The Voices of War

74. Special Release: Jasmin Mujanovic - On The Unfolding Constitutional Crisis In Bosnia And Herzegovina - Part 2

VOW 74 | Bosnia And Herzegovina

 

This is Part 2 of my discussion with Dr. Jasmin Mujanovic. If you haven’t listened to Part 1 yet, I suggest you do that first, as elements of the remainder of the conversation may otherwise seem out of context.

 

You can listen to Part 1 here.

 

Some of the topics we cover in this part are:

  • Details of the controversial electoral law amendment made by the High Representative
  • Perceptions, real or otherwise, of the High Representative’s bias and conflict of interest
  • Croat nationalism and its influence
  • The role of Croatia and Serbia in Bosnia’s integrity and sovereignty
  • EU vs NATO prospects for Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • What role Russia plays in the Western Balkans
  • The machinations to redesign the Western Balkans
  • Assessment of the likelihood of renewed violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Thank you for listening, and if you’re getting value out of the show, please consider becoming a patron of The Voices Of War here.

Special Release: Jasmin Mujanovic – On The Unfolding Constitutional Crisis In Bosnia And Herzegovina – Part 2

Welcome to part two of my discussion with Jasmin Mujanovic. If you haven’t read part one yet, I suggest you do that first as elements of the remainder of the conversation may otherwise seem out of context. In this part, Jasmin details the controversial decision taken by the high representative to amend the Electoral Law on the night of the elections. He also explains the potential bias and conflict of interest to discuss a giant shadow over many of the high representatives’ dealings in Bosnia.

We discussed the role of Croats and served nationalism, as well as the EU versus NATO’s prospects for the nation. Jasmin then provides some insights into the role Russia plays in the region, as well as machinations that seek to redesign the entire Western Balkans. We conclude with a realistic assessment of the likelihood of renewed violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, if you’re getting value out of the show, please consider becoming a patron at Patreon.com/TheVoicesOfWar. Thank you.

Let’s get into the second contentious issue to pull it mildly, particularly, that occurred on the night of the election. What happened?

I will remind your audience that this is exceedingly complicated, and if they feel like it’s going over their heads, do not feel bad about it. Here’s what happens. We remember there’s this person called the High Representative, Christian Schmidt. We also remember that we have these eight outstanding constitutional court cases. Not in content but the most significant political over much of 2021 has been the so-called Ljubić decision by the Bosnia Constitutional Court.

The Ljubić decision refers to the mechanism by which the members of the Federation entity House of Peoples are appointed. The House of Peoples in the Federation entity is the upper chamber of the Bicameral Parliamentary Assembly Legislature of the Federation entity, not the state, though there is also a state-level House of Peoples. What’s contentious is the House of Peoples in the Federation entity.

Božo Ljubić, who is a member of the HDZ and also, it has to be said, previously sat in the Croatian parliament as an MP from Bosnia, from what Croatia calls the Croatian diaspora, which is a whole separate issue that we can get into. Božo Ljubić essentially sued the State of Bosnia and said the existing mechanism by which the delegates to the House of Peoples and the Federation entity are appointed because they’re not directly elected by which they’re delegated is discriminatory.

He argued this because he said the provision within the existing constitution of the Federation entity said, “All cantons in the Federation entity had to send delegates to the Federation House of Peoples. They had to send delegates from each of the constituent groups.” It’s Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs from each of the cantons. He said, “This was discriminatory because there are cantons in which there are so few members of the respective constituent groups.” It’s a form of usurpation of the legitimate, democratic interests of those constituent groups.

For instance, the Goražde canton, which is not its actual name but for clarity, there is a couple of dozen, we think, according to the census, Croats. Ljubić said essentially, “Why should that canton get a full Croat delegate when they only have a couple of dozen Croats, whereas, in the Livno canton, you have tens of thousands of Croats?” Nevertheless, the fact that Goražde sends one at all is discriminatory. Here’s the thing. I’m going to assume that the audience has understood everything that I’ve said. The Bosnian Constitutional Court rules by a very narrow margin, a one-vote margin, that Ljubić is correct that this is discriminatory and has to be amended.

The Electoral Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina makes some extremely minor technical amendments to Bosnia’s electoral code. The then office of the High Representative, Valentin Inzko, an Austrian, interprets what both the Ljubić decision says and what the Electoral Commission subsequently does and says, “The Ljubić decision has been enacted through these technical amendments, maybe not as substantially as it could have been but the High Representative says, in his opinion, the Ljubić decision has been implemented.” The HDZ takes the position that it has not.

For the next four years, from 2018 until 2022, owing to their very expansive veto powers within the entity and are embedded within Bosnia’s constitutional system, this party at the entity level won 14% of the vote and at the national level won 9% of the vote obstructs and blocks the government formation process at the entity. The Federation goes four years without a government, only a government in a technical mandate because the HDZ is blocking everything they can on the grounds that the Ljubić decision has not been implemented.

It’s despite the fact that it largely has.

Despite the fact that according to the arbiter of the actual Dayton Constitution, it has. This is where we get to late 2021 and 2022. A new High Representative is appointed under very murky and controversial grounds, which is a separate topic. The US dispatches an election reform envoy. The EU does something very similar. There’s this big full-court press by the US, EU and the Office of the High Representative to get a new electoral law passed.

The reason why they’re especially concerned is that they’re aware that the HDZ, despite the fact that they’ve won only 14% at the entity level and only 9% at the national level, has such massive capabilities to shut down the governance process, not just about government information but block the appointment of judges. There’s virtually no limit to what they can block because of these various kinds of ethnic vetos that are embedded into the system.

VOW 74 | Bosnia And Herzegovina
Bosnia And Herzegovina: There is virtually no limit to what the EU can block because of these various kinds of ethnic vetoes that are embedded into the system.

 

They start getting concerned because regardless of the result in 2022, you’re going to have a still deeper and more protracted political crisis in Bosnia unless essentially the Ljubić decision is enacted in such a way as to satisfy the HDZ. This is where we’re getting into the trouble of the process because the political logic increasingly is not about what is affirming the rule of law, what is in line with European Democratic standards or what is in line with the European Convention of Human Rights but what will get the HDZ to climb down?

Appeasement, in other words.

In July 2022, leaks start coming through available publicly through the media, suggesting that the High Representative is preparing to use his so-called Bonn powers or executive fiat powers to rewrite specifically the Federation entity’s election laws and constitution to more substantively realise the Ljubić decision and also to de facto appease the HDZ. What is contained in those leagues is politically explosive because of what Christian Schmidt and the OHR proposing. I’ll be honest, I described it in my writings as a blood quantum. It is hearkening back to the era of racial segregation in the United States.

What they want to impose at the time is a so-called 3% ethnic threshold, i.e., cantons, in which a specific constituent group that does not constitute 3% or more of the population will not get representation within the Federation House of Peoples. If you’re not 3% of the overall population, you don’t get representation. This is an earthquake. People and international officials are outraged. Schmidt is called out by MEPs, British MPs and US Helsinki Commission.

There are mass protests in front of the headquarters of the OHR in Sarajevo, and 7,000 people come out. Schmidt climbs down, but he climbs down, making it very clear that he is personally very upset. He says, “Unless the Bosnian leaders devise a new electoral law of their own, I’m going to do this anyway or do some version of this.” This is July 2022. Bosnia is in the middle of an electoral campaign. The Central Electoral Commission has already declared that the election is underway, and the elections are in October 2022.

He’s saying that between July and October 2022 in the middle of an election campaign, you need to change the rules of both the elections and how government will be formed post-election. That doesn’t happen. October 2, 2022, the day of the elections themselves, the polls close at 7:00 PM. I’m sitting in Sarajevo with a couple of journalists and election monitors. At 6:00 PM, all of our phones start vibrating saying, “Christian Schmidt is going to amend the electoral law tonight.” This has been a rumour. People are like, “No,” but still, myself included, we’re under the impression that surely he can’t be this crazy.

7:00 PM rolls around, and the polls closed. It’s within about 15 or 20 minutes thereafter that the main media outlets in the country, and I believe it was N1 who’s the local CNN affiliate, first reported officially that Christian Schmidt is going to use his Bonn powers to amend the electoral law of the Federation entity and the Constitution of the Federation entity. By 8:05 PM, the High Representative himself has issued a statement, and shortly thereafter, the actual text of his decision becomes public and thus effectively binding. It takes a few days after it for it to be published in the State Goražde, but it’s functionally in action at that point.

In other words, to make clear what’s happened, an internationally appointed envoy, who is the chief arbiter of the Dayton Accords and whose mandate is the preservation of Bosnia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and thus also the protection of its democracy is changing the electoral law of the largest administrative unit in the country as votes are being counted on the day of the election itself. That’s crazy, to begin with, but then the substance of the actual decision is even more controversial because he changes the way in which the House of Peoples and the Federation entity will be constituted in such fashion as to deliver a disproportionate monopoly on power specifically to the HDZ.

We can get into the weeds of how he does this, but it involves the share of delegates, which will come from the HDZ’s electoral heartland and also then the kinds of powers, the respective ethnic caucuses within the House of Peoples, will be afforded. He lifts the level of support needed from within the individual ethnic caucuses for the nomination of the president of the Federation entity. This is important because the Federation entity president is the one who not just appoints things like judges but also the one who formally grants the mandate for government formation in the Federation entity.

VOW 74 | Bosnia And Herzegovina
Bosnia And Herzegovina: The Federation entity president is the one who not just appoints things like judges, which is very important. But it is also the one who formally grants the mandate for government formation in the federation entity.

 

In other words, unless the HDZ approves who the president of the Federation entity will be, there will be no government. The President of the Federation entity, Marinko Čavara, is an HDZ member who has obstructed the appointment of judges to the Federation Constitutional Court for years and also is under US sanctions for having done that. Essentially, he obstructed the date in the courts. That’s the shortest version of what happened.

To put it bluntly, in a world of order chaos rules, there is so much order imposed and many rules and complexity that entire PhDs could be done on the chaos that ensures because of it. That’s almost part of the reason why it survives. People do lose not only interest but get lost in it because it is so complex to try to wrap their heads around it.

I’ve written this. This was an exercise in shocking all. There is no way that the average citizen in Bosnia, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where it’s a daily fight for survival to put food in your children’s mouths is going to keep up with changes to the Federation entity House of Peoples quorum requirements for the appointment. It’s absurd.

What’s so cynical about it and the reason why I have used the language of liberalism, not just to describe the broader architecture of the Bosnian post-war state but specifically what Mr. Schmidt has done, is because we know from the history of even developed Western democracies that you can use the law to discriminate and disenfranchise people. This is the history of segregation in the American South.

This is what we know was done to indigenous peoples in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. You can use the power of the law to take rights away from people while making it seem like everything is above board. This is what I find so disturbing and cynical about what the OHR has done in the context of the changes to the Federation entity electoral law.

This is what we know was done to indigenous peoples in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. You can use the power of the law to take rights away from people while making it seem like everything is above board. Share on X

Another thing that we must pick up on is Schmidt’s potential bias. Whether right or wrong, it is almost irrelevant. It’s the perception of a conflict of interest that is so overwhelming that it casts a huge shadow or any decision he might make, especially a decision like the one that gives HDZ indisputably overwhelming power going forward. What is that, and why is that important?

There are two elements to it. 1) You have to understand that throughout this entire period concerning the Ljubić decision specifically, the government of Croatia, both the President and, more importantly, the Prime Minister, where most of the actual political powers vested, have been very explicit about the fact that they want to see the amendment of Bosnia’s electoral laws in such a way as to empower their clients in the HDZ. The Prime Minister of Croatia, Andrej Plenković, is a member of the same political party as the HDZ in Croatia and its sister party in Bosnia-Herzegovina HDZ BiH.

They’ve been very explicit about this to the point where I’ve argued that Contemporary Croatia has no foreign policy outside of the amendment of Bosnia’s electoral laws. That sounds like a joke, but I mean it because all the other major foreign policies that Croatia has had over the last many years have been achieved. It wanted to join the EU, NATO, Schengen zone and Eurozone. It wanted visa liberalisation with the United States.

All of those things have been accomplished. The only outstanding issue for Croatia was what it perceives to be the question of the status of the Croat community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To ensure that, the HDZ would be a permanent feature of government in Bosnia. Regardless of how poorly they do in actual elections, the system had to be designed in such a way that it was impossible to form a government without the HDZ. That’s the name of the game.

That’s because of the HDZ’s nationalistic roots, so it is always going to stand up for the rights of the Croat minority in Bosnia.

It’s because of what Croatia and the HDZ Party specifically refer to as the concept of legitimate representation, i.e., the political and democratic interests of the Croat community in Bosnia cannot be represented by somebody like Željko Komšić or the SDP because they are a multiethnic civic party. This is the thing. It’s worth unpacking this. Even if they are not passing policies or laws which are in any shape, way or form imperilling the status of the Croat community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, they are illegitimate by virtue of the fact that they essentially are not members of the HDZ.

The HDZ, according to this narrative, is the only legitimate political vehicle for the political interests of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meaning, if you are a Croat who does not vote for the HDZ and does not identify with its political program, either during the 1990s or presently, you are not a true Croat. This brings us to the language of segregation. White Americans who were pro-integration and pro-civil rights were accused of pro-segregation and anti-integralist forces as being race traders.

If we’re going to be intellectually honest, this is the same normative language that is being used in Bosnia, except we don’t use the language of races because all these people look and sound the same but it’s on the basis of essentially ethnic discrimination. It’s quite cynical and disturbing in that respect. Croatian has been very open about its lobbying at every international forum within the EU, NATO and OSCE in bilateral relations with the US, the UK and everyone. This has been its primary agenda item.

The reason why Schmidt is implicated in all of this is not just because, for instance, the fact that he comes from the CSU or CDU political block in Germany, which is a member of the same party family within the European Union, the EPP as the HDZ, but it’s owing to the fact that he has had a longtime relationship with the HDZ and Croatia specifically. He was awarded one of Croatia’s highest state honours, which incidentally, he shares with several convicted war criminals and has not given back or rebuked in any meaningful sense of the term.

He has spent an inordinate amount of time in Zagreb meeting with Croatian officials about Bosnia’s electoral laws. He has had a series of bizarre public interviews in which he has made all kinds of very strange statements about Bosnia and, in particular, about the Bosniak community. In one interview, he essentially likened himself to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and talked about Bosnia and Bosnia’s writ large in these extremely uncomfortable and problematic colonialist terms. He also had a very strange incident in the City of Goražde where he was asked by a reporter from N1, a CNN affiliate, why it seemed like so many of his decisions and much of his rhetoric appeared to either directly or indirectly favour the HDZ. Christian Schmidt had a meltdown. He started yelling.

People need to look at this video.

You can find and Google it. Say, “German diplomat in Bosnia gets angry.” He speaks in English. His English isn’t terribly good, but it’s clear that he was very upset. He has no capacity to respond to this criticism.

He’s not a diplomat. There’s zero diplomacy in his approach.

Whether or not Christian Schmidt is under the influence of Croatia or the broader Croat nationalist establishment, to many people, it appears like he is. What’s more troubling is that he has been insufficiently capable or unwilling to address those charges in a way that would assure above all the Bosnian public. It should also be said that he’s extremely reticent to speak to members of the Bosnian public or media. He seems to spend an inordinate amount of time in Zagreb and Germany, speaking at public forums, media and virtually everyone and anyone under the sun but when he is in Sarajevo, he’s the man in the White Castle and inaccessible to Bosnian media, which also I find on a basic democratic level quite distasteful.

It adds to the colonial perceptions. That’s why I made the point whether he is as biased as he appears or there is a genuine conflict of interest is nearly irrelevant because the perception is such that it’s indisputable. He’s doing nothing to diminish that perception. If anything, through his actions, he’s only embellishing it. He is making it seem more credible. The obvious question is, what now? This was a question asked by someone on Twitter when I mentioned that I’ll be interviewing you. Is there one institution or authority that can hold the High Rep accountable for this decision?

Željko Komšić, the Croat member of the state presidency, has filed an injunction with the Bosnian Constitutional Court and said he wants an emergency ruling for them to ascertain whether the actual content and the substance of the electoral law changes are in line with Bosnian’s legal and democratic commitments and obligations, in particular under the European Convention of Human Rights and a whole host of other international treaties to which Bosnia is bound by its own constitution.

We don’t know when that injunction or ruling will come. In principle, given that it’s been filed by a member of the state presidency, it should take priority and happen pretty rapidly. Komšić also asked that until the court rules, the existing or the former electoral law and the laws concerning the formation of the Federation entity House of Peoples remain in place.

As a member of the presidency, the question is, “Can he do this?” The answer is he can, but it’s a little bit finicky. We have a precedent for the Bosnian Constitutional Court overruling the decisions of a High Representative, also dealing with electoral reforms that a former High Representative Paddy Ashdown had imposed in the City of Mostar. The constitutional court found essentially that those rulings were not illegitimate but that they were discriminatory and needed to be amended further.

The court can’t take away the right of the High Representative to do what he did as an act. The Bonn powers are legitimate, and their use is legitimate. In that sense, he is the final authority on the interpretation of what should be done. The constitutional court, however, can look at the substance of what it has imposed and try to pick out threads of it that it argues are not in line with various political and democratic standards.

The question of whether it will do so, we don’t know, but it’s an open constitutional question. We also honestly don’t know what Schmidt’s response to that will be. If the constitutional court rules, which at least according to the Ashdown decision, it should rule against Schmidt. I’m not a lawyer or a legal expert in this sense, but certainly the prevailing opinion among Bosnian legal and constitutional experts, including folks like Faris Vehabović, who’s a judge and justice on the European Court of Human Rights. He has publicly speculated that the constitutional court will have grounds on which to overturn this decision. Whether it does so? We don’t know.

If it ultimately finds that the decision is fine, the law will go into effect. Absent a decision by the Federation entity parliament, it will remain the law of the land. The bigger political issue is that there is no reason for the HDZ to ever permit an amendment of the electoral law, either vis-a-vis readdressing the question of Ljubić or implementing the seven other constitutional outstanding issues because they got what they want.

The problem was always that if you implement Ljubić without simultaneously implementing these seven other decisions, you are going to further entrench this ethnosectarian model. The impact of Ljubić could be dulled by implementing these other rulings, but if you only implement Ljubić, then you’re up a creek. That’s where we appear to be. It’s very much an open question as to whether there will be any kind of political will on the part of the HDZ to allow for continued conversation about constitutional reform in the Federation and Bosnia as a whole.

VOW 74 | Bosnia And Herzegovina
Bosnia And Herzegovina: The problem was always that if you implement Ljubić without simultaneously implementing these seven other decisions, you are going to further entrench this ethnosectarian model.

 

It is perplexing that somebody of that status could make such a decision on election night that would have such a deep impact on the electoral system of a country as complex and troubled as Bosnia already is. What is the role of Croatia and Serbia as well? You have deliberated extensively on Croatia. Does Serbia have a role to play as well?

As we’re having this conversation, we appear to be gearing up for the next episode of Christian Schmidt using his Bonn powers. It’s another extremely contentious, convoluted and complicated issue. I should say in a context that Serbia historically has always been a much more overt threat to Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Belgrade is the direct sponsor of Milorad Dodik, the secessionist political leader in the RS entity along with Russia. Serbia was directly implicated in the war in the 1990s, as was Croatia.

Indeed Croat urban nationalist forces in Bosnia were closely collaborating for much of the period between late 1992 and 1994, even as in Croatia proper, Croatia and Serbia were essentially at war. Bosnia, in that sense, has always been a little bit of a state of exception, even as far as relations between Zagreb and Belgrade are concerned.

The question of Serbia’s relationship with Bosnia will run through what we think Christian Schmidt will do next. That is this question of state property/state military property in the RS entity. This is another extremely convoluted legal question. It comes down to who owns large chunks of property, including military sites that are physically located in what is the RS entity.

Do they rightfully belong to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who can then choose to allocate it for purposes of use to lower levels of government or do they belong to local administrative levels of power, including the entities and/or the municipalities? The most contentious of these questions has been the question of state military properties.

The Bosnian Constitutional Court has ruled on several occasions concerning some of these properties that they are state properties. In the absence of rulings, the holding position is that there has to be some final agreement between the respective levels of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina to regulate the status of these properties. The reason why this isn’t a question at all and why the political significance of this question is twofold.

1) Normalising and settling the question of state property status in Bosnia is part of the so-called 5+2 Agenda, which are the criteria that need to be met for the closure of the OHR. 2) The status of state properties and state military properties specifically concerns Bosnia’s aspiration to join NATO. NATO essentially has provisions that say, “Military properties need to be under the control of the state. They cannot be under the control of subnational units,” or whatever they may be. Those need to be in the possession of the state.

The Dodik government in the RS has for many years obstructed the implementation of these rulings by the court and also has refused to break any kind of agreement, essentially with other government authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, about these other state properties. This is where we get to the last 24 hours of my life. I have been told repeatedly by various kinds of sources, including some very high-level sources in Europe, that the High Representative is preparing to use Bonn Powers to intervene vis-a-vis the question of these state properties.

He was in Serbia meeting with various kinds of officials when I received one very credible allegation from a senior source in Europe. I was not breaking this news per se because Bosnia media had been reporting on the possibility of this for weeks. Christian Schmidt himself had given numerous public statements, which very gestured at the fact that this was up next on the docket. This was where his proverbial administration was heading.

The question was, “What exactly would he do? When would he do it?” I made a thread in a post about what I understood to be the allegations and shared my concerns about it. The Office of the High Representative as well as the US Embassy, I believe, in Sarajevo, issued statements and phrased in such a way as to essentially rebuke my allegations, which is fair. They’re saying I’m incorrect.

What do they say? They issue the statement, and the statement says several things. The first thing that the OHR says is that the state military properties that the Bosnian Constitutional Court has ruled on are Bosnian state property. Those are what are called prospective military sites. i.e., there are military sites that the Bosnian Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defense could operationalise in short order.

However, when it comes time to address what is called non-prospective military sites and the broader issue of other state properties on the RS entity, which includes things like individual municipal offices, for instance, the OHR says that they urge the relevant Bosnian authorities to come to an agreement about their status. That agreement will not take place because Dodik will block it. Christian Schmidt has already said that he’s prepared to use his mandate to then address the issue.

The question then becomes, in what fashion will he use his Bonn powers to address the status of non-prospective military sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina and state property more broadly? He has said in previous statements, in particular, in the press conference or the interview in which he likened himself to Emperor Franz Joseph, that his theory of wielding power in Bosnia is that, “If all of my subjects are equally unhappy, I have done a good job.” He was paraphrasing Franz Joseph.

His interpretation of that vis-a-vis the electoral law was that the pro-Bosnia camp got certain kinds of efficiency mechanisms vis-a-vis the implementation of the law. The HDZ got the implementation of the Ljubić decision even though they don’t think that happened or they claimed that it didn’t happen. Everyone was supposedly equally unhappy, except the problem is that the HDZ got a functional monopoly on power, and the other side got efficiency mechanisms, whatever that means.

The irony is the fact that it’s bringing it again. This is from a European. This is decided by the sides that we are appealing to sides that are contrary to what the path ought to be for Bosnia going forward.

The fear, specifically vis-a-vis the issue of state properties, is that he will deliver a decision that will either grant the totality of the outstanding state properties to the entity or a very significant chunk of them. Dodik will not get everything that he wants. He’ll be unhappy because the Armed Forces or the Ministry of Defense will maintain ownership. He’ll get something. Sarajevo will also be unhappy.

The question of the actual implementation of the rule of law, which any meaningful understanding of which should say no, all of those state properties are state properties. Lower levels of government, whatever they may think, don’t get to use them unless the state says so, as is the case in every other country on Earth. For the sake of transparency, I have a message from an EU official who says, “I am way off the mark in my assessment.” I want to be clear for the sake of your audience. I’m staking up my position as to why I think I’m right and what the sequence of events from here will be. There are people who disagree with me.

What would be the most gracious view of all of this? Let’s try and look at this from the eyes of that person that’s messaged you. How are they looking at the situation in Bosnia from the hall of power of Europe and beyond? How could this be viewed in any kind of positive light?

Positive is a funny word. I don’t know that anyone has necessarily a positive view of it. Everyone has the position that Bosnia is in a bad place and some tough decisions need to be made. The debate is about the nature of these tough decisions. The view among the people who support what Schmidt is doing is that they are trying to get Bosnia to a position of functionality.

Everyone has the position that Bosnia is in a bad place, and some tough decisions need to be made. The debate is about the nature of these tough decisions. Share on X

The actual status of governance in Bosnia has deteriorated severely over the past decades, and we’re at an inflection point. It’s a little bit like emergency surgery. The victim is bleeding out on the table. By using these surgical tools, we might risk them dying, but they’ll die if we don’t do something. That’s the metaphorical logic of the intervention.

What do you mean by dying?

Their view of dying in this context, or what I would mean here, is that the nature of the political crisis in Bosnia specifically as it pertains to the obstructionist activities by the HDZ and the secessionist activities by the SNSD will accelerate and become more dangerous unless steps are made. In my interpretation, I would say appease. They don’t view it that way. They would view it as giving everyone a buy-in into the system. In a sense, much as Dayton was itself. Not everyone gets what they want, but everyone gets enough that they can buy into the concept of a sovereign and united Bosnian state. That is fundamentally the logic driving this forward.

I’m very transparent as to what my politics are. I want Bosnia and Herzegovina’s laws, norms and constitution to be in line with the substance of the European Convention on Human Rights, EU at key, the rulings of the ICTY and other important international courts with the democratic standards of the OSCE. That’s the Bosnia I want to see.

The people who are critical of my position and my view and are good faith actors, I want to be clear and reasonable minds can disagree, take the position that even if that is their aim and they say that is also their aim, they think that the way to do that has to be much more piecemeal, gradual and will essentially involve a lot of steps that on the face of it, look like entrenching or rather retrenching the existing ethnosectarian structures.

They take a view that if changes are to come to Bosnia, it must be far slower, gradual and glacial. I take the view that the system has run out of steam. It’s teetering on the edge of collapse. If we want Bosnia to have a credible chance in joining international organisations like the EU and NATO above all, which is more important to me than the EU, to be quite honest, we can’t keep cutting corners. We have to, at some point, start dealing with the substance of the politics at hand and implementing them accordingly.

You mentioned NATO is more important than the EU. Why is that?

In a nutshell, NATO is more important than the EU for two reasons. 1) I don’t think there’s any credible chance that any of these Western Balkans states, not Bosnia but the whole rest of them that are not part of the EU, will join the EU in the relevant future. They might join in 30 or 40 years from 2022, but they’re not going to join in the next 10, 15 or 20 years. In political terms, that’s essentially never because you can’t say to any electorate in the world, “In fifteen years, we’re going to do X.” You might as well say in the year 4120.

In this process, it has to also be said, “It has been going on already for twenty years.” 2003 is when the EU initiates this EU enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. We’re several years down the road. It’s not happening. We know that enlargement sentiment in the EU itself already has all but dissipated, especially in places like France. The government of Emmanuel Macron has been very transparent about that. That’s one. EU was off the table. NATO is still at least theoretically plausible.

The second reason is that there is a very compelling strategic reason above all for Bosnia but also for NATO to have Bosnia as part of the alliance. For Bosnia, NATO ensures a permanent guarantee of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity above all through Article 5. Threats to its sovereignty, either by neighbouring states or even outside powers like Russia, are off the table if it’s part of NATO.

VOW 74 | Bosnia And Herzegovina
Bosnia And Herzegovina: For Bosnia, NATO ensures a permanent guarantee of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity above all through Article five. Threats to its sovereignty, either by neighboring states or even outside powers like Russia are off the table if it’s part of NATO.

 

2) NATO gains, as a member, the most strategically sensitive polity in the whole of the Western Balkans. It locks it down permanently and takes it off the table from malign actors to screw around with and cause problems for NATO itself. To be clear, I’m not making the argument that Bosnia is going to be some massive strengthening of the alliance.

Nobody’s making that argument. In particular, since February 2022, there is a view within NATO that the question of enlargement has to be more multifaceted and has to also involve a strategic component for NATO itself, rather than including X or Y country going to increase our overall hard power and kinetic capacities. Bosnia is not going to be a huge improvement in that regard but it will provide NATO with the ability to finally lock down the strategic vulnerabilities that exist in the Western Balkans.

I do maintain that Bosnia is the most strategically sensitive country in the region because when you look at all of the major conflicts over the course of the last centuries in the Western Balkans, almost all of them have run directly through and been largely centred on the question and status of Bosnia. If you can take that away, you go a huge way to stabilising this notoriously unstable region.

There are too many fault lines in Bosnia. It’s the only one that’s not homogenous, broadly speaking. On the question of NATO and Russia, because you’ve implied the importance due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, what is Russia’s role in Bosnia in particular but in Western Balkans more broadly? To what extent can Russia use the Balkans as a lever to impact Europe and NATO more broadly?

Russia maintains very close ties with Serbian nationalist politicians in the region, both Aleksandar Vučić in Serbia but arguably even more importantly with Milorad Dodik in Bosnia because Dodik very much comports to Moscow’s preferred model of foreign relations with its proxies, which is to say when you’re looking at places like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria or some of these occupied territories in Ukraine, the RS very much comports to that model.

The fact that Dodik is this militant, radical, and extremist who’s constantly threatening violence, war, and political crises, favours Russia’s preferred model of engagement. We also know, in particular, from some cache leaked documents that emerged after the collapse of the Gruevski government and what is now North Macedonia, that Russia’s formal strategic aims in the Western Balkans are to prevent NATO enlargement.

It works very closely with Serbian intelligence to that effect to destabilise neighbouring countries whenever it can to prevent movement towards Atlantic integration. There are some credible allegations that they may or may not have been directly involved in the events in what is now North Macedonia, certainly directly involved in long-time political instability in Montenegro, Kosovo as well and certainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also bears stating that in the case of Bosnia, the Russian Federation has also increasingly made overtures, ties and linkages with the Croat nationalist establishment in Bosnia, with one member of HDZ who has been to Moscow in March 2020.

Croatian President Zoran Milanović is very close to Mr. Dodik and has become so brazen in some of his views and antics vis-a-vis Bosnia that even the Prime Minister of Croatia has accused him of being a Russian asset. Folks have probably mostly heard about Zoran Milanović, if they’ve heard of him at all, in the context of him wanting to block Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession until Bosnia’s electoral law was amended. He has said that Ukrainian troops should not be trained on the territory of the Republic of Croatia.

If NATO fights Russia openly that Croatia would not send its forces as well.

He’s a very contentious and controversial figure. He’s also part of this broader network of actors who either explicitly have ties to the Russian Federation or who are widely suspected of the same. They’re not just in Serbia and Bosnia. It is people like Dodik, but it is also people like Milanović. It’s people like Janez Janša in Slovenia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. All of them incidentally have very similar views on Bosnia. They very much cohabitate in terms of their policies towards Bosnia.

I know at times, and certainly, those who are critical of my work accuse me of peddling conspiracy theories or some such. Any honest assessment of what is going on very clearly gestures at the existence of these networks and their existence of these relationships to what extent at any given moment these people are interacting with each other. We can’t know for sure, but there have been numerous episodes over the last few years that have indicated that there is an understanding and broader political project that if enacted fully and totally would mean very bad in destabilising things for Bosnia in particular but the region more broadly.

There have been numerous episodes over the last few years that have clearly indicated that there is an understanding and broader political project. If enacted fully and totally, it would mean very bad in destabilizing things for Bosnia in particular. Share on X

What would that look like? We’re talking about some an idea for a master plan. What is that? Is that the dissolution of Bosnia as we know it? Is that a third entity? Is that a complete split secession of RS and Bosnia that it goes to Croatia? What is at stake here?

It depends at any given moment on whom you’re talking to and how far down the rabbit hole you want to go. What I would remind us of is the so-called bulk and non-papers, which emerged a few years ago. We’re widely suspected of having been drafted into the office in the cabinet of then Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša although it’s understood that he must have coordinated their writing and composition with a number of other important political figures in the region.

In any case, the Balkans non-paper, as it was called, its existence was confirmed not only by leaks to the media but also by Edi Rama, the President of Albania and then High Representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko saying that they had essentially been aware of the existence of such documents for a long time. Rama at least said that Janez Janša had directly shown him and discussed the contents of the papers. The contents of the papers themselves, the most significant controversial aspect of which was essentially proposing the wholesale territorial reorganisation of the Western Balkans, not just Bosnia but other states.

It essentially came down to the idea of functionally partitioning Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia so that Croatia would get some of these corrupt majority areas of Bosnia in particular Western Herzegovina. Serbia would essentially get the entirety of the RS entity. You would have a rump Bosnia’s ethnic state lit that would be left in between the two of them. You would have the North of Kosovo also being appended to Serbia but then most of the remainder of Kosovo, essentially going to Albania and the creation of a Greater Albania, as well as potentially some ethnic Albanian majority areas in North Macedonia, potentially also going to Albania. Also, potentially some open conversation about the status of both Serb and Albanian communities in Montenegro.

The obvious question is, “How would you do this without major rounds of violence and new rounds of essentially ethnic cleansing and potentially even genocide?” The fact that this was being very seriously floated and discussed in key cabinets was hugely alarming. There is the view among certainly many people in Bosnia but more regionally also that one of the things that happened in the broader breakdown on the legitimacy and credibility of the Western community, both the US, the EU and the Western Balkans, is that these sinister machinations that formally would’ve been dismissed out of hand as the ravings of lunatics enjoy a little bit of political currency.

I remind you that there was a moment during the Trump administration in the previous EU commission when Serbia and Kosovo under Aleksandar Vučić and Hashim Thaçi openly and quite seriously discussed the possibility of a so-called land swap, wherein some of these majority Northern municipalities in Kosovo would go to Serbia, and a small section of Serbia in the far South, which has Albanian majority in the Preševo Valley would go to Kosovo.

This appeared to enjoy not just the support of the Trump administration but also the support of Federica Mogherini, who was then the foreign policy chief of the EU. For many people, that was a stark wake-up call that you had very important people in power in the West who seemed to be quite willing to go down the rabbit hole of new rounds of ethnic partition in the Western Balkans. This is the context for a lot of the conversations that we’ve had.

My last question to you is to what extent is Bosnia has to go facing the risks of another war? Who would fight it?

I used to have the view that there was no one left to fight wars in Bosnia or the Balkans because of the sheer scale of the immigration crisis, the fact that almost all these countries are facing demographic collapse, and the population is ageing disproportionately. The sad reality is it doesn’t take a lot of people to fight a war. You need a couple of angry young men with a few duffle bags of cash, booze, drugs and guns, all of which are readily available.

The sad reality is it doesn't take a lot of people to fight a war. You need a couple of angry young men with a few duffle bags of cash, booze, drugs, and guns, all of which are readily available. Share on X

We don’t have to have a war on the scale of what we had in the 1990s. We only need to have something on the scale of the troubles in North Ireland during the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s for the situation for both the region and regional peoples and Europe to become untenable. We don’t have to have the set-piece battles that we had in the ‘90s. We just need to have the occasional bombing, shooting and whatever else.

That’s horrific to say. I’m aware that it sounds like I’m being glib, but I’m not at all. This would be a catastrophe. That’s one. There are people capable and willing to fight wars, albeit likely lower-scaled wars than what we saw in the ‘90s. In terms of whether it is plausible, the stuff that we saw in the ‘90s is largely implausible. I’m not saying that it might not become plausible at some future date.

Objectively, Bosnia and the region as a whole have become less safe and less stable than it was many years ago. By that metric, we are further down the road toward some conflict than we were decades ago. I’m not willing to give numbers of 25%, 70% or 75%, but my position is that the situation has already become very dangerous and delicate. We’ve had numerous incidents in the region over the last few years that if things had gone a little bit to the left or right, we would be dealing with a much worse reality presently.

When you talk about the sack of the Macedonian parliament in 2017, you nearly had the incoming Prime Minister beaten to death on the floor of the parliament. Had that happened? God knows what would’ve happened to Macedonia. If in October of 2016, when you had the Russian Serbian back coup attempt or what is alleged to be a Russian Serbian back coup attempt in Montenegro. It’s as if somebody had died in the context of that or the president as having been one of the priming targets apparently of the coup attempt Milanović or whatever you make of him. He’s a controversial theatre but had something happened to him, that would have been explosive.

We’ve had a whole host of near-miss incidents politically. Had they gone a little an inch here or there would have had disastrous consequences. We’ve gotten lucky for a very long time, and luck runs out eventually. I find it extremely disturbing, the idea that so much of Western policy towards the region is coasting on luck rather than on real strategic vision.

That issue is compounded even further by the fact of the rise of China and Russia, the failure in Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and all of these other hotspots that are diverting the attention of the world more broadly that gives enough breathing space. It creates a vacuum in the Balkans that’s inevitably at least some are seeking to exploit it. Whether it is or not is yet to be determined.

It’s, unfortunately in this sense, the classic stereotype about the Balkans as a proverbial tinderbox. I’m afraid, increasingly as accurate, that there’s way too much dry kindling for something not to set it off sooner or later unless there is a serious, comprehensive commitment to pouring some water on the kindling.

I knew this would be a fascinating discussion, having read some of your work and some of your other discussions. I’ve been blown away by your ability to synthesise something so complex as Bosnia. I’m hoping most of our audience will understand and realise the significance of it. Thank you very much. It’s been lovely speaking to you. It’s great to see a fellow Bosnian doing so well.

Thank you very much. It’s been a lot of fun.

 

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