Late in a campaign dominated by typical ethnic divisions and nationalist rhetoric arose a rather touching story of Bosnians of different ethnicities uniting against abuse of power. But when the votes were counted, nationalist politics prevailed, with one notable exception. And in the case of the nationalist leader who lost, there may be an unintended consequence of even more divisiveness and gridlock in Bosnia. Meanwhile, with Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic integration progressing at a snail’s pace, other geopolitical actors, including the Russian and Turkish governments, can exploit these tensions, leaving the country in a volatile situation.
The drama and complexity
At least several thousand and possibly tens of thousands of people gathered in the center of Banja Luka Friday night, the final night for rallies ahead of Sunday’s national elections in Bosnia. The demonstrators, who reportedly came from across the Serb-dominated region and Bosnia as a whole, were protesting an alleged murder cover-up carried out by the Republika Srpska authorities. The demonstration has actually been a nightly affair for more than half a year, but it was particularly large Friday, and it seemed to showcase a groundswell of opposition to Milorad Dodik, the longtime Bosnian Serb leader. Dodik is an avowed Serb nationalist with close ties to the Kremlin in Moscow, and having threatened the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia, he is perceived in the West as a threat to the mere existence of the troubled Balkan state.
In addition to the apparent groundswell of opposition to Dodik, the protest appeared to display a small revolt against the ethnic divisions and tensions that keep the country in constant state of turmoil and give entrenched politicians and parties the opportunity to stay in power by playing the nationalist card. By many accounts, not only were Serbs protesting the alleged murder and subsequent cover-up of the killing of a 21-year-old Banja Luka man, but other ethnicities were lending their support as well.
And simultaneously, Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, were protesting the alleged cover-up of a murder or manslaughter case in Sarajevo involving similar political forces. The demonstrators in Banja Luka were backing those in Sarajevo and vice versa — the polar opposite to the rhetoric coming out of the Serb and Bosniak political establishments, which were busy trying to get reelected by vowing to defend their ethnic group against the threat posed by the other. It appeared on the ground level that Bosnians were uniting across ethnic lines against abuse of power and corruption. One journalist for a Banja Luka daily was so inspired by the movement in Republika Srpska, he gave up reporting on it and joined as an activist.
“People start to realize they all have the same problem, they all have the same corrupt politicians, they all lack the same rule of law and protections and security for their families,” said Dejan Sajinovic, of Nezavisne novine. “So they started to realize that their real enemies are these politicians and not people from other religions or ethnicities.”
But as the election results trickled in very late Sunday night, one might have begun to question whether this display of unity and democratic values was all for not. The grassroots campaigning for justice and political reform in Bosnia, a potential bridge of the ethnic divide, may have flipped the script in the international press in the days leading up to the election. But when the votes were just partially counted, it had already become clear that the same old parties and players got elected — with a slight variation in the Croat voting — something that has the potential to make Bosnian politics even messier over the next four years.
Bosnia has a complex political system — one put in place by a peace agreement, which though very fragile, remains intact more than two decades following the war. The complexity and peculiarity of Bosnia’s electoral system was on display on Sunday.
Dodik and the candidate put forward by the longtime ruling Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), both won seats in Bosnia’s presidency. Bosnia has not one but three presidents — a Serb president, a Bosniak president and a Croat president. Most of the focus Sunday was on the three separate Bosnian state presidential elections. Dodik, who has served much of the past two decades as president or prime minister of Republika Srpska, was vying Sunday for the Serb seat in the Bosnian state presidency. Likewise, the race for the Croat presidential seat featured an incumbent, as well as a challenger who had previously served two terms in the post.
As is the case with the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Croats have a nationalist ruling party. And similar to the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Croats currently have a party leader, who is viewed by some as a threat to the makeup of the Bosnian state. Dragan Covic, the leader of Bosnia’s Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has called for the creation of a Croat entity. Bosnia currently has two entities — Republika Srpska, which is controlled by Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is controlled by Bosniaks and Croats.
On Sunday, Covic lost his bid for reelection. He was defeated by previous holder of the Croat presidential seat, Zejlko Komsic. In contrast to Covic, Komsic is considered a moderate and supportive of preserving Bosnia’s current makeup. Yet, even in victory, Komsic did not appear to appeal to most Bosnian Croat voters.
This is where things get weird — fittingly the case in Bosnia. It appears it was largely Bosniaks, not Croats, who got Komsic elected to the Croat seat of Bosnia’s presidency. In the Federation entity, voters can choose either a Croat or Bosniak candidate for president.
Based on the preliminary results, it appears many Bosniaks did not vote for a candidate in the race for the Bosniak presidential seat. Rather they voted for Komsic, swinging the Croat presidential election in his favor. In Mostar, where many Bosnian Croats live, Covic received more than twice the votes of Komsic, according to the preliminary results released by the Central Election Commission.
The Croatian government, which has overtly been backing Covic, reacted angrily to the result.
“Once again, owing to a positive legal framework that exists in Bosnia, we are in a situation in which members of one constituent people on the territory of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are electing a representative of another constituent people,” Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic was quoted as saying.
While conceding, Covic warned that his defeat to Komsic would trigger a new “political crisis” in Bosnia. He might be right. The HDZ could boycott parliament or use its sway to cause even more gridlock in Bosnia and stall reforms crucial for the country’s Euro-Atlantic path.
What does this mean for regional and geopolitics?
Bosnia has no clear path to the European Union and NATO. Unlike all other former Yugoslav republics, Bosnia is yet to achieve EU candidacy status. Among Balkan states, Bosnia is only ahead of Kosovo in the EU membership process. With constant infighting, the Bosnian government will not pass the reforms needed to speed up its western integration process. And at least in the case of the EU, Brussels is in no hurry to integrate Bosnia.
Theoretically, Bosnia is closer to joining NATO, but Dodik effectively holds a veto over that move. Likewise, Moscow, which is allied with Dodik’s Bosnian Serb administration, is trying to halt further NATO expansion.
A couple of decades after the war, Bosnia is becoming a state overlooked by the West. This year, the EU has at least given lip service to placing renewed focus on the Western Balkans. What attention the region has received from Brussels has primarily been given to resolving the Greece-Macedonia and Serbia-Kosovo disputes.
During an EU-Western Balkans summit held in May in Bulgaria, top EU officials hardly even mentioned Bosnia when speaking with the press. For that matter, they were much more concerned with U.S. President Donald Trump and Iran, let alone the Western Balkans, the region they are supposedly in the process of welcoming into the union.
Then two days following the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed up in Sarajevo. Welcomed by Chairman of The Bosnian Presidency Bakir Izetbegovic, Erdgoan did in Bosnia what he was barred from doing in several Western European states — holding a massive campaign rally. Turks from across Europe descended on Sarajevo, where Erdogan’s firebrand Islamist politics were not only tolerated but welcomed by the ruling Bosniak party.
With the West largely retreating from Bosnia, Erdogan and other political players have showed interest in filling the power vacuum. Notably, just a week before Sunday’s election, Dodik met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia. It was Dodik’s and Putin’s second meeting of the year and their eighth meeting since 2011, according to local media reports.
As Belgrade and Pristina have floated the idea of a land swap, Dodik, too, has expressed interest in renegotiating Balkan borders. Moscow recently sent its top diplomat to Banja Luka, where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured that Russia supports the Dayton Agreement and Bosnia’s territorial integrity.
But there is reason to be skeptical of the claim. Moscow stands accused of using proxies to carry out a coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016, and more recently, it has demonstrated its interest in halting NATO expansion via an influence campaign attempting to derail the Greece-Macedonia name agreement.
Regardless of whether Dodik, with possible backing from Russia, would attempt a move toward secession or the further erosion of the Bosnian national government’s authority, Bosnia is becoming vulnerable to anti-western influence from Ankara and Moscow. And simultaneously, the Croatian government is intervening in Bosnian politics on behalf of the Croats.
Furthermore, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic can add to the instability in Bosnia. Vucic plays a double game, bouncing back and forth between Brussels and Moscow and simultaneously offering support for the Bosnian Serbs, but not backing Dodik’s agenda to the extent the Kremlin does.
Maybe the seeds laid by the Bosnian protesters in recent days, weeks and months will sprout into genuine opposition to the establishment parties and continuous dysfunction in Bosnia. But for now, divisiveness and dysfunction remain, and they can be exploited by foreign powers seeking to influence the direction of the country. And Bosnia’s respective political classes can make use of the mess to maintain their power and the status quo in a country that has three presidents and continues to be governed under a peace agreement.