My guest today is Dr. Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and policy specialist in Southeast European and international affairs. He has worked as a scholar, policy analyst, consultant, researcher, and writer in North America and Europe. Jasmin’s academic research concentrates primarily on the politics of contemporary south-eastern Europe, which focuses particularly on the politics of the non-EU states of the Western Balkans. He joins me today to discuss the unfolding constitutional crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Some of the topics discussed in Part 1 are:
- The political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Embedded tensions in Bosnian politics
- Political actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Impact of Serb and Croat Nationalism in Bosnia
- Status of the 2nd of October general elections
- Irregularities in the election
- Victory of Pro-Bosnian candidates in the Federation entity
- Attempts of further sectarian segregation by nationalists
Part 2 will be released on Thursday, 27th of October, where we do a deep dive into the controversial decision by the High Representative to change the electoral law on the night of the elections. We also explore what this means for Bosnia and Herzegovina more broadly and what role regional and global powers play in the nation’s future.
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Special Release: Jasmin Mujanovic – On The Unfolding Constitutional Crisis In Bosnia And Herzegovina – Part 1
Welcome to part one of my conversation with Jasmin Mujanovic, which focused on the growing tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this part of our conversation, we cover topics such as the incredibly complex political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the multitude of structural tensions that are embedded within.
Jasmin also explained the principal political actors in Bosnia and highlighted the growing divisive rhetoric by nationalist leaders. We discussed the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the October 2nd, 2022 general elections, as well as the multitude of irregularities that have been observed. We conclude this part with a discussion about attempts mainly by Croat nationalists to force and formalise deeper sectarian segregation in the Bosnia political system.
Part two was released on Thursday, 27th of October, 2022, where we did a deep dive into the controversial decision by the high representative to change electoral law on the night of the elections. We also explore what this means for Bosnia and Herzegovina more broadly and what role regional and global powers play in the nation’s future. Finally, if you’re getting value out of the show, please consider becoming a patron at Patreon.com/TheVoicesofWar. Thank you.
In this episode, my guest is Dr. Jasmin Mujanovic, who is a Political Scientist and Policy Specialist in Southeast European and International Affairs. He has worked as a scholar, policy analyst, consultant, researcher and writer in both North America and Europe. Jasmin’s academic research concentrates primarily on the politics of contemporary Southeastern Europe, with a particular focus on the politics of the non-EU states of the Western Balkans. He joins me to discuss the unfolding constitutional crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina that, coincidentally, both of us are from. Jasmin, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thanks for having me. It’s always good to meet another Bosnian with another exciting English accent. We all speak our acquired languages in different ways.
Aren’t we the chameleons? Wherever we’re settled, we’ll tend to adopt. That’s perhaps a good place to start as well because it’s only fair that we explain to our audience a little bit about your background, especially given that it’s rather similar to my own. Before we dive into the mind-blowing complexity of Bosnia politics, maybe you can give us a potted version of your life story, and explain why you ended up researching the Western Balkans.
We’re an ‘80s generation of kids. When the war broke out in Bosnia and the broader Yugoslav dissolution was unfolding, we were quite young. We were kids. My family fled Sarajevo, where we’re from, in April of 1992, which was very early on in the war. We were only there for the ramping up to the most significant episodes of violence.
We were displaced. We were refugees across a number of European countries. We eventually settled in Germany for a number of years. It’s a familiar route and what I sometimes call the usual refugee route. Eventually, we settled in Canada in 1996, which is where I grew up from about the age of 9 or 10. Since then, my life has taken me to other places, including the United States. As an adult, I have lived and worked in Bosnia as well.
It is a very familiar path, but why researching the Western Balkans?
To be honest with you, I resisted it for a long time. When I was going through my academic processes and doing my BA and MA, I did nothing to do with the Balkans. I worked on social movements, democratic theory and those kinds of things. I grew up in a very political household, given the circumstances of our departure from Bosnia.
In many ways, our generation was quite resentful of the things that had happened to us. I didn’t want to re-traumatise myself, for lack of a better term. I wanted to use the opportunities that were afforded to me in places like Canada to strike out on my own. By the time I got to my PhD, I realised that I was cheating on myself intellectually.
What I would be doing is reading my turgid democratic theory, Sheldon Wolin and whole other kinds of things. At night, I would be reading Bosnian media, watching Bosnian YouTube and these kinds of things. Also, read things from Serbia, Kosovo and wherever else. I realised at some point, “You’re clearly interested in this, so you have to make a deal.”
I made a deal with myself, and the deal was if I was going to study, work, and write on Bosnia and the Balkans, it had to be in a way that I felt was not just intellectually honest but was also novel, by which I mean that I was going to try to bring something to this literature and these debates that I felt wasn’t there to date. What that meant for me at the time was that I was going to bring my interest in democratic theories and theories of democratisation, social movements and civil activism. I was going to bring that to the literature and the debates about Bosnia and the post-war Western Balkans.
That is what eventually turned into my first book. In many ways, despite the fact that I increasingly work on things related to what we would essentially call security studies, in my mind, I don’t know whether maybe the people who read my work feel this way. They can criticise me in a way they see fit but in my mind, it’s always underpinned by this commitment to what I consider democratic theory and democratisation, the roots and sources of democracy in a grand social sense.
Many of the things you said resonated with me, particularly the piece about being pulled back into it. I’ve tried to stay away from Bosnian politics, and I have largely. My partner and I went to Bosnia and started a not-for-profit as a way of doing something. Even this show has its roots in dealing with or healing my trauma from those years. Also, to try and understand what it is that divides people and how we can find paths towards dialogue, peace and democracy in a long-term sense. All of that resonates with me.
That’s perhaps a nice way to pivot to my first question on the topic and that is the absurd complexity of Bosnia and Bosnia politics. It’s only fair that we get you to explain a little bit about the surface-level complexities. It’s necessary for anyone who hasn’t decided to walk down the perilous path of trying to understand what’s happening in Bosnia. Maybe a brief outline of the origin of the structures and the tensions that are embedded within.
What I will say right off the bat is what I always remind my audiences, including policy audiences. Bosnia and Herzegovina have the most complicated constitutional regime in the world. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The basic breakdown here is that Bosnia’s constitution is the product of the Dayton Peace Accords, which brought about the end of the Bosnian War, which lasted from 1992 to 1995.Bosnia and Herzegovina has the most complicated constitutional regime in the world. Click To Tweet
It was part of the broader Yugoslav Wars and the Yugoslav dissolution crisis, which lasted from ‘91 until 2001. Also, conflicts in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and then eventually in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro and then the 1999 air campaign. Eventually, a relatively minor insurgency in what is North Macedonia. Over the course of that, essentially, a decade of war, we have a total death poll of somewhere in the neighbourhood of 140,000 to 150,000 people. This is collectively for all of these Yugoslav wars.
Far and away, the deadliest of these conflicts is the Bosnian War. Fully 100,000 people are killed in Bosnia alone. Disproportionately, the largest number of those killed was not just in Bosnia but in the entirety of the Yugoslav wars, come specifically from the ethnic Bosniak community. This is what we’re formerly referred to in the West as Bosnian Muslims.
The reason for that is that the Serb nationalist forces in Bosnia were directly not just backed but were realistically proxy forces of the Serbian state under Slobodan Milošević, specifically targeted ethnic Bosniaks for extermination and expulsion to create what is 1 of the 2 so-called constituent entities of the Bosnia state, the Republika Srpska.
In the Republika Srpska, we can most readily compare to what the Russians are presently doing in Ukraine. It’s these so-called self-declared people’s republics in Donetsk, Luhansk and other places. It’s that kind of model that you occupy and expel. You claim to have established a new political regime in these occupied territories.
That’s a very sensitive thing to say. I’d imagine that any Serbs or Serbians in my audience will probably react to that, as much as I agree and see that point. We’ll circle back on that because that’s an important comparison to make. It also froze the conflict or effectively created a ceasefire from ‘95 onwards, which is an important one. This is why I want to highlight that.
I’m happy to circle back on that. Suffice it to say, without getting into the weeds, in 1995, the US brokers and Dayton Peace Accords do a number of very important things, which continue to, in various ways, inform, shape and bedevil contemporary Bosnia politics. The one structural main takeaway from Dayton is that Bosnia continues as a sovereign state in terms of its international character.
Bosnia declared independence in 1992, and Dayton affirms that. However, Dayton internally partitioned Bosnia and it created this extremely complex political regime, almost the entirety of which is divided along strict ethnosectarian lines, specifically between the Dayton Accords and Annex 4, which is Bosnia’s constitution. Incidentally, as far as I know, Bosnia’s constitution is the only constitution in the world, which is an annex of a broader document.
It was written first time in English.
That’s another thing. There is no local official translation, nor has it ever passed the Bosnia Parliament. The only legal, constitutional language that we have is first and foremost in English, which is important, but we’re not going to get into the weeds about the difference between the terms constituent and constitutive.
The Dayton Constitution creates this extremely convoluted political structure. The main features are that Bosnia is divided into a series of so-called entities and cantons. You have two primary entities, the Republika Srpska and then, in the Western part of the country, you have the so-called Federation entity.
Most of Bosnia’s Bosniak communities live in the Federation entity. Most of the country’s Serb community lives in the Republika Srpska, although there are large or significant minorities of each in the other entity. Moreover, the Federation entity is then further subdivided into ten so-called cantons, most of which are divided along ethnic lines. There’s a handful of majority Bosniak cantons, a handful of majority Croat cantons, and 2 or 3, depending on how you want to count, mixed cantons.
There is also a so-called District in the Northeast of the country. This is the city of Brčko. Brčko is very important because it strategically splits the physical territory of the RS entity in two so the Western half of the Republika Srpska, where the de facto capital of the entity Banja Luka is located, does not share a physical land border with Serbia because of the existence of the district of Brčko.
Finally, on top of this pyramid, you have what’s called the Office of the High Representative. This is an internationally appointed envoy, and he is the final authority to determine the correct interpretation as it were of the Bosnian Constitution and the Dayton Accords. I do say he because it has only ever been men who have occupied this office, including the 2022 occupant of the office, a former German parliamentarian by the name of Christian Schmidt.
It should also be said that each of these respective canton entities all have their own parliaments. You have fourteen different parliaments on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina to give people an approximate sense. I usually say to my American audiences it’s about the size of West Virginia. In Europe, we might say it’s approximately the size of Wales.
For perhaps some of your readers in Australia or New Zealand, we might say it’s approximately the size of Tasmania, give or take. It’s a little bit bigger but not much bigger. The population of Bosnia, according to the census in 2013, is over 30 million people, but most people understand that due to high rates of immigration and people leaving the country, the population of Bosnia is probably under 3 million. I would wager at this juncture.
What a wonderful summary of such a complex political setup. The only other piece to that is that there are three presidents on a rotating cycle. Each of those presidents has to be one of the dominant ethnic groups, a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat. That in itself is then infused with a number of challenges because they have a tendency to not do much.
They each have several mandates during which they are the so-called chairman of the presidency. There’s no particular power invested in being the chairman other than certain technocratic like you set the daily agenda for the meeting of the presidency, but most decisions that the presidency takes have to be at least a 2 out of 3 majorities. In certain key decisions, you have to have consensus among all three of the presidency members.
The bigger issue vis-a-vis the presidency, and I’m sure we’ll get into this over the course of our conversation, is the fact that this setup is discriminatory. The state of Bosnia and Dayton Constitutional order, as it were, has lost a series of eight key constitutional court decisions, both in front of Bosnia’s constitutional court and, very importantly, the European Court of Human Rights or Strasbourg, essentially all on the grounds of discrimination. Unless you essentially identify with one of these three so-called constituent groups, the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, your political rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina are fairly severely curtailed.
It’s effectively non-existent because you can represent in the Upper House, but you certainly can’t be the president. For example, someone like myself would identify in the Bosnia context as another, in other words, not part of any of the ethnic groups. It’s the 4% minority of the other. I could never be president of my birth nation, never mind the fact that I don’t live there, so I’m probably a very bad example, but anybody living there that has a similar identity as me would never be able to be a president of their country.
The example I also give frequently is that I come from an unusually ethnically homogenous family. Although, for instance, not been religious at all for the better part of the last four generations. If I chose, for instance to say, “I’m a Bosniak, and I identify with the Bosniak community,” I don’t particularly, but there it is. If I wanted to participate in political life, I could say that. However, my children, who are from a mixed marriage because my partner is neither Bosniak nor Bosnian, could not.
They would have to essentially claim to be essentially exclusively Bosniak, for instance, or for that matter, if they wanted to claim to be exclusively Serb, Croat or whatever else, they would be potentially challenged certainly in the day-to-day politics by any number of nationalist sectarian actors who would say, “No. You can’t be a Bosniak, a Croat or a Serb. You’re from a mixed marriage. Your last name is wrong. You’re not a practising Muslim, Catholic or sort of Orthodox.” It’s a cynical and pretty twisted political regime, especially for 21st-century European polity that, on the face of it, should be a democracy.
It’s important to stress how much this dictates the lives of everyday Bosnians. I remember speaking to a friend of mine in Sarajevo who’s much like myself. We share the same first name. That’s all I’ll say. His first name is Vedran. He wanted to join the police force and was hedging his bets as to where his greater chance would be if he joined the police force as a Croat or as a Bosniak.
With the numbers that they were taking in that particular intake to match quotas of Croats, he chose to go in as a Croat, never mind the fact that he’s got zero to do with Croatia, Croatianism, whatever that is. Catholicism is not religious, but that’s how you have to play the game, so to speak. It was the architecture of the country such that ethnicity is deeply embedded in everything you do. It’s crippling.
The other thing that is worth stating, because this sometimes gets lost in these conversations, is if we’re talking on a basic political, human level, there’s no issue whatsoever with someone identifying as being Croat, Serb, Bosniak, Roma, Jewish, Hungarian or Italian. There are Hungarian and Italian minorities. Historically in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are a handful of those individuals who still left and part.
In a liberal democratic society, your personal identity is up to you. You and your community members should be able to participate in all the respective rights, shall we say, that constitute your collective life as a community. There should be no impediments to that whatsoever, whether it be the free practice of your religion, the preservation of your language, the preservation of your script or any other cultural practices.In a liberal democratic society, your identity is up to you. You and your community members should be able to participate in all the respective rights that constitute your collective life as a community. Click To Tweet
That’s all fantastic, good, and well, but when you create a system in which political rights and the right to political participation are delineated on the basis of your ethnic identity, that only has the product of promoting sectarianism and turning individual identities and indeed, collective identities into sources of strife and conflict. That is the perversity of the “peace agreement,” with which Bosnia has been saddled for the better part of the last quarter century.
That’s a perfect pivot as well to the elections, which we had on the 2nd of October 2022, the general election in Bosnia. This will tie in neatly with our previous discussion on how deeply infused ethnicity is. Firstly, the political parties, broadly speaking, are certainly on the right side of the political spectrum in how they’re delineated. What is the status of the 2nd of October 2022 general elections, noting the fact that we’re speaking on the 21st of October 2022?
Bosnia’s political party system, and you will not be shocked to know, is exceedingly complex. Most Western observers, however, tend to either not understand it or, when they think they understand it, they misrepresent it. Let me try to demystify it a little bit. The main and most relevant political actors in Bosnia are three main nationalist blocks among the Bosniak community, which is the largest community in the country and constitutes somewhere between approximately 50% and 51% of the population overall.
You have the SDA Party, the Party of Democratic Action. This is the main Bosniak nationalist vehicle. On the Croat side, you have the Croat Nationalist HDZ Party. This is the Croat Democratic Union or Croatian Democratic Union, depending on which translation you want to use. In the RS entity and among the broader Serb community, the main vehicle of Serb nationalism is the SNSD, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats.
At this juncture, I want to be careful about my language and also explain the language I’m using. When I say Bosniak nationalist, Serb nationalist or Croat nationalist, I’m not suggesting that all Croats, all Serbs or all Bosniaks are nationalists. No. I’m trying to specifically hone in on those individuals and parties who are nationalist in terms of their policies, politics and rhetoric.
These three parties collectively do win a very significant chunk of the overall vote share. However, they always need to caucus with other political actors to be able to form a government. This is where the situation then gets more complex. For instance, in the RS entity, there is a whole host of so-called opposition parties. Almost all of those parties are, to one extent or another, essentially Serb nationalist parties.
The difference between them and the SNSD is rooted in a number of things. One, Milorad Dodik, who is the very controversial and long-time leader of the SNSD, is a secessionist. He wants to break up Bosnia and take the RS entity out of Bosnia. He’s also been in power since 2006 and has created an expansive patronage economy in the RS entity.
The RS opposition parties don’t necessarily disagree with Dodik as to the continued existence of the RS entity or even the nature of the war in Bosnia during the 1990s. What they go after him on is the idea of secession and they’re considerably more ambivalent about that idea for various reasons. Many of them are quite pragmatic. They think it’s unfeasible, dangerous and would lead to renewed violence. Also, on corruption charges.
This is where they go after him that he’s a criminal, a mafia boss and that kind of stuff. It also means, in practice, however, because they have this more critical view towards Dodik and the SNSD, that they’re a little bit more open to cooperation with some of the other Bosnian parties, in particular, the Federation entity. Who are these other parties?
In the Federation entity, you have a large albeit disparate camp of self-identifying Bosnian parties or sometimes referred to as pro-Bosnian parties. The label pro-Bosnian would also probably include the SDA. What is the difference between Bosnian versus Bosniak? These are parties who believe in a civic, multi-ethnic, secular Bosnia and Herzegovina, wherein Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks are all fundamentally Bosnians and should derive political rights on the basis of that shared national civic identity.
For instance, you live in Australia, and I live in the US. Whether someone is of African ancestry, East Asian ancestry or European ancestry, it doesn’t matter. When you come to Canada, the US or Australia, you become that. You become, first and foremost, an Aussie, American or Canadian. That is essentially the political program that these parties want to enact in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The key actors in this Bosnian camp essentially are the social democratic party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a party that calls itself Our Party or Naša Stranka. As well as a party called the Democratic Front, whose leader is the Croat member of the state presidency, Željko Komšić.
To form government in Bosnia, you have to always be mixing and melding these nationalist sectarian actors with civic-oriented actors. Essentially, post-war Bosnia politics has been defined as the push-pull dynamic between both the nationalist actors among themselves but also more broadly between the nationalists on the one side and the civic camp on the other. It’s an exceedingly complex day-to-day political atmosphere.
That complexity is made worse by the fact that Bosnia ethnicity and nationality are oftentimes confused, or at least they merged, which is the point you were making. I might be an ethnic Bosnian, but I have an Australian passport. I will travel around the world as an Australian. In Bosnia, that’s not necessarily the case. You might have a Bosnian passport, which is certainly many in Bosnia wouldn’t be very proud of that or wouldn’t even want a Bosnian passport because they would identify as Serb or Croat. That’s a longstanding tension that exists in Bosnia, and that’s been made worse by these structural divisions or ongoing homogenisation of the country since the war.
It’s also interesting. It bears explicating that there’s been a troubling mutation in the nature, in particular, of Serb and Croat nationalist discourses, vis-a-vis this question. You’re right that nationalism has long been a feature, not just in Bosnian politics but Balkan politics more broadly. In the 20th century, the prevailing narrative among Serb nationalists, both in Bosnia and Serbia and Croat nationalists in Bosnia and Croatia, respectively, was that Bosnia was, depending on whom you were talking to, Serbian land or Croatian land that then happened to feature various other kinds of minorities.
They were making a claim to Bosnia but also simultaneously acknowledging the distinctness of Bosnia. It is one of the Serbian lands and Croatian lands. Since the end of the Bosnian War, that position has shifted even further, shall we say, to the right and a still more extremist thing. The contemporary position of people like Milorad Dodik or his partner in the main Croat nationalist party, Dragan Čović, increasingly is that Bosnia doesn’t exist. It has never existed.
There is no such thing as a Bosnian identity, a Bosnian culture or a Bosnian history. Those territories that are inhabited by ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats within the contemporary state of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be pulled out of Bosnia and upended to Serbia and Croatia, respectively. That’s a significant, shall we say, normative shift and a significant form of radicalisation in what was already a pretty reactionary and problematic position to begin with.
That’s a very interesting tie-in to what we’re seeing in Ukraine. It’s tying historical ownership of a particular territory and ignoring the ongoing existence of a different strong identity. That’s part of the problem and confusing that identity with an Islamic identity rather than a nation-state of Bosnia identity. That’s how it’s also been projected.
Is it also fair to say that all of the hate speech that we’ve seen, certainly around these elections, across all the parties contesting the elections is certainly nothing new in involving context? The drums of war are continuously being used or struck as a way to galvanise support amongst the nationalist base of those individual leaders. We’ve seen that across all three sides using the past and the war as a way to retain their powers.
That is fair to say that nationalist rhetoric and sectarian rhetoric have been a long-time feature of Bosnian electoral politics. There were a number of rather morbid incidents during this electoral campaign, for instance, when the wife of the leader of the main Bosniak nationalist party invoked and said that if her party loses, with the Bosniak community, it will just be a matter of time before they end up in mass graves and concentration camps again in gross despicable stuff.
I’m sensitive about this because I do spend a lot of time talking to various Western policymakers, and one of the things I often hear is, “We’ve been hearing this rhetoric for a long time, status quo in Bosnia.” I don’t think it’s status quo in Bosnia because any objective assessment of what has happened in Bosnia since ’06, when Dodik comes to power, is we have seen a progressive piecemeal but very consistent deterioration in the overall political and security climate in the country.
Bosnia is objectively a less stable and less safe place than it was, ironically enough, in 2005 or 2006 when the memory of the war was still very present. It was barely ten years after the war. I remember my first visit to Bosnia after the war in the early 2000s as a teenager. I remember what the country looked like and the kind of fear that I felt and people felt.
I don’t say this lightly, but the asymmetric radicalisation that we’ve seen, in particular among the Serb and Croat nationalist camps in Bosnia, is very alarming to me. That’s not at all to let parties like the SDA off the hook. I’ve written extensively about their bad behaviour, in particular as far as corruption and criminality are concerned. In Ukraine, on the eve of the February 2022 re-invasion, we have to be careful not to take an all-sides approach because there is a difference between engaging in corruption and criminality, which many pro-Bosnian and Bosniak actors certainly do. Also threatening the very integrity and survival of the state.In Ukraine, on the eve of the February 2022 re-invasion, we have to be careful not to take an all-sides approach because there is a difference between engaging in corruption and criminality. Click To Tweet
The consequences of that and the implications of those kinds of politics are on a wholly different plain to me than corruption and criminality, as much as I find them personally and politically offensive and abhorrent. It also plays a role in undermining the capacity of the state of Bosnia. We’ll take that as a red, but there’s nevertheless a difference.
I couldn’t agree more. I certainly wasn’t trying to do the old Trump move of saying there are good and bad people on the North side. I wasn’t doing that. You’re nearly highlighting that ethnicity is still used as a lever, and war is used as a lever to retain support. What is the state of the 2nd of October 2022 general elections? Where are we standing?
There are two very different and complicated things that need to be addressed. First of all, there was a host of irregularities that accompanied the elections in terms of the actual conduct of the vote. From what the Central Electoral Commission of Bosnia has itself decided and deduced, the largest chunk of those irregularities appeared to have happened in the RS entity, specifically concerning the race not of the presidency of Bosnia but the president of the RS entity where Milorad Dodik, the secessionist leader, was running.
He had previously been a member of the state presidency. He opted to switch or return to the entity presidency. He was running against an opposition candidate by the name of Jelena Trivić. On the night of the elections themselves, on October 2nd, 2022, Trivić came out and said, “We won. The opposition has won. We’ve claimed this seed.” I should say right here that that’s not particularly unusual. Bosnian political candidates have a tendency of claiming victory, and that’s part of the ritual. “I’ll declare victory first, and then we’ll see where we’re at.”
That’s not particularly unusual. What is unusual is how sure Trivić and her camp seemed. They went out and celebrated in the streets. Also, on the flip side, how muted the reaction in the SNSD camp was that night. There were several pieces of very interesting footage circulating, which showed Dodik himself very upset. I can also say, as somebody who was in Sarajevo at the time and was receiving a lot of first-hand accounts from people in the field, there was the sense that Dodik was running behind in certain key municipalities where he was expected to do very well.
It was a little one of those John King and the Magic Wall on CNN like, “We’re doing badly in the Florida Panhandle.” It was one of these things. It was not entirely plausible, although it was a potential political earthquake in Bosnia, that Dodik was in a very tight race. The Central Electoral Commission that night says, “We’re going home and rest. We’ll inform you in the morning as to what the status of the race is.” When they reconvene in the morning and start releasing some of the first preliminary results, the narrative has shifted and Dodik is running well ahead of Jelena Trivić and here we go.
I want to be careful here. It’s not impossible by any stretch of the imagination that a candidate who is seemingly behind after a big vote dump comes in from key municipalities where his party is strong suddenly is doing well. There’s nothing inherently illegitimate wrong or suspicious about that, but what happens then is that the opposition comes out very forcefully and says, “We have very credible allegations and evidence of mass voter fraud.”
The Central Electoral Commission says, “We’re going to look into it.” They start looking into it, and they then start saying, “We agree.” They start issuing a recount specifically for the race for the presidency and then also a handful of other recounts in a number of other municipalities, including some in the Federation entity. That is all happening in the immediate aftermath of that first week after October 2nd, 2022.
If you can, mention some of those irregularities because some of them were rather bizarre and huge.
You’re right. There was a whole host of things that were going on. There was classic ballot stuffing. Prefilled ballots are being stuffed into ballot boxes. There was evidence of ballot boxes being opened and ballots being removed and destroyed, including through burning. There were also instances, even according to the Central Electoral Commission, of very large numbers of sacks of ballots that were to be transported and counted disappearing, including up to the city of Doboj, which is one of the larger urban centres in the RS. Technically, part of it is in the Federation.
We think somewhere potentially in the neighbourhood of as many as 19,000 missing ballots. The entity of the RS realistically has a population of less than 1 million people at this juncture. The overall turnout at the elections, we’re told, was around 50%, so very low. When you’re talking about 19,000 ballots in a small polity like Bosnia and the RS entity, this is a very significant chunk of votes.
Especially in a tight race.
It’s enough to swing election results. The instances were pretty jarring. The fact that the Electoral Commission itself was coming out and saying, “We have questions,” is what set things off. As of October 21st, 2022, we are still in the process of a recount. We still do not have official results as least as far as the RS entity presidency race is concerned.
There is an important deadline on October 22nd, 2022. We may hear more at that time from the Central Electoral Commission, but we genuinely don’t know. I will say my gut feeling is probably that Dodik has legitimately won but that he won by a more narrow margin than his side claimed. That in itself will be quite contentious. The broader political environment around the conduct of elections will leave a very bad taste in the mouths of many people in Bosnia.
Given all the irregularities like the burning of votes and dumping votes out of nowhere, what do you see is the likelihood of an actual re-election?
The Central Electoral Commission came out on October 20th, 2022. They said that they were not going to issue a rerun of the elections. That would be a pretty dramatic result. To be clear, this has happened in Bosnia before. Elections have been rerun, but they’ve been rerun at the individual municipal level and we’ve never had a rerun of elections as large and significant administrative level as an entire entity. That would be a very serious political development for Bosnia. Dodik and his SNSD block would be very unhappy with that. Not that that should stop anyone, but just saying.
Before we get into the second issue, which has caused some serious tremors both in Bosnia and regionally, perhaps even globally, there is a little bit of sunshine here somewhere. Some of the pro-Bosnian parties have at least made inroads in the Federation party. Maybe we can shine a bit of optimism on all of this before we then go down into the pits of the second challenge.
We had a stunning electoral result in the Federation, in particular, vis-a-vis the presidency. We were talking about this tripartite presidency. The Serb member of the state presidency is elected exclusively from the RS entity, which means that Serbs in the Federation entity, of whom there are tens of thousands, are out of luck. They don’t get to vote for a certain member of the state presidency. By the same token, Bosniaks, Croats and the RS entity don’t get to vote for the Bosniak and Croat members of the state presidency. That’s just the way it is in Dayton. You live in the wrong part of the country. What can I do?
The Federation entity allocates the Croat and Bosniak members of the state presidency. For the Bosniak race, Bakir Izetbegović is the leader of the SDA party running for the presidency. He has held that position before, but during the previous mandate, he had not been in that office because you can only have two successive terms in a row.
We’ve got to rotate the seats every now and then.
Šefik Džaferović, another member of the SDA, had won the Bosniak seat in 2018, although quite narrowly, against a guy by the name of Denis Bećirović, who is a member of the SDP, the Social Democrats. In the 2022 election, Bećirović was essentially the coalition candidate of every other pro-Bosnian party in the Federation and Bosnia as a whole, other than the SDA.
You had a very sharp runoff essentially, although there was a third-place candidate who also ran. I’ll say a little bit about that in a second because it is significant. It was a Bosnian American professor by the name of Mirsad Hadžikadić. What happens? Denis Bećirović destroys Bakir Izetbegović by the second most significant margin in post-war Bosnian politics. He wins something like 57% of the vote to Izetbegović’s, I believe 37%.
You combine the vote share that Hadžikadić wins, which is about 5%. The reason why you can combine it with Bećirović is that he also ran on a broadly reformed civic platform, so very much the same electorate. It’s logical to assume that his voters would have gone to Bećirović rather than Izetbegović. If you say that 57% plus 4% or 5%, you’re talking about a margin of somewhere in the neighborhood of low 60% or 62%.
He crushed him. What’s significant about this is not just that Izetbegović is the leader of the SDA, but he’s the son of the first wartime president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, who certainly among Bosniaks and Bosnia has a very positive reputation. “Father of the nation,” this kind of jazz. This was a very significant rebuke of the main Bosniak nationalist party. Not just the Bosniak electorate but also very large numbers of Bosnians as a whole. We have some indication that a not insignificant number of Bosniaks and Croats also voted for Izetbegović.
On the Croat’s side, the situation is a bit more complicated but nevertheless significant where Željko Komšić who is this self-identifying Bosnian anti-nationalist figure and who strongly identifies as being Bosnian rather the Croat but is ethnically Croat, once again was successfully re-elected to the Croat seat on the state presidency. He defeated a woman by the name of Borjana Krišto, who was the HDZ candidate.
What’s contentious about this, at least according to the HDZ, is that Krišto won significant support among Bosnian Croats within Bosnia. We can say the majority of Bosnian Croats who went out into the elections voted for Borjana Krišto rather than Željko Komšić. Certainly not all of them. Komšić does enjoy support among a segment of the Croat community, which identifies more with Bosnia than with Croatia, more with these moderate, multi-ethnic parties than with the HDZ. Krišto did win very clearly the majority of the Croat votes in Bosnia.
The reason why this is significant is because the HDZ argues incorrectly that the Croat, Bosniak and Serb members of the state presidency are exclusively to be elected by the ethnic constituencies from which they come, i.e., only Croats should be able to vote for the Croat member of the state presidency. Only Bosniaks should be able to vote for the Bosniak member of the presidency. Only Serbs should be able to vote for the Serb member.
That is not what the Constitution says, first and foremost. The Constitution only says that a Bosniak, a Croat from the Federation and a Serb from the RS entity will constitute the state presidency. That’s significant because they are collectively meant to represent all Bosnians and the interests of all citizens, not only their own voters or, indeed, their own ethnic constituency.
To put into practice what the HDZ wants or claims, Bosnian constitutional law says, would require some very significant form of segregation at the ballot box. Either you would have to create exclusively ethnically constituted electoral units, or you would have to create a system whereby people are physically given different ballots according to their ethnicity. They would also have to somehow prove that they are what they say they are, presumably via their identity documents. You would have to say in your state ID, which all Bosnians have, what your ethnicity is.
Not ironically, the lična karta or the IDs that Bosnians do have does have a slot for ethnicity, but almost everyone keeps it blank for various reasons, including a series of legal rulings which have said that that’s discriminatory. You can’t force someone to declare their ethnicity. By what legal or democratic mechanism would you do this?
This is the impasse of what the HDZ wants. Everyone that understands European legal practice is legally unsustainable. Article 2.2 of the Bosnian Constitution says that the European Convention and Human Rights supersedes all Bosnian domestic law. Even if the Bosnian authorities were to pass such a law that would do what the HDZ wants it to do, it would be illegal by virtue of Bosnia’s own constitution, which says the European Court of Human Rights supersedes domestic law.
It is one of the articles which the Constitution also says cannot be removed or abridged. You can’t even remove that clause from the Bosnian constitution. This goes back to what I was saying about this push-pull between the civic and nationalist actors. The nationalist camp doesn’t only just like and benefit from the existing ethnosectarian model in Bosnia. They want to entrench it and deepen it further, which I imagine will bring us to the next part of the conversation.The nationalist camp doesn’t only benefit from the existing ethnosectarian model in Bosnia. They want to entrench it and deepen it further. Click To Tweet
Before we do that, I want to pick up on one point. I want to give perhaps some credit where credits are due. It seems to me, at least, that the designers of the Dayton Peace Accords had already given this some thought, which is partially the reason why, as undemocratic as it seems on the surface, why Bosniaks and RS can’t vote for the Bosniak representative. The designers of Dayton wanted the individuals going into the presidency to represent their entire region rather than purely the ethnic constituents, which sounds in theory.
I’ve made the argument in some of my texts that Article 2.2, referring to the European Convention and Human Rights, is, in effect, a proverbial sunset clause on the most sectarian aspects of the Dayton Constitution. It’s a sunset clause, however, that requires activation. In a sense, it has been activated via a series of these legal challenges at the European Court of Human Rights and Bosnia’s own constitutional courts. The outstanding issue is enacting those rulings and putting them into legal practice.
The question of whether or not the actual architects and designers of Dayton fully realised the implications of what they were doing is interesting. I suspect yes, but I can’t prove it. A number of the individuals who wrote the text of Dayton are still around and active in American politics. I know 1 or 2 of them. I’ll email them, and they can tell me. We’ll then go from there.
I’ll ask you to put me in touch because I’d like to publicly ask them about their logic. Let’s get into the second contentious issue, to put it mildly.