Preference Policies

Radical Non-Preference: the Dayton System

The Bosnian War concluded with the Dayton Accords of 1995. Despite the cessation of violence, the war hardly had a happy ending. The government designed at Dayton, although efficient in bringing peace, remains an uncomfortable incarnation of “separate but equal” race politics. The constituent groups of Bosnia, long considered purely ethnic entities, have adopted a de facto racial role in post-war Bosnia – even if common parlance doesn’t treat them this way. If South Africa represents an attempt – however imperfect – at moving past a de jure racial order, then Bosnia represents a step in the opposite direction. Although social forces still mold racial orders throughout the world, it is Africa, not Europe, that built progressive racial institutions in the 1990s. The government of Bosnia under the Dayton Accords is an anachronistic racial alliance held together by an enduring (although sometimes only whispering) desire for Bosnia to not disappear from the Balkan map.

At least as far as Bosnia’s three core ethnic groups are concerned, the country does not practice actual preference policies. The entire Dayton system of government revolves around the three-way split of power among the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb populations of Bosnia (Centre for Eastern Studies 12(109), 2). Each group holds one-third of the three-man presidency and one third of the House of Peoples (the upper house of the state’s bicameral legislature). For practicality, each member of the presidency rotates through the “chairman” position over the office’s four-year term. Bosnia’s House of Representatives does not explicitly discriminate based on group, but the metric for proportional representation mirrors the same balance of power as in the upper house. 14 delegates come from the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS), one of Bosnia’s two near-autonomous subnational entities. 28 delegates come from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the entity left to Bosniaks and Croats. Thus, the three-way split persists, albeit in a rougher way (Bose, 61).

The integrity of the Bosnian state rests on there being no discernable preference for one constituent people (this is the preferred term for the country’s three dominant pseudo-racial groups). The Dayton Agreement seized compromises whenever it could, but neither the RS nor the FBiH was willing to give up much ground during negotiations (Dragnich, 207). There were some land swaps, but for the most part the Dayton Agreements resembled a union of two distinct countries, not the reconciliation of a civil war. The result was the continuing existence of both entities under the new Bosnian government. By allowing the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs to continue existing as they wished inside of Bosnia’s borders, the largely foreign team of peace-brokers created a scenario where “everybody won.” The central government, which was effectively confined to the national stage, represented an even split between the groups (Bose, 61). The RS and FBiH each controlled post, law enforcement, municipal duties, and, until 2005, separate militaries.

Outside of the Fold: Bosnia’s Forgotten People

Absence of preference policies is the foundation of Bosnia’s government. Each group has a separate, but equal representation on the national stage. However, the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats are not the only people in Bosnia. Although few in number, there are communities outside the three-way order that traditionally characterized modern Bosnia. It’s impossible to say just how many Bosnians fall outside the mainstream. The UN has studied the movements of Bosnia’s three constituent groups throughout the 1990s and after Dayton, but no official census has been conducted since the 1991 Yugoslav Census (Bochsler, 2). Due to both voluntary migration and ethnic cleansing, the demographic map of Bosnia has no doubt changed. With international focus on Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, few groups bothered to delve into the movements of smaller minorities. Under the Yugoslav government, most of these groups referred to themselves merely as “Yugoslavs,” a general term left for those avoiding ethnic allegiance (Malcolm, 198). At least prior to 1991, there was a population of Roma (commonly called “gypsy”) people living in Bosnia (Bochsler, 2).

Because the Dayton constitution allocates seats in the Presidency and House of Peoples based on strict group quotas, Bosnians outside the region’s traditional ethnicities must confine their political aspirations to other organs, such as the House of Representatives. Here, the legal hurdles are only replaced by the social. The Republika Srpska may in theory elect any type of person to fill one of its 14 seats in the lower house. However, in a region of such stalwart Serb domination, a Roma politician would have little chance to gain traction. Any RS seat going to a non-Serb is an advantage for a Bosniak or Croat in the Federation.

The FBiH would appear, on the surface, more friendly to minority groups. After all, the entity is not a homogeneous region, but a union of Bosnia’s Bosniak and Croat populations. In reality, a minority’s odds in the Federation are similar to those in the RS. Croats, being considerably smaller in number than Bosniaks, are predatory for their seats in the House of Representatives. Dissatisfaction with representation in the lower house has sparked movements for Croat canton autonomy throughout the Dayton government’s history (Centre for Eastern Studies 12(109), 2). Contention between the Bosniaks and the Croats over influence in the FBiH edges out the possibility for any minority group cracking into the political order. If the Roma community wanted to have representation in the Bosnian government, they would need to consolidate themselves in such a way that their group held a majority of voters in a certain district. The community could not count on their Bosniak, Croat, or Serb peers to risk giving up ground to lend a vote.

The Dayton Accords put together a system of government that prevented preferential policies by dividing the central government equally between Bosnia’s dominant constituent groups. However, this three-way balance failed to integrate the small amount of Bosnians that fall outside of the country’s traditional ethnic order. Furthermore the ethnic rivalry in the quota-free House of Representatives squeezes out any hope for minority groups in Bosnia to capture representation in government.

Looking Forward: the Consequences of Region Racial Preference

Although Bosnia’s political system ensures equal representation for Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs on the national level, regional preference policies naturally persist. The offices reserved for Serbs must be elected by the Republika Srpska, while those for Bosniaks and Croats come from the Federation (Bochsler, 2). This affords little economic opportunity for Serbs residing in the FBiH of non-Serbs living in the RS.

Fortunately, Bosnia’s subnational demarcation assuages this issue. The line was drawn such that Bosnia’s Serb population fell almost completely within the boundaries of the RS, and the Bosniak and Croat populations within the FBiH.

UN estimation of Bosnia's demographic map in 2005. Serb-dominated districts in red, Bosniak-dominated districts in green, Croat-dominated districts in blue. Subnational boundary marked in white.

Because subnational boundaries divide so cleanly, the fact that the Serb presidential representative must come from the RS poses few obstacles to Bosnians. Most of the Serbs reside in the RS, anyway. However, looking forward, the policy has messier implications.

Take a Serb in the Federation as an example. If this young Serb aspires to be a politician, he has few options at his disposal. He cannot shoot for one of the Federation’s two presidential seats, because the offices are reserved for a Bosniak and a Croat. Bosnia’s political system would also thwart his aims to the House of Peoples. He could in theory vie for a seat in the House of Representatives. If he found a district dominated by Serbs, he could even claim it. If he wanted to reach the political stratosphere, however, he would have little luck in the Federation. Our aspiring Serb leader would be wise to move into the Republika Srpska. In the FBiH, he would have only slightly more fortune than a Bosnian Roma.

Maybe under the current system this story would present little issue. The young Serb could move to the RS, pursue his political career, and capture the presidency just like his Bosniak and Croat peers. No inequality and no group dominance – just as the Dayton Accords intended.

What is the deeper implication, however? If a Bosnian Serb is a political stranger in half of his country, how long will he call himself a Bosnian? The lack of a recent census prevents researchers from knowing for sure just how much ethnic migration has continued as a result of the Dayton Accords, but stories like the one above are more than figments of the imagination. To this day, Bosnian political parties form along old ethnic boundaries (Bose, 206). And why wouldn’t they? What incentive is there for a Bosniak to work with a Serb when their political goals are legally separated by the offices they might hold?

In order for a politician to introduce reform to the Bosnian system, he or she must by necessity play by government’s ethnic game. As a result, reform has been slow, with no major political parties abandoning allegiance to one of the country’s constituent groups (Bose, 209).

News is not entirely pessimistic. The farther from 1995 Bosnia travels, the more promising reform movements appear (Bose, 211). Still, until regional preference policies disappear, reform movements will need to exist within a space that reinforces the same group boundaries that brought Yugoslavia to its knees in the late twentieth-century. Josip Broz Tito believed that his strong hand could unite the Yugoslavs as one proud people, but even his legacy could not keep the Balkan Peninsula in one piece. Bosnia, the Balkans’ microcosm, has no such strong hand. The Dayton Accords are only backed by the wishes of the United Nations (wishes that, one must remember, give no guarantee to forceful support) and the good will of Bosnians. The longer that the Republika Srpska and Federation exist as the channels to political power, the longer Bosnians will associate themselves with subnational entity first and country second. If the system does not change fast enough, Europe may have a Second Bosnian War on its hands.

There is, however, one force that may keep Bosnia together. The Bosniaks, the Yugoslavs without a country, could very well be the secret to Bosnia’s survival.

An Alternative Narrative: Imperfection by Design

Some critics believe that the murky future of Bosnia’s political system is not a mistake, but was actually by design.Traditional interpretations of the Bosnian War have presented Bosniaks and Croats as victims of the Serbs. The actions of Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladich, and Slobodan Milosevic would certainly support this interpretation. Some recent scholarly work takes a more nuanced approach, however. The Dayton Accords may be the slow bleed necessary to finally give Bosniaks their own nation.

This interpretation isn’t intuitive (and it my, of course, not be correct). The Dayton System actually shrinks the Bosniak population’s authority. In the 1991 Yugoslav census, Bosniaks comprised 43.7% of Bosnia’s population. The 2008 International Religious Freedom Report by the United States State Department estimated that country is still about 45% Muslim, which roughly translates to 45% Bosniak. In any case, under a “unified” system of government, Bosniaks would enjoy nearly half of the seats in a parliament and a powerful stake in any coalition government. So why would the Bosniaks settle for the Dayton power-split, which lowered Bosniaks to equal stature as Croats (who comprise around 15% of the population)?

Part of the reason was obviously practical. In 1995, the Republika Srpska would not have settled for subservience to the Bosniaks, and the Croats were already worried for their position as Bosnia’s smallest constituent group (Dragnich, 272). Any deal that was to be acceptable on all three groups’ terms would need the three-way power split currently present in the Bosnian government. However, taking the hit in 1995 could have actually benefitted the Bosniaks in the long term.

Compromise allowed Bosnia to keep its Yugoslavian borders. There were land swaps within the country’s borders, but not on the international scene. This preserved Bosnia as the entity that the Bosniak-led independence movement had originally declared in 1992. On top of this, the Bosniaks did enjoy one channel of dominance. 28 of the 42 seats in the Bosnian House of Representatives were marked for the Federation without any group requirement. Croats constituted a minority in the FBiH, so Bosniaks would naturally take a majority of the seats. This set up magnified the power beyond the one-third allotted in the upper levels of government. Of course this wasn’t the near-majority the Bosniaks would have enjoyed in a quota-free government, but it was still a fair deal. The numbers tella supportive story: in the 2000 elections, Croats only won five seats in the House of Representatives (Bose, 63).

As depicted in the map above, Croats are not arranged nearly as neatly as Serbs. Their districts of dominance are scattered, making a Srpska-esque secession impractical, if not impossible. Dissatisfied Croats are left to either move to neighboring Croatia or demand greater power within the Dayton system. Some researchers believe that Bosniaks are, in fact, actually hoping for the former to occur (Catic, 13). If fed up Croats actually are moving into their people’s nation-state, then Bosniaks are indeed moving one step closer to forming the homogeneous homeland they have always lacked. If true, then this strategy would be more effective than any nationally-mandated  racial preference policy. Croats would not be marginalized in disenfranchised “Bantustans” or subjugated to status-degrading Jim Crow Laws. Croats would be walking away from a deal that, on the national level, was expanding their power, not depleting it.

However, alluring this revision of the pro-Bosniak narrative may be, it does has one glaring hole. By most accounts, growing Croat subservience has only strengthened Serb authority in Bosnia. Serbs are receptive to Croat calls for autonomy, meaning the Bosniaks need to fight two political rivals, not one (Centre for Eastern Studies 12(109), 2). The Croat-Bosniak rift in the FBiH also benefits Serbs on the international stage. The Republika Srpska, in comparison to the Federation, is the more stable of the two Bosnian entities (Centre for Eastern Studies 12(109), 3). As Radko Mladic’s trial finally begins this summer, the RS will surely be fortunate for its strong track record relative to the FBiH. The Serbs’ apparent success in light of the Croats’ and Bosniaks’ ongoing failures not only advance the case for ethnic homogeneity, but also the case fo the RS’ ability to govern its own affairs. If the Bosnian Serbs are looking to make a play for independence years down the line, they are padding their resume well. Moreover, this would all be impossible if not for the dissatisfaction of Croats in the FBiH.

Speculation on the motives of different constituent groups in Bosnia is a difficult task. Although theories on potential Bosniak state engineering offer a refreshing alternative to the mainstream account of the Dayton Accords, these theories fail to address the strength (and potentially momentum for independence) that the Dayton system has afforded Bosnian Serbs in recent years.

How Bosnia Stacks Up To Its Peers

(to be continued…)

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