Why Bosnia is still not a democracy

It's time to look inside and find ways to "unfreeze" the current obstacles standing in the way of democratic governance.

Last Modified: 29 Apr 2013 13:49
Lana Pasic

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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The current political system had been challenged at the European Court in 2006 by Bosnian Roma activist Dervo Sejdic for being denied the right to run in the election for the House of Peoples based on his ethnic origin [AP]

Over the last couple of weeks, the European Union has decided to "freeze" the EU accession process for Bosnia, due to lack of commitment from the Bosnian leaders to reach an agreement over the constitutional reform and implementation of the Sejdic-Finci judgment. European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule emphasised that "there are no further deadlines".  

The flaws of the Bosnian constitution have been apparent since the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in 1995. Current constitutional arrangements reserve the highest political positions, including the Presidency, to three "constituent peoples" - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats - while the representatives of the 17 minority groups are excluded. The system had been challenged at the European Court of Human Rights in 2006 by Sejdic and Finci, members of Bosnian Roma and Jewish minorities, respectively, who were denied the right to run in the election for the House of Peoples based on their ethnic origin. 

In December 2009, the court ruled that the Bosnian constitution violates the European Convention on Human Rights and demanded an urgent reform, which is also a pre-condition for further EU negotiations. More than three years later, no progress has been made.

Since the judgment, political leaders in Bosnia have repeatedly failed to reach a consensus. And neither they nor the general public believe that agreement is possible. Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs Zlatko Lagumzija said, "I don't believe there is even a theoretical chance that seven political leaders can agree on the judgment." If the consensus cannot be made, what is next for Bosnia?

European quasi-protectorate

Since the days of Dayton, the international community has played an important role in the internal political process in Bosnia. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has used the Bonn Powers, granted to the institution, to reform and enforce a number of laws and regulations. In the current political stalemate, Bosnia once again turns outside to look for solutions to its internal issues.

Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs has asked his British counterpart William Hague to help the country in resolving the issue of the Sejdic-Finci judgment. Opposition political parties, such as Nasa Stranka, have also called for the international community to enforce the Sejdic-Finci ruling in the authoritarian manner.

International representatives in Bosnia have indeed not shied away from authoritarianism when all the deadlines given to the local politicians have passed. However, the pleas to the OHR, the EU and the US to help make decisions in the country, only weaken the already fragile democracy.

The usual justifications for international intervention in Bosnia have either been the lack of internal capacity or the lack of willingness to cooperate. The outstanding number of Bosnians living and excelling throughout the world has shown that we have the capacity - but the question is do we have the willingness? 

I don't believe there is even a theoretical chance that seven political leaders can agree on the judgment.

Zlatko Lagumzija , Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs

When it comes to the constitutional reform in Bosnia, nobody doubts the complexity of the task. However, the political parties in Bosnia simply lack the commitment to tackle the issue. During the past 18 years, no major political decision or reform has been made without the involvement of - or enforcement by - international representatives, giving no incentive to Bosnian politicians to cooperate with each other. They do not consider themselves accountable to the voters.

When the internal political crisis reaches its peak, Bosnia is used by foreign powers to enforce what they deem fit.

It is not only Bosnian politicians who feel that they are not up to the challenge - even the citizens feel the same. Besides for constitutional change, which would allow for the implementation of Sejdic-Finci case, the country needs to make a number of other decisions that are important for trade and economy. Since the population has no faith in the politicians' commitment to the cause, they are also calling for EU representatives to "sort it out".

Authoritarian enforcement of democratic principles?

As there is no political accountability, civil society in Bosnia no longer demands political action. Although majority of Bosnians want to see their country enter the EU, nobody has been called to resign over the deadlock. No protests took place. No open letters have been written. No democratic means have been utilised to demand political change. Nobody is thought to be responsible. Nobody accountable. 

Instead, we have turned our eyes to the West, asking for a solution. The issue with this kind of dependency on international intervention and authoritarian imposition of laws in Bosnia merely shows that there is no "exit strategy".

The international community drafted a constitution, imposed laws and disqualified election candidates, with the goal of supporting, supervising and eventually controlling the development of democratic governance. But, democracy is not enforceable.

Development of true democratic processes, in which people place demands on their political representatives and hold them accountable for both successes and failures, is a gradual process. It cannot be imposed from the outside and no law can enforce the democratisation of society. Conducting multi-party elections every two years, with a voter turnout barely topping 50 percent, does not qualify for democratic governance and will not stimulate the political elite to become more responsive.   

The issue is not that the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are undemocratic by nature or that we, because of the communist past, prefer authoritarian rule. The problem is that we have become too used to waiting for others to make the decisions and shape our internal political process from the outside. The institutional and political settings - through institutions such as the OHR - have aided this process of "un-democratising" Bosnia. So, to a certain extent, the constitutional and dependency issues have been shaped from the outside.

However, instead of blaming the international actors, it is time to look inside, at our political leaders and civil society and find ways to "unfreeze" the current obstacles standing in the country's way of, not only the EU integration, but more importantly, accountable, responsive and democratic governance.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is currently studying for a Masters degree at Oxford University.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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