Two Common Misconceptions about Bosnia and Herzegovina

The first misconception is to treat the European model of the state as universal. You can debate politics, political system, even borders, but the basic political structure (and loyalty to it) has been treated as given and obvious. This way of thinking, which is easy to understand, has been considered natural in long-established, consolidated countries with centuries of history, such as France and Britain. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina is not such a state. Politicians who are active in B&H invest almost all of their resources in their respective ethnic groups, not state institutions. Apart from the Democratic Front of Željko Komšić, there are basically no significant effectively multi-ethnic parties in Bosnia. Sarajevo has never become an attractive state-building centre to which – like to Paris or London –- ambitious people are drawn from all over the country. It is difficult to expect a much better life in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina than in the provinces, and in fact it is difficult to actually get there from many places. Today’s B&H is to a large extent an internationally supervised (for how much longer?) conglomerate of local interests. For many in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the decomposition of their present-day country would only be another episode in the long history of political changes in the region.

This leads to the second misconception: the belief that post-war Bosnia will be able to put in place a liberal model of capitalism which, as before in the countries of Central Europe, will bring prosperity to the people, thus offering a chance to reduce political tensions. This misconception is, of course, part of a wider phenomenon – the neoliberal belief in the universality of free market mechanisms. However, the free market, which not everyone in the EU has paid sufficient attention to, needs a strong and impartial state capable of ensuring a level playing field. Such a state does not exist by nature, nor can it be decreed, and the EU’s favourite modus operandi in Bosnia – the carrot and stick approach – can only make the local elite pretend to be working towards the establishment of strong liberal institutions.

A realistic approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina should be based on the acknowledgement of the fact that, in that country, clientelism is not a deviation from the norm, existing because of corrupt politicians who can be removed through a democratic process or by a decision by Brussels, but rather a way of life that, which is also worth noting, was practised in the Ottoman Empire, the S.H.S. Kingdom, and communist Yugoslavia alike, i.e. a way of life deeply rooted in the family and ethnic traditions of the inhabitants of today’s B&H. There is, of course, a feedback loop here. The lack of stable and efficient state institutions makes Bosnians look to informal patrons (for instance, a very large part of the labour market in Bosnia is controlled by the leaders of ethnic parties). In turn, the resulting extensive oligarchic networks, led by leaders such as Bakir Izetbegović, Milorad Dodik or Dragan Čović, make it difficult to create impartial state institutions, Emerging Europe reports.

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