In 1995, the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian War, establishing modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, a state explicitly structured by ethnic group. 25 years later, a strained peace persists, but ethnic polarization has only deepened. Sectarianism endures at the highest levels of government, including in the three-member presidency comprised of representatives from each of the constitutionally recognized “constituent peoples” of Bosnia — Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, commonly referred to as Bosniaks. When Milorad Dodik was elected in 2018 as the Serb member of the presidency, he announced, “I don’t care who the other two representatives in the presidency are. I am going there, to this presidency, to work above all and only for the interests of Serbs.” Statements like these are unsurprising from Dodik, who is perhaps the starkest example of the ethnic nationalism that has indelibly shaped Bosnian politics.
Of course, Dodik is not the only political leader who has thrived in ethnic conflict. In this blog post, I argue that constitutionally enabled and elite-fueled ethnic nationalism in Bosnia has enabled democratic erosion through creating political deadlock and suffocating popular opposition to subnational authoritarianism. I begin by outlining the institutionalization of ethnic polarization in the structure of the Bosnian state, and then, through the examples of Mostar city politics and recent anti-government protests in Republika Srpska, explicate the role of ethnic nationalism in obstructing popularly responsive democracy.
Ethnic segmentation is embedded within Bosnia and Herzegovina’s very constitutional structure. The state is divided into two subnational “entities,” the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and the Croat and Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The power sharing arrangement was devised to ensure a peaceful balance of power in the aftermath of a war that killed over one hundred thousand, including tens of thousands of Bosniak victims of Serb-perpetrated genocide. But in constitutionalizing ethnic segmentation, the Dayton Agreement has ensured the endurance of political polarization in Bosnia. The establishment of subnational entities, strictly defined by ethnicity, has allowed for the virtually untrammeled political consolidation of three ethnonationalist political parties: the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Croat Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ-BiH), and the Serb Alliance of Independent Democrats (SNSD). Moreover, each member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency can, representing their respective ethnic groups, “exercise a veto on legislation deemed harmful to their interests.” The consequences of the political gridlock that has resulted are many. After the 2018 election, for example, disputes between the three parties meant that it took more than a year for a national government to be formed. Such gridlock, which political scientists Jennifer McCoy, Tahmina Rahman and Murat Somer theorize as one of polarization’s anti-democratic consequences, has meant systemically dysfunctional governance. The result, as McCoy et. al write, is “reduce[d] public confidence in democratic institutions.”
In Mostar, a city of Bosniaks and Croats, this erosion of public confidence has played out in miniature, but with severe consequences for local democracy. Owing to the inability of the Croat HDZ-BIH and Bosniak SDA to reach an agreement on how city constituencies would be defined, Mostar has not held city elections since 2008. The 12 year period without a single election has meant a city where, as put by one local activist, “infrastructure was crippled to the point where citizens were getting poisoned,” and the mayor’s office could “do as it pleased.” In this political environment, ethnic segmentation has only intensified. The city has “two garbage collection companies, two hospitals, two electricity companies, two bus stations, two popular nightclubs and two soccer teams” — in each case, one for Croats and one for Bosniaks. Although elections in Mostar will finally be held at the end of December, local electoral accountability has been nonexistent for more than a decade. More ominously, the deeply entrenched ethnic divisions only portend further weakening of the democratic norms that McCoy et. al note are essential for democratic consolidation — but suffer under conditions of intense polarization.
Authoritarian consolidation in RS
On the other side of Bosnia, Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS), political scientist Damir Kapidžić argues, has become a “subnational competitive authoritarian regime.” In RS, one party, the Serb nationalist SNSD led by Dodik, has been in power since 2006 and faces no true political opposition. Here it is not so much multiethnic political deadlock that has resulted in anti-democratic outcomes, but ethnic homogeneity which enables autocrats to suppress public dissent through invoking Serb nationalism. A recent report by Bosnia’s internationally-appointed High Representative highlights attempts by RS authorities to “restrict political freedoms” in light of a popular anti-government movement started by a man protesting the death of his son, David Dragičević. The elder Dragičević started the “Justice for David” movement to call attention to what he describes as the cover-up of his son’s death by RS authorities and the ruling SNSD party. Protests quickly swelled, representing, as the New York Times put it, an antigovernment movement that challenged “the authoritarian influence of Milorad Dodik.” However, the protests, which started in March 2018, did not prevent Dodik’s victory later that year in what OSCE election observers called a “genuinely competitive” election despite “continuing segmentation along ethnic lines.” Dodik’s populist call for Serb secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina had apparently overwhelmed concerns of SNSD corruption, allowing him to defeat a moderate opponent who called for Bosnian unity. Political scientist Milan W. Svolik argues that strong partisan interests ultimately override concerns for the rule of law and democratic principles, explaining popular support for autocrats. In RS, Svolik’s theory played out in practice, as ethnic interests harnessed by SNSD partisans trumped a nascent yearning for democratic accountability. Even as Dodik and his party were criticized for corruption and an abiding lack of respect for the rule of law, his political identity as a champion for Serb nationhood served as a cocoon, shielding him and his party from public opposition while consolidating popular Serb support.
Taken together, I have traced two outcomes that signal democratic erosion in Bosnia: political deadlock and subnational authoritarianism. While the former arose from multiethnic political conflict, the latter occurred in an ethnically homogenous political environment. Both are the result of entrenched ethnic nationalism, embedded in the country’s postwar constitution and readily inflamed by dominant political elites. There are few who resist this political reality. Still, signs of hope remain. After November’s elections, none of the three dominant ethnonationalist parties will occupy the mayor’s offices in Sarajevo and Banja Luka, the political capitals of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moderates campaigning against nationalist divisiveness won in both cities, in what is perhaps the first sign of a shift towards a less polarized, more unified Bosnian politics.
 “Bosnia and Herzegovina Freedom in the World 2020,” Freedom House, accessed Nov. 24, 2020, https://freedomhouse.org/country/bosnia-and-herzegovina/freedom-world/2020.
 Jennifer, McCoy, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer, “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities,” American Behavioral Scientist 62, no. 1 (2018): 25.
 Damir Kapidžić, “Subnational Competitive Authoritarianism and Power-Sharing in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 20, no.1 (2019): 2.
 Milan W. Svolik, “Polarization Versus Democracy,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 3 (2019).