Electoral Reform Proposals in Bosnia and Herzegovina Will Cement Ethnic Divisions

Electoral divides: High Representative Christian Schmidt at a press conference in the press conference in the Office of the High Representative building, Sarajevo, July 2022. Courtesy of Pixsell photo and video agency / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent proposals backed by the US and the UK imperil efforts to create broad-based representative democracy and instead allow for segregation.

In my first two years as senior adviser to the foreign secretary, 2010 and 2011, I sat through dozens of meetings with Croatian government officials, led by their then foreign minister, Gordan Jandroković, as they prepared to join the EU. Again and again, I heard promises to be a good friend and neighbour: to their new European partners, and to the Western Balkans states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – still hoping one day to follow them into the EU. Croatian officials promised to share knowledge and expertise and to promote high standards and democracy throughout the region. I supported them enthusiastically. I saw a democratic Croatia, a member of the EU and NATO, as a stabilising factor in the Balkans.

In the past week those promises have felt truly hollow, as proposals regretfully pushed in Brussels and Washington by the Croatian government caused anger and upset across neighbouring Bosnia.

Last Monday evening, thousands of Bosnians took to the streets of Sarajevo. Gathering outside the headquarters of the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina – an international official tasked with implementing the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord which ended three years of war and genocide – they protested against a draft law the high representative apparently intended to impose, changing the laws for elections less than three months before the next general election is due to be held. They protested, in fact, against segregation.

The leaked versions of the draft laws were a travesty. Bosnia’s electoral system does require change: the constitution is still the settlement reached in 1995, an over-complicated and many-layered system of power sharing rather than a normal democratic set-up. Four rulings in the European Court of Human Rights have found that Bosnia’s electoral laws are discriminatory. Jews, Roma, anyone who is not willing or able to label themselves as one (and only one) of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three so-called ‘constituent peoples’ – Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks – cannot stand for high office.

Yet the leaked law did nothing to address this discrimination. Rather than moving Bosnia away from discrimination and closer to a modern democratic settlement in which all citizens have equal rights and equal political representation, they would cement ethnic division and suborn individual rights to group identity.

The leaked versions of the draft laws were a travesty

Jewish and Roma people and others would still not be able to hold high office. Geographical minorities – people living in areas where they are significantly outnumbered by other ethnicities – would in some cases be disenfranchised. Mixed ethnic communities and integration would be discouraged: citizens would be pressured by the electoral system itself to live in geographically concentrated ethnic groups in order to receive political representation. In effect, the law left Bosnians with the ugly prospect of further homogenisation, something which was forced upon them during war in the 1990s – except this time they would be moving in search of a vote rather than fleeing rape, torture and execution.

The proposals were opposed by almost every declaratively pro-European and pro-NATO party in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a wide range of civil society – and the ordinary Bosnians who took to the streets. So how could such controversial laws, which would make the political situation worse, get so close to happening?

The answer takes us back to Zagreb. The current Croatian government has for some time played a sadly unhelpful role in Bosnian internal affairs, supporting its sister party in Bosnia, HDZ, led by Dragan Čović. Čović – who has repeatedly taken pro-Putin positions and is a close ally of the Bosnian Serb separatist Milorad Dodik (currently under British and American sanctions for trying to break Bosnia apart)  – routinely attacks the current Bosnian Croat member, Željko Komšić, of Bosnia’s three-person elected presidency as illegitimate. He has described him as a Bosniak rather than as a Croat, and suggested that he is not a proper representative of Bosnian Croats because his moderate political platform manages to gain support from across ethnic divides – a claim the current Croatian foreign minister has also made.

The proposed changes would have significantly bolstered the position of HDZ, and given it an effective monopoly on all Bosnian Croat positions in Bosnia’s parliaments and governments – forcing out those, like Komšić, who try to appeal across ethnic lines.

The argument of the Croatian government and Čović that Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not properly represented is false.

HDZ is fairly – and in some cases over – represented in Bosnian politics. Bosnian Croats made up 15.4% of the Bosnian population at the last census. In the 2018 national elections, HDZ – that is, one (not the only) Croat party – won 9.05% of the vote. Yet at almost every level of Bosnian government, HDZ controls substantially more political representatives than that vote share would suggest. HDZ appoints 30% of Bosnian ministers, has 12% of MPs in the lower chamber and 27% of delegates in the upper chamber. There are other Croat representatives as well on top of this – but as they are political competitors of Čović, he does not recognise them.

The mendacity of Čović’s claim to be concerned about Croat representation becomes obvious when you realise that the HDZ never seems to worry about Croats in the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska – the one group of Croats in Bosnia who do not have an opportunity to vote for a Croat member of the presidency. They do not hold the key to election and power, so Čović appears to lack any interest in them.

Čović’s manoeuvring is perhaps to be expected from a man who has spent years entertaining personal ambitions. A more difficult question is why his schemes have been able to gain support from the US and the West, sadly including the UK.

Part of the answer lies in consistent lobbying by Zagreb, particularly in Washington, at every opportunity over recent years. The Croatian government has proved adept at exploiting its position inside the EU to the advantage of its Bosnian Croat allies. It has successfully persuaded some in the EU and US to focus electoral reform efforts in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the constituent peoples, rather than on principles of equality. The Croatian prime minister, Andrej Plenković, and the Croatian president, Zoran Milanović, both supported calls earlier this year for October’s elections to be postponed until there was an electoral system favourable to HDZ. Croatia also inserted a reference to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ‘three constituent peoples’ into the EU’s most recent strategic compass, despite protests from some other European countries – affirming the pre-eminence of these groups over individuals, and squeezing out other identities. Reportedly – and perhaps most shockingly of all – the Croatian president even threatened to veto Sweden’s and Finland’s accessions to NATO unless electoral reform in Bosnia favourable to HDZ was pursued.

This is a betrayal of the promises Croatian officials made a decade ago to be a good neighbour, and a betrayal of the ideas and values at the heart of the EU. That it has been allowed to happen reflects badly on the wider West as well – and gives Russia’s President Vladimir Putin great pleasure.

The high representative’s apparent justification for the proposed reforms was that HDZ would not cooperate in government without it, and that it was necessary for stability. It is a strategy of appeasement which can only embolden those who seek to abuse Bosnia’s already-dysfunctional political systems for their own nationalist ends – or to break the country apart altogether. The stability it would deliver would be false: a short-term lull before new demands, more extreme than before, were presented, and new pressure brought to bear. Bit by bit the rights of Bosnians would be further eroded; the power of corrupt ethnic overlords further cemented. The dream of EU and NATO membership will fade ever further, and Bosnia and Herzegovina will be locked into a state of perpetual corruption and crisis.

It is also an idea of stability which ignores ordinary Bosnians. All the attention is on placating the powerful: the interests of ordinary citizens, of all ethnicities, are overlooked. Genuine reformers are squeezed out as the international community tries to take the easy path, rather than the right one. Any chance of holding politicians to account by democratic means for their failures – the failures which are causing young Bosnians of all ethnicities to emigrate in their thousands – will slip away.

The high representative undoubtedly has a difficult task on his hands. But he should use his position to support genuinely broad-based reform, bringing together all Bosnians to help Bosnia and Herzegovina along the path to civic democracy

In the face of such broad opposition to the leaked draft laws, the high representative reconsidered, bringing forward only some small technical changes. There are unconfirmed reports, however, that he is still threatening to impose the original draft law in six weeks’ time, if Bosnian political parties do not come up with a compromise proposal of their own – even though this deadline gives HDZ no incentive to make a deal, and every reason to block one.

The high representative undoubtedly has a difficult task on his hands. But he should use his position to support genuinely broad-based reform, bringing together all Bosnians to help Bosnia and Herzegovina along the path to civic democracy – not aim to push through a measure shortly before an election to advantage one political party while everyone who might object is away on their summer holidays.

In the 1990s, indifference towards ordinary Bosnians and too much concern for the interests of strongman leaders combined to allow ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide for three years before the West eventually interceded decisively. Bosnia and Herzegovina still lives with the legacy of war, its internal boundaries the product of ethnic cleansing. The great political project for all Bosnians and their international partners should be to move beyond the war and build a new social contract for the 21st century, based on accountability, democracy, tolerance and human rights. If Bosnia’s purported friends – whether in Croatia, the EU, the UK or the US – truly cared about the country, they would support that process, not new laws that would make it even harder.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Baroness Helić

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