Blackmail justified by urgency should not be used regardless of the threats that come with it. The Bosnian-Herzegovinian approach needs to be based on peace and progressive ideas, not on wars and division.

Author: Senada Šelo Šabić, PhD

Senada Šelo Šabić, PhD

Ever since Bosnia and Herzegovina marked the 25th anniversary of the end of the war and the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accord at the end of last year, an avalanche of events began that indicate a need to change the situation in the country.

It is clear that with the present Dayton Accord setup, Bosnia and Herzegovina can hardly become a stable, functioning and progressive state. Institutional blockades on decision-making processes, political polarization, the reduction of political interests to ethnic considerations, the rewarding of ever more extreme political party positions – these things are built into the very DNA of Dayton.

The system has to be changed but the question is how? Debates on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina occur between two opposing viewpoints: the strengthening of  ethnically defined politics (the principle of government founded on constituent peoples as the holders of democratic legitimacy); or of civic foundations (the principle of government founded on the individual, on citizens as holders of democratic legitimacy).

The European Union (EU) states and the countries neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina are founded on the civic principle of democratic government. This is denied to Bosnia and Herzegovina on the premise that it is inhabited by different peoples and that they are, according to such views, the fundamental holders of democratic legitimacy. Citizens come next, as a civilizational and democratic upgrade of the state. Or, as stated by Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović: First soap and only then perfume.[1]

Needless to say we should have learned from the past how dangerous it is to advocate for  cultural, racial, ethnic or any other superiority, and how such views lead to conflict and cause pain. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the moment has now come to channel politics into one or the other direction: towards the ethnic, tribal and particularistic, or towards the civic, inclusive and pluralistic model.

Right now, Bosnia and Herzegovina has indeed a weakened potential for the civic model, which is the result of the 1990s war and a quarter-century’s domination of the ethnic principle. This potential, however, does exist. It may be weak but if nurtured properly and well, it can grow.  It is just a question of deciding  what direction to take.

The civic principles are close to the hearts of progressive democratic countries around the world because it is a model the values of which they recognize and apply at home. Decisions by the European Court for Human Rights, the Venice Commission, as well as the 2019 European Commission’s Recommendations – with their 14 priorities to be fulfilled by Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to meet the conditions for candidate status –  favour the principle of equality of all BiH citizens and the elimination of discrimination against citizens who do not belong to any of the three constituent ethnic groups. In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is possible to introduce a model based on the civic principle that would take into account the country’s realities and ensure the protection of collective rights in those areas to which they relate, primarily the domains of culture and identity of different ethnic groups.


Croatia, as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s neighbouring country, shows a growing interest in internal political changes in BiH, and advocates for the principle of constituent peoples, i.e. collective rights  at the expense of civic rights.

Just like Serbia, Croatia advocates for so-called full implementation of the Dayton Peace Accord. In that respect, both countries’ standpoint is that of maintaining the status quo – seeking limited changes to the existing system – because they would best secure their own interests in that way. It is in this context that the next paragraphs should be read.

“For the first time since 2000, Croatia has developed a clear and strategic policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the ‘good-neighbourly pressure policy’ and promotes it, accepting all the risks involved: this is the policy of ultimatum for the change of the Election Law so that every people would elect its own representatives.”[2]

Going by this plan, Croatia has just one goal: adoption of amendments to the Election Law as demanded by the HDZ BiH, and after that Croatia would withdraw from the stage and stop interfering with internal issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Why? Because by securing the domination of constituent peoples Croatia would achieve its strategic goal: the possibility for all  Croats in BiH, as one of its constituent peoples, to gain full control over and block political processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why is the protection of constituent people  so crucial an approach for Croatia, rather than the establishment of the civic principle or the territorial partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Here Croatia is very clear, and one should believe it when it says that its goal is the preservation of an integral Bosnia and Herzegovina in which constituent peoples are the fundamental holders of power. Strategically, Croatia achieves the highest level of security for itself if it has the possibility of influencing the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina using the position of Croat people as one of its three constituent peoples. The civic approach would greatly reduce such a possibility.

Territorial partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a good option either, indeed it is a dangerous scenario for Croatia. The possibility of integrating a part of BiH territory – which could potentially be given to Croatia – is very problematic from the point of view of Croatian internal relations.

Hypothetically, a referendum on annexation of a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croatia could easily lead to a deep internal destabilisation in Croatia, and to secession claims from Istria, for example. The principle of constituent peoples is therefore the optimum solution since it enables permanent control, hence why Croatia and Serbia – as well as the forces that support them in Bosnia and Croatia – advocate for the implementation of the so-called original Dayton. However with such a policy, even at an unconscious level, both Croatia and Serbia would become hostage to internal relations within Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it is in their interest to free up their policy towards BiH, and leave it to that country’s citizens to decide what kind of a state they want to live in.

Although the civic potential in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still weak (because the mutual trust among its citizens is at a very low level), it has not been destroyed entirely, regardless of the years of neglect of its citizens. At this moment we are witnessing the intensification of activities within Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond which aim at cementing the principle of the rule of constituent peoples, and thus further ethnic divisions.


Why now? One reason lies in the internal situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina: 25 years of political neglect, indolence, corruption and constant insistence on ”one’s own” rights at the expense of shared interests has almost resulted in the breakdown of Bosnian-Herzegovinian politics. Its non-functionality has been painfully underscored by the global pandemic. Across the country there is growing anger from citizens towards irresponsible and corrupt authorities.

Outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, non-liberal regimes in Europe have been affected by  Joe Biden’s US Election victory and Donald Trump’s ousting from US politics. The new US Administration consists of people who know the situation in Europe and the Western Balkans well, and one may expect at least a partial interest in the strengthening of Trans-Atlantic cooperation and advocacy for partnership within the bloc of Western countries.

The rising popularity of the Green Party in Germany also creates fears of the impact their stronger presence in the German government could have, with Germany still the key country for defining the course of EU policy in the Western Balkans. Germany has already publicly expressed that changes to the Election Law need to lead to a reconciliation and cooperation, and not to further divisions.[3]

The EU representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for their part, claim that this is the critical year for things to be changed because there are no elections; they want the issue of reform to the Election Law to be resolved in the next several months, at any cost.[4] This benefits the advocates of the ethnic principle because they are in power now, and they are willing to do everything in their power to introduce changes that would enable them to keep winning future elections and maintain their rule.

We are thus at the point where, in the following months, decisions will have to be taken and amendments to the Law adopted that will decide on one or the other route ahead for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is in this sense that one needs to read the so-called Slovenian nonpaper – as a voice of non-liberal Europe – which advocates for the need to finish the process of the disintegration of Yugoslavia[5]. Similar solutions for the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina are offered in Croatia’s nonpaper, which is moderate and constructive in tone yet urges change to the Election Law.

Croatia justifies the urgency of such developments by referring to the migration situation – something which is a far greater problem for the EU than the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is indicative to note which countries are supportive of Croatia’s nonpaper: Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovenia. All of them are countries on the so-called Balkans migration route.[6]


It is incredible how the urgency is emphasized now, compared to the past quarter of a century. That urgency is reflected in the feeling that the US will rebuild Trans-Atlantic relations; in the uncertainty regarding the next German Chancellor; and in the belief that the pandemic will be over some day, and will be  followed by a new wave of liberalism and advocacy for freedoms as a natural reflex after several years of toughening of human rights.

Bosnian-Herzegovinian forces that advocate for the civic principle of the country’s organization – with all the accompanying protection of collective rights of peoples – have no other option but to seek a partnership with the liberal Western countries where the citizen is a fundamental holder of democratic rights and responsibilities.

And to seek within itself those forces that base their political programmes and activities on the rule of law, inclusion, transparency and responsibility towards society. Blackmail justified by urgency should not be used regardless of the threats that come with it. The Bosnian-Herzegovinian approach needs to be based on peace and progressive ideas, not on wars and divisions.

The author is a senior researcher at the Institute for Development of International Relations in Zagreb. 

[1] R. D., Milanović: Građanska BiH je jako daleki san, ali prvo sapun, onda parfem. Klix, 11 December 2020,

[2] Boris Pavelić, Nova politika prema BiH: Hrvatska će inzistirati samo na promjeni Izbornog zakona BiH, unatoč riziku. Nacional, 17 January 2021;

[3] Michael Roth: Crtanje granica je opasan i pogrešan put. DeutscheWelle, 22 April 2021;šan-put/a-57278721

[4] Sattler: Izmjene Izbornog zakona nisu ‘nemoguća misija’. RadioSlobodnaEvropa, 29 March 2021;

[5] Željko Trkanjec, Proučili smo Janšin non-paper o podjeli BiH: Evo kako bi riješio ‘Hrvatsko pitanje’. Jutarnji list, 15 April 2021;

[6] Alma Zukanović, Bassuener: Međunarodna zajednica ima alate da provede demokratske procese u BiH. Krug 99, 28. March 2021;