November 03, 2017
Toma

FROM Spain to Ukraine, and from Scotland to northern Italy, regional issues threaten the make-up of European states. Similar expectations persist regarding Bosnia. Ever since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995, foreign politicians, journalists and analysts have warned about the country’s seemingly imminent implosion. Years after ending his stint as “High Representative” for Bosnia between 2002 and 2006, Paddy Ashdown spoke of his fears that the country was moving towards separation. But this has not happened. Even as the future of other European countries is put in doubt, Bosnia plods on. Why has it not collapsed?

The war pitted Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups—Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims)—against one another. The country had imploded after the collapse of Yugoslavia, and Serbia and Croatia strove to include it in their plans for, respectively, a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. The communities now live more separately than they did before the war, but at an individual level people still rub along. The peace agreement that signalled the war’s end was accompanied by complex formulas about how the country would be run. As a result, the national presidency is shared between a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak (pictured above), who take turns serving as its chairman every eight months. Modern Bosnia is made up of two ethnically based “entities”, which both have governments and presidents, plus Brcko, an autonomous town. One entity is the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the other is the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats. The Federation consists of ten cantons, each with its own prime minister. All this is ridiculous, say critics. But such complications are hardly unique to Bosnia. The United Kingdom, after all, has four entities, three regional parliaments and a head of state who must be a member of the Church of England. Power in Bosnia lies with the entities and the cantons, not the national government—but something similar happens in Switzerland. Focusing on performances, rather than job titles, reveals the country’s strengths. Bosnia may have five presidents and myriad prime ministers, but its elections see a constant churn of parties and coalitions taking power.

Even though governance in Bosnia can be dysfunctional, fears of a return to violence have a pacifying effect. The president of Republika Srpska has been threatening for years to hold what would be an illegal referendum on independence. But worried, perhaps, by the potential for strife and by the absence of support from abroad, he has held back. Bosnians have always managed to put their differences aside to form governments at all levels, whereas there have been none in Northern Ireland since January. Bosnians tend to be far more flexible than outsiders give them credit for. (The government of the Republika Srpska has several Bosniaks and Croats in it, working with the president’s Serb nationalist party, which is committed to a referendum.)

The system puts an emphasis on consensus. Formally or informally, governments in Bosnia need partners, who will often come from different ethnic groups. But Bosnia has struggled to throw off an old reputation. Gerald Knaus, the head of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a Berlin-based think-tank, rejects the “clichés that Bosnia is uniquely dysfunctional and that Bosnians are irrationally obsessed with ethnicity in a way that you don’t find anywhere else in Europe.” He blames these clichés, in part, for the country’s plight: the EU (to which Bosnia has applied for candidate status) and outsiders set conditions for the country which, when they cannot fulfil them, “are taken as evidence that Bosnia is uniquely dysfunctional”. In the past, for example, the EU has demanded constitutional reform. But the Bosnians have proved unable to do this, and it ends up dragging the country ever further behind its neighbours. “It is,” says Mr Knaus, “a vicious circle.”

 

Source: TheEconomist