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

New Reform Plan Fails to Unite Bosnians

Reaction to Swiss-style cantonal state proposal shows how difficult it will be to unify the country.
By Nerma Jelacic

The latest proposal for constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina has provoked mixed reactions from leading local politicians here, highlighting the huge problems involved in reaching a consensus over the country’s future.

In a paper published on January 8, the European Stability Initiative, ESI, a leading international non-governmental organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, called for the abolition of the country’s two entities and creation of a federal state similar to the Swiss model.

ESI argued its plan would improve the struggling country’s prospects of making progress towards the European Union, but local politicians’ reactions to the proposal appear to have confined it to the growing lost of failed attempts to bring about constitutional reform.

The international community and some local politicians take the view that Bosnia’s current administrative system is too complex and cumbersome to steer the country towards EU membership.

There have been many calls for fundamental constitutional reform of Bosnia in recent years but no one proposal has met with widespread approval. The ESI has felt that its formula would overcome many of the main areas of disagreement.

In a report entitled “Making Federalism Work – a Radical Proposal for Practical Reform”, the Brussels-based NGO suggests turning Bosnia into a European federal system with central, regional and municipal government.

ESI argues that a Swiss-like federal state could be achieved by abolishing the Federation and creating a simplified “three-layered federal state with twelve autonomous units: the ten cantons of the current Federation, Republika Srpska and the District of Brcko”.

The latter two would, at first, remain with their current constitutional arrangements.

Considering that Republika Srpska, RS, has been the most vehement opponent of any proposed constitutional changes so far, ESI hoped their proposal would be deemed acceptable by the entity’s politicians.

According to the NGO, getting rid of the Federation would not cause much commotion there as there “is little loyalty [to this entity] from anywhere in the Bosnian political spectrum”.

Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, who make up the majority of the Federation’s citizens, are less opposed to the idea of constitutional reform as they see this as the only way the country can extricate itself from the current economic crisis and start moving towards European accession.

Local politicians’ reactions to the ESI report were very similar to responses to previous proposals. Federation representatives were open to the constitutional changes, although not all of them accepted ESI’s formula. The RS authorities were unwilling to consider any alterations.

“I think this is a fantastic idea as the current administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not sustainable,” said Seada Palavric, vice president of Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA.

Safet Halilovic, president of the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, SBiH, said that while it was unarguable that the entities were slowing down Bosnia’s progress, the ESI proposal was itself problematic.

“Under the proposal RS continues to exist alongside the cantons that would replace the Federation. This will not contribute to the better functionality of Bosnia,” said Halilovic, adding that the ESI plan could cement the ethnic division of the region.

Senad Slatina, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Sarajevo, held similar view. He said the NGO’s plan would endanger the country, because RS would dwarf other cantons of the proposed federal state.

“The survival of RS in its current form means it would be, in security and economic terms, stronger than any other of the country’s entities,” Slatina told IWPR.

There was a more positive response from the leading Bosnian Croat party. The Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, said that the current administrative structure of Bosnia did not function properly and that the ESI proposal was a “good starting point for possible future debate”.

One possible reason for HDZ’s support of this proposal is that the Herzegovina-Neretva canton - which has the highest concentration of Bosnian Croats - would have more influence and power.

Some Bosnian Croats harbour ambitions of a third entity for themselves, but neither the international community nor the principal authorities in the country would agree to such a change.

By becoming an equal part of the proposed federal state, these elements of the Croat community would, to a point, realise their ambitions.

Despite the ESI’s plans preserving RS, the entity’s political leaders were fiercely opposed to them, apparently seeing it as a first step towards the renegotiation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which provided the Bosnian Serbs with their statelet.

Under the proposals, they suspect, RS would be given fewer powers than it has at present, and these would be further diminished over time.

The ruling Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, deemed the ESI proposal “unacceptable”, while the opposition Party of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, said it was a “proof that certain representatives of the Federation are lobbying the powers around the world for reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Some analysts suggest that the Bosnian Serbs will always reject anything that they believe will ultimately lead to a more centralised state. “The report ignores the country’s core problem - and that is that Republika Srpska does not want a unified and effective Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Slatina told IWPR.

But while it might appear that RS is the biggest obstacle to progress on constitutional reform, some analysts point out that the two other ethnic groups would be just as inclined to raise serious objections to proposals if they felt their own interests were under threat.

Nerma Jelacic is the IWPR project manager in Sarajevo.

More IWPR's Global Voices