Perspectives | BiH

Life in Bosnia’s eternal status quo

By - 25.05.2017

Controlled chaos and frozen conflicts 22 years after the war.

Recently, the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina discussed whether cars with a special escort should have priority in traffic over ambulances or fire trucks. According to available data, 31 people either has or uses this right, which covers police protection and escorted cars. All of them are high-ranking politicians.

Among them is Bakir Izetbegovic, one of the three members of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Presidency, whose wife Sebija was recently filmed by the media using the official vehicle. She is a member of the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), whose president is her husband. Last year, she was appointed as the director of the University Clinical Center in Sarajevo.

These are only the two most recent illustrations of life in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, according to GDP in 2015 was the fifth poorest country in Europe. The two incidents have been labelled by members of civil society as a further escalation of highhandedness, immorality and irresponsibility in Bosnian politics, with politicians being accused of failing their public duty to set an example and uphold law and order. Instead, they do the opposite, while ignoring public criticism.

Twisted Constitution

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina ended 22 years ago with the peace agreements signed in Dayton, Ohio. The agreement acknowledged the divisions in the country made during the war, and created a complex structure made up of two entities (Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina), and the Brcko District. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina encompasses 10 cantons, each with its own government. The Council of Ministers is head of state, alongside the tripartite Presidency.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is also officially still a semi-protectorate, meaning that the international community possesses an extraordinarily large influence, which is used when necessary and in different ways, thereby securing the preservation of the status quo and maintaining the same political parties in power.

Civil society activists point to existing legislature, which allows political elites to gain unprecedented privileges. Meanwhile the eternal manipulation of war trauma and collective identities, and the “twisted Dayton Constitution” makes Bosnia and Herzegovina a country with no improvement for more than a decade.

Institutions have been emptied of all meaning and are just a mere curtain behind which the real processes of satisfying interests of the political and criminal elite are occurring.

Srdjan Blagovcanin, who has fought against corruption in the country for over  ten years, has described the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina as “a continued crisis characterized by the absence of elementary operations by institutions and basic separation of power.” What he is describing is a situation in which all the power is concentrated in the hands of a few political party leaders, who run both the state and society.

Blagovcanin describes what citizens are witnessing every day, a system built “via parallel non-formal party-criminal structures. In a situation like this, the institutions have been emptied of all meaning and are just “a mere curtain behind which the real processes of satisfying interests of the political and criminal elite are occurring.” The main goal of this system is to maintain the status quo, which allows a continuation of an illegal enrichment and protection from prosecution.

A game of numbers

Recently, the European Commission (EC) issued a report on the economic improvement of the Western Balkans states and Turkey, which stated that employment in Bosnia and Herzegovina has decreased. According to the EC, 90,000 people lost their jobs in 2016 alone, resulting in a drop in the employment rate of 3.5%.

The unemployed are mostly made up of young people, among whom as much as 60% are considered unemployed. However, these data are ignored by local politicians, who offer their own data, according to which employment rates in Bosnia and Herzegovina are rising.

A second problem threatening Bosnia and Herzegovina, but ignored by local politicians, is the slow exodus of the population. Even though the data has been criticised for as not being entirely reliable, according to some sources, more than 16,000 people left the country in 2016 alone.

Unemployment is not the only reason citizens are leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ever-increasing reason is the hopeless situation and a life in an eternal status quo.

According to data provided by the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration, a non-governmental organization that used to deal with the return of displaced persons, 90,000 people have left Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2013. In some cases, entire families are leaving the country. For now, there is no program aimed at preventing this exodus.

Unemployment is not the only reason citizens are leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina. The ever-increasing reason is the hopeless situation and a life in an eternal status quo. In such a state, local politicians are doing very little about it.

This situation is getting worse by the year. The lack of progress in a country gripped by the status quo can be exemplified by the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopting only 26 laws in 2016.

This lack of efficiency has not harmed the politicians pay packets, with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s MPs among the best paid in Europe with a monthly salary of around 2,500 euros. The average salary in Bosnia is 430 euros a month. On top of this, MPs experience many privileges, including official phones and cars, all of which seems unjustified, even immoral compared to the benefit they are providing to society.

Blagovcanin meanwhile has also identified a complete absence of responsibility in political life, and institutions that are captured by the party-criminal structures. Because of this, there is no mechanism to start resolving the current state. Opposition parties have been unable to articulate citizens demands, and civil society is weak.

A parallel reality

Civil society only occasionally points to these issues. The last time citizens went out on the streets was in February 2014. The protests were the biggest since the war and gathered thousands, but protesters were quickly discouraged when they realized that it is difficult to even find the right place to address their anger, in part due to the complex state structure.

The passivity of the civil sector is expressed by the fact that the law from the beginning of this article — permitting escorted vehicles to have priority over ambulances and fire engines — has been in place since 2005, and no one has reacted against it. It only came under the spotlight after one politician spoke publicly on the issue. Nobody has protested against the use of official cars for private purposes.

This allowed for Sebija Izetbegovic to respond plainly to questions from a journalist on why she used the official car, simply stating that she used it for a “beautiful affirmative visit by the Clinical Center of the University in Sarajevo to the center in Tuzla.” While her husband, a member of the Presidency, has said: “My wife is experiencing discomfort, so I don’t intend to leave her unprotected, let the state protect her the way it protects the wives of other statesmen when they visit Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Wide ranging research conducted by a number of different civil society organizations have shown that citizens are being systematically excluded from the decision-making process. Citizens have no means of influencing the work of any of the public bodies, while their attempts to raise their voice at protests is often publicly condemned by politicians and rejected as non democratic.

When a situation like the current one in Bosnia and Herzegovina goes on for a decade or so, citizens normalize it, start adapting, and behave alike themselves.

In 2014 during the largest post-war protests Bosnia has seen, politicians called those who participated “hooligans”. Though protests in Bosnia are almost happening daily, there is no articulation of civic discontent, and often not enough solidarity among those who are protesting. It is civil society that needs to find a way to operate, build a network of solidarity, and find the voice that will be strong enough to influence changes.

When a situation like the current one in Bosnia and Herzegovina goes on for a decade or so, citizens normalize it, start adapting, and behave alike themselves. Part of civil society believes that the only solution is to strengthen accountability and the rule of law, which is hard to achieve in a country where every level of governance is controlled by political parties, while institutions are used only as their proxies.  

For this to be done, it is necessary to free the judiciary from political influence, to depoliticize the public administration, and rescue public companies and institutions from the jaws of political parties, and to improve mechanisms for early elections, experts believe. These are the key conditions for the consolidation of a democracy and the building of a functional state. But, this has started being searched for after 25 years of experimenting with frozen conflicts and controlled chaos in modern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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