As a U.S. senator, Joe Biden forcefully called on America to resist the architects of violent division during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But current U.S. engagement risks helping their successors complete that effort, foreclosing any potential for a more functional, rational, and accountable governance structure.

A joint U.S.-European Union diplomatic effort is underway that could fundamentally change the current election law in a manner that would effectively partition the country into three ethnically gerrymandered political units. This has been a risk for years under the unfortunately drafted and haphazardly implemented Dayton Peace Agreement, and this new move would be the final blow. And most troubling is that American and European leaders are facilitating this dangerous endeavor, lending legitimacy to a profoundly undemocratic exercise.

How We Got Here

The 1995 Dayton Accords, forged through American leadership, maintained Bosnia’s statehood and territorial integrity, but at the high price of entrenching the nationalist agendas of the wartime period. Those wartime political parties have since further consolidated their political, economic, and social dominance over Bosnia. Dayton – which also includes the country’s constitution – stopped the war, but its provisions and ancillary legal infrastructure have consistently incentivized polarization and interethnic division. Bosnia is one state with two entities (the Federation and the Republika Srpska) and three constituent peoples (Bosniaks – Bosnian Muslims; Croats – Bosnian Catholics; Serbs – Bosnian Orthodox Christians). “Others” and citizens are also noted but have always been ignored. The system was recognized as imperfect from the moment of signing, but it also was seen as preferable to war and as a starting point for the country to begin a process of Euro-Atlantic integration.

However, Bosnia has been remarkably resistant to reform, and the formerly warring parties have continued to pursue the divisive aims of the war in peacetime.  The United States began to pull back its engagement in 2006, hoping that the EU would steer the country in the direction of European integration. But this has not happened. The EU’s enlargement approach is predicated on the assumption that party leaders actually want to reform and improve the country. Eurocrats in Brussels and on the ground apparently cannot comprehend political leaders who have no real interest in EU membership or that club’s professed values yet wish to remain on the receiving end of EU funds. In any event, they are unwilling to confront them on their deviations from those values and standards.

After 15 years of EU (and U.S.) unwillingness to enforce the rules, new and divisive agendas have gained momentum. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader who came to power 15 years ago and is currently the Serb member of the tripartite state presidency, has taken full advantage of the lack of Western resolve, skillfully hacking Dayton’s weaknesses to engineer more cleavages.

His success at fomenting division without significant resistance from the EU and the U.S. has sent a clear signal that obstruction pays off. Dragan Čović, leader of the Bosnian branch of neighboring Croatia’s hardline Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), has taken note. He and his HDZ have long chafed under the structure of post-Dayton Bosnia. It is easy to forget that there were open Croat secessionist movements active in Mostar after the war;  in 2001, NATO troops were involved in operations to break down the financial structures that funded these efforts, because they were seen as detrimental to Bosnia’s reform potential and security.

These two party leaders share a vision of a country partitioned into ethno-territorial fiefdoms. They have now generated a “crisis” to entrench their advantage institutionally, with not merely an international seal of approval, but international cooperation in engineering. Perversely, the U.S. and EU are effectively embracing an agenda long supported by Moscow.

Division Through the Back Door

Čović and his allies in Zagreb (and, in turn, in Brussels) have steadily promoted a narrative that Croats suffer discrimination in Bosnia.  He claims he wants Croats to be able to vote for their Croat representatives without any others being able to affect the electoral outcome.

This agenda is linked to an elemental part of the Dayton system that cannot be fixed without either strengthening the ethnic principle or eliminating its overwhelming role in the political structure – and psyche — of ruling elites.

Currently, when it comes to the three-person Bosnian Presidency, each of the country’s two entities is an electoral district. One Croat and one Bosniak are elected from the Federation, and one Serb from the RS. (The entire concept of a three-person, ethnically defined presidency was found to violate the European Convention on Human Rights, because any citizen who does not fit into the ethno-territorial lines is ineligible.)

In the Federation, voters may vote for any of the candidates running for the two Presidency members from that entity. A voter given, for example, the choice among a Bosniak nationalist candidate, a Croat nationalist candidate, or a Croat social-democrat candidate, can pick which one they prefer. The voter’s own “label” does not affect the options available.

Three times since 2006, a non-HDZ Croat – Željko Komšić – was elected to the Croat seat by attracting the votes of Bosniaks as well as Croats. This was legal, demonstrating the system’s potential – in this case – to vote for an individual or ideas, rather than simply a rigid party/ethnonational identity. But this option has been decried as illegitimate by Čović, the HDZ, and others as usurping Croat representation.

Čović has long envied the advantage that his political ally Dodik has in the RS: the predominantly Serb electorate in the RS elects the Serb member of the Bosnian Presidency. Čović would like the same. Achieving this would result in a de facto Croat third entity, introduced through the back door, under the cover of amendments to the election law.

The electoral engineering being discussed is aimed at finding a way to ensure that people only vote for candidates “in their box.” The desire is simple; making it happen without allowing the ugliness of this intent to be clear is hard. This could be done by ensuring the Presidency is indirectly elected; however, this would require changing the Constitution, which notes members are directly elected. Alternately, one would either need to gerrymander election districts to pack Croats and Bosniaks into their own corrals; or weight the votes of people in some electoral units based on the differing majority/minority populations; or pass out colored Bosniak and Croat ballots depending on what people declare that they “are;” or find some other way to put lipstick on a pig that is actually a Trojan Horse aimed at further consolidating institutionalized ethnic division.

Cynical Arguments

There are two arguments in favor of such a change that one can already see playing out in the real world and in the Twittersphere.

First, pro-separation advocates say the current system is just not fair. They argue it has never been fair to let the Serbs have “their” entity while Croats have to be “stuck” in an entity shared with the more numerous Bosniaks (or, perhaps more simply, with non-Croats).  Sure, perhaps there had been hope that – through real refugee return, through respect for human rights requirements embedded in Dayton, through the Euro-Atlantic accession process – the ethnic principle would wither on its own. But that failed.  So, these proponents say, it is just time to finish the job of ethnic segregation.

If this is the driving motivation for the EU and the U.S. – or at least the cost of achieving “deliverables” and lubricating some (or indeed, any) political process – then they should be honest about it. Instead, they claim they just seek to implement long-ignored court rulings, to enable an environment in which other reforms might move forward — that it’s not about some sort of “third entity” at all. However, a draft we have seen of some of the proposed election law principles being considered by local parties demonstrates that this is not true. This proposed new electoral model would divide the Federation into two electoral units, to be defined either by territory or by categorization of people into a Constituency 1 and Constituency 2 (clearly meant to create a Bosniak unit and a Croat unit).

If this is the exercise underway, then it should be openly discussed – so it is clear what is happening and what external actors are not only facilitating but supporting and legitimizing. Which municipalities or towns will be in Unit 1 or Unit 2?  Will they be contiguous, thereby consigning “people in the wrong place” to formal second-class citizen status? Or a non-contiguous mosaic? This is the cartographic/demographic approach to civilization that triggered the war in the first place.

Second, there are pro-separation advocates (looking at election policy, but also education policy), who will argue that finally enabling this total elevation of the ethnic principle to dominate will remove a blockage that has prevented reform that could otherwise proceed. They can point to long-standing Croat nationalist party demands and separatist movements. They will claim that not only is this “fair,” but that it will take the overriding dominance of ethnic identity off the table, finally, so the country can instead focus on the rule of law, fighting corruption, and better economic and social development.

This is a false presumption easily discounted by both local and foreign examples. The RS is what Croat parties covet. It is a territorial unit with a clear ethnic majority that controls its own entity governance and “cleanly” elects its Serb member of the Presidency. Yet far from being a beacon of rights and accountable governance, it is a less democratic, less transparent, more closed, and even more impoverished system. Academics have explained this; the 2018 “Justice for David” protests in the RS capital Banja Luka over the death of a 21-year-old (and the brutal crackdown against the demonstrations) illustrates this dynamic in real life. Once full consolidation is complete, Čović would also have a vertical of power, and hopes of legal or political accountability, already scant, will evaporate. The incentive to consolidate such a vertical in the remaining Bosniak-majority unit will become overwhelming, with the same effect.

The impact of making power-sharing “consociational” systems more rigid can be seen in Lebanon. The division and consolidation of that country into rigid sectarian blocs has made party leaders so durable that they survived the popular outrage following the deadly Beirut port explosion in August 2020 without any need to change their blatantly for-profit modus operandi.

Even more importantly, this attitude opens the door to other questions: Is it fair that the Serb-majority municipalities like Glamoč are ignored by the Croat-majority canton, the Bosniak majority Federation, and an RS that never respected Serbs who didn’t all gravitate to “their” entity?  (There are four such municipalities.) Which unit will “get” them?  Is Srebrenica’s inclusion in the RS “fair?”

Why this Matters Internationally – and to the United States 

It is troubling but not surprising that key international players are going along with this. Obstruction has been proven to work, and now Čović and Dodik have threatened jointly to block the October 2022 general elections unless they get their way.

The EU’s incentives are predictable – for over a decade it has been clear that the bloc’s leaders have no strategy other than believing that the carrot of membership will lead to reforms, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. U.S. policy remains stuck in the transactional gear of the Trump era, as the senior appointments that turn presidential and Cabinet secretary philosophical guidance into strategic policy have yet to be made. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Palmer (who used similar high-pressure transactionalism to poor effect in Kosovo), is reportedly pushing Bakir Izetbegović, the leader of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), to make a deal with Čović.

There is still time, just, to arrest this dangerous course. But it will require leadership from now-President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. They will need to speak frankly with allies on the need to collectively recalibrate failing policies in Bosnia and the Balkans as a whole.  Biden has made fighting official corruption a global priority. This Croat-Serb deal would make Bosnia – where official corruption is in the institutional DNA – even better optimized for all abuses of power. Even more important is leading through values-based policy. Blinken recently assured the American people in an address, “If we do our jobs right, you’ll be able to check our work, to see the links between what we’re doing around the world and the goals and values I’ll lay out today.” It is already time to check their work in Bosnia.

A considerably better mode of interaction among Bosnia’s people remains feasible – and there are many who work daily there to do their small part to uphold and build that hope. A U.S. failure to decisively reverse course will embolden and strengthen the nationalists who wish to extinguish that hope and foreclose the potential for a better Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The United States and the EU, along with other Western allies, have yet to demonstrate the strategic vision required on Bosnia, despite their strong collective leverage in the country. It is long since time to remediate this void. Continued failure to do so will not only demonstrate to Bosnia’s already highly skeptical citizens that our talking points about our values are just words, but signal to our authoritarian adversaries worldwide that expediency trumps principle – bolstering their talking points.

The fight for the soul of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Biden has understood since the 1990s, is not over. His proud legacy for that cause depends on his seizing the reins from a bureaucracy pursuing a dangerously misguided policy now.

IMAGE: Dagan Covic in October 2018, when he was a member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite Presidency and candidate for another term. Covic is the leader of the Bosnian-Croat national party, HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union).  (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)