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US and UK undermining Bosnian democracy with sectarian electoral law changes

Bosnia and Herzegovina is already governed by a neocolonial system, but the US, UK, and Israel are further undermining democracy by pushing for sectarian election law amendments that could weaken the civil rights of minorities like Jews and Roma.

Bosnia Herzegovina High Representative Christian Schmidt
The Western-appointed "high representative" ruling Bosnia and Herzegovina, German politician Christian Schmidt

Croatian President Zoran Milanović briefly made headlines this April when he threatened to veto the NATO candidacy of Finland and Sweden.

Milanović claimed the Western military alliance would only receive Croatia’s support if neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina was forced to amend its election law according to terms deemed advantageous for Bosnian Croats.

The amendments, proposed earlier this year by a Bosnian Croat body called the Croatian National Parliament (HNS), would limit voting rights and eligibility for some elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina to citizens identified as “Croats”.

The changes would affect eligibility for positions explicitly reserved for Serbs, Croats or Muslims, which includes the tripartite presidency and some parliamentary seats.

The changes are widely believed to favour the Bosnian section of the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Croatia’s main post-war ruling party, of which Prime Minister Andrej Plenković is a member (but not President Milanović).

The strategy behind Milanović’s threats, leveraging a possible NATO veto for policy changes in third party states under implicit US pressure, echoes an earlier gambit by Türkiye, which suggested it would veto unless Finland and Sweden collaborated with Turkish efforts to repress Kurdish activism abroad. In a stunning humiliation for pro-NATO, pro-Kurdish liberals, concessions to Ankara were rapidly agreed by both NATO candidates.

In Croatia’s case, the threats received only brief attention in English-language news coverage. Many anti-NATO commentators outside the region, unfamiliar with Milanović’s reputation for bizarre non sequiturs and gaffes, celebrated an apparent breach in NATO unity. Others noted the limited power over foreign policy exercised by Croatia’s presidency, and suggested nothing would come of his bluster.

Croatia’s Prime Minister Plenković distanced his government from President Milanović’s remarks, and stated unambiguously that Croatia would support Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications, as Croatia did at NATO’s Madrid summit in June. However, Plenković has separately supported the amendments.

The election law – which was subject to a separate set of amendments in July, likely a compromise with public opposition – has remained a key issue in local media, but has received little or no subsequent attention in North American media.

Bosnia’s non-sovereign democracy

The proposed amendments have been vociferously denounced by politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially by Muslims; by EU human rights groups; and near-unanimously by EU member states, including France and Germany.

EU-based critics have invoked a series of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, beginning in 2009, which sought to invalidate part of the country’s current election law – a product of the Dayton Agreement – because it already prevents citizens of the country not identified as Serbs, Croats, or Muslim “Bosniaks” – such as Jews or Roma – from standing for certain elections.

However, the amendments, which would further rescind civil rights for Jews and Roma living in Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been supported by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and, controversially, by Israel.

Under the Dayton Agreement, which ended Bosnia’s civil war in 1995 and established a now-permanent EU/NATO military occupation, local authority is divided along the armistice line between two sectarian “entities”, respectively the Croat/Muslim “Federation” and the “Serb Republic”.

The state presidency is shared by a council composed of one Muslim, one Croat, and one Serb. The entities operate basic public services, but are not states. The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself (as opposed to the entities) has limited powers on paper and almost none in practice.

Real power in Bosnia, under Dayton, is exercised by a group of foreign states – members of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC). The PIC nominally includes countries such as Germany, Canada, Türkiye, and even Russia. However, increasingly, the US has near-total control over the implementation of Dayton; Russia is excluded in practice; and the EU’s role is limited to ineffectual complaints.

The PIC appoints a neocolonial proconsul to the Office of the High Representative (OHR), with vast powers to amend or veto laws, dismiss elected officials, and rule Bosnia and Herzegovina by decree.

Thus far, all high representatives have come from European Union member states.

While previous appointments to the OHR reflected a compromise between NATO and Russia, and were historically ratified by the UN Security Council, Russia has refused to recognize NATO’s most recent preferred candidate, German politician Christian Schmidt, who took office in 2021.

Relations between Bosnian institutions and politicians, and the OHR, have been extremely tense since Schmidt’s nomination, and tensions have only continued to escalate.

Croatian President Milanović’s call to change his neighbor’s election legislation was effectively a request that the US pressure Bosnia and Herzegovina’s colonial governor to modify its laws to privilege Croats.

Since Croatia’s president and prime minister belong to opposing parties, and Milanović’s own Social Democratic Party (SDP) has nothing to gain directly from Bosnia’s elections, his actual motives were never entirely clear, other than as an attempt to win nationalist political capital within Croatia itself.

Beyond the possible quid pro quo related to NATO membership, evidence of which remains circumstantial, it’s also unclear why Washington has supported the amendments.

The US and UK have insisted the OHR force through the amendments, in opposition to a virtual consensus of Bosnian Muslim politicians, European states, and European legal institutions that the amendments are discriminatory and anti-democratic.

Foreign interference – but whose?

The amendments to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s election law were proposed by Croats, are expected to benefit Croats, and may only affect elections in the “Federation” entity, where Serb politicians have little to gain directly.

However, Muslim condemnation has focused on possible benefits the amendments might provide Serbs. In some cases, such as in an article for Al Jazeera, it has been implied without evidence that Russia might be the dark, secret force behind the amendments.

The argument is that, since Serbs and Croats are both minorities in the country, and since compromise wording of the amendments would likely benefit Serb nationalist politicians too, Serbs (or Russians) must be the real proponents of the changes.

It is true that comments by Serb politicians have been ambiguous, suggesting support for the principle behind the amendments – that is, deepening the sectarian character of Bosnian elections to protect Serbs and Croats at the expense of other minorities – but opposing amendment efforts on procedural grounds.

However, the nuance and context is completely lost in most English-language coverage, which is almost always anti-Serb. Crucially, Serb politicians do not recognize Schmidt’s authority to make the amendments, and have repeatedly opposed his efforts to do so.

The fact remains that, irrespective of what pro-American Muslim liberals may want to believe, the US government has led the effort to impose the amendments.

While the United States subsequently tried to backtrack and joined calls to suspend any amendments until after Bosnian elections on October 2, the US and UK have always been the main force in supporting the amendments.

In practice, Washington unilaterally directs the OHR’s policies, whatever objections European or Bosnian politicians might raise.

Conversely, Russia plays no direct role whatsoever in Bosnia’s political process, beyond its public, vocal support for Serb politicians.

Russia continues to refuse to recognize Schmidt’s appointment to the OHR, and has echoed calls by Serbs suggesting he has no authority to impose the amendments.

This is not to say that Russia has played a principled, unifying, anti-sectarian role in Bosnian politics; but the narrative that it is somehow commandeering US Balkan policy strains credulity.

A long, ugly history

It is possible that the United States contrived an intervention on the Bosnian election law to stir conflict.

Anglo-American Balkan policy has historically been predicated on exploiting conflicts between Serbs and Muslims. With Serbs seen as loyal to Russia, and Croatia seen as an unreliable German client state, the Bill Clinton administration in the 1990s saw Yugoslavia’s Muslim minority populations as conveniently desperate victims.

In effect, Muslim vulnerability provided a pretext for permanent US occupation of the region.

Immediately before Bosnia’s civil war, in 1992, all three parties – Serbs, Muslims, and Croats – had agreed to the Lisbon Agreement, a European initiative which would have prevented the violence.

US ambassador Warren Zimmermann actively discouraged Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, from following through with the Lisbon Agreement.

Izetbegović withdrew and the deal fell apart – an event echoed recently when British pressure (on behalf of the US) nixed a tentative peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

Preventing the war would have saved tens of thousands of lives, and prevented the immeasurable harms done to a society and its people by four years of civil war.

This damage included the destruction of the social fabric of Sarajevo, which, prior to the war, had been the cosmopolitan cultural centre of socialist Yugoslavia and, more than any other city in the country, a post-sectarian model of peaceful cooperation between different communities.

Local sectarianism and nationalist opportunism played a decisive role in the conflict. So too did US intervention, which supported Yugoslavia’ s breakup at least as early as 1992.

Support for sectarianism and secessionist movements greatly accelerated under the Clinton administration, as post-Cold War policy shifted toward limiting the geopolitical ambitions of a reunited Germany.

The US, along with its anglosphere client states, sought to secure a geopolitical foothold in the Balkans.

US intervention in Bosnia involved covert support for far-right Islamist extremists, essentially drawn from Osama Bin Laden’s network.

Similar forces were later employed by the US to support a secessionist project in the Serbian province of Kosovo, now also under permanent NATO occupation.

The Bosnian election law issue has not been the only locus of heightened regional tensions in recent months.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, EU and NATO forces increased the visibility of their military presence in Bosnia, flying French fighter jets over the country and sending uniformed troops down commercial streets.

Most recently, Kosovo’s secessionist government attempted to force Serbs living in Kosovo to use its licence plates instead of Serbian ones.

However, Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, was forced to suspend the measure, likely under US pressure, and a status quo agreement was negotiated with Belgrade. Similar incidents in the past have fizzled out similarly.

With friends like these

Given its history, it is not unreasonable to guess that the United States is instrumentalizing the Bosnian election law issue to stoke sectarian conflict and needlessly draw out the country’s political stalemate.

Or perhaps Washington is simply trying to manage a tangle of conflicting alliances and regional objectives.

Bosnian Croats have threatened to boycott the elections this October if their amendments are not adopted, and have sometimes made veiled threats to secede entirely. Bosnian Serbs have made similar threats in the past.

The US and UK claim that their support for the election law amendments is intended to prevent the breakup of the country.

However, notably absent from US officials’ calls for unity and cooperation is any suggestion that the US would ever support a final, post-Dayton settlement to Bosnia’s civil war.

Dayton effectively keeps the country dysfunctional and pliant; incubates cliques of nationalist politicians; and precludes any possibility of the country meeting the needs of its citizens, or of ever joining the EU; all while providing a reliable pretext for a permanent US military presence in the country.

While any final settlement would need to provide real responses to the concerns of the Serb and Croat minorities, civil society groups in Bosnia are correct to insist that Dayton’s sectarian political system is incompatible with secular liberal democracy.

It would be wise, then, to continue asking why the United States government is so committed to keeping Dayton permanently in place.

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