Democracy Under Pressure in Bosnia and Herzegovina — The Country at Europe’s Doorstep

, by Amir Heric

Democracy Under Pressure in Bosnia and Herzegovina — The Country at Europe's Doorstep

This text is written and Published as part of the Democracy Under Pressure Campaign of JEF Europe

On 1 March, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina celebrated 32 years of their country’s independence. It is one of seven nations which became sovereign countries following the dissolution of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. The independence referendum held in March of 1992 brought promises of democracy, freedom, and closer ties to the rest of Europe. However, 32 years after the fact, the legacy of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s inception is tainted by the consequences of the ensuing civil war, ethnic and religious divisions, and a looming demographic collapse. Young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are becoming increasingly disillusioned with their byzantine government and a progressively more disinterested international community. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence in 1992, it only began to govern itself following the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) in 1995. The DPA was meant to serve two purposes. First, it ended all hostilities in 1995. Second, it set the foundation for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political framework. Its first aim was achieved; however, its second aim has left the country in a state of political limbo. Therefore, the entire country feels as though it is in a state of suspended animation, frozen in the nineties, as the government only entrenches political, ethnic, and religious divisions among the population. As the years have passed, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina have started to leave the country at an increased rate, while those who remain seek security and sovereignty promised to them by the political right wing. Two large issues remain for Bosnia and Herzegovina before it can consider itself a full democracy — the civil rights and liberties of the country’s minorities must be guaranteed and the Office of the High Representative must be abolished.

A Segregated Democracy

Annex IV of the DPA currently serves as the official Bosnian constitution. One of the prerequisites for the peaceful coexistence of the three largest ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Bosniaks (50.1%), the Serbs (30.8%), and the Croats (15.4%) [According to the latest government census from 2013], was the safeguarding and guarantee of equal participation in the administration of the country. This concept is referred to as “constituency” and the three largest ethnic groups represent the three “constituent peoples.” According to the same census, 3.7% of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population does not belong to any of the three constituent peoples. Therefore, 3.7% of Bosnians, or 130054 citizens do not have the right to serve as a member of the Bosnian Presidency (the executive branch) or a delegate in the House of Peoples (the upper chamber of the legislative branch). Many of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s administrative positions are restricted to certain ethnic groups, which excludes over 100,000 citizens from fully participating in the democratic system of their native country. This is in direct violation of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The two largest of these marginalized groups are the Bosnian Jewish and Romani communities. In 2006, this system was challenged in the Sejdić-Finci trial at the European Court of Human Rights. In a monumental victory for representation and democracy, three years later in 2009, the court ruled that the Bosnian constitution violated the ECHR and demanded an urgent constitutional reform, making it an actionable prerequisite for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession to the European Union (EU). However, as of 2024, 15 years after the ruling, the leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina have done nothing to address this issue, leaving the civil rights of its minorities in question. This sends a clear message — in Bosnia and Herzegovina there exist first and second-rate citizens. That is unacceptable in a truly democratic system.

Sovereign Nation or Protectorate?

The DPA ended the war, but the implementation of the accords was left to a series of multinational organizations. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) oversaw the first democratic elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. The NATO coalitions IFOR, SFOR, and finally EUFOR enforced and maintained the fragile peace through their military presence in the country. However, the institution with the most power and arguably the strongest impact on Bosnian society is the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR is responsible for overseeing the civil implementation of the DPA in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The OHR is elected by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) which is a body made up of 55 countries who contribute in various ways to the implementation of the DPA in Bosnia and Herzegovina, be that militarily, financially, or politically. Considering this, the OHR is not a democratic institution as it does not represent the will of the people it governs. Moreover, High Representatives are always foreigners who have their own interests, either personal or their native country’s, which always influence the way they wield their executive powers.

Not only is the OHR a non-democratic institution, but it is also a political paradox. The OHR has extraconstitutional powers allotted to it by the international community. The High Representative can dismiss public officials who are obstructing the implementation of the DPA and even push changes to the constitution when the governing parties are unable to reach a consensus. The overeaching powers and position of the OHR are paradoxical as the Bosnian populace depends on it to exercise its non-democratic authority toward constructing a seemingly democratic European state. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are under no illusion that the institution is by its definition undemocratic; however, they are divided on whether Bosnia and Herzegovina should rely on an imposed but effective foreign institution or native political elites who represent the citizens but are impotent or indifferent in implementing the DPA. The OHR is not meant to exist indefinitely. Its dissolution is mandated upon the full implementation of the DPA, which the country has been working toward for the past 29 years. The dissolution of the OHR is another prerequisite for Bosnian accession to the EU. However, with no clear end in sight for the OHR, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future is gradually becoming more uncertain.

The Next Step Going Forward

It is absurd to assume that Bosnian society lacks the proper foundations for a sustainable democracy, even if that is what we see when we examine Bosnia and Herzegovina. We might be blinded by the issues of voter apathy, intolerance, brain drain, ethnonationalism, femicide, or others, but we must also note that there was a thriving industrial society in the region half a century ago. The political will of the people is being ignored both domestically and internationally. The Peace Implementation Council must reconsider the Office of the High Representative; their authority must either be fully exercised or abolished entirely. It is the duty of young activists to organize and demand the rights afforded to them by the Dayton Accords. Moreover, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina must use their voices and votes to apply pressure on the ruling parties to fully implement the accords and begin the country’s transition to a full democracy with a chance at leaving the European periphery, hopefully completing Bosnia and Herzegovina’s decades-long journey toward becoming a part of the European Union.

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