It is for good reason that Bosnians recently launched the fiercest political demonstrations since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995. The swelling of hatred toward the country’s privileged political elites is easy to understand: For two decades, these elites have presided over economic misery and abject government while living large off of state budgets. In a country where unemployment hovers at 45 percent, they have siphoned off money in myriad ways, including bloated salaries, inflated state contracts, corrupt privatization deals, and assets stripped from idle factories.
The Dayton agreement has helped Bosnian political elites maintain this predatory arrangement. By setting up complicated institutions at many levels of government, overlaid with international supervision, the agreement ended the Bosnian war, but it also made it easy for Bosnian leaders to escape responsibility for governing badly. There is now a perverse mix of antagonism and collusion among the politicians representing Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups. During the war, Bosnian Serbs as well as Bosnian Croats launched a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), who also committed war crimes against Serbs and Croats, though on a far lesser scale. Today, politicians representing all three ethnic groups enjoy the institutional spoils of Dayton -- and cooperate fully in preserving the status quo that allows them to steal from the public.
As a result, politics in Bosnia have been reduced to mono-ethnic campaign platforms for the cameras, and deals among party leaders in the backroom. Parties are run like authoritarian fiefdoms, serving the personal agendas of party leaders. Meanwhile, politicians on all sides cynically perpetuate and exploit war traumas to legitimize power struggles over state institutions and deflect attention from economic hardship and bad government. This is why the protests and the subsequent citizen plenums have eschewed ethnic appeals or demands, to the confusion of many international observers. Bosnia’s angry citizens are not siding with one ethno-nationalist political party against another; they are disgusted with all of them.
Although it is wrong to view Bosnian politics only through an ethnic lens, it is also too simple to blame Bosnia’s political morass on the Dayton institutions and years of international supervision. Many states across eastern and southern Europe, with all kinds of different and unsupervised institutions, also serve as playgrounds for elites that prey on the state.
Bosnia’s institutions, however, make change very difficult. Brokered by the United States among the wartime leaders of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, the Dayton agreement established two “entities” in Bosnia. One entity is called Republika Srpska (RS) and is run by Bosnian Serbs. It includes many towns and villages, including Srebrenica, that were ethnically cleansed of Bosniaks during the war. The other is called the Federation, and it unites mainly Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in a labyrinthian political system with 11 parliaments and cabinets of ministers -- one at the Federation level and ten more at the cantonal level.
There is also the central state-level government that connects the RS and the Federation. The RS, under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, blocks any attempt to strengthen this overarching level of government and consistently calls for an independent RS or for confederation with Serbia. The Federation is split between Bosniaks, who want the government on the state level to be much stronger in order to weaken the RS, and Bosnian Croats, who would vastly prefer their own entity but see the Federation’s cantons as at least safeguarding their interests. The protests and citizen plenums have so far taken place mainly in the Federation, in part because it is the Federation’s cantonal system that has fed such a large political class and in part because Dodik has kept a tighter lid on public discourse by portraying the protests as a threat to the RS.
After years of passivity, Bosnians are trying to bring their politicians to heel. Citizen plenums are formulating demands for better governance and greater economic justice -- and some cantons have already accepted demands to curb certain perks of government officials. One participant, the University of Sarajevo professor Asim Mujkić, observes that Bosnians “have shown that they are maturing as democratic citizens, that they are becoming subjects of change and are no longer the simple objects of the sadism directed at them by the party oligarchies.” They deserve the support of the international community, as called for in an open letter by scholars and intellectuals of the region.
Sadly, the status quo is likely to prevail. There are three reasons why this is the case. First, the protestors in the Federation are not supporting an alternative political party. As things stand, they cannot “throw out the bums” because there is no one else for them to elect. It is political parties and not civic initiatives that stand in elections, that form governments, and that pass legislation. In democratic politics, grass-roots movements are always appropriated or outmaneuvered by political parties. This has been the experience for countless other civic initiatives across the post-communist region, most recently in Bulgaria. If Bosnia is to change, newly politically active individuals need to find a way to form new parties -- or take over existing ones. This will not be easy, because the public sector created by Dayton is enormous and political parties directly control a large number of jobs. As a result, many voters are themselves invested in the status quo.
Second, any major reform of the Dayton institutions is easily (and often correctly) portrayed in Bosnia in ethnic terms, as a push to transfer power away from either the RS or the Bosnian Croats within the Federation. Fundamental interests based on ethnic identity remain -- and so do the payoffs of structuring party competition around ethnic appeals. In the past, even when political turnover has taken place, the new ruling parties have taken up ethno-nationalist appeals (as well as intimidation and theft) with the same zeal as their predecessors. Indeed, the two most powerful political parties in Bosnia today -- the mainly Bosniak Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by Zlatko Lagumdžija, and the Bosnian Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, under Dodik -- were once the less nationalist, reform-oriented new parties that elicited the strong support and high hopes of the international community.