Governing Bosnia

Bravery and compassion in the midst of horror, as "civil" society is rebuilt

By Metta Spencer

THE DAYTON Agreement was concluded over two years ago, and Sarajevans are proud of the progress they see around them. "A year ago," they say, "every window in the city was broken. Now most of them have glass. And we can buy whatever we need if we have money."

True, but most buildings and pavements remain scarred from bullets and shells. Many high-rise structures no longer have walls, inside or out. There are graves in the park at the city's centre, and elsewhere wooden stakes with plastic tape enclose areas where land mines are known to exist. Bouquets lie wilting on the pitted sidewalks where victims died. Water taps run only during certain hours of the day. Parks that used to be forests are now bare fields - the trees were cut for firewood. The volume of buying and selling is only ten percent as high as in pre-war days, with the economy still declining instead of improving. There's not much to celebrate, but Sarajevans are determined people.

Civil Society

Democracy requires a flourishing civil society - independent, pluralistic non-governmental organizations - and Sarajevo's multicultural society is flourishing. Each ethnic community's cultural organization cooperates with the others; their leaders share resources and get together socially. The Croatian group appears affluent; their organization, Napredak, maintains an elegant cultural centre, publishes books, sponsors inter-ethnic activities, and entertains visitors with old-world courtesy. If some Napredak groups elsewhere are nationalistic, the one in Sarajevo is warmly hospitable to non-Croatians.

The Serbian Sarajevans are carrying on in the face of greater adversity. Unlike the Croatians, who are aided by foreign Catholics and expatriates, they are surrounded by predominantly nationalistic Serbs in Republika Srpska, the other half of still-divided Bosnia-Herzegovina. (For simplicity's sake, just think of Republika Srpska as the "Serb entity" and of the Federation as the "Croat and Bosniac entity" - the two provinces of the new Bosnia-Herzegovina.) The courageous Serbs who support a united, multi-cultural Bosnia-Herzegovina are considered traitors by many other Serbs elsewhere, yet they maintain a remarkable human rights organization, the Serb Civic Council, which acts as the executive body for wider assembly of Serbs in Sarajevo. It is a non-governmental organization - a political body but not a party - with a platform promoting peace; the integrity of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina; human rights; and parliamentary democracy. They call for the punishment of war criminals and the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes. In 1995, they received the "Right Livelihood Award" (known as the "Alternative Nobel Peace Prize") in recognition of their human rights activities.

The Serb Civic Council has seven offices throughout the Federation, where they educate citizens about human rights and provide legal aid to anyone who asks, not only to those of their own nationality. Several thousand persons pass through their offices yearly and they have thousands of requests from refugees for assistance with repatriation. They cannot register in Republika Srpska, but they cooperate with other humanitarian organizations and democratic opposition parties there.

Political Reform

The Serbians' declaration notes that Bosniacs (Muslims), Croats, Serbs, and Others are supposed to be equal as the "constituent peoples" of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nevertheless, the constitutions of both entities contravene the guarantee of national equality. In fact, the Serbs in the Federation, as well as the Croats and Bosniacs in Republika Srpska, are treated as second-class citizens instead of as "constituent peoples." Their right to be elected to executive bodies of governance is limited, as well as their opportunities in employment, education, culture, and religion.

The Serb Civil Council calls for changes in all three constitutions (Bosnia-Herzegovina, and its two component entities, the Federation, and Republika Srpska) to recognize all three nationalities equally as constituent peoples.

To understand this declaration, it is necessary to distinguish between the municipal elections, which took place this fall, and the federal elections to the legislature and presidency of all Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is only the federal elections about which the declaration is complaining.

The Dayton Agreement established an electoral system that would be seen as repugnant in any liberal democracy, for candidates and parties are chosen for their ethnicity. This system was adopted only as a necessary expedient to halt the fighting. Today Bosnia Herzegovina is headed by a three-person presidency - a Croat and a Bosniac, both elected by the voters of the Federation, and a Serb, elected by the voters of Republika Srpska. The bicameral legislature has a House of Representatives and a House of the Peoples, to which the Federation voters elect only the Croatian and Bosniac deputies, and the Republika Srpska voters elect only Serb deputies. The Serb Civic Council's declaration denounces this restriction as undemocratic, for it deprives the minority group in each entity of any possible representation by politicians of their own community.

Their complaint is justified. Nevertheless, if their proposal were accepted, it would not resolve the worst problem of Bosnian politics - the uncompromising nature of the ethnic parties, which also characterizes politics at the municipal and provincial level.

Of the many Croats and Bosniacs from Republika Srpska territory and the Serbs from the Federation lands who left because of "ethnic cleansing," few have returned home, though many of them did vote in this fall's election to the municipal councils and provincial legislatures. They elected representatives, but few of their representatives have taken their seats in councils that have begun their work. Until this happens, such municipal councils will not be certified by the elections monitors, who were supposed to finish their job by the end of 1997. If other councils cannot be certified, these elections will have failed to produce a workable government.

This result cannot surprise many Bosnians who believe in multiculturalism. They concluded long ago that the only hope for Bosnia is for the international community to create a "protectorate" to govern the place until the crooked police are ousted, the war criminals punished, travel made safe between the two entities of Bosnia, hate propaganda eliminated from the press, and so on.

In fact, the protectorate may exist sooner, rather than later. The new High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, is now authorized to take action himself if elected politicians fail to do so. He has chosen a single temporary currency and the same car license plates for all of Bosnia. More indicted war criminals have been captured, and Westendorp is beginning to act like the chief of a protectorate with real authority. Even the government of Republika Srpska is getting into gear, with a new premier who will move the capital from Pale, Radovan Karadzic's stronghold, to Banja Luka, where President Plavsic works.

Constitutional reforms may be harder to effect, but they are the most important. The Serbian Civic Council's declaration should be recognized, along with a suggestion by the International Crisis Group (ICG), as described in Timothy Donais' article in the November/ December issue of Peace. The ICG notes that a candidate in Bosnia can be elected with only the support of his own ethnic community. This encourages extremist nationalists. If candidates needed the support of all three ethnic communities, they would take more moderate positions. The ICG recommends, therefore, that the ethnic representation be decided in advance, on the basis of the pre-war population of each district, and then three lists of candidates be nominated. Each voter would vote for one candidate from each of the three ethnic lists. This would create a more moderate political climate in Bosnia. Such politics would not appeal to Canadians, who try to overlook a candidate's ethnicity, but it may be the only solution for Bosnia. n

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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