Making sense of Croatia’s destructive Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) policy

On December 19, 2020, the day before the Mostar local elections, DPC Senior Associate Bodo Weber gave the following interview to the Croatian news portal, focusing on Mostar elections, Croat politics in BiH, as well as Croatia’s policy towards BiH. It was published two days later.

In the recent local elections, the SDA lost Sarajevo, and Milorad Dodik’s SNDS was defeated in the race for the mayor of Banja Luka. Is this a sign that in BiH bad politicians can be punished, at least at the local level? Or is the importance of local elections in Sarajevo and Banja Luka overrated?

Probably the most important, sustainable post-war reform implemented under the guidance of the international community in the dysfunctional Dayton state was the 2004-5 strengthening of local self-governance, by way of introducing the direct election of mayors and fiscal decentralization. As a result, the local level in BiH today remains the only governance level that doesn’t have an absolute disassociation between the authorities and ruling elites, and the citizens and their needs and interests. Therefore, it is easier to punish a mayor or ruling coalition or party in a way it has a certain impact at the local level rather than in cantons, entities, or at the state level. In addition, the substantial election defeats of the dominant ethno-political parties, because they traditionally lead local election campaigns as if they were general elections, to a certain extent reflects the crisis of those parties. In the case of SDA, this is related to various scandals and internal divisions; the SNSD has been weakened on the one hand by the “Justice for David” episode, and on the other hand by its leader Dodik’s rash move ahead of the 2018 general elections, to after 15 years of absolute power in the Republika Srpska (RS), move to Sarajevo, i.e. the central state level. He has had obvious problems in finding his way there.

On the other hand, the defeat of SDA led to the rise of Dino Konaković’s party Narod i Pravda (NiP), while the new Banja Luka mayor is Draško Stanivuković from the PDP. They present themselves as an honest version of the conservative, nationalist policy otherwise represented by SDA and SNSD. How do you comment on the winners – can we expect a new, better policy from them?

The question is whether these parties and their representatives are more democratic than the ruling parties in the entities and the state. One has to give credit to Stanivuković for the courage he demonstrated in deciding to join the fight with the Dodik regime, in defense of the “Justice for David” movement, at a point in time when it was not clear that it would be politically beneficial for him. The problem in BiH, however, is a structural one – the Dayton institutional order is such that you cannot make substantial changes from within, while changing the constitutional system from outside the political institutions is close to impossible without the support of its international co-authors.

Croatia has recently intensified diplomatic actitivies on BiH, related to the change of the election law, in order to make impossible that the more numerous Bosniaks in the Federation of BiH elect the Croat member of the Presidency of BiH. In your opinion, does the election law need to be changed, and how?

The electoral system needs to be changed, but only in the framework of profound changes to the constitutional system of BiH, which is impossible to accomplish through reform of the current Dayton system, but only through an entirely new constitution. Without constitutional changes, all requests for changing the electoral system are nothing less than hidden attempts at changing the constitutional order. In Croatia, the related requests of the HDZ BiH and its leader Dragan Čović are either not understood, or are something people do not want to understand.

The late Zdravko Grebo, one of the greatest B-H intellectuals, and a good friend of mine, once called the former leader of the Social Democratic Party of BiH (SDP), Zlatko Lagumdžija, the most damaging political personality in the history of BiH. He wasn’t far from the truth. The SDP’s 2006 assault on the destructive ethno-political order of BiH, that is running a candidate for the Croat member of the Presidency, which for the first time left the HDZ BiH without that post, was probably the most damaging political move in post-war BiH. Not for any formal reason – the election of the Croat member, partly thanks to Bosniak votes, was fully legal – but because this step was undertaken without any defined political aim. This way, the SDP delivered a perfect platform and cover to the HDZ BiH for organizing an hysterical campaign, that has already lasted a decade, on the alleged, but non-existing, discrimination of BH-Croats. This (SDP) move did not endanger the equality of “constituent people,” but the position of the HDZ BiH as “constituent party.”

What do I mean by that? Many people in today’s BiH and Croatia don’t know that the origin of the concept of constituent people lies in Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia. It was developed in the context of the 1970s constitutional reforms, in Edvard Kardelj’s kitchen cabinet, the ideologue of Tito’s nationality policy. Copying the Soviet nationality policy was part of socialist “social engineering.” In the framework of the first multi-party elections in BiH 1990, the new national parties pluralized the concept of “constituent parties,” cleansing it of its socialist origin, turning it into a means to establish three, interconnected state-party apparatuses. Ironically, the socialist system of constituent people, though undemocratic, was substantially more liberal than today’s Dayton system. The SDP’s move, devoid of any political strategy, thus endangered HDZ BiH’s position as constituent party. For the party and its leader Čović the only solution lies in legally-institutionally securing the position of constituent party – and those changes to the electoral system equal the establishment of a virtual, third Croat entity on parts of the territory of the Federation of BiH (without territorial continuity and without the Croats in the RS). And what the “benefit” for BH-Croats of such an entity would be, can be observed in the dire state of society, politics and economy in the RS.

The Croatian President Zoran Milanović invited Milorad Dodik, the Serbian Presidency member and informal leader of the RS, to Zagreb. Was this a good move?

It looks like President Milanović since taking office has turned into a far-right extremist, to the detriment of his social Democratic Party and the country as a whole.

The publicly declared aim of Croatia’s foreign policy is change of the BiH election law. Does Croatia have the power to achieve this?

Since entering the European Union, Croatia has unfortunately turned its BiH policyinto the Trojan horse of enlargement policy. This is because it provides the enlargement sceptics within the EU with great arguments, and this is a slap in the face for all of us who back then lobbied for Croatia’s entry into the Union against those same sceptics. Because of Croatia’s unresolved relationship with the recent past, Croatian policy, from the far right to the left, while officially performing as the defender of the interests of BH Croats, in fact remains trapped in the role of the extended arm and spokesperson of Dragan Čović and HDZ BiH, to the huge detriment of the Croatian people in BiH, Croatia’s own reputation within the EU, i.e. in the European Parliament, and in the Council of the EU, where the Croatian representatives are disruptive elements. Croatian government representatives, for example, through years of Council negotiations on conclusions on BiH, request the formulation, “equality of constituent people” to be included, and “equality of citizens,” one of the foundations of the acquis, to be removed. This way, Zagreb actually signals nothing less than that Croatia has smuggled itself into the EU, because it does not support the democratic values of the Union. The embodiment of that awkward, ideologized policy is Željana Zovko, who by shifting between roles such as a BiH ambassador or international secretary of the HDZ BiH and European parliament member on behalf of Croatia, thus in fact undermines the sovereignty of BiH and Croatia.

It is telling that there is less and less talk about the idea of a third Croat entity. Some diaspora lists ran with that promise in recent Croatian parliamentary elections, but failed to achieve substantial support from voters resident in BiH. Instead, the HDZ won again. Is the third entity a dead idea?

As I already noted, the idea to establish a third entity, through the backdoor, stands behind Čović’s political project of the “reform” of the electoral system. It is not promoted openly, because as such it was long time rejected by the West.

How would you comment on the alliance between HDZ BiH and SNSD-a, respectively Dragan Čović and Milorad Dodik?

What links the two is the concept of the ruling of constituent parties by means of patronage and (inter-ethnic) fear, as well as the project of the so-called federalization or confederalization of BiH. This is a kind of copy of Tito’s project to decentralize socialist Yugoslavia, that started in the 1960s, and ended up as authoritarian decentralization in place of democratization.

The leading Bosniak party, SDA, is obviously in crisis. Leading members are leaving the party, it lost Sarajevo, and Sebija Izetbegović is disliked by the public… Will Bakir Izetbegović be the gravedigger of the party that was established by his father Alija? And would the political scene in BiH miss the SDA at all?

I am not sure. He obviously is a weak leader. It is often overlooked that his father in essence was a Muslim, moral-based intellectual, but a weak politician and statesman. Bakir is only a pocket edition of his father. Nevertheless, I would not see the prime reason for the current weakness of the SDA in the party itself, but rather in the weak and inconsistent policy of the international community, of the EU and the US, over the last decade and a half, that has strengthened nationalist Croat and Serb policy and elites, and at the detriment of the state of BiH, and of Bosniak policy. Dodik, too, is only a pocket edition of Milošević, but the weak policy of the West has enabled him to transform into the most powerful figure in BiH.

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Dayton agreement, president-elect Joe Biden published a statement on BiH. What do you read out of his statement? Will the Biden administration more actively deal with BiH?

This is what I read out of it. American politics has a certain obligation towards the destiny of BiH that it has not lived up to for the last 15 years, i.e. since it handed Western leadership in the Western Balkans over to the EU, and the EU did not consistently seize that leadership. The US needs to finally find a way to closely and efficiently cooperate with the EU on BiH and the wider region.

Is there a chance for some Dayton 2? Is this at all a good idea?

Neither is there a chance, nor is it a good idea, in fact, it’s a backward-oriented idea. It would again be a conference between the international community and the political leaders and elites of BiH. BiH needs a new constitution, one not built on the current system of fake, authoritarian-anarchic decentralization. The country needs a constitutional order that is neither a unitary state, nor a confederation or federation. BiH needs a system that guarantees a balance between collective, ethnic, and individual rights in a way that safeguards strong democracy and rule of law, and not like the current system, in which there are neither collective nor individual rights, because there is neither rule of law nor democracy. Such a constitution can not be written by the West, let alone in the way it was done in Dayton. I see the solution in turning last year’s European Commission Opinion on BiH, which represented a sort of initial masterplan for comprehensive structural reform, with constitutional reform at its core, into a long-term EU strategy, and strongly supported by the US. Within the framework of that strategy, the West should determine conditions for structural reform as well as their ultimate outcome, i.e. a state, political system and economy of BiH that readies the country for Euro-Atlantic integration. The West would condition basic principles of future constitional reform, and accept B-H citizens as its allies, while the actors in BiH would themselves have to negotiate the future constitutional structure based on those principles.

What is the position of the EU, of Germany on BiH? Can we expect Berlin and the Biden administration to be on the same line?

I believe we will see a joint initiative towards BiH. Berlin over the last three years was fully occupied with defending the region against the extremely dangerous idea of an exchange of territories in the framework of negotiations on a final agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, and idea originally pushed from within the EU, and then the US. I believe that following the departure of Federica Mogherini, and now also the Trump administration, with which the chances to realize that project are also gone, Berlin will have more time and will to more seriously engage on BiH.

Tomorrow, local elections will be held in Mostar, the first after more than 10 years. You have heavily criticized the deal that enabled the organization of elections. What is the problem with it and what kind of deal would be better for Mostar and its citizens?

Western negotiators, being torn between increased political pressure to finally find a solution for Mostar and the blockage of local elections on the one hand, and the the lack of preconditions for a sustainable solution due to the long-term lack of a serious, firm policy of the EU and the US towards BiH on the other hand, found a way out in a dirty deal with the leaders of SDA and HDZ BiH. It’s a bargaining deal. The West got the unblocking of elections in Mostar and the formal implementation of the 2010 Constitutional Court of BiH ruling that annulled the previous electoral system. In return, the parties got two agreements. One ensuresthe tolerating of a new Mostar city statute exclusively negotiated between SDA and HDZ BiH – that after 25 post-war years of international investement into the reintegration of Mostar formalizes the city’s ethno-territorial division.

The second is a political agreement on so-called principles of future reform of the electoral system, which due to its wording entails the project of a third entity, playing into Čović’s hands. This agreement was struck despite the fact that the negotiators at the moment of signing it were aware that neither the West nor the SDA can agree on its implementation. That’s why they are now fleeing from a document that the international representative present at the June 17 signing ceremony in Mostar at the last moment refused to co-sign, in a development that angered Čović. Čović has been trying to hide all of this from the public. That’s why the choice Mostar voters are facing is not between various parties and their programmes, but to either vote in favor of the division of their town, i.e. for HDZ BiH and SDA, or against the dirty deal and its domestic authors. And thus, save Western liberal values in Mostar. After that, the EU together with the Biden administration needs to stop further implementation of that deal and to clean up the inflicted damage

The HDZ BiH maintained its position at the recent local elections in BiH. Why isn’t there real political pluralism among B-H Croats as there is among Bosniaks and Serbs? Has Komšić turned into the perfect excuse for the HDZ BiH and Čović to occupy the position of the outvoted victim and thus assemble the remaining votes of B-H Croats who are slowly vanishing from BiH?

Exactly. Komšić turned into the perfect means for organized hysterics on the non-existent discrimination against B-H Croats, and in this way has done more to secure HDZ BiH’s position as constituent party than the party’sholding of the post in the BiH Presidency could have ever accomplished.

It seems as if in the entire debate within the framework of the ethno-nationalist complex, on state, nation and constituent people, election law and entities, the economic and social situation in BiH is forgotten. People massively emigrate from BiH, kids are educated with the aim to emigrate to the EU. Does there have to be more attention on this?

This in essence presents the Dayton system – ruling by patronage and fear. The losers of this system are all the people and citizens of BiH, most visible in the mass emigration from the country happening over the last 3-4 years. And one of the areas from which people emigrate in masses is Western Herzegovina, including Mostar. It is a public secret that in Mostar Croats in the meanwhile have lost their ethno-demographic majority. One of the reasons for the new ethnic power-sharing arrangement between HDZ BiH and SDA that hides behind the Mostar deal is that the basis of HDZ’s policy towards Mostar so far – that Croats represent the majority in town – has been lost.

How did the Corona pandemic impact the political situation in BiH?

Not too much. At the beginning of the pandemic, we observed a certain, extraordinary readiness for cooperation among the ruling parties and leaders, but not much of that has survived. Besides, the pandemic (even more) laid bare how sick the institutional order of BiH is. One must not forget that the ethno-territorially fragmented, corrupted health care system is one of the biggest victims of Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The original interview can be found here.