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The Sarajevo Tunnel in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina on 7/8/2018 © Naeblys / Shutterstock

Nationalism in the Balkans Predates Brexit and Trump

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic.

The Balkan region is a volatile area of southeastern Europe. It has been through many ups and downs since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992. Conflicts over borders and unsettled political disputes have framed its present-day situation. However, the Balkans are a high priority in European foreign policy and a key region whose developments tend to have a ripple effect across the continent.

Balkan states suffer from corruption, economic fragility, a lack or inefficiency of democratic institutions, ethnic tensions and organized crime. Added to this, unpopular external players such as Russia, China and Turkey are looking for a foothold in the region.

The political ambitions of individual Balkan countries affect their neighbors. After years of conflict, Kosovo is on a mission to gain global recognition of independence, while Bosnia-Herzegovina wants to join the European Union and Serbia is trying to do the same. The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement put an official end to the war in Bosnia. Yet, to this day, differences between Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia continue to undermine stability in the region.

Perhaps the most important development occurred in October 2018, when Bosnia-Herzegovina held a general election for its tripartite presidency. Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb who won his community’s seat, is a controversial figure as he is subject to US sanctions and is under fire by critics for his separatist views.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Jasmin Mujanovic, a prominent political scientist on European affairs, about the situation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the foreign policy challenges faced by Balkan states.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Have the grievances that triggered the 2014 unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina been addressed, or does the nation still suffer from mass unemployment, poverty, political corruption and nepotism?

Jasmin Mujanovic: Each of the structural factors that led to those protests are still present and, indeed, some have only metastasized further. Emigration and brain drain, for instance, have only become more pronounced since 2014 because there is a growing sense among ordinary Bosnians that if neither elections nor protest are able to affect the entrenched criminal-political elite, then the only option left is to “vote with your feet,” as it were. That, of course, is a regional phenomenon but it is, arguably, most pronounced in states like Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, the Balkans’ most volatile states.

Ziabari: What do you make of the 2018 general elections of Bosnia-Herzegovina? The election of Zeljko Komsic as the designated Croat within the Bosnian presidency outraged the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), as it is claimed he is not sufficiently Croat to assume the position. Milorad Dodik is also subject to sanctions by the US government and is seen as a source of tension and division within the country due to his separatist views. What’s your take on the outcome of the vote?

Mujanovic: From the perspective of Bosnia’s overall integrity and functionality as a state, Mr. Komsic’s election is part of a thin sliver of silver lining to come out of these polls; the other being the strategic wins by anti-nationalist and nominally reformist parties in the federation entity, which have allowed these to form a government in a handful of cantons without the entrenched nationalist HDZ and SDA [Party of Democratic Action] blocs.

Concerning Komsic, however, as both the Office of the High Representative and the US Embassy have indicated, his election was entirely in keeping with the letter of the Bosnian Constitution. The HDZ argument that Mr. Komsic is not a “real” Croat is nothing more than vulgar chauvinism. Of course, it is certainly the case that Bosnia’s sectarian constitution is not in keeping with the liberal-democratic standards of the EU, a fact that Mr. Komsic has been quite outspoken about. Unfortunately, it is the HDZ that has been one of the chief opponents of constitutional and electoral reform in the country — in particular, the European Court of Human Rights’ Sejdic-Finci decision of 2009.

Milorad Dodik, for his part, remains the most evident threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the region. In the past two years, he has grown only more overtly militant and extremist in his positions. It is commendable that the US has seen fit to sanction both him and his close associate, Nikola Spiric, but it is worrying that Bosnia’s European partners have not followed suit. Indeed, by failing to do so, Brussels and EU member states continue to implicitly provide support to Mr. Dodik and his party as they destabilize the whole of the Western Balkans, and thereby provide easy access to elements of the Russian government bent on stirring up trouble in the region.

Ziabari: Dodik, the Serb member of the Bosnian presidency, has called on the international peace envoy and international judges to depart from Bosnia. He is opposed to Bosnia’s integration with NATO and is a staunch supporter of Russia. Do you think his disagreements with the two other presidency members will result in difficult days for a divided Bosnia?

Mujanovic: Mr. Dodik is an extremist in every sense of the term. On a daily basis, he engages in anti-constitutional activities; he attacks the free press; he threatens political opponents; he is in bed with organized crime; and he has made hate speech and genocide denial a routine part of his public rhetoric. In that regard, we can expect more of the same from him. Although as a member of the state presidency, his antics are likely to elicit more attention from the international press.

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The Balkan region © Pyty

His capacity for wreaking havoc on the presidency is limited by the fact that the other two members of that body are staunchly opposed to his politics — something that became clear within a day of their swearing-in ceremonies. The real danger, however, is in what Mr. Dodik’s party is preparing to do in the Republika Srpska entity — namely, to amend the entity’s constitution and to turn the region into an explicit one-party state. They have already effectively dismantled the opposition, are clamping down on activists and the media, and continuing to militarize the local police.

The SNSD [Alliance of Independent Social Democrats], Dodik’s party, is clearly preparing the terrain for major political adventurism, likely some form of de facto secession. When and how they will decide to do this largely depends on their reading of the international and regional context. There is some evidence they nearly went through with such an attempt during the Crimean annexation crisis in 2014. Accordingly, their deepening ties with Russia are central to this gambit, but this has also been accelerated thanks to the rapid withdrawal of credible Western deterrence in Bosnia, especially since 2016 but going back more than a decade.

Ziabari: Can you give us a clear picture of Bosnia-Serbia relations after more than two decades since the signing of the Dayton Agreement? How have things changed between Bosnia and the former Yugoslav republics?

Mujanovic: Official relations between Bosnia and Serbia remain cool. Sarajevo and Belgrade participate in a host of joint fora at the European level, but there is — in my view — no meaningful political cooperation between the two. That is almost entirely due to Serbia’s continued de facto irredentist pretension toward Bosnia, specifically the area now referred to as Republika Srpska.

Serbia maintains a completely parallel set of diplomatic ties with the government in Banja Luka, and it routinely violates basic diplomatic protocol in so doing. High-ranking officials from Serbia are a common sight in Banja Luka, making no intention to meet with their Bosnian counterparts either there or, as should be the case, in the capital Sarajevo.

In sum, Serbia continues to treat the Republika Srpska as a region that it will, at some point, annex. And this obviously makes relations with Sarajevo difficult.

Ziabari: Russia’s opposition to NATO’s expansion is an open secret. Do you consider Russia to be an obstacle to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s NATO membership?

Mujanovic: Russia is a significant threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that is largely to do with its support for Milorad Dodik and, to a marginally lesser extent, its support for the HDZ and its leader, Dragan Covic. The Russians cannot obstruct Bosnia’s NATO accession — which is a far more urgent priority for the country than even EU membership — but they can provide diplomatic support, financial aid, and even arms and munitions for secessionist elements within the country who can undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, never mind its Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Hence their support for Dodik and Covic, who are in this regard clearly Russian proxies, even if their “anti-Bosnian” politics predate significant Russian intervention in the region.

Ziabari: Bosnia-Herzegovina has been considered by the European Union as a potential candidate for accession to the EU since 2003. What’s your assessment of its progress? Do you think Sarajevo is able to fulfill EU criteria for membership, including reforms in its political, economic, trade and human rights structures?

Mujanovic: In principle, Bosnia can and does engage in the process of accession negotiations. In reality, though, that process is severely undermined by the entrenched corruption of the ruling establishment — namely, the governing triumvirate of the SDA, HDZ and SNSD. These are essentially criminal syndicates that masquerade as political parties who have no meaningful desire to enter a bloc founded on the rule of law and democratic transparency.

Worse, Bosnia cannot enter the EU with its existing constitution, something every political actor in the country knows. Accordingly, parties like the HDZ, which would be pushed to the margins by a non-sectarian electoral system, have done everything they can to undermine meaningful reform efforts. Quite simply, the Dayton constitution has created perverse, anti-reform incentives and those are, at present, difficult if not impossible to change. Until that changes, Bosnia has no credible chance of joining the EU. 

Ziabari: In one of your articles, you noted that Croatia’s accession to the European Union changed little in the political and economic landscape of the country, and it is still dominated by the right-wing Croatian Democratic Union while its economy is also suffering. Do you think the same situation awaits Bosnia-Herzegovina if it becomes a member state of the EU?

Mujanovic: Obviously, the EU is itself struggling with corruption, illiberalism and malign foreign influence. But the advantage of EU membership, something the Croatian example does illustrate, is that there are at least more mechanisms within the union to pressure and dismantle such criminal elements. Insomuch as Croatia, like Hungary and Poland, continue to show that these reactionary forces are able to resist such initiatives, that does not mean the alternative — i.e., non-membership — is to be preferred. It’s an ongoing process, a struggle. There’s no question about that.

For Bosnia, the necessity of the EU is two-fold: to anchor the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — which is why NATO is likewise important — and to provide credible mechanisms for tackling corruption and organized crime. In this regard, the process of accession is potentially transformative, but only if it is substantive, rather than merely technocratic, which is arguably what happened in Croatia and much of Eastern Europe during the 2000s.

Ziabari: You said in an interview that Germany has signaled its willingness to undertake a more significant leadership role in the EU now that the United Kingdom is departing from the union, and that the Balkans are an important region to begin this process. Why do you think Germany should be more involved in the Balkans and southeastern Europe? What are the policies that Germany is looking to enforce in the region?

Mujanovic: It is difficult to project Berlin’s policies at this time because the broader international climate has become so volatile. I will say, though, that I think there is a growing recognition in key German political circles that the “status quo” in Bosnia and the Western Balkans is untenable. The situation is, in fact, deteriorating rapidly, arguably nowhere more so than in Bosnia-Herzegovina and possibly Kosovo. And with the retreat of the US and the UK since 2016, Bosnia’s two other most important backers since the end of the war, it essentially falls to Germany to hold the line. And the line in Bosnia is the necessity of constitutional reform, EU and NATO accession, and an ongoing struggle against organized crime and corruption.

What Germany — and the continental Europeans more broadly — still needs to accept is that none of this can be accomplished through mere “negotiation,” which in the Bosnian context has translated to allowing the entrenched nationalist oligarchs in the country to dictate terms to the largest economic bloc in the world. At some point, the EU must confront the likes of Dodik, Covic and Izetbegovic, present them with terms and impose meaningful consequences for failed compliance.

As an example, the US has imposed two rounds of sanctions on the SNSD since 2017. It is incredibly disheartening that not a single EU member state, including Germany, has joined Washington in this policy. Until such costs are rigidly imposed on Bosnia’s criminal-political establishment, the international community can expect no change.

Ziabari: Do you think Serbia will finally agree to recognize Kosovo? Is Belgrade’s reluctance to recognize Kosovo an obstacle to its EU membership?

Mujanovic: In truth, I had believed for a long time that, sooner or later, Serbia would inevitably come to terms with the reality that Kosovo is now an independent state and formally recognize it as part of its EU accession process. I am not so sure anymore.

On the one hand, I am concerned that the EU is moving toward an incredibly short-sighted “stabilization” regime in the Balkans. This is especially in light of recent events, whereby it will allow Serbia, Montenegro and possibly Albania to join the bloc, while keeping Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia — as the region’s most volatile states — on the outside, but supposedly pacified or embedded within some vague European architecture.

On the other, Serbia is clearly a de facto autocracy now under the leadership of Aleksandar Vucic. He has expertly played to the Europeans’ own arrogance, convincing them that his “evolution” from ultra-nationalist to visionary reformer is the result of the EU’s supposed transformative power and allure. This has bought him special treatment from Brussels, which has thus been largely silent about his authoritarian crackdown back home.

But, as was always going to be the case, Vucic has now made the price of his performance clear: In exchange for the “normalization” of ties with Kosovo, Serbia wants to formally annex the country’s northern municipalities. If this is allowed, it will then be followed by direct demands for the annexation of eastern Bosnia, and possibly also with threats toward the territorial integrity of Montenegro and Macedonia. Worse, if Serbia is given the green light for this “Greater Serbia 2.0” project, it will similarly embolden nationalist elements in Croatia and Albania to likewise pursue their own irredentist claims.

In short, regional relations are at an incredibly delicate stage. It is imperative that the EU and the US send the appropriate signals to Belgrade especially — that there will be no unpacking of the post-Yugoslav consensus and that the price for entry into the EU is the recognition of Kosovo, as well as respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all of its neighbors.

Ziabari: The Western Balkans are known as a laboratory of internationally-led democratization, yet you argue that the state of democracy in the region is on the decline. Can you explain why the region has not experienced the benefits of democracy to its fullest yet, decades after the Yugoslav Wars? The turnout in the recent general election in Bosnia was very low. What were the possible causes?

Mujanovic: That is a complex question, and one I address at length in my book. But the short answer boils down to two factors: an international community that traded stability for progress, and the lack of a culture of protest and popular mobilization in the region.

The pact the international community made — and has subsequently renewed with some frequency — with the nationalist establishment in the former Yugoslavia is that we will grant you the veneer of democratic and political legitimacy and, in exchange, you will refrain from overt forms of violence like in the 1990s. It’s a protection racket, in other words, except the steering party is not the internationals, but the local elite. And this local elite is adept at extracting all manner of financial, political and diplomatic tribute from the EU, especially, because there is a kind of institutional, generational memory for this pattern of “imperial” accommodation and confrontation. It’s how their predecessors handled the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarians, and it also fits the pattern of what I call “elastic authoritarianism” within both of the Yugoslav states from 1918 to 1941, and 1945 to 1992.

Unfortunately, such political dynamics have been left severely underdeveloped the region’s democratic capacities. Generations of differently constituted authoritarian and illiberal regimes have both stunted and yet made inevitable various forms of insurrectionary upheaval, which we have seen come to the fore in Slovenia between 2012 and 2013, in Bosnia in 2014, and most recently in Macedonia during the “Colorful Revolution,” which eventually led to the fall of the Gruevski regime. The challenge remains in channeling those necessary upheavals into sustainable, democratic governance.

In that regard, Macedonia stands out as a notably positive example for the whole region, but Nikola Gruevski’s recent flight to Hungary threatens to severely undermine the rule of law in the country, and it is imperative the EU broker his return to Skopje. Criminal elites cannot be allowed to escape punishment if this region is to have a real shot at democratic transformation.

Ziabari: What are the major drivers behind the rise of right-wing nationalism across the Western Balkans? Are there any connections with Brexit and the coming to power of Donald Trump in the United States?

Mujanovic: Nationalism in the Balkans is a problem that long predates Brexit or Trump. Indeed, if anyone wants an example of what decades of nationalist rule actually looks like in practice, they should visit the Balkan region: crippling unemployment, devastating rates of emigration and endemic corruption.

That being said, it is certainly the case that both Brexit and the Trump administration’s shift toward reactionary unilateralism have exacerbated existing tensions in the region. And, indeed, there are individuals in President Trump’s political orbit who have struck ties with extremist, nationalist elements in the region, especially in Bosnia, which should concern the whole international community.

Ultimately, the persistence of nationalism in the Balkans has to do with the authoritarian proclivities of the region’s elites. Nationalism is how these elites maintain the illusion of a kind of faux social contract with their people, without offering them any of the substantive benefits an actual social contract would entail, which is a meaningful way to influence government. In turn, nationalism is a kind of smokescreen for dispossession. By maintaining a constant aura of fear and hatred, Balkan elites maintain and expand their elaborate patronage networks, which are the foundation of the region’s essentially criminal political economy.

This, of course, is not at all to undermine the realities of events like the Bosnian Genocide, or the broader Yugoslav dissolution, but it is to suggest that there is a political-economic and ideological dimension to nationalism in the Balkans that is typically neglected. To paraphrase the political theorist Robert Cox, nationalism is always for someone and for some purpose. And that purpose is almost always nefarious.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.