Bosnia’s UN-appointed overseer has pledged to break a four-year political deadlock that has debilitated governance in the Balkan country, as he seeks to preserve its fragile stability and limit Russian influence.
Speaking ahead of Sunday’s general election, Christian Schmidt, a German diplomat who serves as high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said he had resisted changing the election rules before the vote in a way that would have angered the largest of the country’s three ethnics groups.
Instead he proposed post-election reforms to the country’s constitutional system, one of the most complex in the world, with changes aimed to unblock the paralysis and find a more representative political balance.
The constitution, devised as part of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that formally ended the three-and-a-half year war in Bosnia, is meant to prevent the larger ethnic groups from dominating the smaller ones. But it also leads to frequent obstruction and dysfunction in government as veto powers are used and abused.
“We will give the basic right of decision to the people,” Schmidt told the Financial Times. “What I focus on is not the direct elections as they are . . . but what comes after.
“In the past four years we’ve seen a blockade [of the functions of the Bosnian government]. Unblocking the structures, that’s my job, I’ll do that. I haven’t forgot this is a necessity.”
Bosnia is composed of two entities: the larger Federation made up of mostly Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats, and a smaller Serb Republic. Orthodox Serbs make up about a third of the total population of the country.
Schmidt this year proposed lessening the electoral influence of the Bosniaks, who outnumber Croats about three to one in the Federation. But some Bosniaks view that as unfair, invoking the memory of the ethnic strife that led to the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.
Specifically Schmidt wanted to compel the Bosniaks to stop misusing the complexity of the election system by sending Bosniak candidates to fill seats that are part of the Croat quota. He also wants guarantees that Croats would not obstruct government as they have done in response.
The Bosniaks, led by Bakir Izetbegović’s Party of Democratic Action, rejected the proposal, while the main Croat party HDZ welcomed it and said it would boycott government without the changes. Schmidt could revive the proposals in an effort to rebalance Bosnian politics.
Voters will on Sunday elect five different institutions: the three-person presidency of the country, the state parliament in the capital Sarajevo, the lower houses of the two entity assemblies, the president of the Serb Republic, and regional assemblies within the Federation. Representatives so chosen will in turn elect several more institutions.
Beyond ethnic divides, political jockeying also complicates the situation. The seat poaching has helped the main Bosniak party bolster its standing in the Federation, while HDZ dominates the Croatian vote even as it has blocked the appointment of the Federation’s government, leading to caretaker administrations and a broad state dysfunction.
The political deadlock has come just as Bosnia’s integrity has been openly questioned by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, widely seen as a Russian proxy in the Balkans. Dodik’s idea of seceding from Bosnia to join neighbouring Serbia has undermined regional stability, say analysts.
“Amid the uncertainty created by Russia’s war in Ukraine [there is] fear that a disputed election could trigger a major crisis in Bosnia,” the International Crisis Group wrote this week. “Antagonism between Bosniaks and Croats could erode the country’s ability to survive a separatist challenge by Serbs.”
In the absence of Schmidt’s election rules, Croats could lose important controls in the Federation. Analysts fear this could result in them rejecting the election results, which may prompt Dodik to do the same, leading to major imbalances in the structure of the Bosnian state.
“This may well be one of those ‘to be or not to be’ moments for Bosnia,” said Srecko Latal, editor of Balkan Insight. “If Croats are excluded from Federation politics that would be the end of Dayton as we know it.”
Western governments fear that even the threat of secession destabilises the region, thus serving Russian interests. Dodik has twice travelled to Moscow to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in the past three months, and the US state department identified his government as a recipient of Russian influence payments.
But Majda Ruge, an expert on the region at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia’s ability to assert its goals in Bosnia should not be overblown given Moscow’s limited economic leverage. “This ability mostly rests on the fact that its goals overlap with those of its proxies in Bosnia,” she wrote last week.
“Russia has always acted as a spoiler in Bosnia at a low cost. And it seems unlikely to change its approach at a time when the Russian economy is under severe pressure.”
A complex state structure and the lack of reliable data made the outcome of Sunday’s vote difficult to predict, experts said. The status quo is being challenged by several parties, including an anti-corruption group called the Troika.
The political tensions have eclipsed other priorities for Bosnia such as cleansing rampant corruption, ending the country’s deep economic dysfunction and putting it on track to eventual integration into the EU.