“Bosnia must seize this historic opportunity” claimed Angelina Eichhorst, Director of the European Union External Action Service, in her statement while speaking to the press at the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Indeed, against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US and EU have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to gather local actors in order to agree on a reform for BiH’s election law.
The election law – according to European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruling – must ensure equal treatment of all BiH citizens, not just members of the three constituent peoples, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, in order to be eligible to run for the presidency.
However, the EU’s and US’ proposed version of election law reform is anti-democratic because it offers solutions based on ethnic prefixes, not civil-citizen ones. This solution is not in line with the ECHR ruling, and its content would only distance BiH from the circle of modern European democracies. Such a development also plays against the Euro-Atlantic interests in the Balkans and would further strengthen Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proxy actors in the region by forcing improvised solutions for election law reforms.
After three failed negotiation rounds in BiH, the plan is to move them to Brussels for a final push. However, shifting the stage to Brussels with the support of the EU and US would further partition BiH, indefinitely close its Euro-Atlantic path, and threaten the already fragile peace and security in the Balkans.
Two axes of defense
Bosnian actors have been engaged in a tiresome political battle over the last couple of years. Besides fighting off Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik’s attempts of secession of the Republika Srpska (RS) — Bosnia’s Serb-dominated autonomous entity — it has also been under attack by Bosnian Croats. Leading the charge is Dragan Covic, the former Croat member of the country’s tripartite presidency and head of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH). Covic and Dodik have both been in service as main Kremlin allies and are supported by Russia.
While the international community has tried to deal with RS’ assault on state institutions, Covic has used this opportunity to push for an election law reform that would give more value to the votes of Croats from areas exclusively governed by HDZ BiH. The proposed asymmetric, electoral model assigns disproportionate value to Croats from different areas of living, rewards nationalist agendas, and produces discrimination and disenfranchisement by gerrymandering ethnically clean political units.
Covic’s solution aims to deliver a power monopoly to a party (HDZ BiH) that has failed to win over more than one in five Croat votes in BiH. It is also an effort that would leverage the Russian position for further destabilization efforts in the country.
Russian support for election law division
Russia’s role in BiH is well known. It seeks to keep Bosnia out of NATO and the EU. To do so, it has used partners, such as Dodik, to continuously impair the will to build a proper independent statehood, and has been rather successful at it.
However, in the past decade in BiH, it has produced an additional ally: Covic, whose growing entanglement with the Kremlin should leave no surprise that Russia supports HDZ BiH’s position on the election law. In return, Covic has been an active defender of Russian interests,meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Valentina Matviyenko, establishing joint support for election law reforms, stressing – as he once said – “the need for more Russian influence in BiH”, and recently voting against imposing sanctions on the Russian government for the invasion of Ukraine alongside Dodik.
For Russia, the rationale is clear. Because the proposed election law reforms are based on establishing further ethnic fragmentation, the HDZ BiH’s proposition — if adopted — would create an institutional framework of segregation. It would also monopolize decision-making in the hands of two Kremlin allies that would continuously paralyze any progress, rendering it impossible for Bosnia to meet the criteria necessary for its Euro-Atlantic integration. What it already has in RS, it would also now achieve in the rest of the country. Such a scenario offers a tool for Russia that can be used to outsource any kind of proxy threat to the stability of the Balkans and the wider continent.
What’s wrong with the EU’s and US’ response
Instead of thwarting all proposals that would lead to more divisions and instability in BiH, the EU and US have instead supported Covic. In doing so, they have employed officials to streamline the initiative and bully pro-democratic forces in BiH into accepting a reform of election law that would entrench the notion of “Constituent people”; further dividing the country along ethnic lines. While “Constituent people” are a constitutional category within the Dayton system, they are at the same time against the ECHR’s verdict in the case of Zornic vs BiH – and require to be abolished if BiH were to become an EU member.
Furthermore, the EU itself is divided on the issue. Just days after the EU Strategic Compass was adopted — with the terminology “Constituent peoples” in it at Croatia’s insistence — a number of states have gone public against it – with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany calling it discriminatory.
Besides the EU, the US’ response has been perilous. The Dayton hubris has institutionalized perpetual instability, and supporting this reform would only entrench Russia in the Bosnian constitutional deadlock by exploiting the Kremlin’s two allies – Covic and Dodik. To kill the idea of a civic BiH – this American position has actually damaged US interests in Bosnia and beyond, making it unprepared to respond to growing attacks carried out by local actors supported by Russia.
Why this election law reform must fail
The tabled election law reforms are unacceptable for a number of reasons. In its essence, the content of the proposals contradicts the European Court of Human Rights’ judgements on BiH and what it aims to achieve – eliminating obstacles to a real political democracy within a democratic order. It would also permanently cement the division of the country based on ethno-national principle of ethnic clans, and would de factolegitimize an apartheid-like system.
But more so, in a watershed moment for Bosnia’s modern history, the forced reform is fundamentally discriminatory. It goes against the idea of a civic Bosnia and Herzegovina, based on norms centered around an individual citizen’s identity within a constitutional system. Such arrangements are ubiquitous in the culture and nature of democratic Europe and the US – one that cherishes the individual and cultivates universalist principles of equality based on the civic humanity of societal order. Bosnia must not be exception to this culture.
The Bosnian polity cannot but wonder why it is being forced to accept an agreement that would never be crafted as a solution in capitals across the EU or the US. These chains of political oppression through ethno-national segregation are bound to radicalization – and radicalization inevitably leads to conflict. Therefore, to insist on this would be immoral. It would lead to further fragmentation of the social fabric, devalues the Bosnian populis, and stifle human progress – moral, political, and material.
Straightening up priorities
Rather than pursuing this reform, the US and EU should abandon the practice of negotiating with autocrats and those who wish to dismantle twenty-six years of fragile peace. Achieving a “quick-fix” solution will only further erode the EU’s and US’ credibility whilst pushing BiH away from Euro-Atlantic norms.
Instead, the US and EU should refocus their priorities by dealing with the existential crises Bosnia faces. More so, the US should primarily work on devising a long-term plan on how to revise the Dayton Agreement, abolishing the principle of ethnic clans. It should offer an alternative rooted in the standards prevailing across many democratic societies in Europe and the United States.
In adopting a modern, civic-based constitution, international mediators have to include a citizens’ assembly that will gather prominent elites, academics, citizens, and civil society from all three sides, including credible legal and political authorities from international institutions. This would offer a forum for inclusive discussion and thorough debate. Undoubtedly, question of this nature should be put into a referendum, and the results of such a constitution would likely win more votes than the combined number of votes for all members of the presidency of BiH. If this happens, one must ask how can the international community ignore the will of Bosnian citizens? Finally, as a response to the Ukraine war, the US and EU should realize the strategic importance of keeping the Balkans safe and work on finding a credible and realistic path for BiH’s NATO membership.
Otherwise, the initiatives for election law reform based on the same principles of the last three negotiations rounds will ultimately fail and will continue to do so in the future. The pro-democratic forces stand ready for this. The upbringing of Bosnia’s new generations has been raised on the principles of liberal democracy and prosperity, and they insist on more freedom, not less. The compromised proposals by the ethno-oligarchy in Bosnia and Herzegovina do not offer a peaceful solution to this issue.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the NATO Defense College or NATO.