Federalisation – a Civic Solution for the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina

by CBR Editor Brian Gallagher

First published in Hrvatski Vjesnik (Australia) 10 February 2021

Among the problems Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) faces, the issue of the Croat electoral issue is perhaps the most serious.  The Croatian state has been voicing its concerns at both Presidential and Prime Ministerial levels over it. The problem needs closer examination, in particular by the European Union, but also at potential solutions. One such solution is federalisation – a concept that could be a success for all, and which has been called for in European Parliament resolutions on BiH.

BiH has three constituent peoples – Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats and Serbs. BiH itself is split into three administrative units, the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska entities and the small Brčko District. Each of the three peoples vote for a representative onto the rotating Presidency. The main problem arises with the Croat community vote. In 2001 an electoral change was made by the Office of the High Representative – established by the international community to run the country after the war –  in order to get someone more ‘moderate’ elected rather than a ‘nationalist’ of the BiH HDZ party who were somewhat out of favour at the time – still largely the case. This change essentially let Bosniaks within the Federation have the choice of voting for either the Croat or Bosniak presidency. As Bosniaks are numerically superior to Croats in the Federation, they are able to arrange matters so that enough of them vote can vote for the Croat position, effectively choosing the Croat constituent community president, as well as their own. This has happened three times with Željko Komšić of the Democratic Front. Although an ethnic Croat by claim, he has no strong connection to the Croat community and even appears to have some problem with the separateness of the Croatian language – a subject of importance to Croat identity.

He does not have the confidence of the Croat population and the majority of them did not vote for him. This has eroded the trust – not high in the first place – that the Croats have in the BiH state. Furthermore, the Serbs of Republika Srpska have seen what has happened to the Croats and have no intention of letting the Bosniaks gain such power over them. This has ensured a level of distrust preventing progress of the country as a whole. Indeed, the Bosniaks with the support of some segments of the international community have been pushing for centralism – effectively letting them dominate – whilst Serbs have moved toward separatism.

The Croats also have electoral issues on a more local level. After 12 years of deadlock in agreeing elections, Mostar had a vote in December 2020. The elections resulted effectively in 18 seats for Bosniak parties, but 16 for Croat parties and one for the Serbs. However, it was alleged that around 300 registered voters illegally somehow shifted from Bosniak areas to a Croat one – giving the Bosniak side an extra seat.  Credence was given to the allegations from state TV broadcaster BHRT which featured complaints about the checks, which included a Bosniak man freely admitting that he had indeed registered extra people at his address when someone asked him to. However, the Central Election Commission certified the results regardless. At time of writing, the city’s representatives are attempting to elect a mayor – a Croat may yet get the post*, but the issue of the 300 voters and how it has been treated has not inspired the Croat population.

A European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision in 2009 also has a potential impact. The Sejdić-Finci case essentially revolved around the problems of ‘others’ i.e. those who are not one of the three constituent peoples. In the case, they claimed to be unable to stand for the Presidency or the House of Peoples – another layer of governance in BiH. The court ruled in their favour, declaring the system to be discriminatory. The concerns of the complainants were hardly unreasonable, but the problem is that it could affect collective rights of the three groups. For the Croats, that could have grave consequences as their say in the country could be reduced significantly. The decision has yet to be implemented. The ruling helps those who want to dispense with constituent people’s rights altogether. That may sound reasonable, except that Bosniaks consist of one half of the population of the country, which would lead to their dominating it – something that the Croats and Serbs would hardly countenance.

However, there is a solution to all this,  that of a civic federalisation – or devolution if you think in British terms. This is an idea that has been floating around for a while, being proposed by former BiH ambassador to the EU and NATO Vitomir Miles Raguž in his book ‘Who Saved Bosnia.’ It was a solution to the Sejdic-Finci case even before it came before the ECHR.

Essentially this would involve units covering ethnic majority areas but where elections would be ‘civic’ – that is anyone could be voted to office regardless of their nationality, religion or whatever. At a December 2020 conference organised by the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts titled ‘The Legacy of Peace – 25 Years of the Dayton-Peace Agreement’, Professor Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania made a suggestion as to how it could work. There would be the current Republika Srpska, a ‘canton’ covering Croatian majority areas and a unit for the Bosniak areas. People could be voted for from any background – these areas would not be exclusively Croat, Serb or Bosniak. In this way, all ethnic concerns on representation could be dealt with whilst at the same time the ECHR ruling would be satisfied: Anyone residing in each of the three units could take office there, whether from the one of the three peoples or a minority such as the Roma or Jewish communities.

Federalisation has been gaining a certain degree of traction, thanks largely to the already mentioned European Parliament resolutions since 2015. It was also discussed at the National Federation of Croatian American’s webinar on the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement. One of the speakers at both the above events was a Croatian Member of the European Parliament,  Željana Zovko.  Ms Zovko has been conducting a ‘lessons learned’ exercise regarding BiH in the European Parliament. As already mentioned, in resolutions on BiH, the European Parliament has indeed called for the principles of federalism. It’s important to remember that the EU has a strong interest in BiH’s stability. Through Croatia, it borders BiH and 1.1 million people in that country are Croatian citizens – mostly Croats but also Serbs and Bosniaks – meaning they are EU citizens as well.

Not everyone is welcoming ideas such as federalisation for BiH. There has been a curious reaction to the German proposal to appoint German parliament member Christian Schmidt as the next High Representative for BiH – effectively the international overseer. Criticism has come from organisations such as the Democratisation Policy Council. This is odd as Schmidt has not given any indication of how he might manage matters. Indeed, we should remember that a former British High Representative, the late Paddy Ashdown, was an ardent supporter of devolution in the UK but promptly forgot all that the moment he landed in Sarajevo to take up his appointment. However, the criticism does suggest that there is concern that European Union circles may be starting to listen to those promoting different thinking i.e European solutions for BiH – and the concerns of the Croatian government which fears that the present institutional setup is a major threat to its peace and security.

Federalisation does offer a way forward. It does not need to be based on three units, there could be more, if citizens agree. There would be problems – would the Serbs accept it? They might, if it meant their entity would stay and thereby domination by Sarajevo was no longer possible. The Bosniaks would no doubt prefer a centralisation solution, but the two other peoples would never agree. This approach would protect the Bosniaks, by reassuring the other two communities, but also means they might be able to have less antagonistic relations with their neighbours. Some might say that this would be a third entity for the Croats, which along with the Republika Srpska could secede. However, that could happen in some form at the moment due to the antagonism felt towards Sarajevo. Instead of setting policy to prevent separation which already exists, the policy should focus on integration i.e what can be done to bring the communities back together.

A stable federal structure accepted by all three communities would greatly enhance BiH’s EU accession process. The EU itself is familiar with the concept as it operates in countries such as Belgium and Switzerland, and as Professor O’Leary pointed out at the conference, the EU as well.

The federalisation solution could provide an answer to the concerns of all parties.

*UPDATE (15 Feb). Croat Mario Kordić of the HDZ has been elected Mayor

 A Croatian language version of this article can be found here.

English Pdf version: Hrvatski Vjesnik New Gen BiH article

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