The Balkan Wars of the 1990s was a period that saw destruction of institutions, corruption of the media, extreme polarization, and genocide in Bosnia. Following a February 29 referendum, Bosnia & Herzegovina declared its independence on the 3rd of March 1992. Bosnian-Croats and Bosniaks had voted in favor of independence, but Bosnian-Serbs had voted against it and as a result the fighting between Serbs and Muslims had begun before the end of March. By early May the United Nations gave an approximate figure of ~500,000 people had been killed or expelled, which equated to 12% of the population prior to the outbreak of war (Sell, 2003).
The Dayton Peace Agreement was signed on December 14, 1995 in Paris after three weeks of difficult negotiations, which broke down a number of times and it was feared a compromise would not and could not be met. Dayton stopped the killing after almost four years of war, but the mechanism it put into place has been at times ineffective. Dayton also split Bosnia & Herzegovina into two entities, one Serb (Republika Srpska) and one Bosniak-Croat (the Federation), as well as the autonomous Brčko district. The agreement partitioned land based upon ethnic lines, with 49% going to the Serbs with Republika Srpska (RS) being legally implemented, and the other 51% to become the Bosnian-Croatian Federation for Bosniaks and Croats (Udovički and Ridgeway, 199). It also created a system that allows for an elected president from each ethnic group, which rotates in the role of chairman every eight months and each position within the elected parliamentary body is filled by a representative each from the Serb, Bosniak, and Croat ethnic groups. Lastly, Dayton carries the mandate for the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The High Representative is always from the European Union and the Deputy HR position is held by a senior member of the US Department of State, which allows for the international community to monitor the situation on the ground and ensure that the requirements of Dayton are being met.
Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) today is a deeply fractured society where ethnic tensions are still present and have been on the rise over the past several years. Politics in Republika Srpska are highly polarized and nationalist, pro-Russian leaders like Milorad Dodik and the Serbian Radical Party dominate the landscape. There has also been little acknowledgment in RS of the Srebrenica genocide or acceptance of crimes committed during the Bosnian War, as well as an embracing of the Bosnian-Serb militias in existence during the war. The Federation on the other hand is characterized by corruption, little economic opportunity or job prospects for young Bosnians, and fairly ethnically-mixed cantons, with exception to those on the Croatian border. Despite democratic modifications and improvements, the entities within Bosnia & Herzegovina are experiencing hyperpolarization, backsliding, and uneven authoritarianism.
Polarization, Backsliding, and Uneven Authoritarianism
Polarization is the means by which individuals align themselves ideologically with a particular group and usually within states that have a dominant two-party system (McCoy et al, 18). However, in Bosnia’s case there is severe polarization along ethnic lines and this is maintained through the tripartite political system, as well as through the geographic placements of each ethnic group. The demographics of RS are overwhelmingly Bosnian-Serb and as such, far-right nationalist ideology thrives and its current member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, has made threats of a referendum to secede from BiH to merging with Serbia. In the Federation, the “two-houses, one roof” is prevalent throughout the cantons where Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat children attend the same schools, but are taught separate histories and in the language of their ethnic group.
What is democratic backsliding and how does it apply to Bosnia & Herzegovina? Bermeo (2016) tells us that there is no solid definition of what “backsliding” is, rather it can move quickly or slowly, is not always immediately noticeable, and in many current cases it features a compromising of institutions and elections. The Dayton Agreement has essentially guaranteed weak institutions because the government structure makes it nearly impossible to pass legislation that representatives of all three ethnic groups are willing to agree on. In Mostar, a city in the Federation largely dominated by Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat politics, they didn’t have any elections between 2008-2018. Additionally, in the past month Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb member of the Presidency, has called for the Office of the High Representative to be eliminated. This action is not supported by the Croat and Bosniak members of the Presidency, who view the OHR as integral in keeping the peace in BiH.
One term that has been used to describe the political climate in Bosnia & Herzegovina is “uneven authoritarianism”, but others include hybrid-regime or competitive authoritarianism. Following the end of the war in 1995, there was a general belief that BiH could build a stable democracy with the presence and aid of the West, however, in 2006 the international community decided it was time to step back and let BiH do things on their own. Over the next decade these fledgling institutions made some progress, but in the past five years they have begun a regression. The continued rise of Dodik in RS and his far-right nationalist rhetoric has produced many features of and is considered to be an authoritarian regime. The Federation, however, is more balanced and although institutions are weak and corrupt, there are more regular transfers of power among the Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat parties.
Conclusion Bosnia & Herzegovina remains on an uncertain path. One where it could remain stagnant and polarized, but there also exists a possibility that ethnic tensions could deepen and create another crisis like in the 1990s. On its current trajectory EU integration also remains just out of reach due to corruption in the judiciary, rule of law, and government institutions. BiH is also experiencing a massive brain drain as young people leave for educational or job opportunities in Western Europe and the United States due to a lack of opportunities. To disrupt this, Bosnian political parties need to find realistic ways to work together and build systems and institutions that actually work for everyone, not just their own ethnic groups. Additionally, having a shared history and narrative of the Bosnian War could aid with building trust in each other and in understanding the past, so as not to repeat it in the future.
- Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27(1): pp. 5-19.
- McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities” in Special Issue on Polarization and Democracy: A Janus-faced Relationship with Pernicious Consequences. American Behavioral Scientist (62)1: pp. 16-42.
- Sell, Louis. Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
- Udovički, Jasminka, and Ridgeway, James. Burn This House : The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.