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The geographical location and its historical interactions with powerful neighbours have contributed to shaping the complex ethnic and political reality of today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The country has been historically populated by three major ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats – generally associated with Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholicism as the most widespread religious beliefs.
Following the end of World War II, the country became a constituent part of the Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), where from 1945 to 1991 its different ethnic groups coexisted in relative stability. With the collapse of the Yugoslavian state underway, BiH voted for its independence in 1992 in a referendum boycotted by the Serb component of the country. As a result, the Bosnian war (1992-1995) began, going down into history for the terrible ethnic cleansing perpetrated primarily by Serbs at the expense of Bosniaks and Croats.
With the signature of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995, the Bosnian War ended and the country was given a new constitutional setup. The agreement built a balanced yet precarious framework for the equitable representation of Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats in the country’s administrative and institutional system. The country was divided into two legally recognised entities. First, Republika Srpska corresponds to 49% of BiH’s territory and is predominantly populated by Serbs. Second, the Muslim and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), corresponds to the remaining 51% of the territory. This territory is also divided into ten cantons and is predominantly inhabited by Bosniaks.
The two territorial entities enjoy significant governing autonomy and jurisdiction on several subjects, from home affairs and education to labour. Moreover, they elect their own parliament and appoint their own prime minister and ministries. In the case of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, each canton has its own administrative government with jurisdiction over local policy areas.
On top of this highly-decentralised system lies a structure of state-level institutions. First, the tripartite Presidency is composed of one Bosniak, one Serb, and one Croat. Its members are directly elected and responsible for foreign, diplomatic, and military issues as well as the budget of state-level bodies. Second, the Parliament of BiH has 2 houses whose members are elected – directly in one case and indirectly by the entities’ parliaments in the other – in a proportion of two-thirds representative of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and one-third representative of Republika Srpska. Third, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers of BiH is nominated by the tripartite Presidency, approved by the Parliament of BiH, and acts as the Prime Minister of the country.
Finally, at the very top of the system is the Office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, an internationally designated institution responsible for overseeing the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Among other objectives, this included pursuing post-war economic and infrastructure reconstruction, promoting free and fair elections within an established political and constitutional system, and ensuring human rights protection. Nonetheless, this is a rather controversial – and arguably undemocratic – institution as the High Representative is appointed by an external organisation (the Peace Implementation Council) and can leverage the powerful “Bonn powers” that allow for the implementation of binding decisions in case of a domestic political deadlock and the removal of official acting in violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Domestic Politics In Bosnia and Herzegovina
Alongside the institutional setup of the country, domestic politics are also shaped by ethnic divisions and characterised by radical political confrontation among the leading political parties. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, three parties dominate the political arena. The majoritarian Bosniak electorate splits into two political forces; the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), historically the leading Bosniak party founded in 1990; and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a left-leaning political formation, initially drawing from a multiethnic electoral base but increasingly associated with Bosniak nationalism and populism. On the other hand, Croats are historically represented by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH).
While the SDA and SDP compete over the Bosniak electorate and are ideologically heterogeneous, the HDZ BiH laments its base’s neglect within the political system and advocates for a constitutional revision aimed at promoting the interests of Croats. These ethnic and ideological divisions contribute to a polarised political environment and have practical consequences on the ability to form stable and effective governments at the entity level. For instance, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina witnessed a continuous political stalemate since 2018 and was forced to prolong the previous Prime Minister Fadil Novalić’s mandate in a caretaker capacity.
The elections held in late 2022 successfully renewed the tripartite Presidency and the government at the state level, however the prospects of breaking the political stalemate in the federal entity are not as optimistic. Although it emerged as the largest party of its entity, the SDA lost to the SDP in appointing the Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency at the state level and was excluded from talks between the HDZ BiH and the SDP for the formation of the entity-level government. Therefore, the party is expected to obstruct the attempts to build a governing coalition that does not include any of its representatives, with the risk of prolonging the political impasse indefinitely.
As for the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska, the situation is relatively simpler given the more homogeneous ethnic distribution and unified institutional system. The Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) is the dominant party and has been in power since 2006. Nonetheless, the party is characterised by a strong pan-Serbian, pro-Russia, and anti-European sentiment and threatened to secede from the state several times. Therefore, it is regarded as the potentially most disruptive force in the constitutional system of BiH.
Between 2018 and 2019, the formation of the state-level government was blocked by the opposing views of the leadership of the two entities over the future of the integration with NATO. Similarly, Republika Srpska recurrently disrupted legislative and executive processes at the state level and – in 2021 – the entity’s Parliament even voted to withdraw its representatives from state-level institutions. More recently, tensions with the Serb entity peaked following the approval of a law on state property perceived as an attempt to transfer state property under the administration of Republika Srpska from the central state directly to the entity. Although this move was firmly opposed by the High Representative for BiH and the Bosnian Constitutional Court, its implementation remains an option on the table that would further fuel political tensions within the country.
State of Play for The EU Integration Process
From 1999, and officially with the Zagreb summit in 2000, BiH committed to an integration programme known as the Stabilisation and Association Process. With the ultimate objective being EU membership, Western Balkan countries initiated an approximation process aimed at the signature of tailored Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the EU. These are bilateral agreements negotiated between the EU and individual Western Balkan countries aimed at supporting the implementation of necessary reforms to further progress on the path of accession to the Union.
In the case of BiH, this occurred in 2008 and paved the way for an increasingly closer relationship with the EU that included trade and VISA liberalisation measures and access to the financial resources mobilised by the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA). Eventually, the country submitted its application to join the bloc in 2016. In the present context of a renewed European interest in enlargement and aiming to revitalise an overall stagnant integration process in the region, BiH was granted candidate status in December 2022.
In order to join the EU, third countries need to fulfil the so-called Copenhagen criteria, namely the “stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU; the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including the capacity to effectively implement the rules, standards and policies that make up the body of EU law (the ‘acquis’), and adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.” Although BiH was granted candidate status, the country is still far from from meeting all of these conditions, as recently stated by the EU Chief Diplomat:
Candidate status is not the final destination, but rather the beginning of a new chapter. Serious acceleration of reforms is needed before the accession talks will begin. These reforms are not for the sake of “Brussels”, but for improving the daily life of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Every citizen has a role to play in this process, even if the ultimate responsibility to deliver lies with the elected officials.– Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission. Source: EEAS
The EU Commission had already identified several shortcomings in the 2019 “Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership of the European Union” – a document that outlines 14 key priorities for BiH to fulfil in order to be eligible for accession. The opinion covers three main pillars – political criteria, economic criteria, and adoption of EU legislation – and highlights the key challenges faced in each area.
The leading political concern remains the complexity of the ethnic-based political and institutional system of BiH. The high level of fragmentation in the decision-making and implementation of policies is neither supportive of the principle of legal certainty nor beneficial to the swift and effective adoption of the EU acquis at all levels of governance. The lack of a supreme court at the state level and fully-fledged judicial independence from political influence are other limits of the current system. Similarly, further efforts are necessary to build a genuinely professional and merit-based public administration free from political interference. Corruption is still endemic at all levels and calls for a more cohesive legal framework and effective cooperation among law enforcement agencies to be structurally addressed.
In economic terms, the existence of a functioning market economy and the ability of the country to cope with competitive and market pressures in the EU are still considered at an early stage by the Commission. Political confrontation and institutional fragmentation within the system negatively affect the ability of the country to implement effective economic governance and prevent any bold leaps towards greater reforms. The lack of a proper rule of law, the corrupted and cumbersome administrative system, and the presence of a fragmented internal market are other elements that shape an unsupportive economic environment for investors and businesses.
The third pillar focuses on BiH’s ability to assume the obligations of the membership and its progress in adopting the EU acquis (i.e., the group of rights and obligations that define the body of EU law) within national legislation. Once again, the assessment of the Commission is harsh since out of the 33 areas analysed, only two (i.e., free movement of capital and intellectual property law) displayed a moderate level of preparedness, whereas the other 31 exhibited either an early or some level of preparation. None of the areas presented a good or well-advanced level of preparedness.
The Commission keeps monitoring BiH’s progress in these three pillars through its Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG-NEAR), which is responsible for the publication each year of a report on the subject. According to 2020, 2021, and 2022 data, little to no progress has been made by the country in most of the clusters under analysis. The unsteady unfolding of legislative and executive activities due to political conflicts and institutional dysfunctionalities in BiH represented the greatest obstacle to any meaningful advancement on the integration path. The only exceptions have been regional cooperation – where the country displayed a consistent active engagement throughout the reporting period – and some progress in aligning national legislation to the EU acquis on a few individual policy areas (e.g., competition policy and financial services in 2021).
What Is The Road Ahead For Bosnia and Herzegovina?
In the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine and the geopolitical confrontation with Russia over the Eastern neighbourhood, granting candidate status to BiH is a clear signal of a renewed political commitment to enlargement in the region by the EU. The decision also comes as a necessary revitalisation of the integration process in the Western Balkans after years of stasis and sterile negotiations. However, from a technical perspective, BiH is still quite far from being functionally capable of joining the bloc. The country needs to make substantial steps forward in implementing reforms relevant to the accession criteria – a prerequisite of which is stability, unity, and effectiveness in decision-making and policy implementation.
This cannot prescind from a de-escalation of tensions between the two constituent entities of the country and is eventually dependent on Republika Srpska’s will to put recessionary claims aside and engage more constructively with the other stakeholders of the system. On the other hand, the fragmented and complex institutional system of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is another weakness to address in order to ensure the effectiveness and political continuity of its institutions as well as the coordinated implementation of its policies. For the time being, neither of these two major shifts seems poised to initiate anytime soon.