Small steps and (not so) great expectations. Notes from the Vienna Summit

This post was first published on the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog

The Viennese Hofburg makes for a grand setting for any summit. When Western Balkan governments met with EU officials and representative from some EU member states, most notably Germany and Austria, but also Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, the planned signal was to show that EU enlargement is alive, as is regional cooperation. In comparison to the first such summit last year in Berlin, the Vienna summit comes after a host of regional meetings that some have joked that the prime ministers of the region see each other more often than their own ministers. Regional cooperation has picked up steam, even if EU enlargement remains no closer for most of the region than a year ago. It is undeniable, however, that there is a slightly renewed dynamism. The refugee crisis might have dominated reporting and the official discussion, it also highlights the absurdity of the Western Balkans being outside the EU. We are witnessing tens of thousands of refugees crossing an EU and Schengen country to escape through two non-EU countries—Macedonia and Serbia—to get to another Schengen country—Hungary—that is building a fence like the one it dismantled at its Western border 26 years ago. The summit was unable to offer more than symbolic support to the countries where thousands of refugees are stranded in their parks and train stations.

The issue of refugees—mislabeled as migrants—overshadowed the summit, but as with any such summit, the key decisions and substances are taken in the weeks and months before. Thus the refugee crisis and the horrific death of some 70 refugees some 50 kilometers from the Hofburg on a highway overshadowed the summit, but did not drown it out.

The governments of the Western Balkans seemed mostly interested in infrastructure and money. The message was mixed as Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he did not consider the EU to be an ATM—discoving values to praise Serbia’s treatment of refugees in contrast to some EU members—Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama rather suggested that it is money from the EU he is after. Either way, both Prime Minsiters emphasised the need to support infrastructure.

There is little doubt that regional infrastructure is in need of updrading and joint projects, such as a highway linking Albanian, Kosovo and Serbia, can have a great impact. The risk is that the physical infrastructure overshadows other forms of cooperation. Here, lengthy preparation have yielded two encouraging results at the Vienna summit. The governments signed an agreement to establish a regional youth exchange system based on the German-French youth office. By next year’s summit in Paris there should be a treaty and structure ready for the formal establishment. Whith the involvements of youth ministries, committment for European and government funding, this project holds some promise for enhaning cooperation of citizens. Key will be not to crowd out already existing youth exchanges and cooperation.

Similarly the summit was unusual as civil society was involvement for the first time in such an event. Over 50 representative from regional NGOs, media, trade unions and civic activitsts meet on the eve of the conference and presented recommendations on job creation, mediea freedom and regional cooperation at the summit itself (BiEPAG and I were involved in the preperation of these events which were supported by the Erste Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and the Karl-Renner-Foundation). The involvement of civil society was challenging as politicial leaders in the region are still not used to talking to civil society at eye level and civil society has come under pressure in several countries, such as Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia. Not a single summit can change this dynamic, but at least the involvement of civil society by the Austrian Foreign ministry sent the signal that they should not be ignored.

Another important signal was the signing of a declaration on biltareral issues (BiEPAG prepared a study on bilateral issues for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and drafted the declaration). In the declaration, the Foreign Ministers committed themselves not to let bilateral issues stop the European initgration process of other countries in the region. This committment echos a similar one in the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and a declaration of the Croatian parliament from 2011. However, for the first time, all countries of the Western Balkans signed up and also invited neighboring EU countries to join them (the message is clear, even if they are unlikely to join the committment). Furthermore, they agreed to report back on progress made at next years summit in Paris. This declaration came as Montenegro signed a border agreement with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the eve of the sumit and Serbia and Kosovo agreed on key outstanding issues. The most serious bilateral issues involve EU and non-EU members (especially between Macedonia and Greece, but also the borders between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remain a potential source of tension) and there is no immedeate perspective of resolving them, but the declaration and the agreements signal that at least some potential sources of tensions can be settled.

The stars of the summit were Serbian and Albanian PMs Vučić and Rama who appeared together at a debate with civil society and the talk show «Okruženje». Demonstrably on a first name basis, Edi and Aleksandar played up their good ties to put pressure on the EU to deliver. This is a great shift from less than year ago when it took German intervention to get the two meet first and the abandonded Serbian-Albanian soccer game led to a war of words. However, now it appears like an elaborate game the two play in which regional cooperation is working as a distraction, especially for Vučić. As long as he delivers on regional cooperation and Kosovo, the EU and also Germany seem to avoid a second, more critcially look at how he is controling and micro-managing Serbia.

The Vienna summit could not address the creeping authoritarianism in the region, but when Gruevski scored two goals in the football game of politicians from the Western Balkans against the EU, there is certain irony and maybe symptomatic that somebody who was under strong pressure a few months ago and who clearly appears to have stretched democratic principles and rule of law can be leisurly kick a ball in the goal of the EU team in Vienna.

For a list of the final documents from the summit see here.

Remembering along national lines: What is going wrong with the commemoration the victims of the Bosnian war


As the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica has turned into a spectacle over the angry crowd towards the presence of Aleksandar Vučić at the commemoration, there is a deeper problem with the public commemoration of the Bosnian or Croatian war. All sites of commemoration remember places where members of one nation was particularly victimized, by it Potočari or Vukovar. The ceremonies, the symbols, the commemorations are national and often religious and reinforce the categories the murders imposed on their victims. People died as Croats, Bosniaks or Serbs, not for being mothers, sons, engineers or animal lovers. However, does this mean that they should be exclusively be remembered as such? The distinct religious dimension of  Potočari also makes Muslims of Muslims (as a national category) who were killed for being Muslims, but who might have been atheists or agnostics, as elsewhere across the memorial landscape of former Yugoslavia.

This has had two negative consequences. First, there is no common space to remember civilian victims killed for their ethnicity, no matter whether they were Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats. This would make it easier to find space for the shared remembering and acknowledgement. Instead, remembering one set of victims is a political statement about particular claims and thus seen as supporting one or the other narrative. Second, it has made the commemoration of victims as part of nationalist projects and narratives, thus the killing of Serb civilians in Kravica is used to downplay or relativize the victims of Srebrenica. But this is not the only example where the killing of ones own civilians serves to reinforce narratives of national innocence and victimhood.

Of course, the risk, some might argue, of a common commemoration of civilian victims might risk forgetting or downplaying that most victims in the Bosnian war were Bosnian Muslims and support a narrative of equal responsibility of all parties to the conflict. This certainly would be a mistake (according to the Bosnian Book of the Dead, of the nearly 40,000 civilian victims, around 83% were Muslims-Bosniaks, around 10% Serbs and 5.5% Croats) . There is a clear primary burden for war crimes and civilian victims with the Bosnian Serb army, but that should not preclude the ability to acknowledge the other civilian victims of the conflict of which many were also subject of ethnic cleansing.

Places like Potočari will exist and have their raison d’etre, and there is great significance and importance for honest acknowledgement of crimes committed by members of one’s own community by politicians at such event (not as Vučic did by first trying to block public commemorations in Belgrade and then opposing the UNSC resolution that led to the Russian veto). Yet, without common places of commemoration there is a risks that the remembering of the past will just reinforce divisions and accept and invigorate the categorization of victims and perpetrators into neatly defined ethnonational groups.

10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014

1. The revolution is not dead

Even though the protests in Bosnia in February did not last and few (if any) of the demands were met, smaller protests have continued and recent large student protests in Macedonia demonstrate that even the regime in Macedonia is not immune from popular discontent after years of small-scale protests. The protests show that representative democracy in recent years has not served citizens in the Western Balkans very well. Strong control by incumbents has made change difficult.

2. A one man show remains the best show in town

Aleksandar Vučić saved children from snow storms, commanded thousands of volunteers to save Šabac and other heroic deeds, like not sleeping and work while other slack. This brought his party an unprecedented victory for any party in post-1990 Serbian politics. However, any regime relying so much on one person will be fragile. A recent poll (not sure how reliable, but surely indicative) suggests that 80 percent of potential voters for SNS for the party because of Vučić.

3. The crisis is not over

After more than six years of economic crisis, the situation is become more dire as there are no immediate prospects of improvement and governments in the regions have not been able to set a clear path for economic development after the crisis. Nowhere is this more visible than in Croatia, where the current government seems to  have hoped on EU membership to solve the economic ills, with few effects.

4. A good press is a bad press

A free press has not fared well this year. Instead, slander and insulation are doing well. Informer and others like it are good to find out whom the governments want to target, but make for bad news. Reading between the lines is getting to be more important again, as the main news are not written in the lines.

5. Silly incidents matter, because political elites make them matter

While the flag carrying drone added a new dimension to provocations in football stadiums, but it could have been managed and calmed by political elites. However, neither in Serbia and Albania did governments manage the incident well. The result became a crisis of relations that had been rather marked by their absence.

6. Anniversaries are great moments for posturing and nationalist rediscovery


World War One did not figure prominently in national narratives in recent year. World War Two, wars of Independence or the most recent wars overshadowed the “Great War” in terms of public interest. However, this did not stop for a lot of nationalist posturing during this year. This functioned in symbiotic relationship with the generally strongly national commemorations across Europe and rather patronizing efforts to commemorate the war in Sarajevo this year.

7. Do not discount new friends from faraway places

Businessmen from China, sheiks from the Emirates have become more visible in the Balkans. These are promising new rail links, new urban developments and air links. Much of what has failed to come from Western assistance seems like it could be accomplished from elsewhere. On what terms and whether the wild dreams will materialize remains to be seen.

8. Some old friends are not really such good friends

Russia began as a good friend to Serbia (and the RS) 2014, but after (surely not because) Putin got rained on his parade, he dropped South Stream, notifying his friends via the media.

9. Engagement continues, wedding postponed


While Germany recommitted itself to the Balkan enlargement, the EU approach is lukewarm. With mixed signals, enlargement is being pushed down the agenda in the EU and the region. Yes, the process continues, but whether it will remain on track remains uncertain.

10. Borders change, war in Europe

The latest war in Europe is not in the Balkans. The newest border changes are neither. They both draw attention away, yet also cast a shadow. What the repercussions might be for the region is uncertain, but is hard to imagine that it will pass it by.

Debating the need for constitutional reform in Bosnia

Valery Perry, whose work over the years in Bosnia I very much appreciate responded to my blog (reblogged at TransConflict) on constitutional change in Bosnia. She has been key in the K143 coalition I discussed in my original post. Here is my response to her comments for TransConflict.


1. I agree that the two proposals are fundamentally different. The ICG proposals point to full acknowledging the consociational nature of the state and finding ways to formalise informal structures and practices. The K143 has clearly more a centripetal approach as Donald Horowitz and other advocate it, moving away from consociationalism. They both share, as I point out, the belief that such constitutional change is possible and/or do not consider the risk that debating about third entity or abolishing entities is nothing but giving ammunition to political parties who like talking about constitution, threats to national interests and such “big topics”.

2. The suggestion that I do not consider the engagement of citizens as important is clearly a misreading of my comments. I was talking about the undesirability of constitutional reform and the surrounding debates at the moment. I strongly believe that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to have more inclusion in reform debates. However, this is exactly why I am skeptical about constitutional reform and the surrounding debates. First, they are inherently divisive and I cannot envisage a consensual cross-community and cross-entity debate on constitutional reform. Instead, constitutional reform debates benefit those who can talk about the need to protect national interests, etc. Second, the people who went to the streets in February did not focus on constitutional reforms. Their demand was not to get rid of the entities or to have a third entity, but to reduce corruption and mismanagement. Both are of course connected to the constitution, but not cannot be reduced to it. The fact that Sarajevo or Tuzla are not well governed is not a result of Dayton. I am not expecting change through elections in October and certainly have not argued this in my comment. In fact, I wrote in June that the “key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.” Clearly this would require strong civic pressure.

3. I am quite aware of the difference between small scale, technical constitutional amendments and changes that touch on sensitive and potentially divisive issue. Thus, I can see some merit in addressing these issues. However, this makes the proposal like the ones by K143 and ICG even less relevant. It would have been more useful to identify realistic and incremental potential changes to the constitution, as the working group on the Federation did last year with support by the US embassy. What is important to note, however, is that many institutions and coordinating mechanisms (such as coordinating institutions need for EU accession do not require constitutional change.

4. I am certainly aware that change through parliamentary structures are difficult and have been unsuccessful so far, as I note in my comment. I would thus agree with Valery Perry that broader reform constituencies should be built up to keep up the pressure. My observation about the need to work through the institutions had two considerations in mind. First,there are no feasible extra-institutional venue: No “Dayton 2” will take place and there is no viable alternative to change through institutions. Thus, keeping this in mind, requires to recognise that MPs are unlikely to overturn a system that constitutes the basis of their mandate. Whether one likes it or not, they have no reason to abolish themselves—this is hardly specific to Bosnia. Fundamental institutional and constitutional change takes place in most countries very rarely and usually only in the context of significant exogenous shocks.

5. I am not suggesting that K143 or Valery Perry argue that constitutional reform is a panacea. However, prioritizing constitutional reform give it more weight than it deserve. There is no doubt that it would be desirable for Bosnia and Herzegovina to have a different constitution. Yet, the difference in perspective arises from a) the degree to which the constitution is seen as the source of the problems and b)  the realistic ability to overcome these through constitutional reform.

6. The comments I wrote were for a  briefing in Berlin, not a reflection of the discussions there. Thus, my comment does not necessarily reflect the view of other participants there and one should not deduct any official policy or thinking about Bosnia from my comments.

7. Unfortunately, Valery Perry leaves one question unanswered: How would the constitutional change be possible and how to avoid the capturing of any constitutional reform debate by ethno-nationalist elites?

Why constitutional reform will not solve the Bosnian blockade

At a meeting at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin on the future of Bosnia with senior international officials and experts, I have had a chance to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of constitutional reform, a perennial topic for Bosnia. Here are some of the considerations I had the chance to present and discuss on why I remain skeptical of the need to prioritize constitutional reform.

The constitutional structure is often identified as the main problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including two recent proposals by a coalition of Bosnian NGOs K143 (drafted by the Democratization Policy Council) and the International Crisis Group. The Dayton constitution is indeed not much loved and would find few supporters in its entirety. Over the past 15 years or so, countless drafts and ideas have been floated and no self-respecting international think tank, political party and other observer would not have launched its own ideas. From abolishing the Federation (ESI), to abolishing the entities and replacing it with new multinational regions (SDP and SBiH), to creating a Croat entity (ICG) or just having strong municipalities (K143) there is hardly an option that has not been proposed. Indeed, considering the flaws of the constitution, it is easy to come up with better options. However, most proposals are unclear on one crucial question, how can such a change be brought about? A second question most proposals assume or leave unconsidered is whether such changes would unlock the country and bring about fundamental change.

Constitutional reform in Bosnia is inherently a process with a number of corollary reform needs. For examples, any reform of the state presidency to bring it in line with Sejdić-Finci ruling of the ECHR would require the amendment of a number of other laws, most notably the election law. Other constitutional reforms would require changing institutions (such as the constitutional court, parliament, council of ministers), thus constitutional reform per definition is more extensive than just changing Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Accords.

A comprehensive approach would reach even beyond this and at its foremost reform the constitution not just of the state, but also of sub-state units, in particular the Federation and Cantons. Furthermore, it would address larger question of the link between the constitution and the Dayton Peace Agreement. Currently, the constitution is still part of the Peace Agreement and its binding version is English, not BCS. This might be a small and banal point, but it means that the constitution remains embedded in a broader peace agreement that remains in place, including the OHR and the provisions on refugee return. A comprehensive approach in regard to Dayton would address these issues, and replace or reform the constitution in conjunction with Peace Agreement. The outcome would be a final peace settlement that would transform Dayton.

Another form the comprehensive approach would be to expand the matters to include issues not part of Dayton, but rather related to current needs of Bosnia, such as EU integration or reducing patronage and corruption in the Bosnian system. Thus, the package would be more transformative than constitutional reforms can be.

Taking a step back from these options, we need to consider the reasons for opting for a comprehensive approach. The first motivation is to unlock a number of blockages in the Bosnian system and thus transform the political dynamic in Bosnian beyond the constitution. The second approach would be to increase the pie to facilitate settlement. Here, the comprehensive approach provides for additional incentives for parties to accept constitutional reform that might not be palatable for them otherwise. Here, the relevant comparison is the April Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that provided external incentives in the form of EU accession to both parties. The two motivations for a comprehensive approach are not easily compatible as the former seeks to address the problems of Bosnia comprehensively which inherently would include clipping the power of ethnonationalist political parties and their patronage networks, while the latter approach would be about securing a buy in from all parties.

The format of such a comprehensive approach would require extensive international mediation, probably over several rounds of negotiations, as short-term negotiated settlements might be more appealing, but risk failure considering the complexity of the subject matters and the varying incentives of the political actors involved. Such a comprehensive approach has not yet been tried in Bosnia and would require consensus among key international actors (in particular EU member states, the USA and preferably the two signatories of Dayton, Serbia and Croatia). A package solution also runs the risk of holding up reforms as they are all folded into the comprehensive package. Furthermore, external incentives for political actors are hard to come by, as currently rewards in terms of faster progress towards the EU appears to have little appeal.

If a comprehensive approach, or rather either of the two presented variants, appear unlikely, the option remains whether or not a constitutional reform by itself should be pursued and if so a gradual process or through a “big bang” approach. The gradual process would see passing of several constitutional reforms over time, either negotiated by party leaders (with all the normative problems this entails) or in parliament (with all the practical problems) and build on each other. The big bang would seek a larger reform package to be passed in one go. The former has the advantage of building gradual momentum, as well as normalizing the idea of constitutional change rather than reducing it to a one off event. However, such a process might take very long and failure at each step can derail the entire process. The big bang has the advantage of settling the most pressing issue at once and also allowing for some degree of horse trading that would provide the different parties incentives to compromise. The main problem is that both approaches have failed for ten years. Gradual change has not happened and the constitution has only been changed once since Dayton to include reference to the district of Brčko. The big bang approach also failed in April Package in 2006 and the Butmir Process in 2009 and also the Prud Agreement 2008 never reached fruition. Of course, the April package of constitutional reforms failed narrowly and was a near success. However, since Bosnian politics has become more intractable and thus the likelihood of a repetition of the constitutional reforms negotiated in 2006 appears slim.

The challenge arising from this observation is the tension between the ambitions of those who have made plans for constitutional changes in Bosnia and the ability to translate them into reality. Any realistic process of constitutional reform will have to take place through the existing Bosnian institutions. Even an international conference on Bosnia will not have the legitimacy or the ability to enforce a large-scale institutional change without consent of the elected officials of Bosnia. There is no other realistic scenario of institutional change in Bosnia—even mass protests would at best create pressure on the institutions to act rather than overthrow them altogether, especially not country-wide. Thus, it is imperative to reckon with the political interest of the office holders in the country. In addition, despite evidence of significant disillusionment with the dominant political parties and the system, there is little to show that Bosnian citizens have a shared political project and consider themselves to be part of one community. Of course, if voters would bring into power parties with radically different politics, this would change, but so far there is little evidence for this.

Keeping these constraints in mind, there is no reason to believe that a comprehensive and far-reaching reform of the Bosnian constitution would be possible that would abolish the entities, as a recent proposal by K143 a coalition of Bosnian NGOs proposed, or otherwise transform the governing structure. Why would any political party from the RS agree to give up the entity veto when it provides it with an easy mechanism to block any decision at the state level? Similar questions can be raised about all major stumbling blocks of constitutional change. The only manner to which some elements of corporatist ethno-territorial control could be loosened would be through deals that offer other incentives or safeguards. Thus, increasing the number of members of the House of People would for example increase the number of MPs needed to evoke an entity veto, creating potentially higher hurdles. At best, such changes will undo some of the most egregious examples of ethnonationalist blockages or quotes, but not fundamentally transform Bosnia into a different political system. Thus, the link between territory and group identity is likely to remain strong, veto rights will exist, as will quotes. Removing open discrimination and somewhat streamlining decision-making could be achieved. This, however, neglects one key factor: Is the main problem of Bosnia’s current crisis institutional or constitutional and can re-negotiated institutions alleviating these. The answer to the first part of the question is a partial yes, the later a no. Institutions are overly complex and blocked. However, it is telling that the protests in February focused on the local and cantonal level. In particular in Tuzla, neither does power-sharing matter nor is it one of the more dysfunctional cantons. Thus, grievances with political elites cannot be obviously fixed through constitutional amendments.

In effect the discussion about Sejdić-Finci in the aftermath of the protests in February seemed like the discussion among medieval angelology about how many angles can dance on the pin of a needle, esoteric and mostly irrelevant. Of course, discrimination is not desirable and deserves to be removed, yet the state of Roma is not going to change if one of them would have the theoretical chance of joining the state presidency as a Rom, as Roma could be elected as presidents in all neighboring countries without this having any practical effect.

Surely, the strong link between ethnicity, territory and governance has caused problems that contribute to the Bosnian crisis, but constitutional reform cannot hope to overcome this, but only to reduce its impact at best. At the same time, constitutional reform discussion have been reinforcing the power of established elites, as discussions on such reforms focus on protecting national interests, entity rights, threats to identity and the other topics that are the life-blood of ethnonationalist rhetoric. Constitutional reform thus entails a trade-off between seeking to achieve modest improvements to the institutional structure while at the same time sustaining public debates on the topic that sideline the main issues of concern for BiH citizens, povery, corruption and the economy.

A procedural approach to constitutional reform would shift the focus on benefits of a having a process that seeks to build consensus and thus re-establishes Bosnia as a consensus based polity, no matter the substance of the reforms themselves. Of course, taking a too liberal view of such a procedure of substance approach would be accept even problematic „deals“, such as the „reforms“ agreed between Milorad Dodik and Zlatko Lagumdžija in 2012.

What constitutional reform (at the state and entity level) in the short and medium term at best can deliver is technical fixes to some matters that blocked decision making in Bosnia (i.e. by increasing the number of MPs in both chapters to increase the number of MPs needed to block laws through the entity clause or the formation of the House of Peoples in the Federation). This can alleviate some of the blockages that Bosnia encounters, but is more likely a recipe for further procrastination than a panacea.


Civil Society after the Protests in Bosnia



I had the pleasure to be part of a panel debate yesterday at the foreign ministry in Vienna on civil society. More meaningful than just “another” panel on Bosnia was the fact that it took place at the foreign ministry and was opened by Austria’s foreign minister and included also the head of the EU delegation Sörensen in Bosnia. On the other hand,it included no politicians from Bosnia and this was no coincidence. The message of the panel and the high level engagement by Austria and the EU is that it is no longer enough to talk with the political elites, but rather civil society needs to be engaged. This is a refreshing change from an approach that focuses mostly on the leaders of the main political parties. Similarly, the panel was less about formal and established civil society organizations, but rather activists, two from plena (Ajda Sejdić and Amna Popovac), musician Damir Imamović and Aleksandar Trifunović of independent media platform Buka.  The panel was a useful reminder that civil society is more than NGOs and not just there to providing technical expertise, but articulating voices from society.

The result was a refreshing debate. Yes, the problems are old and there is little disagreement about the responsibility of political elites. Little attention centered on the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci cases, but as the February protests highlighted, the main issues are poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. As Damir Imamović noted, these grievances highlight that Bosnia’s problems are not fundamentally different from elsewhere. Yes, they express themselves differently or are compounded by the government structures, but they are not exotic and do not make the Balkans and Bosnia exceptional.

The key question to which there is no clear answer, is how to achieve change. It seemed clear that the plena have mostly run their course. While they have helped generate ideas and continue to operate, they themselves will not generate change in Bosnia. Yet, as in other countries, protests often require multiple waves and different forms until they become successful. While some politicians resigned and some small legal changes were made,  the main success of the protests and plena was not the number of political demands fulfilled, but rather showing the possibility of citizens to organize outside the formal structures and, if briefly, giving the political elite a real scare. There was a clear sense at the discussion that there is no need for new political parties to achieve change. In essence, the choice is between new political actors emerging within the structures or, I argued, in the ability of the EU and civil society to change the behavior of political elites in power. In fact, nationalist and reluctant reforms from Ivo Sanader, Milo Djukanović and Ivica Dačić or Aleksandar Vučić have been able to switch their political priorities. This was usually based on a rational calculation based on changing demand from below (for EU integration) and pressure from outside. The key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.

The panel suggest that some EU member states and the EU start realizing that the transformative effect of the EU accession depends on allies within the country that scrutinize political elites and thus point out the discrepancy between the talk of EU integration in the country and the reality. However, this dynamic can only become effective if the prospect for EU membership remains real and the support for civil society becomes sustained and extends beyond a few high-level events.




What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster


The floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia brought destruction and death to large areas. Thousands of homes were destroyed, some had been painstakingly rebuilt after the war, thousands of landmines swept away to new locations, livestock killed, mass graves from the war unearthed and roads ruined. Beyond the destruction, the floods also revealed the weakness and the strengths of the countries. It is a cliché to say that moments of crisis and disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. In Bosnia and Serbia, it mostly brought out the best in people, and the worst in states.

Natural disasters test states whether they are weak or strong and their response (or lack thereof) often shatters citizens trust. When the earthquake in Haiti struck in 2010 killing a quarter of million people, it destroyed the state itself, which been weakened by decades of crisis. In New Orleans hurricane Katerina brought misery and scenes nobody would imagine could occur in the United States. The response appeared to be of a state that did not care about its poor and ready to tolerate great misery among its citizens.

The floods in Bosnia and Serbia showed that two very different states were utterly unprepared for the disaster. Both states and their local (entity, etc.) authorities responded late, with limited means and inaptly. What is important here is the similarity between the two countries. Serbia is often considered more functional than Bosnia, with a centralized state, clear lines of authority and without complicated and competing authorities as in Bosnia. Yet, both did badly. This suggests that despite all justified critique of Bosnia’s complicated institutions, the cause of the incompetence lies elsewhere. Some of it lies with political leaders who did not take the problem seriously and in politicized, hierarchical systems: if the leader does not take it seriously,neither does the state. In fact, the state and political elites sometimes blamed citizens rather than shouldering responsibility.

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

In Serbia, the response to the floods also shed light on the authoritarian and populist tendencies of the current government. The disaster-management populist hubris, was reflected by multiple live transmissions of government sessions in its function as emergency committee (15 May, 23 May). The sessions had little calming effect, but rather gave the message “the situation is horrible, but we will take care of it”. It fit the image of the new prime minister as the serious, always concerned leader, taking the suffering of his citizens serious indeed. The personification of the disaster response fits the emerging character of the current government, dominated by the over-towering Vučić. The government spreads panic and then offers Vučić as the savior. Whether this strategy will succeed will depend on the ability of the government to either deal effectively with the aftermath of the floods or its ability to effectively deflect criticism.

The authoritarian side of the government became visible through the censorship the government appears to have engaged in. Websites and blogs critical of the government and Vučić were taken down (see here, here). In addition, a tabloid close to the government suggested that the floods were the pretext of a plot of businessmen and the opposition to take down Vučić.

The floods have also provide for a template on which to project different ideological visions and hopes. Srećko Horvat, for example, argues that it is the neo-liberal transformation that hollowed out the state to be unresponsive and inept. Such an observation is obviously implausible as the lack of investment into public infrastructure in Serbia and Bosnia over the past twenty years is not the result of neo-liberalism or the privatization of public utilities. Little has been privatized and certainly much less than elsewhere in Europe which copes better with natural calamities and the causes are very different. The state and the local authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have been ill-prepared to deal with the floods. Thus, the failure lies with the state, not private utility companies. Now, I would not argue that this necessarily means that the state should privatize public utilities and infrastructure, but the critique of neo-liberalism misses the point. The lack of investment and maintenance of the public infrastructure that became visible through the floods has several causes: a) neglect and destruction during the 1990s that takes a long time to address the consequences; b) party appointments and favoritism has undermined the public administration and reduced professionalism; c) hierarchical power-structures contribute to slow responses in times of crisis. Altogether, this would rather suggest that the problems are not with the private sector, but with the state. This does not mean that privatization would be the solution. As the far-reaching privatization of public utilities in some countries, such as the UK, demonstrated, this in itself it can also lead to underinvestment and convoluted lines of responsibility. The central question thus how to make the state more responsive. Besides the obvious need to reduce party appointments and focus on the re-professionalization of the public administration, it would also be good to think about ways in which state-owned companies and utilities can be better sheltered from political pressure and influence to be able to act independently.

The other theme that flood revealed is that of solidarity. The failure of the states to take of their citizens brought about a great degree of solidarity between citizens. In Bosnia the plena that had emerged as a result of the February protests organized assistance where the state failed and there are many reports of citizens helping others across lines of division, be they entity or state boundaries or ethnic borders. However, it might be once more overinterpreting the solidarity as a renewed “Yugoslav community” as for example Andrej Nikolaidis does. Support and assistance comes from others well beyond the Yugoslav space, thus reducing solidarity to the people of Yugoslavia is being unfair to those assisting beyond. The key question will be how to transform the solidarity of the floods into a more lasting form of rapprochement. Here, it merits to look south, to Greece and Turkey, who experienced a breakthrough in relations as a result of “earthquake diplomacy” following devastating earthquakes in both countries in 1999. James Ker-Lindsay noted at the time in an article that the earthquake in both countries did not bring about the rapprochement by itself, yet it helped  by providing it with a momentum that brought both citizens and political elites closer together. The floods, for all their horror thus provide an opportunity, whether it will be seized and become transformative remains to be seen.


The Authoritarian Temptation


Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

I am making a list, I am checking it twice: Identifying the enemies of RS


Most political parties are not successful publishers, but an exception seems to be Independent Alliance of Social Democrats (SNSD) of Milorad Dodik. In addition to the bestseller (according to Kurir the book  with the highest print run in RS in 2011) Dodik guardian of Srpska (besides Serbian also available in English, Russian, and Macedonian), it pubished the speeches of Dodik during the 2006 campaign, Police reform in Bosnia, Media in the service of the powerful, the Dissatisfaction of the People–The Powerlessness of Government, Attacks on Srspka, and just recently The Destruction of Republika Srpska.

This most recent book includes text by Nebojša Malić, who mostly contributes to and Stefan Karganović of the Srebrenica Historical Project, both usually busy with relativizing war crimes and promoting a revisionist history of the Bosnian war. Foreign authors include John Laughland, who has been attacking the Milošević trial and is currently working for a Russian sponsored institute in Paris.

The main argument of the book is that Western powers, in particular the US, have been sponsoring coups against governments in Central Europe for their imperial designs and that the RS is one of many targets. Karganović goes on to list “fake ‘non-governmental organisations’ with task that they are prepared that on the wink of foreign commanders to participate in creating unrest and to challenge the constitutional order.” And then he lists the organizations:
1. Transparency International;
2. Helsinški parlament građana Banje Luke;
3. Slobodna Republika;
4. BUKA;
5. GEA Centar za istraživanja i studije;
6. Inicijativa mladih za ljudska prava;
7. The Srpska Times;
8. „Udruženje veterana Republike Srpske“;

as well as websites and individuals.

There is nothing particularly unusual about such fantasies of ‘analysts’ on the internet. What is striking that a ruling political party openly publishes such a view and thus suggests that the organizations and individuals are traitors, under control of foreign powers.  Such a style is reminiscent of either Putin’s Russia (‘foreign agents’) and Milošević’s Serbia. In the aforementioned book “Dodik guardian of Srpska”, the author Milan Ljepojević (president of the association of ‘politcologists of the Republic of Srpska’) already published a long annex of photos of supposed foreign enemies of the RS. Listing domestic ‘enemies’ crosses another line and confirms the authoritarian self-understanding of the regime.

In addition to revealing an authoritarian attitude, such list-making also betrays the paranoia of the regime. It places events in the Ukraine in the context of the supposed threats against the RS and thus paints a picture of a government worried about foreign intervention and afraid of popular dissatisfaction.

Not making sense of the Bosnian Protests: International reporting

International media have been struggling in covering the protests in Bosnia that began last week. At first, there was silence. It seemed like a few blog posts, including Eric Gordy, Jasmin Mujanovic  and my analysis where the only ones who to comment. The subsequent string of articles in international media, such as the New York Times, CNN and Newsweek, but also others, suggest difficulty to grapple with the protests (the notable exception are journalists who have been regularly reporting on the Balkans, such as Andreas Ernst of the NZZ, Tim Judah of the Economist and Michael Martens for the FAZ). Much of the reporting betrays deep ignorance of Bosnia. For example, the first article by the NYT argued that “The chief American negotiator, Richard C. Holbrooke, who died in 2010, was widely hailed for his diplomatic skill in ending the slaughter. But the Bosnians have since added layers of complexity to the original design that have entrenched the political elite while often hindering economic development.” The idea that Bosnians added complexity to the original design of Dayton is a very silly suggestion–not much was added to the original design that is complex and whatever was added, was added by the High Representative. While probably an innocent mistake, it also (unconsciously) shifts the blame for the institutional complexity from international to local actors. Besides ignorance, international media often resort to the ‘war’ and employ an Orientalist framework, evoking violence and war as a typical part of the exotic Balkans. For example an article in Newsweek (besides quoting competent Velma Saric and Tim Judah), had to evoke the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (“The past has always haunted Bosnia. On June  28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austriaheir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip”). Would an article about mass protests in Berlin mention the Reichskristallnacht or a piece on strikes in France the French revolution and the use of the guillotine for French rulers?

Finally, the article quotes Rebecca West whose travelogue during the interwar period is often used as argument for the Manichean and ancient hatreds in the Balkans (West captured the essence of the cycle of hatred and violence: “Were I to go down into the marketplace…and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’ … I would never hear the word ‘Yes,’ if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years. I would always hear, ‘No, there was fear, there were our enemies without, our rulers within, there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.). Of course, this has little to do with the protests that have been explicitly not nationalist or framed ethnically. The problem with a number of journalists and commentators writing about Bosnia today is that they left off when the war ended (see also Christine Amanpour’s interview with Paddy Ashdown for CNN).

The combination of ignorance and looking at Bosnia exclusive through the lens of the war has produced a fairly weak coverage of the protests over the past week. This has been compounded by the nature of the protests themselves. The organization of plenums (or is it plena) as forms of direct democracy and demands of social economic justice does not fit with many other protests. While democratization is at the core of the protests, the message is also a critique of the Bosnia-type of market economy. The combination of demands for good governance and economic justice is a feature of recent protests, not just in Bosnia (as I have discussed here), but they do not fit into the classic protests of the region for more democracy and against autocratic regimes (as in Ukraine). These two features might actually be difficult to reconcile and the experiments with new forms of democracy might not succeed, but they are an experiment that does not fit an easy matrix of reporting about a land haunted by ethnic hatreds, violence and protestors demanding freedom. It is all just a bit more tricky and maybe time to look a little bit closer.


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