Bosnia-Herzegovina’s War of the Non-Papers

By CBR Editor Brian Gallagher

First published in Hrvatski Vjesnik (Australia) 19 May 2021

A mysterious ‘non-paper’ has caused a great deal of comment recently. This document, claimed to have originated from Slovenian officials, suggested that that the dissolution of Yugoslavia had yet to end, making suggestions including border changes relating to Kosovo and the partition of Bosnia-Hercegovina (B&H). Much outrage has been generated by this non-paper, with items appearing in the Financial Times and Newsweek amongst others. However, the document’s suggestions have been rejected by many parties such as the Croatian government. The fury about this document has served to obscure a number of developments, stemming from a non-paper jointly put forward by Croatia and other European Union (EU) states. These developments could see a resolution to the Croat electoral issue in B&H and throws light upon the reaction to the alleged Slovenian non-paper.

What is a non-paper? A non-paper is document usually without any letterhead that is produced as a basis for discussion, without having an official status. These can be produced by governments and are used within EU institutions.

In March, the Croatian government along with Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia, presented a non-paper on B&H to the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council. The paper spoke of the B&H’s future within the EU, saying no effort should be spared helping the country achieve the fourteen key priorities set down by the European Commission to join the EU. It made clear that Issues related the economy, migration, rule of law and so are mentioned. However, what did upset people  were the references to electoral reform. It pointed out that only by “firmly anchoring civil and political rights of all three constituent peoples and all other citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina to European values and EU standards, can the country strengthen its stability and move forward.” It then called for key reforms, including on electoral law reforms in advance of the 2022 general elections – which it considered to be essential to ensure the country’s future political stability.

What the paper is essentially referring to here is election law as it applies to the Croats, in particular  that of the vote for the Croat member of the Presidency. Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks (Muslims) are all supposed to vote for their own representative. However, due to an electoral rule, Bosniaks are able to use their numerical superiority to not only vote for their representative, but to vote for a candidate of their choosing for the Croat position. The Croats are effectively disenfranchised, causing considerable distrust in the country.

There is also the issue of minorities – a 2009 European Court of Human Rights judgment has directed that those not of the three main groups should receive full electoral rights, yet this ruling has not been implemented. Consequently, the non-paper’s reference to electoral reform is rational and fair – it is not asking for special rights for Croats, but simply that they are permitted to have the rights the Bosniaks and Serbs do. It comes in the context of the Croat electoral issue gaining traction in the European Union and focused on in a number of conferences on B&H, including one co-organised by the Croatian government. However, those who would prefer to see B&H fully centralised – effectively allowing the Bosniaks to dominate – are less that pleased with such developments.

Željko Komšić is the nominal Croat whom the Bosniaks vote in to take the Croat part of the Presidency. He has much to lose from electoral reform – the overwhelming majority of Croats do not vote for him, and he would be out if they had their rights given to them. No doubt rattled by the way things were going, he rather grandly issued his own non-paper in response. Amongst other things, he said that the EU is under the ‘significant influence’ of Croatia and projecting its influence over B&H, claimed that state institutions were being destroyed by Croat and Serb parties and said there was an absence of the Rule of Law. He fails to mention the Croat electoral grievance with him, and he also fails to mention what he has been doing about problems such as Rule of Law – he is, after all, a member of the B&H presidency. He also made severe criticism of the international community, claiming a “lack of leadership from both EU and USA” and in particular the EU Mission in B&H referring to them as ‘dishonest’ in regard to election reforms.

Komšić could not have expected what happend next. The embassies of Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States and the EU Delegation in B&H promptly issued a letter. Without naming Komšić, it was reported that it said “Transparency and inclusiveness are critical for broad success, but frequent attempts to misrepresent or distort the role and intent of some international actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including the EU and United States, are counterproductive to the important reform processes necessary…”  Komšić’s non-paper had backfired spectacularly.

More bad news was to come for Komšić and the centralisers. On 31 March, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken sent a letter to the three members of the B&H presidency. He wrote of changes that were needed for BiH to move to EU membership and a deeper NATO partnership. He said that the United States supported updates to election law address constitutional court decision and the implementation of election integrity measures. This again helps the Croats resolve their issues, given a 2016 constitutional court finding unfairness towards the Croats regarding elections to B&H’s House of Peoples.

The major development amongst all these non-papers and letters took place in April. The Slovenian website Necenzuririano published a non-paper titled ‘Western Balkans – a way forward’, which was claimed to be from the office of Prime Minister Janez Janša – who has not confirmed it. Aside from it being unclear who precisely was responsible for it, it is not known when it was written – quite possibly months previous to its public appearance. The paper suggested that the B&H entity Republika Srpska be absorbed into Serbia, Croat cantons absorbed into Croatia  – or given a special status – and that Albania would merge with majority Albanian areas in Kosovo and North Macedonia. This caused a reaction, with many politicians and commentators making statements both in the countries concerned and outside them condemning it.  EU and US diplomats also repudiated it, including Croatian officials and politicians.

The condemnation is correct: the non-paper is not helpful with its ideas which are not needed and can only cause more problems. It certainly has nothing in common with the non-paper on Bosnia and Hercegovina, which strongly emphasises B&H as being a ‘single, united and sovereign state.’

However, it would seem that Bosniaks and their allies are using it as a way to try to discredit the moves toward electoral reform, of which Croatia is promoting, by suggesting that it’s all part of process that might lead to extremism and so on.

The website Balkan Insight published an article by Bosniak political scientist Jasmin Mujanović which informed us that Zagreb was a ‘likely co-conspirator’ with Prime Minister Jansa along with Budapest, Belgrade and Moscow. Nowhere in the article does he present evidence for this claim.

Some have gone very far indeed with their views. An utterly bizarre comment appeared in an article on the EUobserver website, co-written by Vesna Pusić, former Croatian foreign secretary and Sonia Biserko, President of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. They see the matter in terms of populism in Europe. At one point we are informed: “One should make no mistake: The non-paper is not a proposal for the last step in dissolution of Yugoslavia, but the first step in a plan for the dissolution of the EU.” Perhaps they think Nigel Farage helped draft the non-paper?

The Bosniak-leaning Democratisation Policy Council (DPC) wrote an open letter to the EU, US and NATO governments diplomatically titled ‘This is Your Deterrence Failure: Confront It’  and signed by over 250 individuals from the countries concerned and outside of it. In this letter, they say that electoral reforms are a way of “granting HDZ leader Dragan Čović his long-articulated dream of a de facto or de jure Croat third entity – the ethno-territorial holy grail of divisive nationalists.” They do not mention that that the Croats are disenfranchised by having the Bosniaks use their numbers to impose a candidate on them – that is unsurprising as it would not, as they say, be a good look. In reality, the current situation means the Muslim-Croat entity is effectively becoming Bosniak controlled – something far closer to the ‘ethno-territorial holy grail of divisive nationalists’ the DPC mention.

However, it would appear that all this has not diverted international actors from pressing ahead with calling for electoral reform. EU Foreign Affairs High Representative Josep Borrell said after an EU ministers meeting, “We recalled continued and strong support for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, I have to repeat it once again. The Ministers agreed on the need for Bosnia and Herzegovina to use this year to advance constitutional and electoral reform.”

This suggests that electoral reform, which can bring stability and progress,  has not moved off the international agenda due to the non-paper furore. This is very good news for the Croats, minorities and indeed the whole of B&H.

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