Political quotas and ethnic engineering in the Western Balkans

Measures implemented to protect vulnerable ethnic groups are increasingly abused in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The Bosnian town of Srebrenica held a re-run of local elections on February 21, 2021 [File: Reuters/Dado Ruvic]

Quotas are an imperfect yet often necessary means for societies to rectify the deficiencies of democratic processes, especially in ethnically or culturally pluralist countries.

In Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, quotas and other protections have been implemented to ensure that certain communities that may face discrimination in a post-conflict environment are guaranteed political representation in legislative and executive bodies.

In Kosovo, 20 out of the parliament’s 120 seats are allocated to minorities, including 10 for the Serbs and the rest for the Bosniaks, Egyptians, Roma, Ashkali, Turks and Gorani. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, where all political activity has an ethnic character, there are rigid quotas that ensure its three main ethnic groups – the Bosniaks, the Croats and the Serbs – are equally represented at every level.

On paper, it may sound like these quotas are a good way to safeguard minority and ethnic rights, but in practice, they are gravely abused, especially in countries where a certain level of suspicion and distrust exists between ethnic groups.

In reality, as two recent elections – in Kosovo and in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica – show, these quota systems may actually hurt the interests of the communities they are meant to protect.

Political rights and the Yugoslav wars

When talking about political safeguards for ethnic groups in the Western Balkans, it is important to point out that disputes over ethnic rights and representation were very much at the root of the wars that led to the dismemberment of the Yugoslav federation.

In 1974, Yugoslavia gave Kosovo autonomy within Serbia, which granted it almost the same status as the six republics within the Yugoslav federation. In 1989, amid growing national sentiment in Serbia, the authorities in Belgrade arrested leading ethnic Albanian politicians and intellectuals, installing figureheads in Kosovo’s provincial assembly.

Although ethnic Albanians held the majority of the seats in the local parliament, the intimidation tactics of the Serbian authorities were successful in pressuring them to vote in favour of the abrogation of Kosovo’s autonomy.

Today, many believe Serbian communist party leader Slobodan Milošević used this as a means to gain political support in the Yugoslav republic of Serbia. While Serb nationalists, who felt outvoted in their own country, saw the abrogation as a major victory, among Albanians, it was met with anger.

Protests erupted but they were violently quashed by the federal military forces. In the following years, resentment grew as Kosovo’s Albanians increasingly rejected the idea of the firm rule of Belgrade amid growing backsliding on Albanian cultural and political rights, including the curbing of Albanian-language media, education and free elections.

In 1998, an armed conflict in Kosovo broke out, which led to the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and the complete withdrawal of the Belgrade-controlled forces. Kosovo was then turned into Europe’s most high-profile United Nations protectorate. The UN was the formal executive, while the NATO-led international force, known as KFOR, served as its army.

In 2008, Kosovo announced its independence, thus resolving the problem with political representation for the Albanian majority (around 90 percent). It adopted a constitution, which was based on two UN documents: UN Resolution 1244, which established the protectorate as a replacement of Serbian rule, and the so-called Ahtisaari plan, prepared by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari to settle Kosovo’s status and protect the representation of its ethnic Serb minority.

Disagreement over political rights also triggered the conflict in Bosnia. Before the events of the 1990s, Bosnia prided itself on being the most diverse – and welcoming – republic in the socialist federation of Yugoslavia.

As Yugoslav unity started to crumble, however, Bosnia and Herzegovina started considering declaring independence. Bosniak leaders, as well as those who defied ethnic categorisation, became concerned about staying in a federation with an increasingly nationalistic Serbia.

In 1991, as the Bosnian parliament was preparing to vote on a declaration of independence, ethnic Serb MPs walked out in protest. Soon after, they created their own parastate, later called the Republika Srpska, and launched a war on the rest of Bosnia, backed by Serbia.

The Bosnian War ended in 1995 when an internationally mediated agreement was signed by the warring parties that established one of the world’s most rigidly ethnicised political systems. The Western officials who participated in the drafting of the Dayton Agreement may have pursued a noble cause, but the document they helped put together, which was adopted as Bosnia’s constitution, produced a dysfunctional state that maintains rather than resolves ethnic tensions.

It has solidified ethnic divisions by allocating positions on all levels of government along ethnic lines to supposedly maintain a balance between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats.

This has made political decision-making not only extremely complicated but has also provided fertile ground for the exploitation of ethnic divisions.

Kosovo’s parliamentary quotas

Kosovo’s constitution acknowledges the fact that Serbs and other minorities need protected representation in the new state.

When its parliament votes on any significant legislation or decision, the constitution requires that two-thirds of the Albanian MPs and two-thirds of the minority MPs vote in favour for it to pass. This provision was inserted to ensure that minorities have political agency and power.

But some have sought to abuse this provision. Over the years, Srpska Lista emerged as the dominant Serb party in Kosovo. Through its nationalist rhetoric and hefty financial backing from Belgrade, it has managed to create a political monopoly over Serb-majority areas.

The Srpska Lista usually gets all 10 seats allocated for the Serb minority. However, recently the party decided it does not want to limit its influence to the Serb quota and has tried to go after the Bosniak and Roma minority seats.

Ahead of the February elections, two minority parties were created – a Bosniak one called United Community and a Roma one called Romani Initiative. Bosniak and Roma leaders have alleged that both were backed by Srpska Lista, as evidenced by the high number of votes they received in Serb-majority districts.

United Community received one seat, Romani Initiative two. If Srpska Lista secures the support of these two parties, it would need one more seat to achieve a two-thirds majority among the minorities; currently, it is speculated that the party may be trying to co-opt an elected official from the Gorani community – a Slavic-speaking Muslim minority.

If this happens, Srpska Lista – and by extension Belgrade as well – will hold significant sway in Kosovo’s parliament all at the expense of the Bosniak, Roma and Gorani minorities, whose MPs may end up prioritising issues important to the Serb community.

This may enable the Serb party, which does not publicly recognise Kosovo’s independence, to block legislation aimed at solidifying the country’s sovereignty. As a result, Kosovo’s already fragile ethnic balance could be severely upset, especially since parts of the ethnic Albanian majority are already resentful that so much power is vested in the minority seats.

Bosnia’s multi-level quotas

The Bosnian quota system is similarly fraught with major flaws. They were on display as recently as February 21, when the municipality of Srebrenica – the main site of the 1995 Bosnian genocide – held a rerun of its local elections due to voting irregularities.

During the war, the municipality lost about 20,000 residents, most of them Bosniaks, as the community shrank from being three-quarters of the population to almost half.

Political control over Srebrenica, which is now part of the entity of Republika Srpska, has been of vital importance for Serb nationalist parties, which to this day deny that genocide ever took place and aim to minimise the influence of Bosniak post-war returnees.

In a bid to ensure the fair representation of Bosniaks, the country’s electoral law guarantees the right of those who lived in the municipality at the time of the 1991 census to vote in the local elections.

This provision, while not a typical quota, was designed to reverse the demographic consequences of the genocide and encourage Bosniaks who left to re-settle or actively participate in shaping Srebrenica’s future.

In November, when Bosnia held local elections, Mayor Mladen Grujičić won re-election in Srebrenica. In 2016, he became the first Bosnian Serb mayor to be elected in the municipality since 1999.

His re-election was riddled with problems, including ballot irregularities, demographic manipulation, and outright identity theft. In January, the Central Electoral Commission declared the results invalid and called for another vote.

Bosniak officials said that multiple registrations by Bosniak residents of Srebrenica to vote by mail from Serbia aroused their suspicion and they filed a complaint with the relevant authorities. These and other fraudulent actions were allegedly carried out to steal Bosniak votes and secure Grujičić’s victory.

When the Central Election Commission announced its decision to annul the election results, the reaction of the Bosnian Serb nationalists was to attack its legitimacy. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik specifically came after an ethnic Serb commission official, claiming she was not objective “because she used to be married to a Bosniak”.

Grujičić won in the rerun after the Bosniak community decided to boycott the election, feeling that the electoral commission had not done enough to address their complaints.

The way forward

In both Kosovo and Bosnia, this kind of ethnic engineering for political gain threatens to further erode the already weak foundations of electoral democracy. Continuing electoral games using ethnic quotas will only further solidify the public distrust in the electoral process.

In a post-conflict environment, stripping away a community’s political rights or marginalising their political presence creates a breeding ground for future ethnic tensions. To avoid this scenario, Kosovo and Bosnia need to act.

A one-person-one-vote system seems like the most logical solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina, combined with a thorough revision of voting lists.

Such measures would face immense resistance from the nationalist leaders of the three main ethnic groups who have held power for the past 25 years. A voting system overhaul may be difficult to implement but it would definitely lead to a more functional government and delegitimise those who continue to sow ethnic divisions.

In Kosovo, removing ethnic quotas would worsen the situation, as it would lead to little or no political representation for minorities in Parliament.

The solution would be to counter Belgrade’s influence and its insistence that participating in the political life of Kosovo – outside its political projects, like Srpska Lista – is a betrayal of the Serbian community.

There are independent-minded political leaders among Kosovo’s Serbs who want to be part of the parliament, but they and their electorates are constantly intimidated. Oliver Ivanović, the most prominent leader opposing Srpska Lista, was killed in 2018. More recently, the teenage son of a progressive Serb politician who was critical of Srpska Lista was brutally beaten up.

Albanians need to understand that it is in their interest to support and defend moderate Serb political voices and not just ignore the Serbian community and their grievances. Making this part of mainstream political views in Kosovo will also be difficult, but it is the only solution that will guarantee long-term stability.

Quotas and protections for ethnic groups are important for societies still facing divisions due to recent political or wartime upheaval. In the Balkans, these protections have been repeatedly abused and therefore, need to be urgently revised.

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