In Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to one of the world’s most complicated systems of governance and deeply divided among ethnic lines, Azra Zornic is confident that the country will sooner or later adopt a civic constitution with equal rights for all citizens.
The retired sociology professor defines herself as “a Bosnian citizen – exclusively – because that’s in line with what I am doing”.
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For the past 17 years, Zornic has been fighting for constitutional changes so that all Bosnian citizens have equal rights, regardless of ethnicity.
Her battle began in 2005 when she appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg after she was blocked from running for election to the House of Peoples, a chamber of the Bosnian parliament, because she did not identify with any of the accepted ethnicities stipulated in the current constitution: Bosniak, Croat or Serb.
Nine years later, the court ruled that the constitution was indeed discriminatory towards its citizens and ordered a civic constitution to be adopted. But Zornic is still waiting for the verdict to be implemented.
“It’s dealing with ethno-nationalist fascist political barriers,” Zornic told Al Jazeera.
She was the first Bosnian citizen to address the Strasbourg court and other Bosnians with the same problem followed suit including Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jew and Dervo Sejdic, a Bosnian Roma, after they were unable to run in the elections as their ethnicity belonged to the “Other” category.
Other complications are related to the country’s two entities, formed as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement signed in December 1995.
For instance, a Serb living in the Bosniak-Croat dominated Federation entity cannot run as a candidate in the elections for the tripartite presidency, and neither can a Bosniak or a Croat living in the Serb-run Republika Srpska entity.
Over the years, the Strasbourg court ruled Bosnia’s constitution to be discriminatory in five separate judgments, including in the Sejdic and Finci case in 2009.
Thirty years since the outbreak of the war and as the country faces its biggest post-war political and security crisis amid Bosnian Serb secession moves, Bosnians are addressing how they would like their country to be governed with increasing urgency.
‘A bandage for a bleeding wound’
The constitution, formed as part of the Dayton Accords and signed by then presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia – Alija Izetbegovic, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic respectively – formally ended the war in Bosnia, but was a “bandage for a bleeding wound”, Baroness Arminka Helic said in the British parliament in December.
“It stopped the conflict but it has locked Bosnia into a set of Kafkaesque institutional structures. Dayton Bosnia has three Presidents, 13 Prime Ministers, 14 Parliaments, 147 Ministers and 700 parliamentarians, divvied up according to ethnic quotas, all for a population of less than 3.2 million,” Helic said.
Dozens of civic organisations – including Bosnia’s Serb Civic Council, the Croat National Council, the Council of the Congress of Bosniak Intellectuals, and the Forum of Bosnia and Herzegovina Parliamentarians – set up an online petition in October calling for the constitution to be modelled on “civic principles” as it is in democracies worldwide.
The letter, which calls for the elimination of systematic discrimination and was signed by more than 60,000 people, was sent to the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the implementation of Dayton.
Changing the constitution is a legal obligation, it said, as the Dayton agreement was never meant to be a permanent solution.
“The existing ethno-national concept in Bosnia, which is particularly exemplified through the role of the houses of peoples at the level of Bosnia and the entities, is unsustainable,” the petition said.
“It also completely suppresses civil rights guaranteed by Bosnia’s existing constitution, leading to complete ethnic segregation.”
Entrenching ‘ethno-territorial oligarchy’
While some Bosnians hope to adopt a one-person, one-vote system as it is in much of the democratic world, political elites are pressing for other issues.
Negotiations to make changes to the electoral law have been taking place on and off for months between European Union and US officials and Bosnian leaders. The latest round of negotiations are currently under way in Sarajevo.
Dragan Covic, leader of the Croat nationalist party HDZ, and other nationalist Croat leaders have for years been pushing for electoral reforms, claiming they are not legitimately represented in the presidency.
But analysts have said the changes they are seeking would result in a de facto third Croat entity and “further entrench the country’s ethno-territorial oligarchy”.
If changes are not made to the electoral law, Bosnian Croat nationalists said they will launch their own political process to form their own region in Bosnia.
Stipe Prlic, president of the Croat National Council (HNV), one of the signatories of the online petition, told Al Jazeera that the situation “can’t ever depend on Covic or HDZ”.
“Here, one should simply adopt a concept that will be against separatism, unitarianism, and further ethnic changes,” Prlic said.
“A middle path should be taken to satisfy all people who live in Bosnia including minorities and for all to have the same rights – to elect and be elected. If there is a will, [the changes] can be made very quickly.”
Toby Vogel, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council initiative, told Bosnian daily Dnevni Avaz this week that “it’s mind-boggling that just as the West claims it wants to push back Russian influence in the Balkans, the EU is negotiating changes to the election law that would most benefit the local Kremlin clients,” namely Covic and the Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency, Milorad Dodik.
Many have also criticised the negotiations as lacking transparency for ordinary citizens as details of the talks have not been made public.
The minimum the EU and U.S. negotiators should do is to disclose the details BiH leaders are discussing – if not for transparency reasons, then out of respect for young generations who want to build their future in BiH.
We might be ruled by the nationalists, but we're not naive.
— Samir Beharić 🇺🇦 (@SamBeharic) March 18, 2022
In December, former High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling warned that US State Department official Matthew Palmer and his EU counterpart Angelina Eichhorst were trying to carry out electoral reform in a “very non-transparent” way and under pressure with elections coming up in October.
Schwarz-Schilling questioned why the electoral law issue has become a top priority amid Bosnia’s most serious crisis since the end of the war, with Dodik de facto calling for Republika Srpska’s secession.
He said changing the constitution and removing its discriminatory parts identified by the ECHR should be dealt with first.
Zornic agrees that the rulings from the ECHR need to be addressed first, not the electoral law – she called the negotiations a “tavern gathering”. The round of talks with ethno-nationalist parties held in the coastal city of Neum in late January was held “in the most expensive hotel… paid by us, taxpayers of this country”, she added.
“The laws of a country are not debated in taverns and hotels, rather in institutions … [electoral law reforms] can’t be accepted until it’s accepted in parliament,” Zornic said.
Political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic told Al Jazeera that initiatives for a one-person, one-vote system are “very important but they need to be directed at local and international policy makers, and also to take some stock of electoral realities”.
“Until the [Croat nationalist party] HDZ in particular suffers some electoral setbacks – which could happen this year with a decent turnout in the right parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina and strong diaspora voting – they’ll be able to obstruct any such processes.
“The key is not merely tp demand changes, but to work to create the conditions for realising them,” Mujanovic said.
Still Zornic says she is optimistic about the future.
“I’m sure we will have a civic constitution sooner or later, most likely after these elections in October,” Zornic said.
“How can people not understand? It’s a simple sentence – we are all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we all have equal rights – not just in the electoral process – but in all spheres of social life,” Zornic said.
“We all have to be equal, regardless of ethnicity, religion – any kind of affiliation.”