European Western Balkans

[EWB Interview] Ćerimagić: BiH is in the midst of a three-dimensional chess play


European Western Balkans (EWB): Adnan, let’s start with a question that many are asking these days in Brussels: was Zeljko Komsic elected as member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Presidency in accordance with the Dayton constitution and election law?

Adnan Ćerimagić (AĆ): Yes, he was. This was the eight time since the end of the war that Bosnian voters elected their three members of the Presidency. Same as in all previous rounds, voters in Republika Srpska elected one member of the Presidency, a Serb, and voters in the Federation elected two members, one Croat and one Bosniak.

EWB: Some Bosnian Croats and many in Republic of Croatia argue that Zeljko Komsic was not elected by majority of Croat citizens in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Are they right?

AĆ: Bosnians are free to chose their ethnic belonging on basis of their own feelings. Many outsiders are suprised when they learn how rarely Bosnians are officialy asked to declare themselves as “Bosniak,” “Croat, ” “Serb” or “other.” In the Bosnian census people self-identify, but otherwise the administrative category of “Croat” or “Bosniak” does not exist for citizens. You will not find any identity document which says that certain person is “Croat”. And if that person felt like “Croat” five years ago and today like “Bosniak,” there is no institution or procedure that can challenge this decision.

What we know about elections on 7 October is that 1.1 million voters in the Federation voted for the Presidency members. All of them were given a same ballot with six Bosniak and five Croat candidates to choose from. And that the winners were one Croat, Zeljko Komšić, with 230,000 votes, and one Bosniak, Šefik Džaferović, with 210,000. The other nine got 600,000. The Federation is a single electoral unit where one Croat and one Bosniak member of the Presidency are elected by all voters who are registered there. And while candidates – to be able to run for elections – are obliged to declare their ethnicity through self-identification, voters are not.

EWB: Croatian diplomats, Croatia’s members of the European Parliament and the Bosnian Croat politicians argue that the EU should push Bosnia-Herzegovina to change its election law in order to enable Croats to elect a Croat member of the Presidency. Is this possible to achieve?

AĆ: I don’t think so.

EWB: Why not?

AĆ: There are two ways to ensure that only Croats elect a Croat member of the Presidency, but both are almost impossible to get to.

EWB: What are those two ways?

AĆ: One option is to force all voters in the Federation to register according to their ethnic belonging, so that it is known who is officially a Croat. And then to declare that only these Croat voters get to vote for Croat candidates, and only Bosniak voters for the Bosniak candidates. Even leaving aside for a moment how hard it is to change the constitution in the Federation, note that in the Federation it would definitely exclude anyone who does not feel like a Croat or Bosniak from both running and voting for presidency members, unless everyone is forced to chose only between these two. As it is done in Cyprus, for instance, where every citizen is either considered a Turk (even when they are Muslim Roma) or a Greek (even if they are Armenian), based on religion. But this would then lead to a situation where a Croat member of the Presidency would again not be elected only by Croats. It would also be a violation of protocol 12 of the European Convention on Human Rights which Bosnia has ratified. And it would be a very un-Bosnian thing to do.

EWB: What is the second way?

AĆ: The second way would be to divide the Federation in two electoral units along ethnic lines, with one electoral unit being an area where mainly (according to the census: self-declared) Croat voters live and the other for Bosniak voters. The moment one actually tries to do this, though, you realise the problem. The 2013 census showed that in the Federation today there are 1.6 million Bosniaks, 0.5 million Croats and 160 thousand Serbs and others. Look at the municipal level and you see that only 250,000 Croats live in municipalities with a Croat majority. The other half of Croats lives in municipalities where they are not in majority. So will only half of all Croats, those in Croat-majority municipalities, be allowed to chose the Croat member of the Presidency?

EWB: But then some say that Serbs elect their member of the Presidency?

AĆ: No, this is not true. What is true is that voters in Republika Srpska elect one member of the Presidency who has to be someone who for the purpose of election declares that he or she is a Serb. Today in Republika Srpska there are 1.2 million citizens. 250,000 of them, an important minority, declared in 2013 that they are non-Serbs. Also, when Mladen Ivanić was elected as a Serb member of the Presidency in 2014 he won by only 7 thousand votes difference. And some claimed that this shows that it was the non-Serbs in Republika Srpska who actually determined who won. There was a sort of a race in trying to prove for which candidates non-Serbs voted, but in the end nobody knows if Ivanić received the majority of Serb votes.

EWB: When can we expect new governments in Bosnia-Herzegovina to be formed and start their work?

AĆ: At the moment we are in the midst of a three-dimensional chess play that will result with coalitions of political parties that are needed to govern the country. In all thirteen parliaments, elected last month, there is a need for such coalition. Negotiations have already started, some old partnerships confirmed and some new established. There are various speculations and all of it is part of the play. This is usually a very long and complicated process, not only for foreigners but also many Bosnians. It has its own dynamic.

Due to changes in strength of certain parties and results of several newly established parties, there is a potential to see some fresh ideas brought in these negotiations and later on in governments. In particular at the cantonal level where governments have full competences for issues such as education and health and where some parties already hinted their readiness to take over these areas. But it will take months before we are able to know who exactly will sit in the new governments and more importantly what they want to do. After 2014 elections the three-dimensional chess play ended with election of the Federation and state-level governments on 31 March.

EWB: So what should the EU then do?

AĆ: The EU must certainly not call on Bosnians to do things which are not doable. If Bosnians want to change their constitution they can try, but as in any other country the constitution is by design hard to change. And requires a lot of time, energy and will to change. Bosnian constitution has also been the basis for more than two decades of democratic politics, which is what it was designed for. The EU should focus instead on reforms where there are clear European standards, from toxic waste management to consumer protection. It should defend the rule of law, which is today at risk even in some EU members like Poland. It should also deploy instruments from its February 2018 strategy, such as Priebe-style reports. It should also stop considering Bosnia as a special case. The best way forward would be to open accession talks soon, and set out concretely what the gap is in each policy area between the EU and Bosnia today. The EU should help close this gap.

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