The West’s Dirty Mostar Deal: Deliverables in the Absence of a BiH Policy

DPC Policy Note #16

by Bodo Weber

Executive Summary

Last June, the ambassadors of the European Union and the US to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), together with the UK ambassador to BiH, struck a deal on Mostar with the main Croat and Bosniak parties, the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). The agreement ended a ten-year deadlock on implementation of a Constitutional Court of BiH (CC BiH) ruling that suspended the Election Law of BiH and provisions in the Mostar city statute that regulated local elections on the grounds they were discriminatory, and returned the right to vote to the Herzegovinian city’s citizens, who on December 20 will vote for the first time in 12 years to elect their local representatives. The deal was praised by the West as a major breakthrough, a long-awaited return of local elites to a policy of compromise, and even an expression of a “thriving democracy.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

The agreement is an exercise in muddling-through, a transactional bargain between the Western negotiators and the leaders of the HDZ and SDA, Dragan Čović and Bakir Izetbegović, that signs off on the ethno-territorial division of Mostar after 25 years of international efforts towards reunification of the once multi-ethnic city that was divided during the Bosnian war. Even worse, the deal contains a major Western concession to Čović’s long-standing project of creating a de jure or de facto third entity designed to conceal the disintegration of the country. The Mostar deal is just the latest chapter in a decade and a half of a failed Western BiH policy with the EU formally and jealously in the lead, further aggravated over the last several years by the accelerating crisis of the West’s global role, and of liberal democracy in the West – on both sides of the Atlantic. It bears all the hallmarks of that combination: no strategy, no leadership, no (serious) defense of the values and principles of liberal democracy or of the core principles that guided the West’s Balkan policy of the last three decades and no adherence to the lessons learned from it.

The Mostar deal is in fact a set of three agreements: The first, an amendment to the Election Law of BiH, formally replaces the discriminatory provisions and regulations in the election law and in Mostar’s city statute that regulated local elections in Mostar, and which were suspended by the CC BiH in 2010. The second, an amendment to the existing 2004 city statute, establishes a new HDZ-SDA power-sharing arrangement based on the ethno-territorial division of Mostar, by shifting the city’s power center to a semi-formal governance level below the central level, in the form of so-called city areas – which are also electoral districts for the city council elections. This arrangement defies all principles of democracy, rule of law and local self-governance. Even worse, it renders the return of the right to vote to Mostar’s citizens moot, and establishes new forms of discrimination. With the third agreement, the West has for the first time given the seal of approval to HDZ’s terminology “legitimate political representation of constituent peoples,” – a means by which Čović’s generational project to establish a de facto third, Croat entity in BiH may enter through the back door of electoral system reform – and put pressure on the SDA to do the same.

The Mostar deal rests on three transactional foundations: It was the first international negotiation on Mostar with no defined political principles and aims; it was the first negotiation on Mostar conducted with only two of the nine political parties of Mostar; and it was a bargain for the HDZ and SDA in which the West got one agreement (on the electoral law) in return for accepting two others, negotiated between the two parties with almost no intervention by the West.

Since the deal was signed, it has been met with criticism. Western actors have begun to seek a way out of a mess of their own making. Western capitals have shifted blame onto their negotiators in Sarajevo. In turn, the negotiators have looked to the Mostar actors they have betrayed – opposition parties, civil society actors, and citizens – to help them out of their predicament by voting in the elections on December 20 and preventing the two-thirds majority win for HDZ-SDA needed to adopt the new statute. In the meantime, negotiations over the third agreement have stalled, leaving open the possibility the entire deal will collapse in the end.

There is hope for a U-turn on Western BiH policy: First, in the European Commission’s May 2019 Avis that presents the outlines of an initial masterplan for a long-term, strategic policy on BiH of the EU and the wider West based on conditionality for comprehensive, structural reform, with constitutional change at its core (but that has not yet been followed up by the member state governments); and second, in the impending inauguration of US President-elect Joe Biden in January 2021 and the potential for change that it represents. But first, the damage that the Mostar deal has inflicted upon Mostar, the Federation of BiH, the country as a whole, and to Western policy towards BiH must be addressed.


For immediate damage control

To Mostar citizens:

  • Mostar voters need to save their city from ethno-territorial disintegration by voting on December 20 for any party or independent candidate except HDZ and SDA, thus denying them the two-thirds majority they need to adopt the draft city statute.

To the West:

  • Key EU member states such as Germany need to seize leadership on the Mostar issue post-election, push for an EU position against the new city statute, and re-define/establish red lines against the ethnic disintegration of Mostar and the Čović-HDZ project that is behind the political agreement on changing the electoral system.
  • The incoming Biden administration needs to reverse the policy pursued by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer of appeasing the nationalist parties, join the EU in re-defining/establishing red lines on Mostar and electoral reform, and refrain from any past inclination towards the “need to give something to the Croats” (i.e., the HDZ BiH). It needs to refrain from rushing to achieve any quick deliverables under newly established US leadership, but instead work in close cooperation with the EU.
  • The EU and the US should refrain from engaging in negotiations on the implementation of Sejdić-Finci and other court rulings until they define a joint, strategic policy that aims to move BiH out of its trajectory of accelerating regression.

For the longer term

  • The EU and the US need to start an initiative on a long-term comprehensive BiH policy that puts constitutional change at its core with comprehensive conditionality, by turning the EC Avis and the Priebe report into a master plan, using the international community’s Dayton instruments to create a conducive environment for reform, and preventing further deterioration of the political and security situation in BiH.

Read the full paper