Over the past week, a flurry of whispers, unconfirmed rumors, and then leaked fragments of plans to fundamentally change the social, political, and economic landscape of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) have emerged. While evidently being prepared for some time, it has been playing out during a particularly hot July, when many of the country’s citizens are either on a deserved break from the stresses of the year or are entertaining diaspora friends and family who have left during the war or subsequently, often expressing surprise that their hosts have not yet joined the exodus.
The plans of High Representative Christian Schmidt to impose changes to the country’s election system fewer than 70 days prior to a general election is troubling and problematic on many levels.
In terms of the substance, the details and mathematics of the planned changes are complicated by design; they have been incrementally explained and contextualized as details of the non-transparent plans emerge. It must be complicated, as it requires electoral engineering and retro-fitting of the outcomes desired by HDZ BiH. The desired “answer” is known, so the formula must be developed accordingly. What is most brazen is the complete lack of any interest in improving the direct accountability of elected officials to a constituency of human beings. Representatives are not elected, or even selected; they will be plucked from a gerrymandered slate of power completely divorced from a constituency of citizens. Other elements are claimed to be intended to remove the potential for blocking Federation government formation in the interest of “functionality;” however, in conjunction with the most problematic electoral elements (so-called Ljubić “implementation”) this would be quickly and easily rendered irrelevant.
As with prior iterations of “electoral reform” pressed earlier by the US and EU, the effect is to deepen ethnocratic feudalism in BiH – and further impede any bottom-up efforts to uproot it. Furthermore, the plan apparently locks in the 2013 census numbers. It is noteworthy that while that census was hotly disputed, no party – let alone any of the ethnocratic parties (or pretenders to their thrones) has advocated a new one next year. One can only conclude that after they pocketed the ethnicity results from the last one, no party has an interest in revisiting them – or revealing the scale of their failure that a precipitous population exodus would demonstrate.
The next time any international development agency or democracy support project or NGO organizes a workshop or summer school or program on civic education, claiming that the people of BiH are simply too uninformed to understand how democracy works, they should remember that there should be no surprise why many people tune out; it’s easy to see why people would reject an electoral system that requires complexity to achieve pre-ordained results.
In terms of the process, it is pathetic irony that this final blow to even the faintest hopes that BiH could emerge from the post-war Dayton straitjacket is being made by the High Representative.
For years, DPC has advocated the maintenance of the Office of the High Representative and of the Bonn Powers, seeing its preservation and role as necessary until Dayton is replaced with a new social contract and political system with popular legitimacy. That is, until BiH has the internal functionality and propulsion to move forward out of the post-war constraints that have calcified progress in so many parts of life. The continuation of this vestigial limb of Dayton (along with the military deterrent provided for in Dayton’s Annex 1A) provided the country with a critical tool. For over a decade, the OHR has been undermined by the EU, which sees its continuation as an encroachment on its role, as well as theologically incompatible with a “membership perspective.”
Yet now the High Representative has accepted becoming a back-office for disintegrative agendas, and a pass-through for all those with who have long thought so little of BiH and its people that they were ready to relegate the country to a second-tier of democratic standards. Schmidt has been poorly informed and advised since his appointment became known; his performance to date shows that little has changed. Schmidt will have no credibility or moral standing if he imposes disintegrative and regressive essentialist electoral reform. That will be his legacy.
While grave in itself, the impact of this application of the Bonn Powers in terms of values has even greater significance. The support for this move – for this formal demonstration of appeasement – from countries that have actively supported and developed it, or have passively enabled it to get this far, is a demonstration that the West is giving up on BiH as simply a problem to be managed and pacified. For a generation, Bosnia symbolized first a victim of wars of territorial irridentism and aggression from its neighbors in the 1990s, then becoming a vision of how the state could stabilize through strategic engagement in the 2000s. But then for well over a decade, it has been emblematic of the failure of the EU’s technocratic enlargement approach. And now the US, hitherto the strongest defender of BiH statehood among Western powers and advocate of democratic principles in the face of belligerent autocracy, has emerged as a main supporter of Schmidt’s intervention, throwing in its lot with an approach that will deepen institutional oligarchy. The notion of citizenship has been deemed expendable.
This will be not be missed by illiberal state disruptors, spoilers, and opportunists who have never wanted BiH to be democratic, functional, civic, European, or accountable. Not only will the lesson be that complex states and the people within them must expect a governance system in which their presumed tribe is the paramount issue, but that, when it suits them, the EU, US, and its allies will give it a new veneer of democratic legitimacy.
Democratic self-confidence has been on the decline globally for years; at the same time autocrats have begun to flex their muscles, sensing a moment. The policy and process playing out in the High Representative’s office will not be missed, particularly by those who have wanted it to fail all along.