Beware of Unknown ‘Experts’ Peddling ‘Solutions’ for BiH

Recent non-developments in BiH (RS pre-2018 politicking, repeated threats to state institutions, attacks on the judiciary, the formation of new parties without new ideas……) reflect the same fundamental problems and weaknesses we have witnessed in BiH for years. The key novelty is the free-for-all environment that has become glaringly apparent in light of the non-US engagement at a time of continued EU denial, inertia and instinctual clutching at Potemkin reform. In addition, general heightened tensions related to other geopolitical trends (the Catalan crisis, an increasingly assertive Russia, etc.) are heightening nativist tendencies globally, at times leading to the self-fulfilling disaster conclusion that, “if nationalism is rising in EU countries then the only solution for unconsolidated Balkan democracies is to increasingly pursue and allow their own nationalist agendas.”

DPC will explore a number of these developments in the weeks ahead. To start, we would like to debunk a paper published recently that made two stale assertions, and one innovative yet fatally flawed claim.

None of the apparently new Institute for Stabilization and Transition’s staff have any profile on the Balkans; it has the look of an outfit established to seek government contracts. It recently published a paper openly and clearly calling for a Croat entity in BiH, claiming that this is the only way to ensure “Croat rights.” The organization is promoting a transparent HDZ agenda, selectively publishing facts to assert that social divisions among average people in BiH are so wide and deep that any possibility of a shared vision of good government and the civic secular rule of law is impossible. The examples of hyperbole and selective argument are too many to note.

The two stale assertions are that 1) the only way Croats can ensure rights is through a third entity; and 2) that a third entity will lead to good governance and strong economic performance across the newly federalized state. The first assertion presumes that the only way to ensure any group rights is through dominating a compact territorial unit; a substantial body of examples of European minority rights practice and law demonstrates that this is not the case. (Further, it presumes people will be willing to move or be moved, which is explored more below.) The second assertion can be easily debunked by looking at BiH itself – the RS enjoys near total ethnic and territorial contiguity (though it is precariously narrow or thinly populated in much of eastern RS). Yet is far from an economic, political and social success story. To the contrary, according to many indicators the state of the entity is weaker, poorer and more corrupt than the more heterogeneous yet admittedly severely dysfunctional Federation. The entity is a captured state in miniature; an absolute monarchy vs. the Federation’s more pluralist political feudalism.

But the authors know their audience and how to push their buttons. The paper’s innovation is to tie the country’s constitutional, political and structural dysfunction to the global, genuine but over-stated threat of Islamist/jihadist extremism. The authors argue, disingenuously, that a BiH without a Croat entity will limp along as a failed state, creating a vacuum in which future jihadists may emerge. They notably assume that only ISIS related extremism is a threat, and that only adherents of Islam are prey to radicalization. (There is no mention of Serbian fighters going to Eastern Ukraine, for example, and then returning.) While there are links between state failure and the complex drivers of radicalization and extremism, the notion that more territorial partition, more territorially-endorsed clericalism (among all three faiths) and the population transfers that would likely result would do nothing to address the true drivers of ideological extremism. In fact, considering their focus on Islamist inspired extremism, more internal partition could very likely have the opposite effect of creating a more aggrieved (and territorially non-contiguous) Bosniak statelet with no pretense of civic life or secular citizenship. A Bosniak West Bank and Gaza Strip are hardly a recipe for stability, as DPC wrote years ago.

Further, neither the authors of this ill-thought out paper, nor the authors they cite, explain how the country would avoid the inevitable dominoes that would begin to fall from such a course of partition-minded action masquerading as federalism: what would happen to the Serb-majority municipalities in Croat majority cantons? Would they be allowed to “federate” with the RS? If so, then would Srebrenica be allowed to “federate” with the Bosniak entity? What would happen to the Brčko District? Etc.

Finally, the formal partition of BiH into three separate ethno-national religious enclaves would eliminate the notion that BiH for centuries has been a heterogeneous polity; that there is the possibility to be a citizen of Bosnia without religious affiliation; or that an open and diverse society is possible or desirable. The authors never mention citizens who do consider themselves to be Bosnian (or Herzegovinian) – either exclusively or as a part of a more complex identity of which many outsiders seem to think people in BiH are incapable of conceptualizing. This in itself would further normalize and mainstream extremist politics and policies.

The only way to truly inoculate BiH against the threats and temptations of violent extremism of all kinds – including the jihadist extremism that is clearly keeping those authors up at night – is through a state that functions; that is secular and civic, while protecting collective ethnic rights through a truly institutionalized approach instead of having them safeguarded by ethnic parties; that is accountable to the local community and that is built from the municipality up; and which has functional decentralization and collaboration – not ethnic gerrymandering. There are ways to do this if people are willing to think outside the box and think about the 99% of citizens who want a better life rather than the 1% of politicians who seek to preserve the status quo. More on such options will be discussed in a future piece.

The paper also argues that BiH will never move forward until it is truly sovereign, arguing that BiH’s sovereignty is maligned by the presence of the international community. While it is of course true that the goal of BiH reform and future EU integration is to shed these post-war structures, the true threat to BiH’s sovereignty lies not with the international community but with the assumption that Croatia and Serbia, as signatories (NOT guarantors; this is an important distinction) to the Dayton Agreement provides them license to actively meddle in BiH politics in perpetuity.

Just as damaging, we are seeing that some of the proposed “solutions” by BiH and foreign observers simply and egregiously miss the mark in terms of both diagnosis and prescription.