New Roads to Reform in Bosnia

New proposals to make Bosnia’s Federation entity less dysfunctional and more democratic should not be ignored by the country’s squabbling political elites.

If Bosnia were governed by all the good ideas that have been articulated over the past decade or more on reforming Dayton, it would be one of the most innovative political systems. NGOs, think tanks, parties, experts and international organizations have produced dozens of constitutions for Bosnia, reform initiatives and ideas for making Bosnia a more functional state. It would thus be easy to dismiss the latest proposal of a working group set up by the US embassy on the Federation as just the latest in a long line of experts with good ideas and little connection to reality. However, the latest proposals that the working group of Bosnian experts put forth do merit further attention.

Instead of proposing the ideal solution for Bosnia or one of its entities, it is an encouraging document for its realism. Some 181 suggestions detail specific suggestions for reform that are based on the existing constitution and which are based on pragmatic consideration rather than on the principle “wouldn’t it be nice”. Rather than focusing on reforming the Bosnian state, they focus on the more dysfunctional of the two entities, the Federation. The Federation is an oddity, created during the war to end the war between the Bosnian Croat and the Bosnian government forces, it was a peace-settlement as much as Dayton and less concerned with its long term viability. Thus, a constitutional overhaul was not only overdue, but it constitution mirrors main feature at the state level and what works in the Federation might also work at the state level. The 181 suggestions are detailed, but can be grouped into several categories.

First, a number of suggestions focus on streamlining the entity, reducing both the administrative cost of the entity and also improving decision making. These include abolishing the president and his vice-presidents—a timely suggestion considering that the current president was recently arrested. Instead, they propose a president of parliament who would be assisted by two vice-presidents who are at the same time the presidents of each of the two chambers of parliament. While this is certainly an improvement in reducing the number of office holders, it is a bit of a strange suggestion. As the proposals transform the entity into a parliamentary system, it would make more sense to make the prime minister the undivided head of the executive who also represents the Federation.If one takes the German or Austrian Federal system, both have only prime ministers and no particular ceremonial role is given to the president of parliament.

Second, the proposals seek to recalibrate the balance between collective identities and citizens. While so for, constituent people (i.e. Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs), predominate, the proposal states that the Federation should define itself as a union of citizens who are comprised of three groups—members of the three constituent people, people who do not identify with these groups and national minorities. This suggestion is not just symbolic, but the proposals suggest that citizens who are not self-identified Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats have representation ensured at all levels (even if often less than the three nations). How that can be achieved without abuse that would just extend the arena of national competition to office-holders from this category remains unclear, however.

Third, the proposals seek to make the Federation more efficient by streamlining the division of competences between the entity and the cantons and also making decision making in the Federation easier (in the parliament and government). The proposal preserve the power-sharing system and veto rights, but define them better and also reduce the opportunities for abuse. Importantly, the proposals suggest that in the process of Euro-Atlantic integration, all authorities (entity, cantonal and municipal) implement policies of the state (of course it is telling that this needs to be stated at all, after all this is what federal units are supposed to do). This implies, however, that the distribution of competences should not be used to block the process of EU integration, which has of course been the case so far.

Finally, the proposals suggest that the current map of the Federation needs to be changed. It clearly states that the current set up of ten cantons with great variation in size is undesirable. There are few concrete suggestions for change, except to expand the canton of Sarajevo with the current Bosnian Podrinje canton that includes the city of Gorazde and is by far the smaller canton (around 30,000 inhabitants). It also suggests that a few municipalities from other neighboring cantons might join Sarajevo. The problem with redrawing cantonal boundaries further is that the next three small cantons with less than 100,000 inhabitants are all with a Croat majority (Posavina, West Herzegovina and canton 10), making the redrawing of cantonal boundaries sensitive. Instead, the working group did suggest that smaller cantons might not have all institutions than larger cantons have, less ministers and also that all cantons would not pay full salaries to the members of parliaments to save costs.

It is unclear whether these suggestions will be put into law, but they are useful for being concrete, pragmatic and provide a clear guideline for reform that political elites will find hard to ignore. While they will not provide a way out of the many blockages that Bosnian politics has been experiencing in recent years, they make a convincing case for the pragmatic. Furthermore, many of the changes suggested for the Federation equally apply for the state. Of course, it might be hard to abolish the presidency at the state level, but the suggestion of putting citizens who do not identify with the three constituent people on equal footing with these constituent people, and many ideas in the proposal are applicable at the state level. The approach itself of identifying specific suggestions for reform might also serve as a template for Bosnia-wide reforms.

Republished from Balkan Insight (


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