Elections held next Sunday could cause a wave of tension and violence. In this case, the general elections held in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country, independent after the end of Yugoslavia, is known for having been the scene of a violent conflict between Serbs and Croats. The war and the country’s demographic composition imposed a curious political framework, which seeks to balance the three national groups that live there. In the last decade, however, national tensions have only grown and, in 2022, threaten to explode.
First, there is no one person president of Bosnia. Let’s just call the country that for objectivity, although the full name is Bosnia-Herzegovina. The presidency is exercised collectively, through a body composed of three members, one representing the Bosniak community, one the Bosnian-Croatian community and the other the Bosnian-Serbian community. Bosniaks are sometimes called “Bosnian Muslims”. They were the target of genocide, by Serbs and Croats, during the wars of the years 1990.
The three elected members serve a term collective of four years and one of them is appointed on a rotating basis as president. Every eight months we have a new president, but all decisions are collective, and each person holds the position twice in a four-year period. As the reader can imagine, it is not exactly a very practical mechanism and, at times, causes discord. Virtually all Bosnian institutions are triumvirate, even the national football federation.
An important element in the election is that, while the Bosnian and Bosnian-Croatian members are elected in joint electoral districts, the Bosnian-Serb member is elected within Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority autonomous region within the country. This both encourages Bosnian-Serb separatism, with many wanting a merger between Republika Srpska and Serbia, and generates resentment among Bosnian-Croats, who do not have the same autonomy, also seeking separatism because they feel treated unwelcome. isonomic with the Bosnian Serbs.
There are also proposals to create a Croatian-majority federal unit, especially in the western territories near the Croatian border in Dalmatia. Perhaps the most visible and recent example of this Croatian resentment took place in the last elections in 2018. On the occasion, the candidate Zeljko Komsic, from a non-nationalist party coalition, was elected as the Bosnian-Croatian representative. This is another particularity of Bosnian politics, the parties are also divided between defenders of the federal model, non-nationalists, and nationalists, who often include separatist agendas.
According to the Bosnian-Croats, Komsic was elected because of the vote in districts without a Croatian majority, that is, thanks to the Bosniak vote. Many Bosnian-Croat nationalists protested, claiming that the legitimate representative should be Dragan Covic of the nationalist coalition. The proposal to create an electoral district of its own has returned to the heart of the political debate and has reached the point where some Bosnian-Croatian cities have declared President Komsic as persona non grata, theoretically their representative.
On the Serbian side the situation is no longer peaceful. The Bosnian-Serb presidential candidate favored in the polls is Zeljka Cvijanovic of the openly separatist coalition. She is close to, and in the same party as, Milorad Dodik, the current Bosnian-Serb representative in the national presidency. He will not run for re-election, opting instead to run for president of Republika Srpska, an internal and far more symbolic post. At the same time, he will be able to project himself as the main leader of the Bosnian Serbs.
Unlike some of his predecessors, Dodik is not a war criminal. Not that this means he is a moderate figure in his nationalism. In plain English, Dodik is a fascist leader, who denies history, including well-documented crimes against humanity, and who preaches the superiority of one people and the inferiority of another. He openly advocates the secession of the Bosnian Serbs and union with Serbia. At the beginning of the month, he met with his main international ally, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow.
In a speech made earlier this week, Dodik said that “we cannot stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina, no it’s the place for us. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a place that constantly prevents us from taking off in our development (…) And I think that these conditions (for separation) are being created, Europe is more and more in trouble. America is losing its strength. A new world is being created. (…) In this world it is important that Republika Srpska has Milorad Dodik who can call Putin and see him tomorrow.”
Putin and Russia
Russia has been Serbia’s main ally since the mid-19th century. It would not be possible for Serbia to endorse any separatism in Bosnia without Russian support. In so doing, Putin could contribute to a crisis in Europe that will need the attention of the European Union, and give resonance to his rhetoric that Kosovo independence would supposedly serve as a precedent for population-based separatism. Whether in Bosnia or Ukraine.
It is important to clarify the term “contribute”. The crisis in Bosnia has been gestated since the birth of the country, practically, and could occur independently of international leaders. It is a problematic model of state derived from an extremely traumatic civil war and the lack of national unity in a region that, since the Ottoman period, has been one of contact between different populations.
Sunday’s election, if it confirms the victories of the Bosnian-Serb separatists, it could start a period of turmoil and violence in Bosnia. Bosnian Croats will likely react in kind, while Bosniaks risk being isolated within their own country. Hardly an actor will easily accept any change in the status quo, with a real risk of violence and deep political crisis.