Kurt Bassuener: Can and Should BiH be Civic?

The International Community’s Role in Reinforcing Oligarchy

A Circle 99 Discussion with Dr. Kurt Bassuener, Senior Associate and Co-Founder of the Democratization Policy Council

Sunday, March 28, 2021

I am honored grateful to have been invited to speak to Circle 99 on this critical topic – which has both topical import and philosophical gravity.  This brief should be considered an abstract of my opening remarks for today’s discussion.  It draws on my career engaging on BiH dating back to the 1990s, as well as my more than decade living there.  I will also reference my recently defended PhD dissertation, “Peace Cartels: Internationally Brokered Power-Sharing and Perpetual Oligarchy in Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia.”

I’d like to begin from the subtitle to the talk – one I added to the proposed question on whether BiH can and should be civic – that is, what is the “international community’s” role in BiH today?  I would argue that, unfortunately, rather than applying the leverage that the EU, US and other democratic actors have to constrain the options of BiH’s entrenched political elites – and thereby open space and amplify the voices of those citizens throughout the country who want better governance for their needs – the West is presently catering to precisely those entrenched elites.  The ongoing effort to amend the election law and pursue minimal constitutional change, in response to Dragan Čović’s longstanding demand to ensure he can be elected to the Croat seat on the presidency, reflects this dynamic.  The question is why.

The height of current Western ambition in BiH, as in the rest of the Balkans, can be characterized not just as seeking stability, but pacification – simply not to have to expend high-level political energy on it.  There are also attendant fears of geopolitical challenge from illiberal powers.  But I think the clearest indicator of what regional actors believe will resonate with EU leaderships can be found in the Croatian-led non-paper, co-sponsored with Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary and Slovenia, and presented to EU member state counterparts last week.  The word “stability” is sprinkled liberally through the document.  The “ask” in the paper comes near the bottom of page 2, where the call for a new election law well in advance of next year’s elections is put forward, gift-wrapped in language like “European values and EU standards” and genuine dialogue.  No surprise that Zagreb would advocate for Čović’s goal – as it has in Brussels and elsewhere for some time.

But the most telling aspect is in the paragraph that follows: “Migration.”  Here, the non-paper state that the country has to overcome “structural weaknesses” and adopt a “sound migration policy” to “stem illegal migration,” and then goes on to outline a tight regime.  The group of co-sponsors – Hungary most of all – now make more sense.  Given EU neuralgia about migration in general, the authors of this document designed it to hit all the acupuncture points.  The linkage implied by the sequencing is clear:  BiH will only be able to address this migration problem (e.g., Čović and Dodik will only begin to coordinate with the state on migration policy) if the election law issue is resolved (to Čović’s satisfaction).  Perhaps even more than the blackmail over the 2022 elections that Dodik and Čović are co-leveraging, this is designed for maximum appeal.

All of this fits the dynamic I outline in my dissertation – the behavior of a peace cartel (depicted below).  The example above demonstrates how political elites can leverage the fear of external actors to extract patronage (both material and in terms of conferred legitimation) by threatening to disrupt the peace.  The Croatian-led non-paper amounts to a very artfully composed ransom letter.  And as has been the case before, the international actors, led by the EU, will pay – out of convenience and habit (having not to confront an accumulated legacy of policy failure), but also out of fear of the alternative.  This is the unsinkable business model of BiH’s peace cartel.

How a Peace Cartel Works

Linkage to BiH becoming Civic – and What That Must Come to Mean Going Forward

In essence, what the “international community” is doing is accepting a commission, for its own ends, to help BiH’s peace cartel weld watertight partitions between the compartments below decks on that to-date unsinkable ship.  Because the very problem that the election law amendments Čović seeks to remediate were genuinely unthinkable to Dayton’s architects.  It was presumed people would naturally vote for “their” candidate – and “stay in their lane.”  Events subsequently – in 2013, 2014, 2018 – have all underscored to all the ethnocrats that the divisions that the war created and which they jealously guard for feudal fiefdom maintenance are not eternal and will not police themselves.  They know that popular concerns and dissatisfaction with them for corruption, poor service delivery, incompetence, and just generally inflicting indignity upon “their” citizens are universal throughout BiH.  So they seek to lock-in and tighten their structural advantages now.  All ethnocrats, even those who attempt to brand themselves civic, will be beneficiaries of this market regulation.  Adding to Western legitimation of these goals with actual US-EU selling them to the public is a delicious bonus – one which not reduce their arbitrage opportunities with other suitors. 

Ironically, what the political elites are afraid of – popular alignment for human dignity, accountability and good government – is allegedly what the international community is pursuing.  But should they achieve their goal of an amended election law and minimal constitutional reform by June, the likelihood of achieving the EU’s 14 priorities will be all the more remote.  Rule of law, for example, in a pyramidally governed ethno-statelet is a delusion.

One wishes that BiH’s citizens had as much self-confidence as the political elites have fear of their own people.  It unfortunately seems self-evident now that the only way that external actors will develop respect for BiH citizens is if they demand it for themselves – peaceably, but insistently – from their leaders and foreigners alike.

For all too long, “civic” has become an identity marker antipode to “ethnic” in public discussions in BiH.  One of the many downsides of this is that it implies those who do feel a strong attachment to their ethnic identity (and there are more than three in BiH) cannot be committed citizens.  This self-ghettoizes those who wish a more integral, social state.

The common grievances of BiH’s people read like a photographic negative of the outline of a social contract – which they need to intentionally forge among themselves, and then demand.  In the time of the pandemic, the failings of governance – and abuses undertaken by unaccountable power – are fresh wounds in the body politic.  Rationally provided public health care, available to all citizens, statewide, is an obvious demand which would have popular resonance.  Holding leaders accountable for their misuse of public funds which should have been devoted to fighting the pandemic, supporting those worst affected, and so forth, is another obvious point of commonality.  The fact that the public debate is now dominated by an election law provision to serve the interests of a single man (who asserts the dignity of his people is at stake) underscores the perversion of political culture in BiH – and international reinforcement of that very malady when it has other options.

External actors, unfortunately, will only begin to respect BiH’s citizens when you peacefully confront them, defy their will, and force them to bend to YOUR AGENDA – as Dodik and Čović have proven for years.  To repurpose the Bebolucija’s logo: “we will not be pacified!”  This will force them to decide whether to maintain their de facto alliance with the peace cartel, or finally recognize that their only true partners can be those who espouse their proclaimed values.

How to Confront a Peace Cartel – from Below and Above