The Crisis Machine

Over the past 15 years, every new crisis seems to be the biggest crisis since Dayton. As sure as it is that each one fades into the background, the next one will follow like clockwork. The permanent state of emergency, of crises, has become normal and everyone seems to get used to this. The crises are not the unfortunate by-product of political disputes, but the crises are the goal in themselves. As such, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become a crisis producing machine for the current political elite.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not unique in this. Leaders in the region, think of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić or his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanović, are masters of producing crisis—and then offering to solve them. They live off the crises they produce. They do this for a number of reasons.
First, each crisis is a performance, a show on the stage. As all eyes, of citizens and international actors are on the stage, it gives time and opportunity to take care of other matters in the backstage area. These are corruption, consolidating authoritarian control over the institutions and many other little steps to make sure that those in charge privatize the state.
Second, each performance helps to build the nation, it creates a sense of threat and reinforces over and over the same story, simplistic but effective of being under threat, misunderstood and to find only protection in the community.
Third, the performance worries internationals, who hurry to meet with the leaders to “solve” the crisis. They are relieved and the leaders moderate their position, take a step back and deescalate.
Fourth, the crisis makers live of polarization. They are not seeking to build consensus or respect for other opinions. In this sense, they need to remind everybody of the dividing line, reinforce them. The crises do that, they are deepening the polarization.
These crisis performances are what is central to ethnonationalist autocrats and populists, from the AfD and FPÖ in Germany and Austria to Vučić, Dodik and other Balkan “strongmen” (and they are usually, but not always, men). These politics of emergency make normal, democratic governing impossible, as every crisis suspends normal rules of a functioning democracy, compromise, decisions based on expertise and respective for difference.
In all this, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not exceptional. What makes the country specific is how the state and its institutions have become little else than crisis producing machines. Their sole purpose and main use by elites has been to generate crises. There is no easy way out of this trap. Ironically, discussions about constitutional changes and changing the institutional set up of the country, see the latest discussions about electoral reform, are best at producing crisis, as they can be framed as threatening the community.
The best drafted constitution for Bosnia, and there is no such ideal constitution for any country, does not work, as it is the dysfunctional Annex 4 that serves elites better. So it seems like a trap. Trying to get out just triggers new crises and offers fresh opportunities for self-serving elites. Looking in the neighborhood, even a functional constitution does not offer immunity from self-serving elites and authoritarianism.
These destructive dynamics does not mean that Bosnia and Herzegovina is trapped in a destructive perpetual motion machine. Two dynamics can change this. First, external actors can change their approach. Rather than being willing helping hands in the crisis machine, they can establish clarity rather than endless appeasement and negotiations with those who use the machines to generate crisis and their own power. Sanctions, exclusion and all the tool that Dayton grant them. If the crisis makers want a Dayton Bosnia, they will have to live with all of it, including the powers of the Peace Implementation Council and the High Representative. Rather than the muddle, there should be a clear process of concluding the peace agreements obligations and restraints on Bosnia. The closure of the OHR should be linked to a consensual new constitution that provides for functional institutions and also includes a permanent internationally security guarantee for the state. Until this is achieved, the peace agreement is not implemented, and the High Representative has a role to place according to the peace agreement. Second, and more importantly, change will have to come from within. Clarity by external actors can help demystify the crisis “show”, yet the end will only come through protests, resistance, and alternatives from within. Unlike others, I don’t consider national identity a type of Marxist ‘false consciousness’ that people will realize one day being false. It is too real to just disappear, but protecting national identity does not require ethnic cleansing, segregation, and the current nationalist myths. Nationalism is, for better or worse, a powerful feature of our world and will shape Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, whatever joint resistance is unlikely to change this fundamental reality, but it can moderate it, supplement it with civic and cooperative dimensions that the country lacks.
Getting out of the crisis trap is far from easy and requires fortunate timing and alignment of the right ‘stars.’ The first step is pulling the curtain and realizing that it is the crises themselves are not accidental, but central to the Bosnian and Herzegovinian political system and help preserve the destructive and degenerative status quo.

This article was first published in a special supplement of Oslobodjenje on 20-21.11.2021 on online in English here.

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