How foreign involvement fuelled ethnic nationalism in Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the verge of a political crisis as anti-EU, anti-NATO and pro-Russia Serb nationalist candidate Milorad Dodik is about to take the presidency of the country.

On October 7, more than three and a half million Bosnians were called to cast their vote in the presidential elections. Since 1995, Bosnia has had a tripartite presidential system, in which candidates from each constituent ethnic group – Bosniak (Muslim), Croat and Serb – sit, on a rolling basis. With a turnout of 53.3 percent, results indicate that, respectively, conservative candidate Sefik Dzaferovic won the Bosniak seat, social-democrat Zeljko Komsic won the Croat seat and ultra-nationalist Milorad Dodik won the Serb seat.

Dodik is, now, expected to be the first of the three presidential members to take office. However, following the national constitution, he is primarily the candidate of ethnic Serbs to whom he has concurrently promised a referendum to secede from the rest of Bosnia. As he immediately declared after the election, his “first priority will be the position of the Serb people”. How – one may ask – can a candidate both be elected as president of a multi-ethnic state and call for self-determination of one specific ethnic group within that country?

To answer this question, we need to look at the extremely complex political system put in place after the international peace negotiations in the mid 1990s. 

A complex political system

Established in 1995 as part of the US-led Dayton Peace Agreement, this tripartite power-sharing ethnoterritorial framework was supposed to bring to an end a destructive conflict and offer a temporary solution to a deep political crisis. But today, the Dayton Agreement is still in place and so is the national constitution that it enacted. Annex IV of the so-called “General Framework Agreement for Peace” is, in fact, the document that still governs the country. 

The Dayton Agreement, which was originally drafted in English, partitioned Bosnia into two parts, Republika Srpska with 49 percent of the territory and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with 51 percent, combining mostly Muslim and Croat populations. According to the results of the 2013 census, Republika Srpska’s population is made of 81.5 percent ethnic Serbs, 13.9 percent Muslim Bosniaks and 2.4 percent ethnic Croats.

The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in turn, has 70.4 percent Muslim Bosniaks, 22.4 percent ethnic Croats and 2.5 percent ethnic Serbs. Because of its contested nature, the Dayton Agreement left aside the district of Brcko, a supposedly neutral self-governing district in the North of Bosnia, which according to the results of the latest census has 42.3 percent Muslim Bosniaks, 34.6 percent ethnic Serbs and 20.7 percent ethnic Croats. Added to these three constituent groups are other seventeen ethnic minorities, including Romas and Jews, which constitute 2.7 percent of the total population of the country. 

Problematically, the Dayton Agreement maintained for the Serbian-populated areas the name “Republika Srpska”. This implied the existence of a “special” entity within Bosnia, carrying the name of “Republic” within a sovereign state – the other entity being called the “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. Inevitably, this has continued to evoke the Bosnian Serb attempt during the war to ethnically homogenise whole parts of Bosnia. 

The Dayton Constitution for Bosnia explicitly conceived human rights of individuals as inalienable and described them as never secondary to those of ethnonational groups. In the citizenship act, however, made up of a set of power-sharing agreements, ethnic groups clearly have political supremacy over individuals. While the act was modified in 1999, this measure is still in place. 

Moreover, the Constitution of Bosnia, as established in Dayton, makes a clear distinction between the constituent peoples and other citizens of Bosnia. Those who do not belong to one of the three groups, or who do not want to show a preference for an ethnic group simply cannot elect group representatives.

If, historically, ethnic affiliation has been strong in the Balkans, the Dayton Agreement has both further crystallised it and stratified it as some groups matter more than others. 

Translated in the context of the presidential elections, political candidates need to self-define as pertaining to one of the three constituent groups. As a consequence, the political affiliation of the voters follows these very same ethnic lines. The Bosniak community supports Bosniak candidates, the Croats support their co-ethnics, and so do the Serbs. 

Foreign supervision

Another reason for the resurgence of ethnonationalism in Bosnia – a sentiment not exclusive to the Serbs – is that since 1995, the country has in fact been under international supervision. This, in many ways, has created frustration. Tapping directly in this sentiment of discontent, Dodik declared that he intends to write a letter to US President Donald Trump asking for the closure of the so-called “Office of the High Representative” (OHR). 

The OHR was established in Dayton as the body responsible for enforcing the peace agreement. Since 1995, the OHR has been in charge of monitoring the implementation of the peace settlement, maintaining “close contact with the parties to the Agreement to promote their full compliance”, and facilitating, as the high representative judges necessary, “the resolution of any difficulties arising in connection with civilian implementation”. Finally, the OHR coordinates the activities of the various international agencies operating in the country, especially the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Dayton defined the OSCE as one of the bodies responsible for “helping to secure lasting peace” and to “build a stable, secure, and democratic state”.

Last week, High Officer Valentin Inzko addressed the population of Bosnia in an official statement encouraging electoral participation: “Make your voice heard. Decide for yourself about your future. Otherwise, others will decide for you”. Yet the existence of these supervisory bodies within the country makes many feel that Bosnia’s full realisation of self-determination is yet to come. 

Dodik’s electoral victory needs to be seen in the context of these unintended consequences of the Dayton Agreement and the presence of international supervisory authorities. Since 1995 both have facilitated the strengthening of pre-existing ethnonational identities. 

Dodik and other ethnonationalists have also benefitted from the rise of far-right sentiment in the rest of Europe. As ultra-nationalist movements and parties have spread across Europe, blaming “others” (whether migrants or minorities) has emerged as a winning electoral strategy. In a situation such as Bosnia’s, where ethnicity is the first available category of political allegiance, this sort of language has had even greater appeal.

It is yet unclear what strategy Dodik and Zeljka Cvijanovic, his close ally who won the presidency of the autonomous entity of Republika Srpska, will deploy to “accommodate” the will of the ethnic Serbs of Bosnia (not all of whom are in favour of Republika Srpska’s secession). Bosnia has been negotiating for years to start the EU accession process and the victory of an anti-EU nationalist candidate will be yet another hurdle to a potential membership.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance. 

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