Yesterday, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik announced that he would postpone a controversial entity-wide referendum on the decisions of the international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH).
The decision comes after a tense stand-off between Valentin Inzko, the current High Representative, and Dodik in which Inzko threatened to remove Dodik from office and Serb representatives in the BiH federal government threatened mass resignation. While Inzko has claimed that the referendum would undermine the Dayton Accords and perhaps be a first step toward dissolution of the country, Serb voices have insisted that a referendum is needed to check what they see as the creeping power of Sarajevo and the arbitrary authority of the High Representative.
It would appear in this battle of political brinksmanship that Inzko has “won.” Dodik has backed down, the referendum has been put off, and the authority of the political center remains formally intact. This image is somewhat misleading. Dodik has indicated that the postponement is a “sign of goodwill” to open a dialogue on the issues that the RS has raised with this referendum. He hopes that now the Serb entity would be in a better place to engage in discussions with the EU and United States about the future of the legal system and political architecture of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This may be seen as a mere face-saving measure for a defeated politician, yet the opposite may be true. By pushing Bosnian national institutions and the international representative to the brink, Dodik may have succeeded in forcing a meaningful domestic and international discussion about the quality and character of governance of the country. Although there can be little doubt that Dodik and many Serbs in Republika Srpska today do not see a real future in a united Bosnia, this remains a better solution than a return to ethnic violence. Dodik, despite his undisguised national sympathies, acknowledges this. Rather than split up the country, it is his agenda to ensure that the autonomy his entity currently enjoys is preserved and that international authority not be exercised to further empower the center.
Whatever one’s opinions on Dodik personally, he cannot be faulted for his desire to alter the institutional status quo. Close observers of contemporary politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina are keenly aware that the system there is fractured, if not already broken. While social relations between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are at least mutually tolerant, political relations are a mess. Republika Srpska has jealously guarded its autonomy while Sarajevo has attempted to centralize its authority. Proposals in recent years to dissolve BiH’s two federal entities into smaller non-ethnic provinces have been met with vehement opposition and have lead many Serbs to believe that Sarajevo and the international community want to “destroy” Republika Srpska. This, in turn, has propelled Banja Luka to demand more autonomy from Sarajevo and to weaken the role of the International High Representative in Bosnian politics and jurisprudence.
Meanwhile political relations between Bosnian Croats and Muslims in their shared Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are increasingly fractious. The former have expressed considerable frustration with their minority status in both the Federation and Republic at times demanding their own separate federal entity. The latter have been seen as using their near-majority status to demand a more unified country presumably in service of European democratic values at the expense of both Serbs and Croats. Highlighting the Bosniak-Croat split, even as the Federation condemned Republika Srpska’s decision to hold a referendum, major representatives of the Croat parties were not in attendance. It has also been the Bosniak parties which have pushed hardest at the state level to block this referendum.
In light of these centrifugal forces, the postponement of the referendum may be seen as a coup for Balkan stability. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that this postponement may amount to yet another postponement of the much needed critical reexamination of the politics of the region and political institutions of BiH. Rather than break down the ethnic barriers and disempower the nationalists who rose to power during the 1990s, many observers agree that the institutions of reconstituted Bosnia and Herzegovina have reinforced them. In particular, the institution of the International High Representative, which was meant to provide a safety lever in the worst-case scenario that nationalism did rise again, has become a lightening rod for nationalist mobilization.
While it was certainly a worthy goal of those who crafted the Dayton Accords in 1995 to decapitate the virulent nationalisms which had overrun the Balkans, over 15 years later it may be time to acknowledge certain realities. If Serb, Croat, and Bosniak ultra-nationalism is going to dissipate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it will not be through imposition from the top-down, particularly under the current structures of state. The image of a multiethnic Bosnia which is devoid of particularistic institutions and without conflicting nationalist interests is unachievable without meaningful domestic reconciliation.
So long as the demographic balance in the country holds, and there is no reason to expect that it will not, decisions by the high representative to centralize authority in Sarajevo will be seen as in service of the Bosniaks at the expense of Serbs and Croats. So too, so long as the grievances of Serbs (and Croats) are treated as challenges to the unity of the country rather than as legitimate concerns of equal citizens or constituent peoples, nationalists will enjoy more than enough popular support to threaten state dissolution.
There is certainly still a place for international monitoring and oversight, but the exercise of arbitrary ultimate authority by an appointed external authority is conducive neither to the development of democracy nor to reconciliation. If (it is felt that) the political representatives of constituent peoples can turn to an international supreme authority to impose their will on the country or to block the grievances and concerns of other constituent peoples, initiatives which presumably challenge the very institutions of the BiH state will remain the norm.
Clearly there is no simple solution to taming the centrifugal forces of Bosnian politics. Yet as the drama of the past month has demonstrated so clearly, threats to forcibly shut down the debate from within or without merely fan the flames. Let us hope that this brief reprieve will finally be taken as an opportunity to initiate meaningful discussion not just reflecting on Bosnia’s painful past but towards a better, more open future.