Op-Ed: Liberalism, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union

Can liberalism rescue Bosnia and Herzegovina from nationalism-driven politics? Senad Osmanovic says yes.

The discussion surrounding the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina has for years been at a stalemate, where old ideas and phrases get refashioned in Brussels, and returned to the country in new ​packaging. These packages promise economic development, prosperity, reforms, integration and justice, and ultimately an invitation to the European family. For more than two decades, the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been paved, the ​push of Dayton would be replaced by the ​pull from Brussels and develop the country into a modern European state. This has not happened even though the first post-conflict decade saw changes and progress, with the assistance of the High Representative, which were then followed by passivity and idleness from the main national and international actors.

The approach from the European Union has changed from time to time. An active role has been tried, and so has a passive one. Soft politics has changed to hard politics and vice versa. Still, no great development towards the Union has been made, even though the ​recent progress reports declare positive results and small steps towards Brussels. The ​German-British initiative from 2014 was an active push towards changing the economics and focus less on the politics. Even though the economics and politics are often intermingled in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meanwhile, a fusion of blockades and inabilities to change the status quo has been the usual offer from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s side. While nothing constructive happens inside the country, the ​unemployment rate is amongst the highest in the world and the ​brain drain continues since the young and educated take flight to other destinations.

Just like in other countries which are both inside and outside the European Union – the pro-EU and anti-EU tides shift regularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, often due to external factors, most recently the ​migration crisis and ​Brexit​. A large influx of refugees to the European Union has created a large strain on its capacities. Also, with one country leaving the Union, its future can be up for discussion. That said, the relationship between the European Union and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a prosperous one. The European Union is the biggest ​trading partner to the country and critics who downplay the Union’s role on the continent can not turn a blind eye to the fact that the Union is still a major force. ​On the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina ​can not expect the European Union to solve all its pre-existing problems without any effort from the country itself.

Since the launch of the latest initiative in 2014, the political maneuvering of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been tiptoeing towards Brussels with the ​membership application ​formally filed at the beginning of 2016. Even though the same old political parties are still in charge of the future of the country, a new way of acting and thinking has made them more capable of seeing the same kind of issues and possibilities which the European Union does, and some progress had been made. However, the progress made is often overshadowed by large trenches of loans in exchange, mainly from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which keep the economy floating on a short-term basis but will have consequences in the long run. By the end of 2016, the Questionnaire of the European Commission was handed over to Bosnia and Herzegovina, containing 33 chapters and 3242 questions. Currently, 33 working groups have been established and ahead of them is a great challenge which will test the country and its capacities. The working groups are already trailing and slipping behind schedule. With several different levels of authority in need of addressing, political influence is never far away and eventually a complete breakdown of the process is possible if some part is unsatisfied.

Why is it that Bosnia and Herzegovina does not change its approach towards the European Union without first being offered something in return? The pro-EU foundation is largely based on the liberal ideas of two of the four largest political groups in the European Parliament, the ​Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the ​European People’s Party​. As part of a former communist system which preferred socialism, the beginning of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state did not see an ideological change towards liberalism. Instead, a chokehold of nationalist ideas gripped the country which only looks for support among its own ethnic ranks. At the same time, the amount of ​corruption and nepotism is soaring.

To make the changes necessary to leave this nationalism-oriented set-up behind, an ideological makeover is required from within. After all, the alternatives to the European Union are thin and unconvincing and Bosnia and Herzegovina needs both short-term and long-term stability to develop. ​However, opportunities offered must be taken. Last week, dignitaries from the European Union and the region ​gathered in Sarajevo​, but the hosts did not take advantage of the occasion and nothing constructive came out of the summit.

Liberalism is weak in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it is also something unfamiliar. The ideas and phrases that the European Union tries to establish in Bosnia and Herzegovina are forcing the Union into a position in which it has to ​convince the country that this is how it needs to act and think. In its basic form, a shift in ideology only has two dimensions: the organization of the country and the way to get there.

What the European Union has done lately is show Bosnia and Herzegovina how to organize the country and how this can be achieved within its own legal, albeit complex, judicial framework. ​However, when attempts to start a dialogue about the idea of adopting a new political philosophy in the country which can eventually undermine the current nationalism-driven set-up and change the outlook for the future – a passive and hollow response has often been the answer. How can we change and what is the alternative? A drastic change from established routines which the citizens have lived with for more than two decades into something unfamiliar can also be frightening. That said, fear of change and the unknown do not necessarily mean that a struggle will begin.

More importantly, not trying to change at all is a guaranteed loss. For every year that passes without progress, Bosnia and Herzegovina has less and less to lose.

Therefore, an interesting dimension to watch for in next year’s general elections will be to see if a liberal party can promote themselves as a legitimate option and take advantage of the ​current situation​, release the country from its longstanding stalemate and accelerate it towards the European Union. This liberal option would have to be attractive horizontally across the current ethnically divided set-up and capable of garnering sympathy from the broader public, instead of only focusing vertically through one of the established ranks.

Also, the general elections are an important democratic tool for the people to show their will to change and their dissatisfaction with the past leadership. Liberal winds could give Bosnia and Herzegovina momentum towards Brussels and the European family. The risk, if nothing changes, would be new blockades and perhaps even a new standstill that could last for another four years and leave the country adrift in a vacuum. Meanwhile, nothing would be offered to stop the corruption, debts, exodus and nepotism which will continue unhindered and thrive as time passes. Can Bosnia and Herzegovina afford more of the old politics and does the European Union have the time and resources to deal with the country in its current shape?


The views expressed above do not necessarily reflect those of Balkanist. Have some different ideas? Contact us at editor[at]balkanist.net

Cover photo credit: Reuben Thompson/flickr/some rights reserved

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Senad Osmanovic

Senad is a political scientist and University of Gothenburg alumnus who divides his time between Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina.