principal task of any future constitutional reforms in the country.

The ICG report is interesting for the level to which it attempts to essentially preserve the existing structure of Dayton-constituted BiH, resulting in the authors finding themselves in the same quagmire which they are simultaneously trying to extract themselves from. Aside from the question of minority representation, the authors are also particularily (rightly) concerned about the position of BiH’s Croat community, the smallest of the so-called “constitiutive peoples.” What their reasoning reveals, however, is a point that has been clear for some time now – attempts to privledge collectivist notions of ethncity (whose “homogeniety” has always been dubious across the Balkans but especially in BiH) only plays into the discriminatory and segregationist logics of chauvinist politicans.

As the authors themselves note, the result of more and more supposed political and ethnic homoginzation is that political conduct and behaviour in BiH has become less and less clear and rational. Essentially, what has happened is that the idea of the so-called “constitutive people” has been captured by individual political parties, or a small collection thereof.  The result has been that, as an example, Croats who do not vote for the HDZ (either incarnation) are dismissed as some sort of “race traitors” by the very politicans who so earnestly claim to be the exclusive representatives of the Croat people in BiH (namely, the HDZ—both of them). A similar process is replicated in the Serb and Bosniak communities—with the SNSD and SDS, and SDA playing the role of the HDZ(s), respectively. The fact that one of the most consistent lines of attack against the Social Democrats by Serb and Croat nationalists has been that “they’re just secret Bosniaks!” is quite telling in this context.

All of this insanity is the product of a constitional order which simply does not represent individual citizens. By continuing to insist on this so-called “ethnic consociationalism,” what the international community is actually creating is a political system wherein the theatrical antagonisms of chauvinist elites supplant the democratic participation of ordinary citizens.

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD student in Political Science at York University, in Toronto, Canada, working on the topic of participatory democratic alternatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is a regular contributor to Politics, Re-Spun.


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *