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.

Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests

Bosnian presidency Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

Bosnian presidency, the day after
Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

The protests that have erupted across Bosnia in recent days were in some ways no surprise. While the JMBG protests fizzled out last year , nothing was resolved and it was clear that new protests would occur, just when and how remained unclear (this also clearly emerged from the discussion at the conference on protests we organized in Graz in December, see here, here and here). What was a surprise was the extent to which they quickly spread from the first protests in Tuzla across Bosnia and the degree to which the occupation and burning down of government buildings became a central feature. Here are some features that have struck me in following the debates and the protests themselves in recent days:

Who protests?

In an interview for the Austrian daily Kurier, the current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted that the protests were primarily carried by Bosniaks, the Muslims (‘Die Träger der Proteste sind hauptsächlich Bosniaken, die Muslime’). Similarly, Tim Judah pointed out that the protests primarily took place in the Federation and in areas with a Bosniak majority. While these are not wrong observation, they do emphasize ethnicity when the protests had nothing to do with ethnicity at all. Of course, in Bosnia everything becomes easily an ethnic issue, but one has to be careful not to contribute to this. In fact, what is more remarkable that the protests took place in regions of Bosnia with a Bosniak majority, they also took place in Brčko and Mostar, two cities that are multiethnic, although in very different manners. The fact that violence in Mostar against the city and cantonal administration and the HQs of the two dominant ethnonationalist parties SDA and HDZ is particularly significant. A place where the threat of violence has been closer to the surface than elsewhere in Bosnia and the divisions are particularly tangible, such a protests is more significant than in less divided settings. So why are there protests in Tuzla, Zenica, Bihać, Sarajevo, Mostar and Brčko and not in Banja Luka, Bijelina (although some protests took place in the RS, just with a low turn out, including a bizarre counter-protest against protests in Bijelina) etc.? From the  perspective of the RS leadership, it is the dysfunctional nature of the Federation and another piece of evidence that Bosnia is not in the interest of the RS. While the argument is clearly self-serving, there is no doubt that the institutions of the Federation are more dysfunctional than the RS with its cantons, a largely superfluous layer of government. This does not capture the entire situation.

In the RS, the government has been more successful in buying social peace and controlling the public space through reducing the media and accusing potential protestors of being against the RS. It is also telling that the protests began in Tuzla against predominantly Socialdemocratic authorities. First, these protests are not about Dayton or nationalism, but they are about a much broader disappointment with the political class.

The epicentre is in a former working class city that also bucked the ethnonationalist trend during the war and reflects the disappointment with the Socialdemocrats who were the winners of the 2010 elections and have since squandered all their political capital by acting indistinguishable from the ethnonationalist parties. As a result, the protests express a sense of lack of alternatives, no party that can represent the grievances. Here, this might explain the location of protests, the lack of alternatives has been a characteristic in the RS for longer and thus holds less mobilizing potential. Furthermore, in Tuzla, Zenica and Bihać the protests could demonstrate that they were about badly governed towns and cantons, not about large questions where parties can give them an ethnic spin (as some are already doing).


The main reason for the international muted response was probably the use of violence during the protests. The burning of buildings and finally of a part of the archives of Bosnia in the presidency building have led to media and politicians in and outside Bosnia using the term “hooligans” in the context of the protests.

Of course, the fact that historical buildings were damaged  and parts of the archives stored in the presidency is a tragedy. While initial reports of the damage might have been exaggerated (intentionally or unintentionally due the obvious parallels to the destruction of the national library in 1992), it also seems wrong, as director Jasmila Žbanić argued, to suggest that the destruction of part of the archives was a “lie”. Again, she probably meant reports that the complete archives were destroyed, but the formulation seems to downplay this doubtlessly tragic loss. Photos from the site show documents destroyed. However, does this make the protestors ‘hooligans’? I have not seen any reports indicating that the archives were deliberately targeted. Instead, it seems the tragedy lies in them being stored in the same building as the presidency.

Ditched Cars in Zenica, presumably from local politicians
Source: Twitter @YourAnonCentral

The term hooligans on the other hand is very loaded and authoritarian regimes like to use it again protestors (I remember this being used with some frequency by the Milošević regime) and it raises a difficult question: What level of violence is legitimate during protests? In democracies, the answer is usually none, as there are legal means of changing government not necessitating the use of force. In dictatorships, the use of violence is generally considered acceptable, while of course the scale and target of violence remains open for discussion. Nobody seriously considered the protestors in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 hooligans because they set fire to the Serbian radio and television station or ransacked the Federal parliament. Bosnia is a tricky case. While it is no dictatorship, many citizens who went to the streets feel that they cannot change the government through elections. This is true to a large extent, as the multiple layers of government mean that everybody is in power somewhere and at the entity and state level we witness complex and fluid coalitions that blur the line between government and opposition beyond recognition. The use of ethnonational mobilization has also systematically undermined the organization and articulation of other political concerns. As a consequence, the use of violence against buildings representing the current elite became a target. Statements that citizens destroyed their own property ring hollow (unless of course, we acknowledge that the limousines of politicians thrown into canals in Zenica where paid for by Bosnian taxpayers). The use of fear was a reflection of the anger of the citizens, as Elvira Jukić describes vividly in her blog. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, an observation made by many on Facebook and Twitter as cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country.

In addition, the violence of the protests was fairly systematically directed at buildings of the government, in particular cantonal administrations, the state presidency and some political party offices. Despite conflict reports, there seems to have not been wide-spread looting (a la Patike za Kosovo or the London riots) and the violence was targeted. While it is hard to condone the destruction of buildings, it is easy to understand.

Besides the unwanton damage, there are other risks with violence. It was striking when Al Jazeera Balkans, who had the best reporting on the events, described the scenes in Sarajevo as a ‘war zone’. This unfortunate comparison illustrates the risks: the one risk is that mass violence threatens the structures of the state and that this void is filled not by those originally protesting, but others who seek benefit from the use of force. Second danger is demobilizing citizens: Afraid of a new war or even images that remind of the war might mean that they will not attend protests for the fear of a fall back to the war. Third, there is the risk of Chekhov‘s principle for plays: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The International Response

The international response to the protests has been confused, displaying the gap between international actors and the reality on the ground. The EU and EU foreign ministers either officially or on twitter (see Carl Bildt, Štefan Füle) repeated the phrase that citizens should have the right to protest, but that they should remain peaceful. The current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted in the aforementioned  interview for the Austrian daily Kurier that “if the situation escalates, we might have to think about EU-troops (“Wenn die Lage eskaliert, werden wir eventuell an EU-Truppen denken müssen.”). Although he also calls the protests legitimate, the mention of EU troops triggered alarm bells , as it is unclear for or against whom this intervention would take place (later, the statement was clarified). Such talk risks additional securitizing the protests, and thus playing in the hands of those who would like to see the protests reduced to a violent threat to the status quo. Instead, the protests should be welcomed and not just treated as the expression of the right of citizens.

The protests, as in the Ukraine or in Bulgaria, should be understood as a clear message that citizens do not want corrupt elites that have in essence captured the state and govern it for their private good. This is all the EU should be about and the unwillingness and inability of elites to strike a compromise over recent years to move the country closer to the EU are a clear message that was unfortunately not reflected in the international response.

What is next?

In the middle of the protests, and they are far from over, it is impossible to guess the outcome. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. Whether this can lead to early elections is unclear. Bosnia has only had early elections once, in the RS in 1997, and early elections might just benefit the incumbents, while the demonstrators don’t have a political platform yet (there are demands of citizens from Tuzla and Sarajevo, however). It might be better to have an interim government, composed of “technocrats” to govern until elections to give the protestors time to organize and to also initiate some reforms.

Graffiti on government building in ‎Tuzla says “Resign all and Death To Nationalism” Source: Twitter @RadioNightwatch

Another defining feature of the protests is the combination of social grievances with dissatisfaction with government and corruption (see here how this fits into the larger picture). It is thus not just about opposition to the particular form of economic transition that Bosnia experienced, but also about the state capture. Now, a question that will not be easily settled is the degree to which the Dayton superstructure is to blame. I have been generally skeptical about scapegoating Dayton (here I disagree with Eric Gordy’s otherwise very insightful remarks on Bosnia), not because it is good, but because there are other causes. Many cities in Bosnia are badly governed, including Sarajevo, but Dayton has nothing to do with the functioning of the cities. The reasons that the cities (and cantons) are mismanaged, is less their institutional set-up, but the political elite that governs them. Of course, the complex power-sharing system that governs Bosnia is co-contributing to this elite, but it is simply too easy to blame for all of it (as a counter factual, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region where there is no Dayton-like institutional system).  It thus seems important at this point not to focus on constitutional reform or other issues related to the organization of the state. While the Dayton constitution is far from ideal, talking of changing it is different from actually changing it (I am thus sympathetic to the argument Jasmin Mujanovic makes, but worry that it would not help the protests to achieve change and rather get bogged down in constitutional debates a la Sejdić-Finci, I have written more about this earlier). Constitutional reform has been the third rail of Bosnian politics since the war, it is divisive and will risk bringing ethnicity into the debate.

Finally, international actors will need to tread carefully as well. Sometimes, silence is golden and if any message should be clear, the strategy of talking to six party leaders and thinking that this is the way to change Bosnia for the better has failed and should be over. Before designing a new grand strategy for Bosnia, it would be better to ensure that citizens get a better say in how the country is governed, a new strategy–certainly needed–should come then.

A train to nowhere: Talgo in Bosnia

Talgo parked in Sarajevo train station (source:

The Talgo trains, made in Spain, belong to the high-end trains rolling around Europe, North America and Asia. They travel at high speeds on conventional tracks and offer comfortable intercity and international travel. Bosnia (together with Kazachstan and Uzbekistan) has nine such trains (bought in , so far the good news. While the website of the railways of the Bosnian Federation (ZFBiH, there is no single Bosnian rail company) even has a link to Talgo reserations (including the tempting offer to travel in time: Register for a free Ride from 1/Nov/2010 to 31/Dec/2011), none of the trains is going anywhere. The trains had some test runs, but never entred service. Instead, the trains have been languishing for years in Sarajevom, partly in storage, partly in the open. When they were tested, they achieved the incredible maximum speed of 70km per hour. Of course, for such great speeds, it is necessary to have a train that can go 220 km per hour… Samir Kadrić from the railways of the Federation described it “as if you bought nine Ferarris and you don’t have roads to drive them on”. Besides old tracks and no realistic plan to improve them to anywhere close to the speeds the Talgo can travel, it took years to negotiate the use of the train with neighboring countries and meanwhile, the train to Belgrade no longer operates and there is only one train per day that takes 9 hours for the journey. Now the railway company does not have the money to maintain the trains, so they are not even riding at 70 km per hour, but just standing and waiting. The Talgo thus share the same fate as the Croatian-made Končar trains the ZFBiH bought in 2009 to run local lines and which the company now seeks to return to Croatia. Just for the Talgo trains, the ZFBiH payed 67.5 mio Euro which is tries to pay for by renting the trains to Turkey.

There is hardly a better metaphor for what is wrong in Bosnia today. The country cannot move on, or only at the speed of 19th century train travel in 40-year old run down cars. The alternative is there (and even paid for) but there is no plan, no will and no resources to accelerate. Instead of leapfrogging several train-generations (or in extension reforms) with the Talgo, the episode highlights that Bosnia needs new tracks, and not just for trains. The fact that nobody had to resign over this affair that raises suspicions not just about tremedous stupidity, but also corruption, also is indicative of how the scale of bad governance has created an incredible degree of hopelessness in the country.

Bad Metaphors and The Mostar Bridge

Twenty years ago, the bridge in Mostar was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces, since it has been rebuilt nearly ten years ago. In the mean time, the bridge became the symbol of Bosnia and countless books and posters of Bosnia feature the bridge. The bridge has become overburdened with symbolic value which does not reflect the bridge or Bosnia. The bridge was not a symbol of multiethnic Bosnia, but part of the country’s Ottoman heritage that remains strongly contested. When it was destroyed it did not link two communities, but two parts of Mostar held by Bosnian government forces with a Bosniak majority. Its reconstruction thus neither  mended interethnic ties, nor could it be an appropriate symbol for it. Furthermore, a bridge is an ill-fitting metaphor for cooperation. Bridges are edifices to get from one place to another, but they are not a place to stay, a meeting point. I remember asking a Slovak diplomat some 15 years ago whether he saw his country as a bridge between East and West and he dismissed this suggestion quickly, noting that one does not want to live on a bridge, it is neither here nor there. bridge4Beyond being a bad metaphor, should the Mostar bridge have been rebuilt. I understand that the reconstruction of the bridge sent the signal that the ethnonationalist leaders and they militias cannot destroy the countries heritage. Yet, it is a fake. Just like the Berlin Stadtschloss or the Old theater in Skopje, it is a re-construction of a building that had disappeared. In this sense, the building pretends to be old, but it is not.

In addition to being disingenuous, it also is a reflection of the larger “reconstruction” paradigm that has been dominant in Bosnia and in other post-conflict countries. The “reconstruction paradigm” focuses on both the physical and societal reconstruction after the war. However, the reconstruction might be possible in the material sense (and even here it near impossible), the societal reconstruction is not possible. Instead the emphasis should be more on construction, i.e. on the ways in which a post-war society and country can be built and build itself. Thus, most of the focus on international policy makers has been on refugee return in the first post-war decade, but little thought went to other ways in with divisions could be overcome based on the post-war realities.

As such, the bridge is Mostar is not a symbol of reconstructing Bosnia, but rather of faking the past that was destroyed rather than building a new reality.

Let the manipulation begin: First number claims of the Bosnian census

Less than two weeks since the end of the census (see my previous posts on the Bosnian census here and here), politicians have begun to claim to know the results of the Bosnian census. First the head of the HDZ Dragan Čović claimed that there are some 570,000 Croats in Bosnia “according to information he gets every day.” Afterwards, Sejfudin Tokić, a former Socialdemocrat and now a vigorous campaigner for Bosniak identity (and against Bosnian identity), coordinator of the “Bosniak movement for equality of nations” claims to know the number of Bosniaks: According to him, there are 54 percent Bosniaks in Bosnia and 17 percent in the Republika Srpska (and 32.5 percent Serbs, 11.5 percent Croats and 2 percent others, as reported here. See also here, and here).

While these numbers might turn out to be true, it is completely implausible that the two or anybody else already has such reliable numbers. Take some regional examples: The 2011 census in Montenegro was carried out in April, first results were released in May, but only pertained to the population numbers, not the break down by ethnicity, religion or language. These results were released in August, i.e. four months after the census was concluded. This is record breaking fast by regional standards and that is due to the fact that Montengro is, well, small. Montenegro, like Croatia and Serbia have also conducted one post-war census and are thus arguably better prepared than Bosnia. In Serbia the first results, again only pertaining to the overall population number were released a month after the census and results about ethnicity were released in November 2012, more than a year after the census in October 2011. In Croatia,two months passed to the publication of first results, and results on ethnicity where not published until 2013, well over a year and a half since the census was held in April 2011 .

Considering the complexity of any census and particularly the Bosnian one, numbers that are currently circulating cannot be considered reliable. The claim by Čović and Tokić that they have informers that provide them with data that would allow for a Bosnia-wide picture of the population distribution by ethnicity is implausible. First, this would require a very large number of informants to give such a comprehensive picture. Second, considering that lack of knowledge about the size of the population and other data, giving percentages of a particular community is inherently inaccurate. Third, a census is not like an election where you can have a parallel vote count based on a representative sample. First, one does not know what is representative (not just in terms of size, but also in terms of age, geographical distribution) in Bosnia and second, the results in the census and those given to third parties might very considerably, especially when it comes to identity questions (in the census somebody might call himself a Bosnian, but when somebody from the NGO “it is important to be Bosniak” knocks on the door to ask about identity, the answer might be different).

Thus, if statistical offices from neighboring countries with more experience in censuses, less complicated processes and structures take at least four months and usually more than one year to give the number of citizens identifying with one nation or ethnic group, claims to know this in ten days are at best a “guestimate” and at worst just made up. But why make up numbers or circulate such claims? It is a perfect example of setting expectations. This is called the anchoring effect in psychology,  well described in Thinking, Fast and Slow by David Kahnemann. If you are giving a number associated with a question (like a price tag for a product or the age of a person), you are likely to use it unconsciously as an anchor, no matter how random the number might be. If the price tag of jeans states 150 Euros and then you are told, they are on sale for 25 % off, they seem like a good deal, but that original number might as well be random and still we are influenced by it.

Circulating numbers about population shares is unlikely to be shaping the outcome of the census, but it is likely to shape the perception of the outcome. Thus, if you claim that 54 percent of the population are Bosniaks and the real number is 42 percent, the number seems wrong, too far away from the original claim and thus can be more easily challenged. This type of setting the agenda thus substitutes results with desired results. In the best case, the desired results turn out to be real, in the worst, they are lower and then their legitimacy can be challenged. Timing matters here: CeSID and others involved in the parallel vote count in 2000 in the Milošević elections know why: they were eager to get their first results out before the state election commission. By releasing the results first, they planned to set the agenda: They determined what is the standard results against which all others are measured, not the state election commission. When the state election commission produced their results, they seemed wrong also because they differed from the results first released by CeSID.

Whether those circulating numbers will succeed remains to be seen, but the season of number games has official opened.

When counting counts. The Bosnian Census

Today the Bosnian census official came to end: media from around the world (here, here and here) took this opportunity to devote some space to Bosnia that evokes little international attention as the permanent crisis of the country is no longer newsworthy.

So why the census? Formally, the results will have few immediate consequences. The quotas in the public administration for members of different “constituent people” are linked to the so called completion of Annex 7, i.e. the chapter to refugee return. These formal criteria are of course a farce. There is no significant refugee return in Bosnia for nearly a decade and while there continues to be a slow trickle, for all practical purposes this chapter is closed. Otherwise the distribution of offices is enshrined in Dayton that does not provide for any formal link between demographic distribution and power it endows group-representation. Of course, the census gives everybody something to hope for and fear of. This is probably the reason this census actually succeed despite high levels of political tension and minor irregularities . The census in Macedonia, a similarly sensitive context, had to be abandoned after a few days of counting. Neither has any particular group boycotted the census, as was the case among Albanians in South Serbia and most Serbs in Kosovo in 2011 (for an overview over the contestation in censuses see this recent article  by Gezim Visoka and Elvin Gjevori and by Dejan Jović in Političke analize).

1. The number of Bosnians

The number of Bosnians is probably the largest uncertainty. Unconfirmed numbers for the sample census suggested a high share of Bosnians (above 30%). This number seems unrealistic, at least on the Bosnian-wide level considering low levels of identification with supra-ethnonational identities in pre-war censuses and the degree of polarization after the war. Of course, a high number of Bosnians constitutes a threat to the currently dominating parties that derive their legitimacy and power from importance of the “constituent people” as the main Bosnian identifies categories. The more Bosnians, the less sustainable is the Dayton arrangement. However, two important questions emerge: First, who are the Bosnians? If most Bosnians are by background Muslim-Bosniaks, the ethnonationalist model is not equally threatened, but just among Bosniaks parties. Only if a significant number of Bosnians are also of Croat and Serb origin, can the number challenge the current arrangement. The second question is how to accommodate Bosnians in the current system. Of course, this will depend on the numbers, but this has been difficult in Yugoslav times, when in fact the authorities from the 1970s onward discouraged identification as Yugoslavs to the 1990 Bosnian election where one seat of the 7 member presidency was reserved for Yugoslavs and Others, resulting in the victory of the Muslim candidate Ejup Ganić for the post who was not particularly Yugoslav or Other. Treating Bosnians just like another ethnic group and thus replicating the system of representation for constituent people might be tempting, but is absurd. Instead, a large number of Bosnians would suggest that the levels of ethnic representation built into the system should be overall reduced.

2. The number of Croats

Croats were the smallest of the three constituent peoples already in 1991 and having obtained Croatian passports (as have many non-Croats as well), many left for Croatia over the past 18 years. Thus, a considerably smaller number of Croats is expected than in 1991. If the share of Croats would fall under 10 per cent, the demand for equal treatment to Bosniaks and Serbs would be less plausible and the bargaining power of Croat parties would diminish. Of course, a small population share is also in other divided societies not an obstacle for representation and the Turkish Cypriot community held considerable influence after independence and also in peace plans since (including the 2004 Annan plan), despite constituting less than 20%. Similarly in Kosovo, the Serb community constitutes around 6% of the population and enjoys reserved seats and extensive mechanisms to ensure its input in the decision-making process. Yet, a sharp drop among Croats would confirm that Bosnia is moving towards a bi-national state.

3. The number of Bosniaks

Bosniaks are the community with the least firm identity matrix and thus some of the most pronounced „campaigning“ during the census was among Bosniak citizens. No census has so far offered the possibility to declare as a Bosniak, so we do not know yet whether citizens agree to the switch from Muslim to Bosniak identiy made during the war by intellectuals and later ratified in Dayton. In neighbouring Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro a significant share of citizens opted for the older category of Muslims over Bosniaks. While the term Bosniak might have more traction in Bosnia itself—the problem for Muslims in Serbia, Montenegro or Croatia is that Bosnia is not a kin state and the affiliation with Bosnia is less obvious—the might be a substantial number of Muslims. In addition, probably most Bosnians would be otherwise identifying as Bosniaks. In theory a large number of Muslims or Bosnians could result in a situation that Bosniaks are not the largest community in Bosnia.

4. The number of non-Serbs in RS

Before Republika Srpska was established in 1991, only around 54% of the population were Serbs, the number climbed to well above 90% by the end of the war through ethnic cleansing, mass murder and genocide. However, as refugees did return, it is unclear what the numbers are today. While the RS hopes to “ratify“ ethnic cleansing through the census and to confirm that the RS is a proto-nation state a larger share of non-Serbs would challenge this ambition.

5. The congruence of nation, language and religion

The dominant understanding of ethnonational identity is that national, religion and language identity are linked. It is thus no surprise that these questions are grouped together in Bosnia, as in most other census of the region. Of course, this presumption is by no means certain. While it is unlikely to find more than a few Croats who also identify as Muslim, there is potential for non-Bosniaks and Bosnians to speak Bosnian and being an atheist is not inherently incompatible with being a Bosniak, Croat or Serb. If we look at census in recent years across the region, there is few heterodox combinations to be found, except for Montenegro, where language and national identity do not coincide.

6. How many Bosnians are there in Bosnia?

Nobody knows how many people live in Bosnia. The numbers given suggest around 3.8 million, but these are at best estimates. As a result, one does not really know that GDP per capita and other crucial data cannot be determined without the population size. In addition, the specific numbers across the country might correct some misconceptions. Generally speaking, one would except a trend in urbanisation as a result of the war and the post-war period as poor rural areas have been abandoned. Yet the cities might have not grown as much as some expect. This was one of the big surprises of the Kosovo census when it emerged that Prishtina was not as large as observers had thought. Similarly, the general depopulation of certain regions, in particular eastern Bosnia is an important question as these areas with a large Bosniak population have suffered from depopulation through the war and poor economic conditions have made the return particularly unattractive.

While some preliminary results will be published early next year, it would be unusual based on other censuses in the region that these preliminary results would contain any data on identity. This data will take considerably longer to process, and according the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) which includes representatives from Eurostat, the European Commission Directorate-General for Enlargement, the Council of Europe (CoE), United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the final results will be released between one and one and a half years from now. This waiting period unfortunately coincides with the next general elections meaning that leaked census results, real or made up might become a feature of next year’s electoral campaign. So the counting is over, the use and abuse of numbers has just begun.

Is Change Coming to Bosnia? Reflections on Protests and their Prospects

I want my ID number

When the protests in Turkey began on the 28 May, what struck me was the centrality of the Mediterranean as the focal areas of social movements in the last two years. In addition to the Arab spring (summer and winter), mass protests were held in Spain, Israel and Greece and Italy is experiencing a crisis of confidence in the established party system. While there, the democratic governments either fall or could/had to absorb the grievance of many, the dictatorships in the southern Mediterranean were not able to. While Turkey is closer to the democracies of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been more following the authoritarian reflex of its southern neighbors, thereby strengthening the protests.

At first, I was struck who the Balkans had been largely ‘protest-free’ in recent years, unlike neigbouring regions. However, recent protests in Bosnia suggest that the social movements against the status quo are now reaching the region as well. Of course, the protests in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities had other causes as the protests in Turkey or other countries of the Mediterranean, but also share a number of features: the carries are young, urban, feel excluded from politics and government and see now other way to chance the status quo than by protest. What is striking is that the loss of public spaces and parks has been a key feature in small scale protests in the last years in the Balkans: Protests in Banja Luka in June of last year over a park, in Belgrade the cutting down of trees on Bulevar Revolucije earlier and in Tirana also over the destruction of a park. These protests failed to gather the momentum as in Turkey, largely because local politics and national politics had different dynamics, but they highlighted the concern not just for parks, but also for the symbolic loss of public spaces and more broadly a public good to what seems like narrow commercial (and political) interests. Thus the destruction of a park is a symbolic act that carries more significance than “just” an environmental issue, as Orhan Pamuk expressed in his reflections on the protests.

The current protests in Bosnia are not about a park, but over the lack of a decision. In a county that is more characterised by decisions not taken and with a prime minister (officially chair of the council of ministers) who claims in his government’s defense that “I think we are not the worst of the world, nor are we a country like Zimbabwe or Somalia”, it is decisions not taken that create most grief. After the constitutional court ruled in February that the current law on ID numbers is unconstitutional the government has been unable to propose a solution, resulting in newborns not being able to receive official documents. This has meant that newborns can’t get passports and are thus unable to travel. When the small baby Belmina Ibrišević needed to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment, but could not get the documents, the lack of a decision became a life or death issue and galvanized public opinion and led to protests.

The Bosnian government is notorious for not taking decisions as these are caught between competing interests of the entities and ethnopolitics where the substance of decisions is trumped by the question of who is to be in charge. Next to ID numbers, this is nowhere as obvious as the dispute in Bosnia about veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians have been unable to agree on who is to implement the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers are likely to be unable to export their dairy products to Croatia once it joins the EU next month and more rigid controls come into effect. While here, also the economic survival of many hangs in the balance, it has not mobilized protests as the issue over ID numbers.

The response of political elites to the protests has been ugly. While some tried to ingratiate themselves with them, others dismissed the protests as either being anti-Serb or called on citizens to get off the streets and vote in next years elections. This response led Eric Gordy to comment in his blog that “[t]he national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”

While I wish he was right, I am more skeptical in my view. Heleen Touquet in her PhD on new social movements in Bosnia: “Escaping ethnopolis: postethnic mobilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (for the table of contents, see here) looked closely at groups in recent years that sought to mobilization citizens against the status quo. These efforts have largely failed, because they were unable to build a genuine cross-ethnic constituency or a country agenda that would make it difficult for existing elites to dismiss or ignore them. The new protest have this potential. There are, however, two formidable obstacles: First, how to build an agenda for change that all citizens of Bosnia can rally for. Second, how to translate this movement into a political option. While social movements can set the agenda, change has to come from the political system (unless it is overthrown in a revolution). While there are some parties (like Naša stranka) that aspire to pursue different politics than the currently dominant parties, it is at the moment hard to imagine a country-wide political movement that could be successful and transform the way decisions are taken and how the country is governed. The current political set-up encourages parties to run on mono-ethnic platforms and makes it easy of ethnonationalist parties to sow the seeds of doubt in change.

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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