Fixing the Institutions will not Fix Bosnia: To Butmir or not to butt mir

Convening Bosnia’s political leaders in an EUFOR base outside of Sarajevo is not only reminiscent of Dayton where Tudjman, Izetbegovic and Milosevic were ‘impressed’ by a US air force base in Ohio, but also of an ill-fated session of the Yugoslav presidency in Spring 1991. The Yugoslav People’s Army in an effort to persuade the Yugoslav leadership to declare a state of emergency convened the meeting in an army barracks in Belgrade. However, its show of force failed and the Bosnian representative of the presidency, Bogic Bogicevic case the crucial vote against the army intervention.

Of course, unlike the JNA in 1991, EUFOR and the EU wants to disengage, rather than engage, so the differences begin here. The sense of crisis is similar, and palpable. Observers and politicians from different background and with diverging interests keep emphasizing the crisis Bosnia finds itself in—only the depth of the crisis appears to be a matter of debate.

Many commentators mistakenly identify the institutions as the prime problem of Bosnia. The complicated institutional set-up with veto rights, ‘vital national interests’ and entity voting appears to block reform at every turn of the corner. Looking at the unwieldy reality and the frequent stalemates in Bosnia’s institutions, it is tempting to see all ills in the Dayton institutions. Nevertheless, this analysis is plain wrong. True, the institutions are flawed and cost too much. They are not the core of the political crisis. Instead, badly conceived and impatient efforts to change them have been to blame for the crisis Bosnia finds itself in.

So why are institutions not the biggest problem? No matter of how many or little veto rights there are in Bosnia, it will be impossible to impose a decision on either entity without its at least tacit consent (or agreement to disagree). Even if entity voting (the ability of each entity’s MPs to block decision in Bosnian parliament) where to be abolished, a walk out by MPs could still stop decisions from being taken. If a decision against the will of one entity were taken, this would hardly lead to its acceptance in the entity in question and would further antagonize relations. Reducing opportunities for blockage are likely to make the decision making process smoother, but it will also increase the temptation to outvote the non-dominant communities. If one were to find issue with the institutions, it is less with the details of decision making, number of MPs, but with the larger institutional set-up, which pits two entities (and the two dominant nations) in a binary zero-sum game against one another. However, this element of post-Dayton Bosnia is not on the agenda as it is too controversial and contentious to touch.

The reason the constitutional talks, first in 2006 (that ended in failure) and the Butmir talks now, have a negative impact on the political climate. The current Butmir talks convey a sense of crisis and ‘last chance’ which does not only build pressure on elites to compromise, but also reinforces a sense of ‘everything is falling apart’ which has a way to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Opening constitutional questions in such a dramatic way also is what lager parts of the elite like—it is these big issues which lend themselves so much more to defending national interests, than everyday boring politics. Furthermore, the EU and the US have no clear carrot and stick in this process. The only carrot (for some, i.e. Dodik) is the closure of the OHR, but it is also a stick for others (SDA, SBiH). Beyond this, the EU has not been able to offer anything which would be persuasive to compromise.

All this does not suggest that Bosnia does not need constitutional reform. However, this should not be hammered out in EUFOR basis in emergency-style meetings. Constitutional change has to be a gradual process which is not understood as a short term initiative. There is little beyond the obvious violations of the European Convention of Human Rights which needs to be changed with any urgency in the constitution. More important is that some constitutional changes lead to (re-)building a basic consensus one some key features of the Bosnian state. Such a process deserves the support of the EU.


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