Institutionalized Ethnic Division in Bosnia: A Way Forward for Iraq?

Nov 01, 2007

Over the past few months, the Biden-Gelb plan has been widely discussed as a solution for the faltering policy in Iraq. A major component of the plan is to decentralize power in Iraq—Bosnian style—to the three main ethnic and religious groups in an effort to end the civil war. While the applicability of the Bosnian model has been challenged in the press based on the differences in the circumstances under which the Dayton Agreement was signed in Bosnia and the current environment in Iraq, the desirability of the Bosnian model has largely gone unchallenged. This meeting aimed at bringing up some of the rather uncomfortable realities that the Dayton model created in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The debate on what to do in Iraq should not ignore the fact that-although the fighting in Bosnia has ended-inter-ethnic cooperation and dialogue have languished. Twelve years after Dayton, Bosnia is still far from the effective, sovereign and democratic state that the agreement had envisioned. In the end the Bosnian model may serve up more questions than answers for Iraq.

"Ethnic rights" and state-building in Bosnia
The Dayton model for Bosnia employs certain minority rights conventions-the concept of autonomy in particular-to institutionally separate ethnic groups while simultaneously encouraging cooperation at higher levels of government. Traditionally, minority rights are meant to offer protection and remedies to groups whose interests might be snubbed by the majority. Through limited self-government, minority groups can have control over many issues that would allow them to maintain their culture, without allowing disagreements between ethnic groups to destabilize the state.

This was the intention in devolving power to the ethnic groups in Bosnia. However, the current institutional structure in Bosnia and Herzegovina takes traditional minority rights policy but puts it on its head: rather than offering collective rights to minority groups where they reside within a stable nation state, each of the three ethnic groups claims and protects its collective rights as though it were a minority within the larger state. In the end, it is the local majorities that secure their power over other groups. And while each group is protecting its so-called "ethnic rights," there is no central power to unify the groups. Moreover, the true minorities—the Roma, the Jews and those who are of mixed heritage and do not want to claim a single ethnicity—have no real access to political power.

In Bosnia "ethnic rights" have preserved the power of the three majority ethnic groups, excluded minorities and non-nationalists from politics, and have undermined the state-building project. As a result of its institutional structure, Bosnia and Herzegovina confronts the three pitfalls associated with minority rights: 1) ethnic leaders mischaracterize the aspirations and interests of the group; 2) ethnic majorities co-opt the ‘special status' that is offered by minority rights, which runs counter to the principle of equal treatment under the law; and 3) ethnic groups threaten to disrupt the cohesion and stability of the country.

The institutional structure in Bosnia also contradicts international human rights norms. The Council of Europe's Venice Commission has ruled that Bosnia's constitutional structure does not meet the European standard for democracy and human rights protection, since it is inherently discriminatory. Moreover, the power vacuum at the highest levels of the Bosnian government is filled by the Office of the High Representative, an internationally-supported governing body designed to break inter-ethnic impasses and to help direct the country's progress. Efforts to close the office this year failed due to concerns that its disappearance would also mean the end of a united Bosnia. Nevertheless the OHR will certainly need to go if Bosnia hopes to enter the European Union, which requires countries to be sovereign democracies prior to accession. This will not be an easy task, given that both the OHR and the country's labyrinthian institutional structures have become entrenched in Bosnia.

Bosnian politics and institutions
The underlying logic of the Biden-Gelb plan might be characterized as integration through separation: separating warring parties and binding them to one governing system by paradoxically enshrining their autonomy—a realist's prescription for a liberal outcome. Its premise is that institutional division acknowledges the reality and creates a realistic basis for an integrated, federal system. Once protected from each other and secure in their self-rule, parties will cooperate to a degree consistent with a minimally acceptable level of state cohesion, insofar as economic incentives and punitive threats by international overseers compel them and surrounding countries to maintain a hands-off posture.

In the Biden-Gelb plan, Bosnia is trotted out as an illustrative example in the following passage:

Ten years ago, Bosnia was being torn apart by ethnic cleansing. The United States stepped in decisively with the Dayton Accords to keep the country whole by, paradoxically, dividing it into ethnic federations...with the help of U.S. troops and others, Bosnians have lived a decade in peace. Now, they are strengthening their central government, and disbanding their separate armies.

The statement is slightly erroneous, because Dayton did not make Bosnia a constitutional federation-ethnic or otherwise. The two assymetrical entities, Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, enjoy autonomy, but they do not have federal status insofar as having the right to secession.

The depiction is correct in noting Dayton's paradoxical political logic of integration through separation. But the institutional separation of the ethnic groups in the end did not bring about integration but, as might have been expected, further political separation. From a political perspective, Dayton has not produced a viable institutional framework to forge a unified state based on ethnic autonomy. Indeed, there is an uneasy sense that nearly 12 years after Dayton, Bosnia is de facto separating into ethnic parts, and the prospect of creating a country sufficiently integrated politically, socially and economically is fading.

Political will, or the lack thereof, to build a common state, is the largest factor detracting from Bosnia's stability. Governing structures are also responsible. Bosnia is lodged in a fiscally-draining maze of cantonal governments and legislatures in the Federation entity. The power centers of government are found at the RS and Federation entity levels, while at the state level, government structures are buttressed by international institutions, the OHR in particular. Dayton's decentralized power structures, made in deference to "ethnic rights" of the kind suggested by Biden-Gelb, have undermined good government, which has in turn impeded the state government from cohering.

Political representation and voting, the principal means of citizen-government connection, also reinforces separation based on ethnicity. Dayton set up frequent elections in the late 1990s with brief governing mandates. This was presumably meant to allow an electorate, reeling from devastating personal loss and easily swayed by nationalist rhetoric, to vote nationalist, get it out of its system, and then cycle those politicians out once it became clear that they could not guide economic recovery, government restructuring or social stabilization. Bosnia's first post-war elections came less than a year after Dayton was signed. As expected the electorate favored the nationalists. Parties that might have charted a more conciliatory, progressive course, such as the Social Democratic Party, were not ready to compete, nor was the population ready to hear its message.

Four years later, more people were in a position to favor progressives, and moderates won power in Sarajevo, though not in Banja Luka. Political infighting within an unwieldy coalition of a dozen or so parties, coupled with a two-year mandate, upended the moderate government. A new four-year mandate was instituted for the 2002 elections, in time for the nationalists to retake government by arguing that the moderates were unable to govern.

After those elections, the country effectively froze for four years. Nationalists fortified communitarian division by building fiefdoms, gorging on international subsidies and inveighing against those with the temerity to suggest that Bosnia needed to rethink ethnic-based politics. The OHR struggled to "enforce progress," nowhere more frustratingly than in Mostar, where the goal to re-unify as a municipality was made impossible by Bosniak and Croatian politicians, who were unwilling to compromise and ready to call the international community's bluff.

The presidency is a rotating tripartite—Bosniak, Croat and Serb—and ethnically determined. A resident of Republika Srpska, may only vote for the Serbian member of the presidency—regardless of her ethnicity or candidate preference. Likewise, Federation voters can only vote for candidates in the Croatian or Bosniak slots, respectively. This gives rise to concerns over diminished voter rights of full expression in denying voters choices merely based on geographic residence.

The 2000 Constitutional Court decision on constituent peoples in this respect is interesting. The Court struck down provisions of the entity constitutions that did not confer, as does the state constitution (annex to Dayton), equal status among Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats. The ruling equalized formal ethnic representation in government structures, refining Dayton but also challenging its logic of protective ethnic political enclaves. At the same time, it in effect validated ethnicity above all else as the definitional component of personal identity, political representation and government configuration. Interestingly, it left those who do not self-identify as any of the three ethnicities without equal constitutional validation or protection.

Despite these obstacles, several important goals have been met in Bosnia. Freedom of movement grew with the adoption of unified license plates and integrated transport, even if the impetus for those decisions came from the OHR. That, along with the Constitutional Court's decision, provided a foundation for—if not the full realization of—minority returns, fostering hope for a reintegrated Bosnia. Governing institutions came into being, civil society generated, and regime change in Serbia and Croatia created more favorable regional conditions to promote Bosnia's political unification.

As the country headed toward new elections in 2006, there was hope that political horizons would expand to permit constitutional changes that would empower the central government. The international community took up the cause in 2005, pushing for reforms which included shifting the rotating presidency to a president/deputy president model, mitigating the use of the vital interest veto, reducing entity bloc voting, and providing the state government in Sarajevo with negotiating authority on NATO and EU membership. The reforms were seen as vital, and Bosnia's parties publicly pledged their support.

But by April 2006, the reform package was voted down by a narrow margin in Parliament. On the surface, lack of party discipline was to blame. More fundamentally, however, the reforms were negotiated between internationals and political leaders, with little real public consultation or outreach, and hence no political consequence if the package failed. This was an international initiative trying to ‘graft' itself onto Bosnia, rather than a home-grown and durable political effort. Second, the timing was bad. With elections on the horizon, nationalist parties were ready to sacrifice constitutional reform to win votes: the Bosniaks opposed the constitutional reform because it would allow the RS to continue to exist; the Serbs because it sacrificed RS self-rule to the state; and the Croats because they failed to get their own entity.

Once again, the 2006 general elections awarded nationalists, as internal and external events (such as constitutional reform, Milosevic's death, and Montenegro's independence referendum) sent poll numbers up for parties campaigning on separation rather than integration. The post-election period has seen harsher rhetoric and more polarization between the two leading politicians, Milorad Dodik and Haris Siladzjic. Political debate is now focused on the RS's right to exist, an immoral product of genocide in the eyes of many Bosniaks, while, in the eyes of most Serbs, the RS is a politically unified and increasingly economically viable entity underwritten by Dayton. Moreover, the impasse over Kosovo's status and related resurgent nationalism in Serbia, coupled with persistent ethnic divides in Macedonia and Montenegro, are creating a political shearing effect in Bosnia.

Integration through separation?
The International Republican Institute's polling programs in Bosnia point to some of the growing gulfs between Bosnia's ethnic groups, fueled by economic as well as by political and constitutional problems. Data presented here was collected from polls conducted in June (June 12-21, 2007) and March (March 6-5, 2007). These polls were organized by a private, reputable, independent public opinion firm in Bosnia, with the results reviewed and analyzed by an American pollster who has long experience in the Balkans. The IRI polls are conducted in face-to-face interviews, because many Bosnians do not have fixed line telephones. The sample for the March poll is 1,550 respondents; for June, 1250 respondents.

We begin with a common benchmark question: overall, is the country moving in the right or wrong direction and why? By a rough margin of two-to-one, we see that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. In IRI's June 2007 poll, 61 percent said things were getting worse, while just 29 percent said things were improving. These numbers have been steady over time and are actually quite typical for countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

When we ask respondents why things are getting worse, unemployment is by far the leading reason, with corruption a distant second. Among those saying the country was headed in the wrong direction, 31 percent of respondents cited unemployment and 8 percent stated that corruption were the main reasons. Fewer than 3 percent of those we surveyed said constitutional issues were the reason they believed things were headed in the wrong direction.

While pessimism prevails, there are some interesting differences when we look at the two entities. When we asked citizens to state whether things in the Federation and the Republika Srpska were heading in the right or wrong direction, we see a split. Among those in the Federation, 71 percent said the Federation was heading in the wrong direction, versus just 20 percent who said things were headed in the right direction. By contrast, a far smaller percentage in the Republika Srpska was pessimistic. In the RS, 53 percent said things were getting worse, while 28 percent said things were getting better and thought that the RS was headed in the right direction.

Citizens in both the Federation and RS agreed that political relations and the economic situation in the country were getting worse last June. Fifty-four percent of those in the Federation and 55 percent in the RS said political relations were getting worse. There was a slight gap on how the two entities assessed the economic situation, reflecting on the recent economic progress in the RS. Just over half (52 percent) in the Federation said the economic situation was getting worse, while only 43 percent felt that way in the RS.

There were sharp differences in how citizens in BiH assess various political leaders. Simply put, there are no prominent politicians who enjoy favorable opinions across the three ethnic communities. Each group rates politicians of their ethnic group highly and those of the other communities poorly.

IRI's public opinion research provides some insight into the troublesome issue of constitutional reforms as well. On the constitution, the polls document both ignorance and indifference. When respondents were asked about support for the 2006 constitutional reform package, roughly equal numbers support (30 percent), oppose (34 percent), or do not know enough to have an opinion (35 percent). Simply put, there is no groundswell for reforms.

There are some intriguing differences between the entities, however. Support for the failed 2006 reform package is slightly higher in the RS at 35 percent, than in the Federation at 25 percent. Yet, more citizens of the Federation (63 percent) than of the RS (35 percent) believed that constitutional reforms were a major precondition for implementing other major economic and political reforms. Only a quarter (25 percent) in the Federation thought major economic and political reforms were possible without constitutional reform, while 44 percent in the RS thought other reforms could succeed without constitutional changes. This derives from the fact that the Dodik government in the RS has moved forward aggressively on a number of reforms since the 2006 elections.

There was also a split on the question of whether constitutional reforms should be imposed on BiH. More than half (54 percent) in the Federation versus just 19 percent in the RS agreed with the statement that constitutional reforms should be adopted rapidly, even if it means they must be imposed if politicians are unable to reach an agreement. By contrast, 58 percent in the RS and just 15 percent in the Federation agreed with the statement that constitutional reforms should be adopted slowly and naturally, as long as it takes for politicians to reach an agreement.

Finally, agreement is developing from both the Federation and the RS on what should be the top priorities for the state and entity governments. More than 70 percent in both entities say that economic development and job creation should be the number one priority, with fighting organized crime and corruption a distant second at nine percent. On this question, at least, there is significant agreement between the two entities.

More than a decade after Dayton
So with that background, let us turn to the question at hand: Is Bosnia and Herzegovina a plausible model for Iraq, or indeed anywhere else? Primarily, Dayton ended the carnage and bloodshed. However inelegant and messy, the recognition of the RS and the Federation as the component entities has brought stability. And, however slow or imperfect, The Hague has brought at least some measure of justice for those who were wronged. For this and much more, the architects of Dayton deserve considerable credit.

There has clearly been measured progress in a number of areas. The establishment of a state-level intelligence service, a unifying army, and a unified border and customs authority are important and hard won benchmarks. The central bank has provided monetary stability, though hoped for economic gains have been slow to realize. Many refugees have returned home and the overwhelming majority of property issues have been resolved.

But the status that Bosnia enjoys is in reality more stasis than stability. More than a decade after Dayton, the country remains in a semi-colonial status with a significant, though lighter, international military and administrative presence. The early hope that Dayton could foster reconciliation between ethnic groups has been largely forgotten now. The central government remains extraordinarily weak and earns little loyalty or admiration from the citizens. Its powers are doubly limited by the Dayton Agreement and, perhaps more importantly, by the desires of the various ethnic factions. This has been the real flaw of Dayton, a flaw that is now recognized by many. The structure of the state provides little incentive for national progress or a national interest. Especially in the RS since the last elections, the center of power remains at the entity level.

In some sense, the ethnic cleansing that ravaged Bosnia is already well underway in Iraq. Kurdistan has now enjoyed considerable autonomy for more than a decade. Sunni and Shia Arabs are increasingly separating themselves, hunkering down in ethnically pure neighborhoods. Baghdad is increasingly becoming a monolithically Shia city, with the Sunni escaping to cloistered neighborhoods, much as Sarajevo's few remaining Serbs have done. If separation is inevitable, there may be some lessons to learn from Bosnia which may help Iraq avoid some of its pitfalls:

Institutionally, a careful balance must be created between the center and constituent parts of government for federalism to work. A central government with at least some significant powers is essential, something which Bosnia lacks. In terms of the electoral structure, while people need elections in postconflict environments, it is important to have certain frameworks in place, and give moderate political forces a chance to cohere and organize. This probably means waiting as much as a year or so before holding elections. Finally, shared economic interests are needed to compel political cooperation between ethnic regions, and creating institutions in a way that they can cooperate in this regard would be critical to the success of a federated state.

If ethnic cleansing is permanent and people cannot return to their former homes in places where they constitute an ethnic minority, there will be little basis for social and economic integration. In this situation, separation tends to breed more separation. In Bosnia, the verdict is still out on just how much resettlement has effectively reversed ethnic cleansing.

International events cannot be ignored. The region also needs to be stable and favorable to state cohesion. Southeast Europe was headed that way earlier in the decade, principally after Milosevic was voted out of power, but prolonged political conflict over Kosovo, the inability to arrest Karadzjic and Mladic, Montenegro's referendum to split from Serbia, among other events, have led to a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in Bosnia.

Finally, it is necessary for there to be room in an ethnically fractured state for non-ethnically defined political groups-such as those defined by mutual social or economic or political interest-to coalesce. We in the international community are guilty of routinely defaulting to ethnicity as the determining factor in Bosnian politics, when, in fact, civic leaders, political activists, members of parliament, and ordinary citizens will walk across entity boundaries, party divisions, ethnic lines, to cooperate. It's not easy. Large majorities look to the state as a paternalistic actor. But Bosnians are taking steps to take ownership of government, rather than the other way around. When they do, that is when political will comes forward, and that is when constitutional reform can happen, not because it is sold only as a step toward the EU, but also because it will make government work.

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