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Ethnic Hysteria And Status Quo Discrimination In Bosnia

Zeljko Komsic, whose victory as the Croat member of the tripartite presidency was challenged by the HDZ.
Zeljko Komsic, whose victory as the Croat member of the tripartite presidency was challenged by the HDZ.
Over the course of the past few months, several high-ranking officials from the Council of Europe have warned that Bosnia-Herzegovina could be suspended from the body due to its failure to launch urgent constitutional reforms. In December, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that the Bosnian Constitution, written hastily in an attempt to keep the peace in the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war, contains discriminatory and unlawful provisions.

Representatives of Bosnia's Jewish and Romany communities -- Jakob Finci and Dervo Sejdic, respectively -- filed a lawsuit with the ECHR against Bosnia four years ago with the aim of bringing attention to the fact that the constitution and electoral law only allow members of the three main ethnic groups -- Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats -- to run for the tripartite presidency or parliament. Those who do not declare themselves one of these ethnicities are defined in the constitution as "others," and denied the right to stand for election.

While this is disturbing to the international community, it is less so in Bosnia, where ethno-nationalist authorities have taken full advantage of the country's institutional and constitutional absurdities.

The December verdict is the first time that the Strasbourg court has found a violation under the European Convention's Protocol No. 12, which prohibits discrimination. Given the precedent, the international community is unsure how to proceed or what form any sanctions should take.

In separate statements made during visits to Bosnia, Council of Europe officials have warned local authorities that if constitutional and electoral-law reforms are not made in the next couple of months, sanctions could be imposed. Suspension from the council could be one sanction, given that Bosnian officials would theoretically come to power through an election that was not conducted in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

'Action Plan'

During a special session last week, council officials warned of another possibility: Unless the discriminatory provisions are removed before the October general elections, the election results could be disputed by the international community. At the same time, Bosnia's state election commission has announced that the polls could be postponed for a month or two, while authorities address the issue. However, ruling party officials have also indicated that such reforms are unrealistic during an election year.

In early March, the Bosnian government adopted an "action plan" to amend the constitution by early May, in time for the announcement of a date for general elections in October. However, in two sessions held since then, the parliamentary commission failed to reach consensus on the issue, which is most likely to be resolved after the elections – or postponed indefinitely.

Jakob Finci (left) and Dervo Sejdic, who filed a lawsuit against Bosnia with the ECHR
Constitutional reform is one of the main obstacles to Bosnia's democratic progress. All previous efforts to reform the constitution, dating back to 2000, have failed. In 2008, when Bosnia signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union, it pledged to reform its election law, but failed to do so. It has had other opportunities, as well. In 2002, when Bosnia joined the Council of Europe, its officials said they were committed to review electoral legislation within one year.

In fact, only one 2002 promise has ever been fulfilled, thanks to agreement by the three main ethnic groups: the abolishment of the death penalty.

Of course, it is important to remember that then, at the time Bosnia joined the Council of Europe, the country's international image was improving and it was being governed by moderate parties that enjoyed a brief two years in power. Later in 2002, the moderate parties were defeated by the same ethno-nationalist parties that remain in power today.

Bosnia's admission to the Council of Europe came only several days after the completion of a constitutional reform that included the stipulation of ethnic-equality guarantees across the country. Those reforms were strongly rejected at the time by the opposition, and since then most of those initiatives have been suspended.

That said, Bosnia's ruling parties really have nothing against allowing Jews, Roma, or other ethnic representatives to run for office. The problem lies elsewhere: Provisions of the constitution also discriminate against Bosnian Serbs in the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat-dominated federation entity, and against Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats in the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity. And the powers that be would prefer to maintain that status quo.

Case In Point

Under the Bosnian Constitution, Serbs living in the federation cannot run for the tripartite presidency; nor are Bosniaks or Croats living in Republika Srpska allowed to do so. The Bosnian Serb member of the country's presidency must live in Republika Srpska. He or she must be elected by the Republika Srpska Assembly, while Bosniaks and Croats must be delegated by the federal parliament.

In practice, if the constitution is changed, it would be devastating for Republika Srpska. If a moderate Bosnian Serb politician from Sarajevo, for instance, is elected to the presidency, he could steal votes across ethnic lines from nationalist forces.

A case in point: In 2006, Bosnian Croat Zeljko Komsic was elected as the Croat member of the presidency by winning some 40 percent of the vote, beating out the nationalist Croat Democratic Community (HDZ) candidate. However, Komsic was from the moderate Social Democratic Party (SDP), and he won votes from all three ethnic groups in urban areas.

The HDZ refused to recognize Komsic's victory, saying he had won with support from voters outside the ethnic group, and that even though he was a Bosnian Croat, he could not represent the ethnic group because he spent the war in Sarajevo rather than in a Croat-majority area and had served in the Bosnian Army, which was majority Bosniak. The HDZ alleged that Komsic won only 5 percent of Croatian votes and that Bosniaks who voted for him stole the victory.

Of course, from time to time, Bosnian authorities appoint a token member of one of its minority groups to ensure cosmetic equality. For instance, the chairman of the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, Igor Radojicic, is technically Montenegrin, although he was born and raised in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. Radojicic is a close associate of entity Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and a member of Dodik's ruling party.

The 'Other' Category

Following local elections in 2004, the Bosniak ruling Party of Democratic Action (SDA) got to nominate the president of the Sarajevo Center municipality council. Since the elected municipality chief was Bosniak, the post of municipality council head needed to go to either a Serb, a Croat, or an “other.” To accommodate the rule, they had popular athlete Muhamed Alaim change his ethnic identity from “Bosniak” to “Muslim,” thereby rendering him to the “other” category. Oddly enough, they got away with this.

Again in 2008, the SDA elected party member Jazid Bajric as president of Sarajevo municipal council of Hadzici by listing him as an ethnic “Bosnian” – as opposed to “Bosniak.”

There are dozens of similar cases.

In 1991, at the beginning of Bosnia's ethnic hysteria, an interesting trend developed in Sarajevo and a few other urban areas: Those who refused to declare themselves as Bosniaks, Serbs, or Croats (largely, the younger generation) declared themselves to be “Eskimos” instead.

If Bosnia ever manages to change the discriminatory provisions of its constitution – which is likely only to happen with some serious international arm-twisting – we could very well see an ethnic "Eskimo" running for office. And that, most certainly, would be an improvement.

Anes Alic is the Sarjevo-based executive director of ISA Intel, a senior analyst for ISN Security Watch, and a contributor to Oxford Analytica. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL