UN envoy vows to break Bosnia’s political deadlock ahead of elections
Bosnia’s UN-appointed supervisor has pledged to break a four-year political stalemate that has weakened governance in the Balkan country, as he seeks to preserve its fragile stability and limit the Russian influence.
Speaking ahead of Sunday’s general election, Christian Schmidt, a German diplomat who is high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said he had resisted changing election rules ahead of the vote in a way that would have provoked anger of the largest of the country’s three ethnic groups.
Instead, he proposed post-election reforms to the country’s constitutional system, one of the most complex in the world, with changes aimed at unblocking paralysis and finding a more representative political balance.
The constitution, designed as part of the 1995 Dayton peace accord that formally ended Bosnia’s three-and-a-half-year war, aims to prevent large ethnic groups from dominating smaller ones. But it also leads to frequent obstructions and dysfunctions in government as veto powers are used and abused.
“We will give the fundamental right of decision to the people,” Schmidt told the Financial Times. “What I focus on is not direct elections as they are. . . but what comes next.
“Over the past four years, we have witnessed a blockade [of the functions of the Bosnian government]. Unlocking the structures is my job, I will do it. I have not forgotten that it is a necessity.
Bosnia is made up of two entities: the larger Federation composed mainly of Bosnian Muslims and Croat Catholics, and a smaller Republic of Serbia. Orthodox Serbs make up about a third of the country’s total population.
Schmidt proposed this year to reduce the electoral influence of Bosniaks, who outnumber Croats three times in the Federation. But some Bosnians see this as unfair, citing memories of ethnic strife that led to war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Specifically, Schmidt wanted to compel Bosnians to stop abusing the complexity of the electoral system by sending Bosnian candidates to fill seats that were part of the Croatian quota. He also wants guarantees that the Croats are not obstructing the government as they have done in response.
Bosniaks, led by Bakir Izetbegović’s Democratic Action Party, rejected the proposal, while the main Croatian party HDZ welcomed it and said it would boycott the government without the changes. Schmidt could revive the proposals in an effort to rebalance Bosnian politics.
Voters will elect five different institutions on Sunday: the country’s three-party presidency, the state parliament in the capital Sarajevo, the lower houses of the two entity assemblies, the President of the Republic of Serbia and the regional assemblies within the Federation. The representatives thus chosen will in turn elect several other institutions.
Beyond ethnic divides, political shenanigans also complicate the situation. Seat poaching has helped the main Bosnian party strengthen its position in the Federation, while the HDZ dominates the Croatian vote even as it blocked the appointment of the Federation government, leading to interim administrations and to widespread state dysfunction.
The political standoff comes just as Bosnia’s integrity is being openly questioned by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, widely seen as a Russian proxy in the Balkans. Dodik’s idea of splitting off from Bosnia to join neighboring Serbia has undermined regional stability, analysts say.
“In the uncertainty created by Russia’s war in Ukraine [there is] fear that a disputed election could trigger a major crisis in Bosnia,” the International Crisis Group wrote this week. “Antagonism between Bosniaks and Croats could erode the country’s ability to survive a separatist challenge from Serbs.”
In the absence of Schmidt’s electoral rules, the Croats could lose significant control in the Federation. Analysts fear this will lead them to reject the election results, which could prompt Dodik to do the same, leading to major imbalances in the structure of the Bosnian state.
“This could well be one of those ‘to be or not to be’ moments for Bosnia,” said Srecko Latal, editor-in-chief of Balkan Insight. “If Croats are excluded from Federation politics, it would be the end of Dayton as we know it.”
Western governments fear that even the threat of secession will destabilize the region, thereby serving Russian interests. Dodik has traveled to Moscow twice to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the past three months, and the US State Department has identified his government as a recipient of Russian influence payments.
But Majda Ruge, an expert on the region at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia’s ability to assert its goals in Bosnia should not be overstated given Moscow’s limited economic influence. “This ability rests primarily on the fact that its objectives overlap with those of its proxies in Bosnia,” she wrote last week.
“Russia has always acted as a spoiler in Bosnia at low cost. And it seems unlikely that she will change her approach at a time when the Russian economy is under severe pressure.
A complex state structure and lack of reliable data made the outcome of Sunday’s vote difficult to predict, experts said. The status quo is contested by several parties, including an anti-corruption group called the Troika.
Political tensions have eclipsed other priorities for Bosnia such as cleaning up endemic corruption, ending the country’s deep economic dysfunction and setting a course for eventual EU integration.