This year’s elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are unlikely to bring about a fundamental change in the country’s politics, but for the first time they may be held amidst (possibly legitimate) allegations of vote rigging. There is an almost universal consensus in Europe that Bosnia is not a successful project in its present formula. It is worth asking if there is perhaps a fundamental cognitive bias in the EU’s policy towards this country. It appears that the values promoted by Europe were considered universal rather prematurely, with sometimes counterproductive results. The European paradigm of thinking about Bosnia has for years been based on two misconceptions.
In his article in Emerging Europe, Krzysztof Kowalukwrites that the first misconception is the idea, not always stated explicitly, that in Bosnia, where various ethnic groups lived side by side in peace for centuries, nationalism is a temporary phenomenon awakened by irresponsible politicians. However, this appealing story misses one factor. Namely, the peaceful coexistence of Bosnia’s peoples took place in the pre-democratic era. Nationalism usually did not provide political benefits in an empire or authoritarian state. However, the introduction of democracy in the country changed the rules of the game. It enabled the political mobilisation of large groups of people, and the promotion of ethnic particularism simply became profitable, as nationalism became a useful defence for corrupt politicians and their quasi-mafia networks. Political leaders can be replaced, but this replacement will not necessarily entail a change in the modus operandi.
The cases of Haris Silajdžić and Milorad Dodik are symptomatic here. They both began their careers as moderate politicians respected in the West, notable for their readiness for dialogue and compromise. However, the course of political events drove each of them towards national radicalism. Once Silajdžić, who used to be a proponent of compromise with the Serbs and negotiator of the Dayton agreement, became a member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he described Republika Srpska as a product of genocide and claimed that it should be dismantled. In the 1990s, Dodik called Radovan Karadžić a war criminal, only to change his mind in a grotesque way 20 years later, paying a de facto tribute to the first president of Republika Srpska during his hearing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
The second misconception, which seems to be the only one exposed once and for all. It was the belief in the end of history. This was not only about Fukuyama’s notion of the ultimate victory of democratic capitalism but also about the end of traditional geopolitics involving competition for influence in the world. Therefore, after the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was supposed to naturally become part of the Euro-Atlantic community of values. What is evident now is that European countries have rivals in B&H. The active policies of Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states (let alone Donald Trump’s vague US policy) are creating a new reality that the EU will have to face.