Is Bosnia a Functioning State?

28 October, 2014

Written by:
  • Neven Andjelic
Is Bosnia a Functioning State?

The Dayton Peace Agreement was a wonder for regional security in Europe. It put an end to the most dangerous post-Yugoslav war, and prevented further spreading of armed violence. It has been almost a full nineteen years since its signing, and there has been no serious challenge to either national or regional security in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Architects of the agreement did a brilliant job of institutionally preventing any possibilities of the rearming and organizing of any military or security forces by any of the constituent ethnic groups. The impotence of the state apparatus was shown in February of this year, when a leaderless mob of protestors managed to set fire to several government buildings, including the building of the state presidency in Sarajevo. Special security forces were prevented from interfering by a complicated procedure of decision-making, and the permanent argument of whose responsibility it is to actually do something. This is exactly what the Dayton Agreement has created - the impossibility of legitimately using violence. Therefore, the sociological definition of a state, according to Weber, cannot be applied to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina has legitimacy as the only agency within its territory that can use violence, but the state cannot actually use it when necessary.

The most recent elections, in the country, took place just over two weeks ago, and the results are to be announced by the Central Electoral Commission. The electoral system is arguably the most complicated in the world, but if one compares the amount of time needed to count the votes, the notorious American elections of 2000 appear to have run smoothly. The commission managed to announce the results based on 75 percent of the votes within 24 hours of closing the polls. For the remaining quarter, however, they have needed two weeks. Rumors and accusations of cheating are widespread on social networks. The system, though, prevents anyone from proving that any irregularities have been committed in anyone's particular interest. Some 500 electoral officials have been sacked by the Central Electoral Commission since the last elections, two years ago. These officials were nominated by political parties at the local level. They were the ones who officiated the citizens casting their votes, and consequently counting them. They were also the ones who managed to count 390 votes in an electoral unit of 250 voters. It was these officials who reported to their party headquarters first, and only after to the institutions. Thus, all of the main political parties announced their results within a few hours of the polls closing, but not the electoral commission. They needed a couple of weeks for this. Thus, it is the leading political parties that have undermined the institutional process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and have deprived the state institutions of their roles. Another definition of the state is to have functioning institutions, including government. Bosnia-Herzegovina has all the institutions, but they are obviously not functioning.

This is reason enough to question whether Bosnia-Herzegovina is a state, according to the Montevideo Convention of 1933. This convention requires a permanent population, in addition to other clauses. This is another problem for the country. One can draw some similarities to Lebanon and its only national census from 1932, but Bosnia-Herzegovina finally organized a census in 2013, two years later than other European countries, and nobody knows the results yet. It has been unofficially stated, by sources close to American representatives in Sarajevo, that the announcement has been delayed to allow for the elections to take place earlier this month. Still, a number of people have complained, and some newspapers even ran a campaign to count the numerous diaspora as living in the country, and not as diaspora. Bosnia-Herzegovina might not be diasporic nation, like Armenians or Jews, but a significant number of Bosnians live abroad. The media campaign and complaints led to a situation where, even when the results are finally announced, it will not be known how many people actually represent the permanent population of the state. Thus, yet another clause of the Montevideo Convention can be questioned and add to the dilemma of Bosnia-Herzegovina actually being a state.

According to a historical definition, a modern state "has a definite territory," "exclusive control over that territory," and, according to Paul Hirst, "no other entity can substantiate a claim to rule in this space." While the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina is definite, exclusive control over the territory is repeatedly questioned by de facto interferences from nearby countries and some of their leaders. It’s even questioned by the de jure constitutional arrangements from Dayton. The agreement was officially signed by the presidents of neighboring Serbia and Croatia, while the de jure Bosnian leader signed the agreement as the de facto and de jure Bosniak leader. One should add that the role of the European Union's Special Representative is different from EU representatives elsewhere, and still a functioning High Representative of the International Community. Thus, this multiplicity of authorities and entities, which put forward a claim of rule over some issues in Bosnia-Herzegovina, endanger additionally the country’s statehood.

The political definition of a state is provided by two close friends, Marx and Engels, who, in 1848, saw those in power of modern states as "nothing but the committee for managing the collective affairs of the bourgeoisie." The repeated and widespread accusations of corruption among the political elites, which is published on a daily basis in Bosnian media, might actually confirm the stateness of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The governments of this dysfunctional state, at all levels, only provide for the interests of the political elites in the country. The electoral officials at the local level, in reality soldiers of their political parties, are rewarded with employment or paid membership in governing boards of public companies. All these benefits come from the participation in the government of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Thus, one can question whether Bosnia-Herzegovina is a state according to the sociological definition of a modern state (Weber, 1918), the historical definition of a modern state (Hirst, 2002) and the diplomatic definition of a state (Montevideo Convention, 1933). However, it is only the political definition provided by Marx and Engels that fully and firmly confirms the statehood of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The country has been a post-communist and post-conflict society in transition for the last two decades. The bourgeoisie in the state can only be described as quickly enriched members of political elites and their cronies and tycoons, who earned fortunes during, and immediately after the war. All the governments of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina have managed their affairs, and neither the affairs of their nationalist electoral basis nor the citizens of the country.

The strongest outside involvement into sovereign matters of the state is felt from the High Representative of International Community. Paddy Ashdown was described, by Gerald Knaus, as the Raj of Bosnia, while David Chandler said he was "turning its elected leaders into his ciphers." It was the judicial reform from this period that was supposed to provide an independent judiciary that would be well paid and immune to political pressure. It is this set of institutions that shows the smallest, if any, signs of positive change. The State Prosecution has initiated the arrests of some tycoons-turned-politicians in the run-in to the elections. Their roles are no longer parliamentary, but the State Court has let them walk out of prison last week. The case of the State Prosecution collapsed. The tycoons-turned-politicians were not the only ones who walked out of their temporary arrest last week. A group of owners of the leading marketing agencies were spectacularly arrested last week, only to be freed by the State Court, who stated the State Prosecution did not provide a single piece of firm evidence for retaining them. Afterwards, the prosecution did not use any legal means, but its own PR, where it stated its dissatisfaction with the decision of the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Court then took an unusual turn, and disseminated their critique of the State Prosecution Office stating that facts "have been used for providing wrong information about specific circumstances of certain cases without knowledge of legal and factual aspects of the cases."

One of the characteristics of the modern state is its secular character. The last Bosnian elections were actually postponed because of a religious holiday. It is widely known to avoid doing any business in Republic of Srpska in January, because of the succession of religious holidays. The Sarajevo Film Festival, unique among festivals, moves around the calendar to avoid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The former leader of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina was a candidate at the last elections. Thus, Bosnia-Herzegovina could hardly be described as a secular or modern state.

Finally, the division of powers is another important feature of a modern state, ever since the French Revolution. The judiciary has been already described. Executive power has also been described as a group of incompetent elites providing for a small number of their associates, and not being able to organize simple activities, such as a national census or periodical elections. This leaves representative power, which is laid with the Parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This has been the second general election that has ignored the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, from 2009, that ordered Bosnia-Herzegovina to change its electoral law to allow all of its citizens to be candidates in the elections if they so wished. Membership in the state presidency and the House of Peoples of the Parliament is restricted to those who do not declare themselves as one of the three constituent groups. The Parliament could not agree, for five years, on how to change the law to make all citizens, at least theoretically, equal.

The existence of Bosnia-Herzegovina is good for regional security. The ways in which it does not function secure that no violence is likely to occur between the constituent groups. However, it also prevents the country from being sustainable for satisfying the needs of its citizens. It even leads to the question of is Bosnia-Herzegovina really a functioning, modern state?

Written by:
  • Neven Andjelic Neven Andjelic is a senior lecturer in international relations and human rights at Regent’s University London and a member of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities at the Council of Europe. He is the author of Bosnia-Herzegovina: The End of a Legacy (Frank Cass, London: 2003).
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