Bosnian EU-membership: The state is the obstacle

On February 15th 2016 representatives of Bosnia-Hercegovina will officially apply for EU-membership in Brussels. The Western Balkans country hasn’t met any pre-set criteria and will doubtfully do so in the future. So why now?

Criteria are seemingly not a deal-breaker if geopolitical reasons warrant an accelerated process. Regardless if it’s about the subliminal conflict between the EU and Russia, repelling islamist groups or to encourage an apathetic populous, this symbolic gesture will hardly change the realities in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

No new conflict

Although state institutions have moved forward in detail issues towards EU compatibility, as the European Commission noted in its last annual report, and the economy gathered some momentum, media reports are still full of ethnic tensions, disintegration attempts or even the danger of a renewed armed conflict. These stereotypes are less and less coinciding with reality. Since the Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 there was no armed clash between the various ethnic groups, which is not common place for a society that’s been through such a brutal war.

That the war is still an active topic in Bosnian society and very effective to raise the temper is easily explained, since the war is still not history, but a daily political instrument. It serves the ruling parties and the seemingly immortal top political players to detract from Europe’s biggest unemployment, party affiliation in public enterprises, extreme nepotism and a rising national debt to pay for the costs and privileges of an over-sized administration. Invoking ethnic tensions still works, but its effects are gradually losing their potency, as a recent study by the Washington Post shows.

People ahead of politicians

Only a third of the people polled still favour an administrative partition of the country based on ethnic principles, unlike ten years ago with 43 per cent, among Bosnian Serbs even 57 per cent. So when the President and not so strong man of the Bosnian Serb entity Milorad Dodik threatens once more with a referendum on partition, it’s more saber-rattling and isn’t taken seriously any more. His latest threat is a referendum against the Bosnian state prosecutor and the Court. Date unknown, backing from Serbia none.

Rich politicians

It is a fact that most of the top political players are also wealthy businessmen with often irretraceable ties to various business ventures. There is however nobody in Bosnia-Hercegovina who believes in their extraordinary manager powers, since they obviously don’t put them to use for what they are actually elected. The entanglement of party elites in profitable private and public enterprises, some with a monopoly position, is so deep that elections alone can hardly produce any change. These elites will not push a substantive EU-membership course, because that would mean abolishing themselves.

After the last general election in 2014, a new political party, the Democratic Front (DF) lead by former state presidency member Željko Komšić, managed to move into several legislative bodies. After participating in coalitions at first, the DF left them after the strong men of the Bosniacs and Bosnian Croats Bakir Izetbegović (SDA) and Dragan Čović (HDZ) offered Komšić a “piece of the action”, i.e. dividing among themselves control over public enterprises.

Prosecutors are the new heroes

One of the few advantages of the Dayton-Accord’s de-centralized power centres is that no party or ethnicity had full control of Bosnian state institutions like the state prosecutor’s office, enabling them to do their job. Currently the Bosnian state prosecutors are rather busy in going against corruption. The head of a party called “Alliance for a better future”, which replaced the DF as a majority provider, and one of the richest men in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Fahrudin Radončić has been taken into custody for obstruction of justice. That fact that Milorad Dodik wants to push a referendum against the state prosecutor is seen by many as fear not to end up as Mr Radončić.

Corruption is one of the main problems the country is facing. There are hardly any independent supervisory authorities, the ruling parties, regardless at what power level, don’t like to show their cards. A few days ago a coalition of Bosnian NGO’s published a report about the lack of transparency on international aid to the 2014 flood victims. According to the report, almost half of the funds given to state institutions for distribution are unaccounted for.

Islamist refuge?

A strengthening of islamist groups can be observed in Bosnia-Hercegovina as much as in other European countries. There are however no signs of a larger presence than anywhere else. There are two reasons for that: Bosnian Muslims see themselves regardless of (heavily funded) influence from Arab countries primarily as Europeans, thus islamist groups have no backing among most Muslims.

The other reason is the official Islamic Community, with structures dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Grand Mufti and supreme council (“Rijaset”) are the only authority in matters of faith. Grand Mufti Husein Kavazović, in office since 2012, initiated a few weeks after the Paris attacks a declaration, for which he assembled most Muslim politicians and intellectuals, calling upon the state to deal with terrorism in the strongest possible way.

Hope in the people

This month is the second anniversary of demonstrations sweeping through many Bosnian cities in February 2014. Their initial impact evaporated by the massive floods three months later. A much brother renewal of the protests can’t be ruled out. The hope of many is that the citizens would create new political facts on the ground, primarily without the present top players. It is a hope that also many international representatives share off the record. Municipal elections are to be held in October of this year, but uncompromised political alternatives are hard to come by.

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