"Bosnia’s Gordian Knot: Constitutional Reform", crisisgroup

Europe Briefing N°68 12 Jul 2012

Executive Summary

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Obavijest za Medije


Bosnia and Herzegovina’s system of government has reached breaking point and the country’s path to European Union (EU) membership is blocked. The constitution requires that the posts in two key institutions, the three-member presidency and the parliamentary House of Peoples, be equally divided among Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in 2009 this violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) by restricting others’ access. The European court’s ruling has exposed long-buried contradictions in Bosnia’s constitutional architecture, which have become more acute since the 31 May 2012 collapse of the government coalition. Bosnian politicians need to reform their constitution but reopening the Dayton Agreement will require more than a quick fix. The EU should not make implementing the ECtHR decision a prerequisite for a credible membership application if it seeks thorough comprehensive reform to put the country on a firm footing.

Bosnia’s failure to implement the ECtHR’s landmark judgment on the Sejdić-Finci case baffles observers. Discrimination against minorities such as Jews and Roma is repugnant. Yet more than two and a half years later, despite strong international pressure and a concerted push to find a solution in spring 2012, Bosnian leaders have made no progress in executing it. Even sympathetic observers wonder why the country persists in its “racist” constitution. The Council of Europe warns that neither it nor the EU would consider the 2014 elections for Bosnia’s parliament legitimate without the necessary constitutional amendments.

Yet almost nothing about the Sejdić-Finci case is as it seems. Implementing the judgment will not necessarily improve the situation of minorities, whose marginalisation is due more to political culture than to the impugned constitutional provisions. The dispute is not driven by discrimination which all BiH parties agree must be eliminated. It is about whether, and how, to preserve the rights of Bosnia’s constituent peoples, especially those of the Croats who are the smallest group. Their position is likely to get a new boost when Croatia joins the EU in 2013.

Though the ECtHR case is technical, it raises fundamental questions about Bosnia’s constitutional architecture and has opened dangerous and important issues buried since the end of the war in 1995. In a stinging dissent, Judge Giovanni Bonello condemned the court’s judgment and warned of the dangers of challenging the status quo. Local leaders echo the warning. Bosnia suffers from unresolved issues similar to those which sparked Yugoslavia’s collapse, and a botched set of amendments could make keeping the country together much harder. At the same time, more delay in implementing the court’s judgment means more delay in progress toward the EU, one of the only points on which all Bosnia’s constituencies agree.

Tension between the two aspects of Bosnian federalism – the division into two territorial entities (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska), and three ethnic communities known as constituent peoples (the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) – has been growing for a decade. It is no longer sustainable. As Crisis Group described in its reports over the past two years, state institutions are under attack and there is a crisis of governance in the federation and the Republika Srpska. Institutions at all levels are highly inefficient and politicians ignore difficult policy choices and seem immune to domestic or international pressure.

It took fourteen months to form a state government after the October 2010 elections; this fragile coalition broke down less than six months later, on 31 May 2012. A new constellation of parties is trying to assert control, but its former partners in state and federal government are holding on to their positions and the prospects are unclear. What attention they have given to implementing the ECtHR decision has focused on a solution that cements party leaders’ already extensive hold on power. In Bosnia the government and its politicians are not only unable to resolve the problems; they have become a key problem themselves.

There is a popular assumption among Bosnia’s European friends that implementing the European court’s decision and changing its constitution will go some way in improving governance. But there are no quick fixes. It will mean reopening the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the 1992-1995 war, re-balancing the compromises made in that agreement, and embarking on a comprehensive constitutional reform. Though a return to violence remains unlikely, these issues are highly emotional and risk extending political paralysis and leading to state failure. Bosnia’s leaders believe the EU requires only a technical fix, even if it leaves the country even less governable. Ultimately, the decisions taken will decide whether Bosnia survives to move toward Europe or begins a process of disintegration that will not end peacefully. To avoid this grim prospect:

  • Bosnia’s political leadership should refocus on constitutional reform, including the execution of the European court’s decision. It should adopt measures that: clarify whether and how elected and appointed officials are responsible to specific groups, all citizens, or those who voted them into office; allow voters rather than mid-level officials to choose national leaders; give Croats an effective means of influencing state policy; provide room for those who identify as citizens rather than in ethnic terms to have a voice; and avoid overly complex rules prone to obstruction.
  • EU states should lift their conditioning of Bosnia’s candidacy on implementation of the court ruling. Comprehensive constitutional reform should be the end goal of membership talks, not its precondition.

This briefing explores the challenge posed to Bosnia’s constitutional framework, its key institutions and the constituent people concept by the Sejdić-Finci case. It is the first in a two-part series as Crisis Group plans to elaborate on the options for constitutional reform, from minimalist to maximalist, in a report to be published early in 2013.

Sarajevo/Istanbul/Brussels, 12 July 2012