Sarajevo, Bosnia

Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ukraine: On the edge of NATO and the EU, too close to prying neighbours

Published: 29 March 2022

By Neven Andjelic

Neven Andjelic, Assistant Professor in International Relations and Human Rights at Regent's University London, examines Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its similarities with Ukraine, asking 'could the situation get worse in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has two 'attentive' neighbours – Serbia and Croatia?'

Whether the war in Ukraine could spill over to some other regions or states brings into the discussion the Western Balkans generally and Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular. The latter is one of the very few countries where both kinds of support, either for Ukraine or for Russia, have been expressed in public demonstrations. Unlike in Montenegro and Serbia, where opposing views share the public space, the division of support in Bosnia-Herzegovina runs along the internal administrative line splitting the country into two entities. While political elites among Bosnian Serbs, and seemingly ordinary people, support Russia in the entity of Republika Srpska, the other entity, Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the dominant population of Bosniaks and significant presence of Bosnian Croats, was a stage of support for Ukraine.

The intra-state divisions of both countries offer the view of many similarities between the two states, namely, the complexity that seeks solution either in radical federalisation or further centralisation. Political elites in both states are divided on major strategic visions, the most contested issue being membership in NATO. The neighbourly attention by "big brother(s)" undermines the traditional cohabitation of the people and individuals. Both countries share the perception of corrupt elites in power. The electoral results are contested on the basis of the lack of fairness and freedom during the electoral process. Unlike Ukrainians, Bosnians almost quietly and repeatedly accepted another term of the same elites in power. Representatives of international organisations keep meeting corrupt elites to solve the problems, thus providing them with legitimacy with the electorate and keeping them in power. The problems have been perpetuated both by internal actors – corrupt elites and the electorate – and the international community until the “neighbourly attention” exploded in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Could the situation get worse in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has two attentive neighbours – Serbia and Croatia?

My recent book (Covid-19, State-Power and Society in Europe. Springer 2022) studies forty-five European countries on the basis of twenty indices measuring democracy, economic, individual and media freedoms, the rule of law, levels of corruption, freedoms of expression and human rights. Bosnia-Herzegovina is ranked 40th and Ukraine 41st out of the 45 European countries with a population over 100,000. When the average index is replaced with descriptive categories, Bosnia-Herzegovina is marked as a "suppressed society", while Ukraine is a "closed society”, like in the countries ranked below; Turkey, Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan.

The refusal of political elites in both Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina to acknowledge the need to address state and societal complexity and seek political compromise has polarised societies into the camps of centralisation and federalisation. Thus, the normative problems of the contemporary nation-state that has been challenged by the forces of globalisation from above and the rise of sub-national identity politics from below are accentuated in empirical sense in both countries by external forces. Linguistic similarities work in a Freudian way by promoting "narcissism of small differences", the term consequently used in the context of post-Yugoslavia by Michael Ignatieff, Tony Judt and, in popular magazines, by Christopher Hitchens. A question of linguistic rights where everyone understands everyone regardless of the language spoken or the name of it has thus become a significant issue of contention in both countries.

It is further developed into the cultural and educational policies that often disregard minority speakers at sub-national territory or develop a passionate and often unbridgeable debate at the national level, thus creating a gap in the society that was not noticeable during the communist era.

It is not democracy bringing in divisions when applied to these societies, but the implementation of democratic will by the political elites that polarised societies. The very democratic processes open the space for manipulating the will of the people, and elections introduce further issues into the already polarised electorate instead of providing answers and solutions.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is even uncertain that the elections scheduled for October 2022 will take place because the strongest Croat nationalist party (HDZ) ultimately insist on the electoral reform that, in their interpretation, would protect them – as the third most numerous community - from Bosniaks' majorisation due to the Croats numerical inferiority. The Electoral Law has to be changed due to the landmark judgement of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Sejdić and Finci v Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2009. Several consequent judgements by the same Court followed the principle of the ban on discrimination, including on ethnic grounds, according to the European Convention on Human Rights to which Bosnian Electoral Law does not correspond. 

However, Croat nationalists showed little concern about the discriminatory provisions of the current electoral law. Their attempt to reform that law was focussed only on the position of Croats, and the Constitutional Court dealt with its own judgement from 2016 by acting instead of the Federal Parliament that was, as so often, stuck by the lack of political will of the two sets of nationalists to find the solution. This still leaves non-implemented execution of the European Court of Human Rights decision from 2009.

International representatives only recently made attempts to force a compromise by addressing concerns of Croat nationalists and leaving the solution to discrimination of many citizens not belonging to the leading ethnic groups or living in the “wrong” entity to become a side-effect of the solution to Croat nationalists’ concerns. Meanwhile, Bosniak nationalists are seemingly happy with the norms that let them retain power, just like Serb nationalists in the other entity. The whole consociational system is created to perpetuate the same sets of nationalists in uneasy power-sharing arrangements. While a victory of moderate political forces is theoretically possible, the electoral system makes that possibility difficult to imagine in practice. The internationals are showing little sign of the willingness to reform the system. The Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters states: “The fundamental elements of electoral law, in particular the electoral system proper,membership of electoral commissions and the drawing of constituency boundaries, should not be open to amendment less than one year before an election, or should be written in the constitution or at a level higher than ordinary law.”

Nevertheless, the experts and representatives of the international community have got engaged in the attempts to change the electoral law within the unrecommended window. The incompetence of the local actors, the deterioration of the geopolitical situation, disruptive engagement of the neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, fragmented political alternatives, the lateness of the international community have created the situation that has led some analysts to forecast catastrophic scenarios comparable to Ukraine.

The colours of the Ukrainian flag have become a symbol of solidarity with the Ukrainian people and support for specific human values. Bosnia-Herzegovina shares the colours of the national flag with Ukraine. The white of its “European stars”, though, points to another similarity – like Ukraine, the EU membership continues to elude Bosnia and Herzegovina.   

Author bio

Dr Neven Andjelic is an Assistant Professor in International Relations and Human Rights at Regent's University London. He served on the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities - Council of Europe from 2014 to 2018.

Photo by Damir Bosnjak on Unsplash

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