Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Key Vote on Constitutional Change

Politicians in both Bosnian entities resist sharing power with ethnic rivals.
By IWPR Reporters

Political tensions are on the boil in Bosnia as parties consider proposals for a constitutional shake-up that would allow ethnic minorities a bigger share of power through a form of proportional representation.


Parliaments in both parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, BiH, will vote this week on the internationally sponsored proposals, which have been hailed as a historic step in the country's war-torn history.


But judging by the heated debates so far, the proposals may face a stormy passage. Many politicians in both Bosnian entities, the ethnic Serb dominated Republika Srpska, RS, and the Muslim-Croat Federation, baulk at the idea of watering down their governments with members of rival communities.


With a general election scheduled for October, many politicians are worried that adoption of the proposals might alienate voters.


In effect, the initiative brings a partial change to the Dayton peace accord, which brought an end to the Bosnian war in 1995. It "changes the political landscape" of the country, said Bosnia's top western mediator, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch.


After some 100 hours of negotiations over the past few weeks, only three of Bosnia's nine main parties formally approved the proposal. They were the Social Democratic Party, SDP, the Party for BiH, SZBiH, and the New Croatian Initiative, NHI.


Two more nationalistic groups, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, representing the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, pulled out of negotiations before they ended.


Four RS parties - the Party of Democratic Progress, PDP, the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, the Socialist Party of Republika Srpska, SPRS, and the Independent Social Democrats, SNSD of former Premier Milorad Dodik - accepted the proposal with reservations over issues such as proportional representation in key state and entity bodies, protection of human rights of minorities, equal property, education and employment rights, and use of language.


To emphasise international support, the proposals were co-signed by High Representative Petritsch, US Ambassador Clifford Bond, and Spanish ambassador Valle Garagorri acting on behalf of the EU presidency.


Under the Dayton accord, Bosnian Serbs dominated RS while the Federation was run by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. Serbs had little say in the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats even less in the RS. The new proposals alter this.


The drive for change started in July 2000, when the Bosnian constitutional court ruled that both entities were not providing equal status for all their peoples. Bosniak and foreign judges on the court voted for change, their Serb and Croat counterparts rejected it.


Although RS refrained from openly opposing the court, it took no steps to implement changes. To speed things up, Petritsch established constitutional commissions for each entity in January 2001. These were temporary bodies charged with drafting amendments to entity constitutions. At the same time, they were given power to veto moves deemed harmful to vital national interests.


After a series of meetings and 11 months of work, members of the RS commission failed to agree on any amendments. The High Representative then shifted responsibility to RS deputies, which last December considered 70 proposed revisions in three days of futile debate. The assembly then decided, in violation of its statute, to throw the whole matter open to the public.


Although the number of amendments was large, the core of the dispute revolved around three issues: these were the definition of vital national interests and mechanisms for their protection; equal representation in the legislature, judiciary and executive; and the official use of languages and scripts.


In contrast to RS, proceedings in the Federation's constitutional


commission went ahead relatively smoothly. The commission almost unanimously adopted the proposed amendments on February 28 and sent them to the entity's assembly for approval.


At the same time, Federation parties insisted that the changes they had accepted for themselves should also be imposed in the RS. The main issue was the establishment of a bi-cameral assembly in Banja Luka.


As debate neared the mid-April deadline set by the Bosnian constitutional court, Petritsch convened a series of meetings among the country's most powerful nine parties. This ended on March 27 with mixed success.


According to some local and western analysts, the biggest achievement of the negotiations on the constitutional proposals was agreement on the introduction of a second assembly in the RS, which will be made up of members of different ethnic groups elected by proportional representation, based on the 1991 census.


The proposals also stipulate that people of different ethnic background in both entities should hold legislative, executive, and judicial posts in proportion to their numbers on the electoral role.


Under this system, Croats would lose their parity in the Federation and Bosniaks power would be somewhat diminished. Serb domination over the RS government would also lessen somewhat.


The RS government would consist of a prime minister and 16 ministers, eight of whom would be Serbs, five Bosniaks, and three Croats. The Federation administration too would have 16 ministers, eight of them Bosniaks, five Croats, and three Serbs.


The international community and most of the moderate parties hailed the constitutional proposals as an historic breakthrough. "Today is certainly a day which marks the biggest political change in BiH since Dayton," said Bosnian foreign minister and SDP president Zlatko Lagumdzija.


However, the intiative met strong criticism from the nationalist SDA and HDZ parties since their leaders believed that its implementation would further weaken their political clout in favour of multi-ethnic and Bosnian Serb parties.


The SDA complained that the constitutional proposals left second house of parliament in RS with less power than its counterpart in the Federation.


Bosnian Serb politicians also disliked what they regarded as the end of Serb domination in RS. However, they were much more muted in their criticism, apparently fearing it might bring on western economic and political sanctions.


RS president and SDS member Mirko Sarovic said that such constitutional measures amounted to abolition of the entity through the back door. RS prime minister and PDP chairman Mladen Ivanic denounced the agreement as a "political act".


Most analysts agree that it will be difficult for entity assemblies to summon the two-thirds majority needed for the changes to be adopted: because of opposition from SDA and HDZ deputies in the Federation, and because so many parties have strong reservations in the RS.


But Petritsch stressed that the document agreed on March 27 cannot be changed any more and must be implemented in full by both entities. "If they do not, we will see what to do," Petritsch said ominously.


One option would be for Petritsch to use his powers and impose the constitutional document. This would suit many local and especially Serb politicians who would prefer not to take responsibility for voting in constitutional changes during an election year.


However, Petritsch has in the past ruled out this option on the grounds that all the hard work that had gone into proposal negotiations will have been wasted.