Comment: Croat Crisis Pushes Bosnia Towards Endgame

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Niccolo and Donkey
Comment: Croat Crisis Pushes Bosnia Towards Endgame

Balkan Insight

Matthew Parish

March 21, 2011

In November 2009 I predicted the independence of Republika Srpska. Since then, events have passed more quickly and have taken a more surprising turn than I had imagined. The catalyst for Bosnia’s final collapse was the victory of the Social Democrats, SDP, in the October 2010 general elections.

Over the course of 2011, an increasingly sorry narrative of irreversible political ruptures will permanently disfigure Bosnia’s political composition. It will be a dangerous year, in which political instability will compound the economic misery to which Bosnians are inured.

Bosnian Croat politics, previously muted, are now bringing the country to its knees. As in prior elections Bosnian Croats voted overwhelmingly in October 2010 for two nationalist parties, the Croatian Democratic union, HDZ, and its splinter sister party, HDZ-1990.

Nevertheless Bosnia’s political system has been incapable of representing Croat political preferences. The Croat member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, is a member of SDP, a party which purports to be multiethnic but in reality is overwhelmingly Bosniak.

Hardly any Croats voted for Komsic but he was elected nonetheless, due to Bosnia’s unusual electoral rules. While there is an ethnic quota for many elected officials, including the Presidency, the same quota does not apply to voters and any Bosnian citizen can vote for any candidate for the Presidency. Irrespective of who votes for them, one candidate from each ethnic group, who receives the largest number of votes, is elected.

Thus Komsic was elected to the Presidency on the votes of Bosniaks, who are perhaps four to five times as numerous as Croats, although the vast majority of Croats voted for other candidates. Bosniaks have obtained two members of the three-man Presidency, and the ethnic compact on which the Dayton Peace Accords were built was thereby undercut.

Now matters are getting worse. The SDP has managed to form a government in the Federation with marginal minority Croat parties, meaning that the two allied HDZ parties, which represent the vast majority of Croat political opinion, are frozen out of the entity’s government.

The new government will therefore reflect Bosniak interests at the expense of those of Croats. Croat politicians and the Croat public have concluded that the Federation cannot accommodate their political aspirations. Bosnian Croats also vote in Croatian elections, and the only incentive previously keeping Zagreb quiet in the face of Bosnian Croat demands for secession, or further devolution, was the lure of EU membership.

As that prospect looks more distant, the moderating influence of the EU accession process has evaporated and Bosnian Croats are unleashed to pursue their political ambitions.

HDZ and HDZ-1990 have a common immediate goal: creation of a third Entity, dominated by Croats. SDP coalitions with minority Croat parties at HDZ’s expense would thereby become a thing of the past. Revenge for the pretence that Komsic represents Croat interests would be sweet. After they get their entity, or if they cannot get it, the ultimate goal is the secession of “Herzeg-Bosna” and union with Croatia.

In this irredentist agenda the Bosnian Croats have found an unlikely ally in the shape of the the President of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik supports Croat aspirations for their own entity, because any programme that divides the Federation empowers him.

This explains Dodik’s recent rapprochement with Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovic. Behind the expressions of mutual regret for wartime hostilities and public commitments to resolving environmental problems, their private agenda is more elementary. Dodik will support Bosnian Croat aspirations for detachment from Bosnia in exchange for Croatia’s acquiescence in the separation of Republika Srpska.

Thus Dodik stokes the collapse of the Federation, and relishes watching from the sidelines as Bosniaks and Croats lock in combat. This alleviates international pressure against his own secessionist project and provides him with breathing space to take a number of symbolic actions that strengthen Republika Srpska’s already advanced state of autonomy. In recent weeks, Dodik has signalled his intention to destroy the Indirect Taxation Authority, undermine the State Court and assume entity control over extradition policy - arguably a breach of the Bosnian constitution.

He has also declared that Bosnia’s High Representative, Valentin Inzko, has no authority over the Serb half of the country. Whereas Dodik’s attacks upon Bosnia’s foreign governors and the state would previously have been met with outrage, his current actions are barely a distraction from the Bosniak-Croat confrontation that threatens to fissure the Federation’s politics. There is no pressure upon him to agree to the formation of a state government for as long as the Bosniaks and Croats are at loggerheads.

The principal cause of the contemporary crisis has been an irreversible loss of interest in Bosnia by the international community. After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords were signed the West embarked on an aggressive programme of state-building, creating institutions of central government for which there was no consensus amongst Bosnia’s three national groups.
Now Western attention has frayed, and those institutions have become a battleground amidst the ruins of which Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs fight for irreconcilable political aims.

The Dayton constitutional structure was never sustainable as a permanent political settlement because it was forced upon the antagonists using diplomatic and military threats. It was only a matter of time before this external pressure evaporated and the system blew apart.

The limit of the international community’s attention was approximately 10 years from the end of the war. Since then, the artificially constructed Bosnian state has become increasingly dysfunctional, and there is no reason why that trend should be reversed.

The sole hope for Bosnia’s continued territorial integrity was a strand of Bosniak political thinking embodied in Bakir Izetbegovic, the current Bosniak member of the country’s Presidency. Izetbegovic’s philosophy differs dramatically to that of his father, Alija, the wartime Bosniak President who advocated a unified state in which Islam would be the prevalent political influence.

Bakir’s view is that Bosniaks have tried to seek reconciliation with Serbs and Croats since the end of the war, embodied in a power-sharing central government, but the attempt has failed.

Bosniaks therefore would do better to focus on wealth creation and consolidating their political authority in areas of outright Bosniak control. Business interests should trump intractable political battles. The Serbs and Croats should be left to go their own ways.

Their parts of the country will inevitably remain poorhouses because the Bosniaks possess the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, Sarajevo, and the country’s principal industrial centres of Tuzla and Zenica. Serbs and Croats present no economic threat to an autonomous Bosniak territory, which will do better unconstrained by the obligation to seek impossible political compromises.

But this vision, which was the source of reconciliation last year between Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, has been eclipsed by the new Bosniak politics of SDP and its leader, Zlatko Lagumdzija.

Under the pretext of pushing for a unified multi-ethnic Bosnia, SDP has created political confrontations that it cannot win without the strong support of the international community. Croats and Serbs will unilaterally withdraw from state and Federation institutions dominated by SDP and its faux pretence of multi-ethnicity.

Although SDP has managed to create an artificial coalition in the Federation with fringe Croatian parties, the arithmetic of the state parliament will not allow it to do the same thing there without the support of some or all of SNSD, HDZ and HDZ-1990. Bosnian Serb politics are sufficiently united to ensure that it would be political suicide for any minority Serb party to form a pact with SDP.

In the meantime, Inzko is intent on withdrawing this August. The plan apparently conceived in the hallways of Brussels is to have him semi-retire to Vienna. There he will formally remain High Representative, with the so-called “Bonn powers” that allow him to impose and dismiss officials, but without continuing to swim daily with the sharks in the politically toxic waters of Sarajevo. This non-resident High Representative will be taken even less seriously than he is now.

The EU successor mission, in theory devoted to Bosnia’s non-existent process of EU accession, will watch helplessly as Dodik’s withdrawal from the state becomes ever more irreversible and as Croats and Bosniaks hurl insults at one-another over the de facto collapse of Federation institutions.

Neither Croats nor Serbs will issue declarations of independence this year; they will not need to. An aggressive agenda of publicly repudiating the Dayton political structures will keep them popular with their electorates, deflecting attention from Bosnia’s deepening economic malaise. The country may remain in a theoretical legal union for some years to come, but the last vestiges of multi-ethnic political cooperation ceased some months ago and will not be revived.

Should the centrist government in Belgrade fall over the next 12 months, Dodik may become emboldened in his centrifugal strides away from Sarajevo, knowing that a less compromising government in Belgrade, led by the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, will not be inclined to oppose him.

Perhaps the most important outstanding question is whether Bosniaks will take up arms to prevent the disintegration of their country. Widespread violence seems unlikely. The three different peoples of Bosnia have become used to living apart in the 15 years since the war ended.

They have no incentives to murder their neighbours, as they once did, because they are no longer mixed together; the war divided the country into mono-ethnic Bantustans and despite all the international community’s efforts, that has not been significantly reversed. For most Bosniaks, Republika Srpska is to them much as is Kosovo to the Serbs: a land that invokes raw emotional responses of resentment, imagined as occupied by a hostile alien people.

But, ultimately, it is a place they never visit, and the increasing political autonomy of Serb and Croat parts of Bosnia makes no practical difference to them.

Just as the Serbs view Kosovo, Bosniaks will remain perennially bitter and hostile to those associated with what they have lost; but as with the Serbs over Kosovo, they will not fight. Whatever political developments unfold in the coming months and years, the country is already divided and the status quo is not threatened.

This cautious optimism has two caveats, Mostar and Brcko. The divided towns were thorns in the peace negotiations at Washington in 1994 and at Dayton in 1995 and remain problematic to this day. Mostar, the Bosnian Croats’ capital, permits no easy division: the tourist attractions and infrastructure links are in Bosniak east Mostar, while the commerce and industry is in the Croat west.

An uneasy truce is observed along an unreconstructed front line. The international community has overlooked the real possibility of a conflagration in Mostar erupting at any time. Brcko also remains problematic because under US tutelage Bosniak refugees returned to the town in significant numbers; yet that town centre must now form the land bridge between the two parts of Republika Srpska, if Dodik is to achieve his goal.

While Brcko has fewer guns than Mostar, there is a real risk of ethnic confrontation there if the transition to Republika Srpska domination of the town is not managed smoothly.

As the Peace Implementation Council prepares finally to bring the shutters down on OHR Brcko, just six months into the new Brcko Supervisor’s mandate, this is a ball that the US government, Brcko’s traditional guardians, seems destined to fumble.

The future of Bosnia without heavy international oversight is inevitable disintegration. The international community should now be focused upon managing the side-effects of this ugly process rather than striving to keep alive a discredited vision.

Matthew Parish was formerly the Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brcko. His first book, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia,’ is published by I.B. Tauris. His new book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order,’ is published by Edward Elgar.

Niccolo and Donkey
Bob Dylan Roof
More evidence that these experiments with forcing liberal constitutionalism onto communities are destined for failure. Like the American Constitution, these failed constitutions are only as stable and consistent as the political identity of the people inhabiting the institutions of the constitution. Imposing liberal constitutionalism on any given population is really just an amoral social experiment; a milder version of bolshevism. Indeed, the American Constitution is itself nothing more than a social experiment, as Justice Holmes once wrote:

"[W]hen men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe in the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment”

And, we might add, where there are diverse nationalities forced under the umbrella of a single, neutral constitution, the "fighting faiths" of the various ethnicities can only produce one of two outcomes: the radical transformation of the regime into one favoring a dominant ethnicity, or the dissolution of the constitution.
Niccolo and Donkey
From Stratfor


Bosnia-Herzegovina faces further destabilization after Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb leaders met in the city of Mostar on March 25 to announce plans to bring down the purportedly illegally formed Bosniak-dominated government in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Croat-Serbian alliance is a nightmare scenario for the Bosniaks, who could be forced to rethink their actions and work toward a compromise to prevent a political collapse in Bosnia-Herzegovina.



Ethnic tensions continued to simmer in Bosnia-Herzegovina as Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb leaders met in the city of Mostar on March 25 to announce their plans to unseat the Bosniak-dominated government in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (“the Federation” is the Croat-Bosniak political entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina), which they have said was illegally formed. (On March 17, a Bosniak-led political bloc, the Bosniak platform, formed a government in the Federation without the necessary Croat representatives in the upper house.) The Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs said they plan to form a national government and have encouraged other Bosniak parties to join them, but no government can be formed until the crisis in the Federation is solved, thereby making political collapse a very real possibility and creating a nightmare scenario for the Bosniaks.

There has not been a national government in Bosnia-Herzegovina, nor has there been a government within the Federation, for five and a half months. The long-standing tensions between the Croats and Bosniaks — which have been simmering for several years despite Germany’s signaling that it would help forge a compromise and despite the ushering of reforms in Bosnia-Herzegovina — are only part of the problem. The core of the dilemma is the political structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina forged by the Bosnian war.

Political Structure and Conflict


The Washington Agreement, signed in March 1994, ended the 1993-1994 Muslim-Croat war and created the Muslim-Croat Federation. The pact granted Bosniaks and Croats some autonomy and created an entity comprising 10 cantons (five Bosniak-majority and five Croat-majority at the time of the agreement) in a special arrangement with Croatia. The December 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war completely, brought the Serb-held territories — now Republika Srpska (RS) — under Sarajevo’s loose control, while the Federation’s close relationship with Croatia effectively ended. In accordance with the Dayton agreement, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s central government comprises a rotating three-chair presidency, with a seat for each major ethnic group, and a weak bicameral parliament based in Sarajevo. RS is a centralized de facto Serbian state within a state with its own parliament.

This is the complex political structure within which Muslim-Croat tensions have been rising since the October 2010 national elections, in which Bosniaks, as they did in the 2006 election, voted a Croat they favored — Zeljko Komsic — into the rotating presidency seat reserved for Croats, even though the overwhelming majority of Croats voted for two other candidates. This was possible because Croats and Bosniaks, who outnumber the Croats, vote with the same ballot list in the Federation, and voters can choose any candidate regardless of their own ethnicity. This recently created a standoff between the Bosniaks and Croats, as the Croats refused to acknowledge the election results.

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On March 15, Commissioner Valentin Inzko of the office of the High Representative — the international community’s overseer of Bosnia-Herzegovina — sponsored talks between the two Bosniak-majority parties, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the party of Democratic Change (SDA), and the two majority Croatian parties, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina (HDZ B-H) and the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina 1990 (HDZ 1990). The two Bosniak parties, once bitter political rivals, offered four of the five constitutionally guaranteed Croatian ministerial seats in the Federation government to HDZ B-H and HDZ 1990, leaving one seat for a Croatian representative from the Bosniak-majority SDP and giving the Croatian seat in the rotating presidency to Komsic. The talks ended without an agreement, as the two majority Croatian parties wanted all of the ministerial seats and the Croat seat in the rotating presidency, citing the majority of Croat votes for their two parties.

With no agreement in place, at the March 17 government formation, the Bosniak platform appointed Croats from fringe parties to the constitutionally guaranteed ministerial seats reserved for Croats and named Zivko Budimir of the small, far-right Croatian Party of Rights as Federation president in order to meet constitutional ethnic quotas. In response, Croats protested across the Federation on March 17; protests have continued in various Croatian towns and cities across the Federation since then.

The Croatian parties filed a lawsuit with the Federation’s constitutional court and also appealed to Zagreb for support immediately. Croatian President Ivo Josipovic and Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor called for the “legitimate representatives” of Croats to be present in the Federation government, a direct swipe at the Bosniak platform and their fringe Croat party partners. This was a major change from Croatia’s usual hands-off approach to the Bosnian Croats, a policy that had been in place since 2000 and is essentially a prerequisite for Croatia’s membership in the European Union.

On March 21, HDZ B-H President Dragan Covic announced a drive to form a Croat national assembly for Croat-majority cantons and municipalities within the Federation (nine Croatian political parties along with HDZ B-H and HDZ 1990 are scheduled to meet sometime after April 16). HDZ 1990 President Bozo Ljubic and RS President (and president of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party) Milorad Dodik expressed support for the move. The culmination of the Croats’ response came March 25, when Covic, Ljubic, Dodik and Serbian Democratic Party President Mladen Bosic gathered in Mostar — a meeting of the heads of the two largest Bosnian Croat parties and the two largest RS parties. The four leaders issued a joint statement calling on all parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina to engage in constructive talks, denouncing what they called the illegal formation of the Federation government and announcing that no national government would be formed until the crisis in the Federation is resolved. Covic said he would speak with Bosniak political leaders, but added that in forming a Federation government, Croatian interests had to be considered.

Serbian-Croatian Alliance: A Nightmare for Bosniaks

RS wants to devolve Bosniak-dominated Sarajevo’s central authority as much as possible. Dodik is therefore using the Croat-Bosniak tensions to illustrate to the international community that his approach of building a strong ethnic entity at the expense of the central Bosnian government is in fact the only way to run Bosnia-Herzegovina, hence his encouraging the Croatian side to push for greater concessions from the Bosniaks. The Serbs see the Bosniaks as attempting to impose their will within the Federation against Croat wishes — and see RS as the next possible victim.

The Croats are fighting for their government seats, taking an approach far different from their declaration of self-administration in 2001 after what they considered systematic discrimination (which was followed by NATO troop deployments to Croat areas and the arrests of senior Croat leaders). The election law changes by the Office of the High Representative in 2006, as well as the 2006 and 2010 elections, have been fueling Croat discontent. Croats, and especially Covic, are making sure to point out now that Croats want representation based on Croat votes, and that they want the rule of law followed.

It is still a major question whether the international community, especially a European Union dominated by Germany, which has unofficially taken charge of political change in the Balkans, will support a centralized Bosnia-Herzegovina or allow Croats more autonomy in lieu of Bosniak political gerrymandering within the Federation. The Council of Europe on March 21 threatened sanctions if a national government was not formed, essentially encouraging the Bosniak platform to continue its gamble in the Federation. On March 24, Bosnia’s Central Election Commission annulled the formation of the government, as the minimal amount of Croat seats needed to be present for the formation of a government were not present. The Office of the High Representative did not react to the Bosniak platform’s maneuver initially, but Inzko announced March 28 that the Central Election Commission’s finding would be suspended until the Federation’s Constitutional Court made a decision — a move for which the U.S. Embassy expressed support.

Current Federation President and HDZ B-H member Borjana Kristo, along with two Croatian ministers, tendered their resignations in protest. “By suspension of the ruling of the Central Election Commission, the only competent body to implement the election results, the rule of law in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been reduced to the absurd,” Kristo said. The Constitutional Court suspended the proceedings March 30 after the Croats withdrew their two lawsuits, and, in further protest of Inzko’s decision, Kristo called the proceedings “meaningless.” On March 31, Covic said in an interview that Croats would engage in civil disobedience if the Central Election Commission ruling was not followed.

With the European Union’s involvement in the Libyan intervention and the eurozone sovereign debt crisis still unresolved, it is unclear whether the European Union can refocus on the Balkans. There seemed to be a push for it earlier in the year, but revolutionary activity in the Arab world (and particularly Libya) has drawn the bloc’s attention elsewhere. If a centralized Federation and Bosnian state dominated by Bosniaks are the European Union’s goals, then Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, two old enemies, will more than likely form an even tighter political alliance (as the March 25 Mostar meeting suggests), an alliance that will politically resist all centralization efforts.

A Serbian-Croatian alliance would be a daunting scenario for the Bosniaks, who could end up reassessing their gamble to escalate and instead search for a compromise — as suggested by a small number of Bosniak journalists, academics and political parties. In light of the Constitutional Court’s suspension of the proceedings, the Bosniak platform’s decision to either move forward with the government they formed or meet the demands of the overwhelming majority of Croatian voters could determine whether the Federation and the Bosnian state itself will move forward or collapse politically.
Niccolo and Donkey
Niccolo and Donkey

Events move forward:

Bosnian Croats Form National Assembly