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.

A few imaginary lines or some news snake oil on Croat entities

In today’s brave new media world, stories, articles and interviews are quickly posted, reposted and shared. While it is making life difficult for many media outlets to get the reader to come their site or buy the newspaper or magazine, stories get a round quickly. Sometimes it seems that the reposting portals might do just a bit more than circulating an existing text.

The original interview

The original interview

It took me thus by surprise when some friends and acquaintances asked me a few days ago whether I really supported the creation of a Croat entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not having suffered amnesia recently this news surprised me as much as my friends. The source for these claims was the “re-print” of an interview I gave a few days ago to the Croatian daily Večernji List on the webportal (meaning viper in Croatian).

The title of the „interview“ was “Hrvatski entitet je isključivo hrvatsko pitanje. Radi se o naime o suverenom pravu koje se Bošnjaka ne tiče…”  a line one would not be able to find in the original interview. Following many questions which the portal correctly copied from the interview (without ever mentioning the original source), there comes the surprise:

The Fake

The question “Do Croats have the right to ask for their entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina?” which Večernji List never asked me followed by an answer I never gave:

“Of course they do, this is as if you’d ask me does the buyer of a car get the steering wheel for this car? Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are a constituent people and accordingly to all [sic!]UN convention sovereign people have the right even to self-determination and to declare independence. In this sense, the demand for territorial autonomy inside the state that is not questioned is a normal and legitimate process. The problem of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina is more the problem of the right expression of what that people anyhow have the right to considering that their political elite does a bad job and is inarticulate, whereas a part of the Croat political forces many years openly serves the Bosniak national project.

Broadly seen, Croats in BiH already have some ‘entities’ considering that cantons per definition are entities for themselves are entities [sic]. Entities in international law are nothing else but territorial units with specific institutions and competences.The international community constantly commits legal violence against Croats in BiH. The questions is when this body will radicalize and then the question will arise whether they will stay in BiH. Namely, Croats in BiH are above all a small nation who hold the balance, if you turn them against BiH I think that BiH is finished as a political idea.”

The fictional answer contains bad metaphors and the absurd idea that UN conventions have anything to say about constituent people, their right to self-determination or entities.

Following the next question the creative interviewer returned to an original question by VL, but took the liberty to embellish the answer (the added sections marked in bold) :

I think that the odds for this in current circumstances, are very slim, but politics is changeable and the question is what will be tomorrow. Remember Kosovo. Who foresaw the independence of this province? And Kosovo is not inhabited by a constituent people, but an ethnic minority in Serbia.

The failed constitutional reforms in BiH in 2006 and 2009 demonstrated that even minimal change to the Dayton Constitution is nearly impossible. Creating a Croat entity would be a major change to the Dayton Constitution and is opposed by Bosniak [the text in VL mistakenly writes Bosnian] politicians if it affects only the Federation.

Certainly the RS would oppose the changes if it would also affect the RS. As a result, I cannot see this coming about, unless this is part of a grand bargain between the political elites. However, the record has been poor. Finally, the census of next year is likely to show two things. First that Croats are much smaller in number than Bosniaks and Serbs and that many Croats do not live in areas with whom the Bosniak elite manipulates as ‘nominally Croat’ regions.  In this manner the theory of multiethnic Bosniaks is failing considering that ethnically mixed regions of BiH generally exist in regions that used to be part of Herceg Bosna.

These two points strength the arguments for creating a Croat entity but the question of its realization depends only on Croats. Frequently the wrong question is asked in public—will Bosniaks allow Croats this and to this one constantly returns. There is nothing Bosniaks have to allow Croats and neither Croats Bosniaks. The sovereign right of people are defined for themselves and concern only the nation to which it relates.

Also here the changes use terms like “Herceg Bosna“ which are not really widely used outside of, well “Herceg Bosna” and the additions constitute the opposite of my original statement which I concluded with the observation that “Both of these undermine arguments to create a Croatian entity.”

So why should I or anybody else care what some marginal portal called “Viper. Portal for Social Decontamination” makes up? With the quick spread of stories via social media such as twitter and facebook, few media are truly marginal. Thus, word spreads even from unserious portals such as as it attested by the numerous friends and acquaintances who found out that I was a clumsy defender of the supposed Croat right to a third entity. Secondly, news spread to another, more serious news portal, which circulated the fake interview, getting hundreds of hits (currently the portal is down). Thus quickly a few made up questions from a marginal portal become “real.”

Coalitions of the unwilling. Or who needs a government in Belgium, Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq?

A few countries around Europe and the Middle East have been having a harder time forming a government than most. If most Brits got nervous that there was no government formed for a few days following last years’ election, such a scenario sounds like a remote dream for Belgium, Bosnia, Lebanon and Iraq.

It took Iraq around nine months to form a government following parliamentary elections in March 2010, Lebanon had a change of premier in January, but the new premier Najib Mikati only was able to form a new cabinet a few days ago (based on support from Hizbollah and its allies). Belgium is “celebrating” a year since the parliament elections without a government and Bosnia is slowly catching up (emphasis on slowly) with Belgium, having held elections in October 2010 and only a few days ago the three member state presidency held a straw poll who might be the best candidate for the post—it looks likely that the government will not be formed before the fall. Of course, all four countries share a key feature: They are power-sharing systems, which require coalitions of the unwilling. Coalitions are between parties which have campaign against one another and which have often antagonistic views over the future of the country, not to mention its policies. Thus, coalitions are not based on securing “just” a majority, but rather on including parties representing the often deep divisions in society. With fractious and unstable party systems, forming a government is not an easy task.

It might be tempting to conclude that power sharing system which allocate power to parties claiming to represent these different ethnic, linguistic or religious groups should be done away with. Simple majority rule is, however, no alternative in the three countries. In Lebanon, Hizbollah would be able to take over the country, in Belgium Flemish nationalists would be able to dismantle the state with not consideration of the Walloon community, in Bosnia, a Bosniak parties might govern over a state that can’t govern of half of it, the Serb Republic (or alternatively, a Croat-Serb coalition would dominate at the expense of the largest population group), etc. A different alternative is the system used in Northern Ireland. Instead of lengthy coalition negotiations between parties which in all probability anyhow have to end up in government with each other, the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 just does away with complicated government formation altogether. Here the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are elected by a double majority of both unionists and nationalists, all subsequent ministers are chosen by the D’Hondt system, which allows parties to pick ministerial posts according to their size and means that there is no need for negation between parties and all have a stake in the government. Of course, this also means that no party will be in opposition, but voting largely determines the dominance in the executive, rather than who is represented at all.

If such a solution is not possible, the question arises, does one really need a government? In Belgium, there have been protests in favor of any government (probably a first in history), a senator calling for a sex strike of the wives of Belgian’s politicians and the initiative G1000 which seeks to bring together 1000 citizens to demonstrate than in a few days of popular debate more feasible solutions and compromises can be found than after more than a year of talks among parties. Despite all the civic activism for a government, Belgium managed to hold the EU presidency, reduce its budget deficit and generally have a working country with only a caretaker government. The others’ are less lucky. Without a proper government and a budget, Bosnia was unable to draw further loans from IMF, is unable to move forward with EU integration, whereas Lebanon and Iraq were similarly paralyzed without a fully acting government. The secret to Belgium’s ‘non-governmental’ success despite its difficulties is simple, it is called the European Union and its regions and communities to which many powers are devolved. Granted, the EU lacks clear decision making structures and much of what one would expect from a government, but the Belgium experience demonstrates that it can be a crucial proxy for having a government. Monetary policy, no need. Foreign and security policy, not a big deal for a small EU member. Most laws and regulations come from the EU. What is not done by the EU in terms of everyday life is organized by the regions or communities. This leaves Belgium in the absence of a legitimate government much less exposed than Lebanon, Bosnia or Iraq. Now, of course, the problem is that some ethnic, linguistic or religious parties actually want to demonstrate just that—namely that the state is unnecessary. If citizens don’t feel the pinch of having a government, they might become less attached to the state. This is of course a fundamental dilemma, who much government does there need to be to make it worthwhile for citizens to have a state and what is the maximum of government and state some citizens can take before they support some alternative. Whatever the specific answer maybe, there are times when a country can work, even if there is no government.

First published on Nationalities Blog

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