Krug 99: A Summit for Democracy without Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Without the Zornić Verdict

Valery Perry participated in the December 12 session of Krug 99, together with Azra Zornić and Samir Beharić. Her presentation, “Reflections on the Summit for Democracy at a Time of Internal and External Threats to BiH”, is below.

The Summit

This past week – at the same time as we watched continuing disturbing developments unfold here  – we saw the Summit for Democracy play out through in-person events and online Zoom boxes.

The Summit was part of President Biden’s efforts to send the message that “America is Back” after an unusual and unsettling 4 years. After an administration in which Donald Trump was clearly more comfortable dealing with autocrats and dictators than with his allies – something seen through policy and also through his body language in event photo opps – from the start of his administration Joe Biden has aimed to dial America’s image and foreign policy back to a more “normal” setting.

This was seen as necessary globally, but is perhaps even more important in terms of the trans-Atlantic relationships that shaped the post-WWII and post-Cold War eras. While countries like Australia and Japan have been steady democratic allies, the US, Canada and Europe, in general and through the formal structures of NATO, the EU, the Council or Europe and others, have provided a foundation for values-based alliances grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights, and the dignity of the individual.

However, even beyond shoring up this relationship, the broader issue of the role, health, and support for democratic governance around the world is leading many to ask some difficult questions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Are we still confident in making the case – through words and actions – that democratic governance is the optimal, most effective, least corrupt, and most equitable way to run a community or a country?

Or are we ourselves questioning this long-held premise at a time when new autocratic models of government and society are increasingly sure of themselves, cleverly mixing capitalist economic models and political systems calibrated to deliver the bare minimum of democratic process, with surveillance technology and sophisticated mis/disinformation to assert control and oversight over the population?

The sorry response we’ve seen to the pandemic in terms of the West’s apparent inability to summon the resolve or solidarity of citizens to effectively fight the spread of COVID and variants (exceptions like New Zealand notwithstanding),  has clashed visibly with the interest of other states to use the pandemic as an opportunity to fine tune its own repressive tools and systems of social control.

Together with an increasingly toxic and fact-free online ecosystem, it is easy to understand why more people have less faith in democracy, perhaps even being willing to sell out certain basic freedoms for the promise of steady access to certain consumer goods and a promise that the trains will run on time.

So at the close of 2021, the Summit for Democracy in theory offered an opportunity to take stock, and to remind participants and post-game readers of why these issues matter.

From the start, the criticism was swift, from all sides, as soon as the guest lists were public.

Supporters of democratic governance asked how countries like India (which has the distinction of being the world’s biggest democracy but has seen significant illiberal regression), let alone Pakistan or the Philippines could be invited. (And closer to home, how could Serbia – and every other country in the Western Balkans be invited, yet not BiH?) At the same time,  promoters of authoritarian governance such as Russia and China mocked the idea that this was even a credible event, deploying typical trolling “what-aboutism.”

For me, skimming through the agenda and speaker highlights, I suddenly realized why I personally had had so much trouble getting excited about this event. The topics and discussions were on media freedom in the Internet age; the role of women in these processes; the engagement of youth in politics at all levels; citizen participation; using technology and the digital space for more effective participation; preventing corruption; stronger democratic institutions…….

In short, these are the very same topics that have ensured that the conference rooms of hotels in Ilidza, Sarajevo, Jahorina and beyond have been full with donor-funded pro-democracy workshops, seminars and conferences for the past 26 years.

I suspect many of you have been to dozens, and dozens, of such events in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Mostar…… and that a review of Krug 99 discussion topics often sounds very similar.

So, it seems like Washington DC is catching up with BiH in terms of talking about these issues in this way.

The challenge then – as always –  is in the operationalization.

Doing Democracy at Home and Abroad

How to put these noble ideas into action – anywhere – is of course the timeless challenge.

While there has been increasingly (mostly elite) self-criticism about the state of American democracy at a time of voter obstruction, gerrymandering, severe economic inequality, and a population increasingly polarized into “us vs. them” tribes, others point out that for much of American history the quality of democracy has been far more limited than that extolled in key texts and ideas.

The majority of the population was excluded from democratic participation for the majority of the country’s existence.  De facto and de jure access to the ballot and public engagement is a fairly recent innovation for women, minorities, the poor, and the young. A truly inclusive approach to democratic governance has really only been attempted in my lifetime. And expanding democratic participation has led to a backlash by those individuals and groups who have profited from the status quo, and fear the prospects of a more bottom-up and participatory reality. They fear that as more people seek a piece of the pie, their traditional substantial portion will decline. To hit back, vested interests and a polarized media environment have been able to replace practical policy debates with culture wars – on guns, on religion, on history, on race –  to ensure a divided population.

The countries of the EU are struggling with these questions as well, with populist and far-right parties on the rise.

So, if the US and its EU allies are struggling to shore up support for democratic values at home, why would they have any business in trying to export such ideas?

Some will criticize this exercise entirely, saying “the West” has no moral standing to talk the democratic talk, when they have failed to walk the democratic walk.

Others have for some time looked with skepticism on this whole endeavor, claiming it is little more than a new form of exploitative colonialism, driven by predatory capitalism.

Still others see the outlines of a new Cold War 2.0 emerging, and the division of the world into authoritarian and anti-authoritarian blocs, with the added complication of economic globalization that binds both systems together.

And some – a seemingly shrinking minority – will remind of the ideals of the liberal or democratic peace theory, and the notion that democracies are more secure when there are more countries that are also democratic; and that the international system benefits when more of its component parts (states) are governed by a liberal, rights-based rule of law.

It was this aspirational vision that contributed to (admittedly imperfect) US and European democracy promotion efforts following the end of the Cold War. The operationalization of this vision also contributed to the long-overdue decision to become directly involved in ending the war in BiH, as the culmination of work by bipartisan officials and dedicated grassroots organizers to stop the military aggression and slaughter. The Dayton Peace Agreement was intended to over the long term facilitate the fulfilment of these values into real institutional democratic practice.

After an initial decade of positive, forward movement in terms of post-war institutional development and progress, the past 15 years have been one of decline. This regression has become yet more clear in the events of the past few weeks and days.

And while the antics and actions of nationalist elites committed to securing their power and influence by using fear and division are not surprising or new, what has been new has been the willingness of the US, EU and UK to give a democratic seal of legitimacy, and technical, legal, and diplomatic support, to such transactional agendas that stand in stark contrast to the ideals and rights once taken for granted. Appeasement has once again emerged as the western “policy of choice.”

We’ve seen this in the decision to support and endorse a political/electoral deal in Mostar that effectively ended a long-held stance against urban partition; we are now seeing what happens when this is upscaled to the country level.

And now the toxic and disintegrative Varhelyi Package would combine election law reform and constitutional reform with the physical dismantling of the country through a fire sale giveaway of physical property – forests, rivers, agricultural land, etc. – to the parties purporting to speak for “their constituent peoples.” If this goes through along these disintegrative outlines, citizens still reeling from the impact of Wild West privatization process in the wartime and postwar period will see that this transfer of wealth is far more damaging to their interests, and with even graver consequence.

American representatives in support of privatization have often acknowledged the potential for corruption in such process, yet justified it by claiming that “they can only steal it once.” However, 30+ years of post-privatization political trends globally has shown that once can be enough.

And yet – and yet – when reviewing the Summit’s speakers and panels and ideals, one must come to the conclusion that if the organizers wanted to invite participants from BiH, two who should have been on the guest list would have been Samir Beharic and Azra Zornic, as few people are so well-placed to speak on community activism, youth prospects, human rights, legal struggle for rights, and effective and accountable good governance – than these two citizens.

These are the examples of the voices that should be amplified and heard in the discussions occurring on the future of BiH, and how the system can work for people just like them, throughout the country. Their ideas on a possible new social contract – not division masquerading as reform – should be the starting point of deliberation, replacing the cynical ploy of using citizen consultations to ex post facto justify deals already made. 

And rather than the US and other exporting their democratic bad practice – gerrymandering, voter suppression, and systematic inequality – perhaps successful reforms along the lines of their visions for BiH could open the door to a two-way street of democratic practice exchange that could show the US and Europe how they can better begin to structure societies in a way that live up the values proclaimed in the Summit.

“A Year of Action” should now follow from this Summit. This will be a time to either really support true democratic voices and governance models, or to shore up and appease illiberal and autocratic actors in their pursuit of narrow and illiberal agendas that will in the end make the neighborhood, Europe and any community of democracies far less secure. Seeing how this unfolds in BiH will provide a strong preview of the long-term health of democracy and democratization, and of the liberal or illiberal direction in which other countries could themselves soon be heading.