Bosnia mired in ethnic politics and frustration

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Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic, centre, is seen during a scuffle at the Potocari memorial complex near SrebrenicaImage source, AP
Image caption,
Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic was chased by stone-throwing protesters on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

Business as usual is a concept which does not apply to Bosnia.

How can it in a country divided into two "ethnic entities", governed by 14 prime ministers and with three presidents acting as head of state?

But even by Bosnia's bizarre standards, it is going through challenging times - with the notion of its continued existence once again a live topic.

The president of the majority ethnic-Serb Republika Srpska (RS), Milorad Dodik, has called a September referendum challenging the authority of Bosnia's National Court in the RS. Mr Dodik also has a policy of RS secession from Bosnia by 2018.

Meanwhile some Croat nationalists are upset that they share the other entity (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) with Bosniaks (the majority-Muslim ethnic group).

Mr Dodik has lent his support to the idea of a third entity - which would, not coincidentally, leave RS as the largest of the three.

Emphasising the enduring anger among some Bosniaks - 20 years since the war ended - the recent commemorations at Srebrenica saw Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic come under verbal and physical attack.

To the outsider it looks as though Bosnia might be on the verge of breaking up. But things here are never quite as they seem.

Citizens stranded

Mr Dodik has been making secessionist noises for years now. There was an attempt at a referendum in 2011, before international pressure forced a retreat. And Serbia has given no encouragement to the RS leader - in fact Prime Minister Vucic has urged Mr Dodik to reconsider the referendum.

A Sarajevo-based political analyst, Kurt Bassuener of the Democratisation Policy Council, believes the affair is really a challenge to the international community's authority in Bosnia.

"This is Dodik testing the systems to see what the reaction will be," he says.

There is also a gap between the rhetoric of political leaders and the feelings of the large number of Bosnians who feel stranded in a malfunctioning state.

Protests across Bosnia last year indicated widespread anger towards politicians - widely viewed as enriching themselves at the expense of the people. But come election time, the same old faces were voted back in.

There are several reasons why this may have happened. No compelling leaders emerged from the protest movement. None of the political parties made a credible effort to appeal to voters of all ethnic backgrounds.

And a patronage system means some people fear they will lose their jobs if they vote "the wrong way".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Last year's protests led some to talk of a "Bosnian Spring" - but the same politicians remained in place

But the roots of all the trouble go back to the peace agreement signed in Dayton 20 years ago. This set in place the divisions and patronage networks which still persist - and Kurt Bassuener insists that international figures have to take responsibility for changing it.

"This is an oligarchy that we identify as a democracy because we midwifed it," he says.

"People in this country are very reasonable and problems could be solved. The hurdle which needs to be cleared is changing the beneficiaries of the system into change agents. But they're not going to rise to the occasion by themselves."

The role of the considerable international presence in Bosnia is a matter of great concern to local people. A banner on daily display outside the presidency building in Sarajevo calls on the EU to intervene.

But theatre director Haris Pasovic, who made his name by running festivals during the siege of Sarajevo, says foreigners who were supposed to help Bosnia have become too comfortable with its faulty state.

"What would happen if everything was good?" he asks. "If you have worked in 'democracy' for 20 years and suddenly everything is OK, what would you do? As a human rights oligarch you have no accountability - the world needs you forever."

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Theatre director Haris Pasovic believes outsiders have become too comfortable with Bosnia's dysfunctional state

Crisis or opportunity?

After years of a laissez-faire attitude towards Bosnia's political class, some international players have recently become more active.

An Anglo-German plan to encourage change in Bosnia has become an EU initiative. Brussels has reactivated its mothballed Stabilisation and Association Agreement - offering the possibility of economic assistance in return for meaningful reforms.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, the recently-appointed EU Special Representative in Bosnia, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, believes it is time to reassess the Dayton agreement.

"Dayton was not perfect. We need to refine and update it so that Bosnia can stand on its own," he says.

That would not be a path without peril. The Serb member of the presidency, Mladen Ivanic, points out that Dayton has helped to ensure peace for two decades.

But it has not brought prosperity. And perhaps the recent ructions in RS, Srebrenica and the Federation present Bosnia with an opportunity rather than a crisis.

A chance to discuss what this country's people need to move away from a frozen conflict - and towards a functional future.