Politics Western Balkans

What’s wrong with the Western Balkans?

A non-European history of almost 500 years, a playground for major powers and a fragmentation into small independent states with a lot of unresolved baggage between them is the cause for the very slow progress in this part of Europe.

More than two decades past since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s and the wars that followed (Slovenia and Croatia, 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992), with the Kosovo war in 1999. While Slovenia and Croatia have become members of the European Union as well as of NATO, with Montenegro joining the alliance in June 2017, the rest of the region now called Western Balkans remains a headache for the international community and the EU in particular.

Cluelessness

Many attempts of involvement, mediation, incentives for economic prosperity and subsequent membership by the EU have produced little or no result. Although still engaged in the Western Balkans, the region does not enjoy the highest priority all the time in Brussels, nor can it be expected due to other hot spots and problems within the EU and elsewhere. Many observers agree for some years now that the EU doesn’t have a clear strategy how to foster positive change in the region, bringing it closer to membership. Or simply put, the EU has run out of ideas and is content with stability.

Even though the regular reports by the European Council project optimism by stating slow progress towards integration with the occasional criticism on certain issues, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, to a lesser degree Montenegro, are far from the spirit and principles of the Union as they can be. All of them have in common political elites in total control of economic resources, the media and the judiciary, who don’t benefit personally from EU membership and the homework their countries must do to achieve it.

Historic hibernation

The problems in these countries have to do with their historic development, which is very different than that of almost all other European countries. With the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the Western Balkans fell to the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the region slept through the progress that would change the continent – the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Industrial revolution. Even though the region was at the periphery of the Ottoman Empire, the legacy of the Christian medieval kingdoms conquered by the Ottomans slowly disappeared. Instead of a social contract common to European nations, especially after the Peace of Westphalia, the Western Balkans societies were more similar to the so-called Oriental social contract – a “benevolent” despot providing the goods, in return no opposition is offered. A model that is still in force in most parts of the Middle East and having a kind of comeback in the former centre of the Ottoman world, Turkey.

With the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, the Western Balkans fell to the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, the region slept through the progress that would change the continent – the Enlightenment, the French revolution and the Industrial revolution.

Due to the proximity to Italy and Central Europe, many individuals came into contact with European ideas and the changes to its fabric. But in general, these changes had little impact for most of the population in the Western Balkans. There are also today many people who come into contact with EU countries, understand the value of a liberal democracy and the rule of law. And they have a hard time understanding why their societies seem stuck in the past. You will hear many of them vent their frustration by saying “why are we so lazy”, “why are we so submissive” or “why do we elect the same vultures over and over again”. The people of the Western Balkans developed the ability to adapt to every foreign ruler or empire. The centre of power was always somewhere far away, even in the case of Belgrade as a capital. Suddenly, after five centuries, they had to take charge of their own destiny. But this adaptation seems far more difficult. Nowhere is that so obvious then in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ottoman mentality

The truth is simply that the region doesn’t have any tradition or experience with a liberal democracy, citizens’ participation in political life or the simple consciousness that politicians work for the people and not the other way around, that public money is to be spent wisely and under public scrutiny. Although the Ottomans are long gone, all subsequent political systems until the breakup of Yugoslavia operated under similar principles, most so during the time of socialist Yugoslavia between 1945 and 1991, where the state provided everything, with no opposition tolerated.

The truth is simply that the region doesn’t have any tradition or experience with a liberal democracy, citizens’ participation in political life or the simple consciousness that politicians work for the people and not the other way around, that public money is to be spent wisely and under public scrutiny.

A lesser known historical fact can illustrate why the Western Balkans lacks behind in political awareness. The first printing press in Bosnia-Herzegovina was established in the town of Goražde, near the Serbian border, in 1521. It lasted for two years. The second printing press in Bosnia-Herzegovina would not start working until 1866, almost 350 years later. It is impossible to ignore the impact of examples like this one on society, literacy, national narratives or the emergence of an intellectual class as a vanguard of social change, or lack thereof.

One nation or several nations?

The consequence was that all political thoughts were of foreign origin, narratives were mostly part of the empires the region belonged to. In the 19th century the various parts of the Western Balkans began a path of asymmetrical progress towards statehood. Some gained administrative or political autonomy before others did, with Serbia and Montenegro being the first to become fully independent. The Western Balkans is widely known today for its inter-ethnic tensions. Regardless of the political and quasi-scientific interpretations, the people in the region are divided by a common language, geography and religion. That’s basically it. It’s one culture with various regional folklores, one language everybody understands and three religions. There are few examples in the world where a member of a religion is exclusively a member of a certain nation and vice versa. There is no Catholic Serb or a Christian-Orthodox Croat, all Croats are Catholics and all Serbs are Christian-Orthodox. So, one could argue rationally if we are talking about several ethnicities at all. But that train has left the station at least some 150 years ago, almost no one would support such notion today, particularly after the conflicts in the 1990s.

Regardless of the political and quasi-scientific interpretations, the people in the region are divided by a common language, geography and religion. That’s basically it.

Incidentally, the border between the Austrian and Ottoman empires in the Western Balkans was the same where the EU border is today. Slovenia joined the EU in 2005, Croatia in 2013. The date of EU membership for the remaining Ex-Yugoslav states remains a distant reality, but it will be at least 10 years until another Western Balkans state joins the club. At present, chances are, it will be Montenegro. So, why did Slovenia had such a head-start, while countries like Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina have still a long way to go?

Slovenia

Slovenia was at the forefront of the changes that swept Eastern Europe in 1989, bringing it at odds with Yugoslav institutions, particularly the Army. It had never a hegemonic policy towards its neighbours, far less corruption, no organized crime scene, no oligarchs and a population more engaged in the affairs of the state. In Western Balkans terms, a pretty “boring” central European country with problems similar to the Czech Republic or Slovakia.

Croatia

Croatia’s first decade of independence was overshadowed by war with its Serb population and their backers in Serbia, shady privatization, corruption and oligarchs close to its first president Franjo Tuđman, who was deeply engaged in the war in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. After his death in 1999, the country picked up steam and did its homework, which resulted in EU membership 14 years later. After that was achieved, Croatia’s political scene is today engulfed in historical revisionism of its fascist past (1941-1945), erasing the 45 years as part of socialist Yugoslavia. The problem is that by whipping this era out of the public mind, Croatia sets itself on the path of being the successor state of the infamous Independent State of Croatia, a puppet state set up by the Third Reich during World War II. The search for a national narrative is understandable, but that would be a very wrong place. The US State Department has repeatedly criticised this development, while the EU has been more silent. But as an EU candidate, these efforts laid very much dormant. Croatia is also interfering more aggressively now in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the side of Bosnian Croats, who make up 15% of the country’s population. As a consequence of Tuđman’s policy, all Bosnian Croats have also Croatian, and therefore, EU citizenship and many are leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina with no obstacles to settle anywhere in the EU.

Croatia’s political scene is today engulfed in historical revisionism of its fascist past (1941-1945), erasing the 45 years as part of socialist Yugoslavia.

It gets trickier with the rest of the former Yugoslav states. A review of the developments in these countries must include the effect of outside influence. One could argue that there is a race for influence between Russia, Turkey, the US and the EU. The forms of influence range from economic aid to media influence by injecting certain narratives to control public opinion. Several Arab countries, particularly the Gulf States, are also active both with investments and sponsorships of Islamic communities, by pushing their brand of Islam in the region, mostly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Serbia

Serbian society is also engaged in historical revisionism of World War II, but stays pretty much clear of dealing with the events of the 1990s, rejecting any responsibility for the wars. This “circling the waggon” is enhanced by the rejection of an independent Kosovo, once a province of Serbia. It keeps Serbia stuck in the recent past, which in time disintegrated all pro-European political parties and ascended to absolute power people, who represent the most nationalistic political forces. Serbia’s raison d’être since the 1850s was expansion. The dukedom, then kingdom grew more than double in size before World War I. With the kingdom of Yugoslavia, which adopted the political system of Serbia, its royal dynasty and army, it reached the peak of its principle policy. Marginalized in the socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian leaders, still communists, endeavoured to turn the second Yugoslavia into the first one after the death of President Josip Broz Tito. This is in a nutshell the cause for the Yugoslav wars. The Serbian leadership knew by 1990 that this attempt will not go down peacefully, ensuring support by the Soviet Union to use force.

Marginalized in the socialist Yugoslavia, Serbian leaders, still communists, endeavoured to turn the second Yugoslavia into the first one after the death of President Josip Broz Tito. This is in a nutshell the cause for the Yugoslav wars.

As things didn’t go according to plan and Serbia eventually became independent itself in 2006, after it was left even by its closest ally Montenegro, the country is still struggling to find a new place for itself in the world, after the core policy that defined it for 150 years failed. Serbia’s flirting with Russia and EU at the same time can be viewed through this lens. The materialistic advantages of EU membership are appealing to most Serbians, the values and principles of the Union are hardly ever discussed. A May 2016 study by the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies has found over 100 NGOs, media outlets and associations directly connected with the Russian lobby in Serbia. In light of Russia’s efforts to influence public opinion in Europe and the US, it is safe to say that much of the narrative dominating Serbian public discourse is influenced by Russia, above all a persistent dislike for NATO and any efforts to join the alliance. The costly rejection of Kosovo’s independence is not sustainable indefinitely and Serbia’s stability comes with a heavy cost having a de-facto one party rule, distancing the country from the principles and values of the EU even further.

Montenegro and Macedonia

The Russian effort through political surrogates to prevent Montenegro of joining NATO failed. The alleged coup attempt during election-day October 16, 2016 and Russia’s role is not yet fully investigated, but raised tensions in the region. After the change of government in Macedonia, amidst scandals and the refusal of former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, widely seen as pro-Russian, to hand over power after the last parliamentary election on December 11, 2016, the new government of prime minister Zoran Zaev is trying to fast track NATO membership by trying to compromise with Greece, which vetoed earlier membership attempts due to the dispute over Macedonia’s official name. As the Western Balkans has once again become an East-West battleground, there is a behind the scenes effort to find a solution. There is also less tension with the indigenous Albanian population.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina is the country where all of the efforts and issues discussed above collide. Croatia’s new self-awareness as a powerful player due to its EU and NATO membership and Serbia’s quest for a new identity sticking to the illusion of Serbian lands west of Serbia in the Bosnian Serb entity called Republika Srpska, which makes up almost half the country, are supplemented by efforts from Russia, Turkey, Arab countries and the US and EU to steer Bosnia-Herzegovina according to its respective agendas. Ruling elites among the Bosnian Serb, Croat and Bosniac (Bosnian Muslims) are mired in corruption and discredited among the population, yet still hold power due to a clientelistic relationship with its core voters. There is however movement among opposition parties across the ethnic spectrum to ignore the nationalistic narrative captivating the country for so long and to focus on tackling the many socio-economic problems.

The next parliamentary election in October 2018 could bring substantial changes because the ruling parties are no longer able to uphold even the pretence of doing something right. The remaining problem is the lack of any cohesive narrative, not even among the Bosniacs who have the biggest stake in holding the country together. Even though they make up half of the population, their cohesive narrative is mostly about Islam, fuelled by outside influence. Almost 25 years ago they changed their name from Bosnian Muslims to Bosniacs to underline their national identity with Bosnia-Herzegovina and its history. The last 20 years went into the opposite direction. Meanwhile, they control only a third of the country’s municipalities. The biggest Bosniac party, the SDA, seems more interested in increasing Islamic influence and enriching themselves, while projecting total incompetence in administration. For example, the capital city Sarajevo is plagued with water shortages for over two years with no solution in sight.

Outlook

Most people still remember the former Yugoslavia, a functioning infrastructure, health system, more or less competent administration and they also remember what Tito’s regime managed to achieve 20 years after World War II. Compared to that track record, today’s successor states have not much to show for 20 years after the conflicts in the 1990s. Regardless of the countless social media bots fuelling division and hate, people have also better contemporary examples to compare their societies with. The underlying problem of an apathetic population not used to political participation and not aware of its potential power to induce change is a cultural and historical issue not easily resolved. It is therefore no coincidence that international organizations like the OSCE, the UN and many states through individual programs are investing a lot of their effort in fostering awareness in political participation and civil society activities. These programs may not be headline material and can’t produce results over night, but they are a necessary step towards political change.

The nationalistic narrative ruling elites use to cling to power is mostly depleted and contrasted by economic despair, which would be much worse without the enormous financial contribution by the region’s diaspora to its relatives. A positive change that could have an impact throughout the Western Balkans is most likely in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as absurd it may sound given the country’s many challenges and outside influences. Due to its ethnic composition and a political system based on the Dayton Peace Accord, there is no monolithic power structure and no monolithic control over media outlets. Having been exposed to ethnic divisions for so long without any positive impact on every-day life, many people have realised how empty that narrative is and are willing to other solutions a try.

Serbia: Where trump meets Putin

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential election last Sunday in a landslide with no other candidate even coming close. What makes this autocratic politician with Trumpian behaviour patterns the uncontested ruler of Serbia and what does it mean for his country in the next five years?

The conclusion of many analysts after Sunday’s election is that Aleksandar Vučić’s victory is the result of a vast amount of resources spent by his campaign, an almost total control of the media landscape, an opposition scene in disarray, economic hardship and thus apathy among many of the electorate. Additional explanations include a traditional affinity for strong leaders in Serbia and his acceptance as well as domestically perceived courting by foreign leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Both of them met Vučić during the election campaign. All of the above is true, but how did it come to that?

It leaves Serbia with another autocrat since Slobodan Milošević, one that is officially aspiring to EU membership and good relations with his neighbours, but also someone who stopped the influx of refugees from the Middle East over the Balkan route. For European capitals, that is quite satisfactory for the moment. Democratization, free media, rule of law in Serbia are not the priorities right now, although they will play a role when negotiating EU membership, as will the normalization of relations with its former province Kosovo. Time of completion – unknown.

The obvious difference between Vučić and Serbia’s former strong man Slobodan Milošević, for whom he even worked for as Information Minister prior to the Kosovo war in 1999, is his melodramatic behaviour in public appearances, whining how everybody hates him, although he is giving everything to his country. On many occasions he sounds like he is speaking from a parallel universe to an audience baffled by his inconsistences. His thoroughly uncharismatic, almost nerdy exterior is substituted with staged superhero-like stunts carrying a child through a snow storm during a rescue operation (filmed, of course) or rushing to help a fainting audience member during a talk show three days before the election. It turned out, the audience member was also an extra in a campaign commercial. These stunts seem to emulate from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, yet have a less dignified, almost comical effect.

This is not a man projecting fear or authority among many Serbian citizens like Slobodan Milošević, although he is admired by others who believe his promises, his pledges of honesty and his unselfish efforts for the country. As he assumes all leverages of power, he will be solely responsible for every development that has occurred during the last five years since elected Prime Minister and for the next five years as President. The Serbian Presidency is mostly ceremonial on paper, but there is no doubt that his tenure will have all the hallmarks of a presidential system. At a later date, he may even seek to change the constitution to legalize this, like Mr Erdogan is trying at the moment in Turkey.

Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party didn’t so much ascend to power, as they were the only ones left standing after all democratic political parties, which held power after the fall of Milošević in October 2000, disintegrated amidst scandals, corruption and weak leadership. Once strong political options in Serbia, these parties are now in the single digits and play no role whatsoever in political life. This was also a major blow to all pro-western oriented people in Serbia who marched and demonstrated for a better tomorrow too many times with too little result in the past. Many are now seeking their fortune abroad, anywhere but Serbia, most are just preoccupied with day-to-day survival and there is no one left to motivate them for another round of civil unrest or any other political action.

The lack of fresh faces, which could energize a wary electorate, goes hand in hand with a lack of fresh ideas. 18 years passed since the wars in the 1990s, yet Serbian society seems to be stuck in a loop, never really emerging from that period with a new beginning. That is why almost all politicians in Serbia sound the same when it comes to Kosovo, war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina or relations with Russia. The best proof for this loop is Vučić himself and soon-to-be former President Tomislav Nikolić, both remnants of that period and fervent participants of letting the nationalistic genie out of the bottle. Today, they are as much hostages of these ghosts from the past as having a hand in unleashing them.

With a public narrative fuelled by state-controlled media of conspiracies and enemies against the Serbs, perpetuating tensions with the country’s neighbours, using alternative facts long before it became a term in the United States and adopting similar methods like Russian state-run media, there is almost no space for different ideas and solutions. Nor is there a stage for new people to spearhead these ideas.

Mr Vučić will remain in power as long as Serbian society is not ready for a new approach about the country’s position in Europe, truly confronting its recent past and Serbia’s role in the violent events 20 and more years ago. It seems that only then will the country be able to tackle problems like corruption, a lack of transparency and the rule of law. Theoretically, Aleksandar Vučić has now all the power he needs to do this by himself, if he would have the courage to disregard the ghosts he once helped to unleash.

His transformation to a benevolent autocrat is very unlikely, as he is the product of the past and the present seems promising for autocrats around the world. Most likely he will not rock his own boat until the people are ready for a new round of true opposition. Not being surrounded by the best and brightest, scandals in his administration will mount, dissent will inevitably rise without visible improvements to Serbia’s economy and when his well-oiled propaganda machine loses its potency. Any similarities with other presidents are coincidental.

Update: Since the elections results on Sunday, thousands of mostly young people have taken to the streets in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and other cities in Serbia to protest the victory of president-elect Aleksandar Vučić.

The Hijacked Narrative

During the past few weeks, people in Bosnia-Herzegovina are expressing a genuine concern and fear of a new war in their country. Nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric is filling the newspapers and air waves, including neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. How did it come to that after 20 years of peace?

The immediate catalyst for this fear is the political crisis surrounding a planned referendum by the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS). The RS is one of two entities making up Bosnia-Herzegovina as conceived in the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. The referendum, scheduled for September 25, one week before municipal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, aims to gather popular support for January 9 as the national holiday of the RS. The problem is that the Supreme Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina overruled a decision by RS institutions about the holiday in November 2015 and it found this referendum to be unconstitutional. The RS is determined to hold the referendum regardless of the Court’s decision and the majority opinion by the international community.

Another cause for higher tensions is a rather undiplomatic squabble between Serbia and Croatia raging for several months now. It has to do with the future, but also, more intensely with the past. Croatia blocked opening two new chapters in Serbia’s EU membership negotiations by demanding Serbia to drop its universal jurisdiction to prosecute war criminals, but the public exchange turned slowly to events from World War II. Needless to say, all three countries have more immediate concerns and issues to address, but fighting over the past is still a present-day political tool.

Historical shift

Amidst a multitude of very good analysis about the current events, it is worth a try examining the bigger picture and some rarely addressed roots and causes for this political crisis. First of all one should bear in mind that these countries are undergoing a significant historical shift – for the first time in centuries most of them are masters of their own faith, as one can be in the era of globalisation. Some of them are yet to determine their raison d’etre, their place in the world and a course for the future. The lack of this seemingly simple, but vital foundation is one of the causes for continued instability and uncertainty in the region. One of the manifestations is the attempt, especially in Croatia and Serbia, to erase the 45 years of Socialist Yugoslavia and any continuity from this period. Instead, the narrative is directed to fascist collaborators during World War II, if for no other reason than that they were exclusively Croatian or Serbian. The anti-fascist tradition of Yugoslavia with its indigenise armed resistance would in most European countries suffering Nazi occupation be a reason for pride.

Classroom battlegrounds

Another cause is the wars of the nineties and the way they were resolved. With individuals, political parties or interest groups from that time still in power or in control of the narrative about these conflicts, the societies in Croatia, more so in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still locked in a war-time discourse and thus stuck in the recent past. Many analysts are of the opinion that the wars never ended, but continue to be fought out politically. What is fact, however, is that political elites use the past and their version of it to mask the dire economic situation instead of getting on with much needed reforms. This narrative is perpetuated in the media they control directly or indirectly, but it also found its way in the school history books. “The wars, their causes and developments, are presented literarily the same way as before their outbreak and course”, said Belgrade University professor Dubravka Stojanović. It is even worse in Bosnia-Herzegovina with no education system at the state level, but rather left to the entities. In effect, there are three ethnic curriculums. Although geography and algebra might not be in dispute, teaching history is another matter.

So, while people in their forties living in the Western Balkans may still have some perspective about the time before the last wars, everyone younger grew into maturity or is still going to school by being exposed to these narratives.

Vicious circle

Not everyone is taking this lying down, though. A group of students in the Bosnian town of Jajce protested for months not to be separated along ethnic lines, and since it is an election year, they won backed by public pressure – for now. Many international organizations and NGO’s have put a lot of effort during the past 20 years to change the nationalistic narrative, but it is a tough uphill battle, as it goes directly against the wishes of most of the political elites. For any significant shift it needs a top-down process, but it’s not easy to facilitate such a radical change. As time moves on, most politicians are caught in a vicious circle they helped to create. A lot of their political legitimacy is based on a nationalistic agenda. If some abandon it, their competition will exploit it as national treachery. Zdravko Krsmanović, a member of the Bosnian Serb coalition Alliance for Change, in opposition to the entity’s president Milorad Dodik, spoke openly regarding the above mentioned referendum: “We had to vote in favour of it, because they had already 44 votes ready in the Assembly. We would be portrayed as traitors taking orders from Sarajevo and it would ruin our chances in the election.”

Loosing its punch

This narrative has acquired a life of its own, because not only are politicians keeping it alive, it creates and keeps them alive as well. A progressive agenda can hardly be expected in the near future, since the old one seems to work so well for them. Yet, there is reason for hope, since this narrative is slowly losing its punch amidst economic hardship. It’s good enough to raise political tensions, but one can’t eat it. It will be up to a new generation of politicians to change course, but it will need a decade or two at least, as we know from other historic examples.

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 been through such a brutal war.

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 an 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 having 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 party 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 no political facts on the ground, primarily without the present top players. It is 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.

Advertisements