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Bosnia's UN Overseer Opens A Can Of Worms After Close Of Polls In Crucial Elections

High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Christian Schmidt
High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Christian Schmidt

Bosnia-Herzegovina's general elections delivered a glimmer of hope to moderates amid challenges to incumbents steeped in the Balkan country's calcified ethnic rivalries.

But desires for an improbable local solution to end years of political paralysis at the state, regional, and local levels were pushed aside minutes after polls closed by the UN overseer's intervention to avoid gridlock in key institutions after the vote.

The election-night decision by High Representative Christian Schmidt to invoke his UN-backed "Bonn powers" followed months of public handwringing to address a crippling dispute among Bosniaks and Croats in one of Bosnia's two main entities and months of accelerated secession efforts by Serbs in the other.

"Functioning structures are the basis of a democratic state," Schmidt said in his YouTube video announcement of the reforms.

Bosnia comprises a majority-Bosniak and minority-Croat entity known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose budget is about four times that of the national government, as well as the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a tiny self-governing district that acts much like a municipality, Brcko. The federation is further divided into 10 cantons.

"These decisions aim at preventing the paralysis of the [Bosniak and Croat] federation after the elections," Schmidt said. "So this is why I'm doing it and deciding it today."

The reconfiguration-by-decree came just as the tallies began in dramatic races for seats in Bosnia's ethnically apportioned tripartite presidency as well as for the presidency of Republika Srpska, and with the seats of regional legislatures also up for grabs.

It also threatened to overshadow the voting itself, by around half of the former Yugoslav republic's nearly 3.4 million registered voters.

What Schmidt Did

The intervention after the balloting by the UN's overseer is likely to dominate the postelection landscape and its effect on Bosnia's national and political fortunes.

Less than an hour after polls closed, Schmidt said his "functionality package" would shape indirect elections to the Bosniak and Croat federation's legislature while dramatically restricting officials' ability to block legislative appointments and other processes.

His changes include an increase in the size of the federation's House of Peoples to "correct overrepresentation" of some ethnic groups and the inclusion of "others" to be represented there -- code in Bosnia for minorities outside the main Bosniak, Serb, and Croat peoples.

He also set deadlines and "consequences for ignoring these deadlines," including a one-month limit for agreement on sweeping electoral and constitutional reforms that have proven enormously contentious domestically and flummoxed state-building efforts for decades.

Bosnian Election Commission officials count votes after presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in a school in Sarajevo on October 2.
Bosnian Election Commission officials count votes after presidential and parliamentary elections at a polling station in a school in Sarajevo on October 2.

The moves appeared to be aimed squarely at clearing away obstacles to basic government while redressing the most persistent criticism of the largest ethnic Croat political party in the country, whose candidate for the tripartite Bosnian Presidency lost out to a moderate with the backing of the Federation's Bosniaks in a repeat of three of the past four elections.

Schmidt argued that his moves safeguarded voters' choices rather than subverted them, and he preemptively dismissed "in the coming days claims about who wins and who loses with these decisions."

"A lot of this will be nonsense," he said bluntly. "The clear winners are the people of this country and their peaceful future."

Gains By Moderates?

Voting for two of the three ethnically apportioned seats of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency hinted at a moderate pushback against boisterous ethno-nationalism.

But even those contests were loaded with contradictions.

In one of the most lopsided races, Denis Becirovic won easily over incumbent nationalist Bakir Izetbegovic to win the Bosniak seat on the Bosnian Presidency.

The 11-party opposition alliance behind Becirovic was arguably the widest that Bosnia has seen in its postwar history. It was key to overcoming Izetbegovic's pedigree as the son of a wartime Bosniak leader and leadership of the nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA).

But it is unclear how long such unity can last.

"What Becirovic has brought together behind him has some contradictions," Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, told RFE/RL.

He cited the potentially troublesome cohabitation of Becirovic's civic-minded Social Democratic Party with People And Justice, a nationalist-leaning counterpart to Izetbegovic's SDA.

That might hint at a possible shift toward a civic option rather than the rut of strictly ethnic allegiances, Bassuener cautioned, but "whether he is actually advocating that and advocating fundamental change" is another question.

He called it "at least an implicit rejection of tribalism" but also one that is more easily swallowed by a party whose power base rests among the federation's majority Bosniaks.

In the race for the Presidency's Croat seat that marked a gain for moderates in the eyes of some but an ongoing threat to the balance of power among Bosnia's three constituent peoples among more nationalist Croats, incumbent Zeljko Komsic defeated a challenge from the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina (HDZBiH) candidate Borjana Kristo.

Komsic's previous victories on the strength of Bosniak votes have fed grievances including by HDZBiH leader Dragan Covic that Croats are underrepresented on a state level.

Croats have threatened to continue blocking the formation of a federation government if Komsic won another term on the Presidency.

Meanwhile, an early challenge for leadership of the Republika Srpska provided drama as Milorad Dodik slipped behind an opposition challenger.

Milorad Dodik
Milorad Dodik

The pro-Moscow Dodik, accused of corruption and targeted by Western sanctions over his moves toward Republika Srpska's secession, has wielded mostly unrivaled power among Bosnian Serbs for decades and actively undermined Bosnian statehood.

But later tallies on October 3 appeared to show the Serbs' loudest voice for breaking up Bosnia would remain in power.

Moreover, a close Dodik ally and fervent Serb nationalist, Zeljka Cvijanovic, looked set to win the Serb seat on the Bosnian Presidency vacated by Dodik.

She is "Dodik's creature," in the words of one Balkan analyst.

"I think that when you have somebody who's so entrenched, like Dodik, or somebody's party, which has been effectively perennial like Izetbegovic, on the back shows popular dissatisfaction," Bassuener said. "The problem then becomes: What do the people who've been elected as a result do with that...public hope that has been vested in them?"

For Now At Least, 'Intervention' Wins

Schmidt's use of his wide-ranging powers to force a potentially unpopular path forward once all the ballots were cast carries risks.

Even rumors of his intention to impose constitutional and electoral reforms last summer sparked street demonstrations.

In part to appease some of Bosnia's most entrenched leaders, Schmidt provided local politicians with an off-ramp that he suggested would put the country on footing "for a better status of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a candidate for European integration."

But it's unclear whether Bosnia's newly elected -- or reelected -- leaders will choose to accept it.

"The timing couldn't have been worse," said Bassuener, who has expressed wariness of imposed solutions to overcoming the sticky and corrupt power allocation among Bosnia's constituent peoples in the absence of "a popular constituency" for a functioning state.

There has been little evidence among Bosnia's political leaders of clearly articulated goals for their country, according to Bassuener.

"What you don't really have represented on the electoral landscape as it was represented on ballots last night was a clear, articulated vision of what people want that's fundamentally different from what they've got," he said.

A Risky Gamble That Could Still Backfire

In addition to local challenges, Schmidt's moves could also highlight differences among the Office of the High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina's fractious collection of UN sponsors.

Russia and China are already pressing to phase out the office, driven in part by Kremlin support for Serb and Orthodox unity in the Balkans even before Moscow's fateful invasion of Ukraine.

But even Bosnia's closest Western partners responded in a cacophony.

The United States expressed its support for Schmidt's move as an "urgent and necessary intervention" as evidenced by ongoing "paralysis" and the failure to implement results from the last general elections in 2018.

It cited problems that "have plagued the Federation" of Bosniaks and Croats "for many years" and Schmidt's efforts this summer are a "good-faith compromise."

It said obstructionism has "deprived Federation residents of their constitutional rights, undermined the rule of law, and emboldened ethno-nationalists across [Bosnia]. Together, these problems threaten [Bosnia's] sovereignty, territorial integrity, and multiethnic character."

"The restoration of functionality to the Federation is the first step toward restoring the internal balance [Bosnia-Herzegovina] requires to address governance issues, deliver prosperity, respond to wider geopolitical challenges, and secure its place in the Euro-Atlantic community of nations."

The European Union, meanwhile, sent a markedly different signal.

The EU's mission in Bosnia quickly distanced itself from Schmidt's move, even as it lamented local politicians' inability to resolve "functionality" problems and constitutional reform.

"This was a decision of the High Representative alone," the delegation said the morning after the vote. "The executive powers of the High Representative (Bonn Powers) should be used solely as a measure of last resort against irreparable unlawful acts."

It added an expression of hope, saying the EU "expects newly elected officials to take full responsibility for ambitious reforms that advance the interests of citizens as well as the country's further progress on the European path" in line with the European Commission's stated priorities toward Bosnia's official EU candidacy.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.