Bosnia Herzegovina – Between its ‘historical’ application for EU membership and its ‘traditional’ corruption scandals

Posted on 16. February 2016

by Hatidza Jahic & Miruna Troncota

hatidza-jahicmiruna-troncotaIt seems that 2016 will be another year to remember in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) recent history. On 15 February 2016, the Country’s Presidency officially submitted its EU membership application. However, another event threatens to overshadow this news and dominate the media in the upcoming weeks. MP Fahrudin Radoncic, leader of the centre-right party Union for a Better Future of BiH (SBB), former Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina and owner of the biggest media company in the country has been arrested on 25 January. This could not only be the beginning a new internal political crisis that could destabilise the whole country, but it could also undermine the momentum for EU integration and the reform process. This article discusses BiH’s situation, from the combined perspective of a foreigner interested in BiH politics and a BiH resident.

The EU path: Where is BiH?

My goal for 2016 is to accomplish the goals of 2015 which I should have done in 2014 because I made a promise in 2013 and planned it in 2012.” This was a joke circulating on Facebook in the last months, mocking people’s appetite for New Year’s resolutions and the disillusion that comes with not sticking to them. This quote can be also a perfect description of BiH’s engagement in implementing EU reforms. Because of its ‘special’ situation after the devastating war and its aftermath, and its unique political structure designed by the Dayton Peace Agreement, BiH’s relation with the European Union has developed as an ‘exception’ to the general rule of the enlargement process.

The process has been formally regulated by the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), which was signed in June 2008, but only entered into force in March 2015. This was largely due to the EU conditionality regarding the constitutional reforms. EU was satisfied with the “written commitment” to implement reforms (agreed to by the BiH Presidency in January 2015, signed by the leaders of 14 political parties and endorsed by the Parliamentary Assembly in February of the same year). This was a period marked by isolation from the outside world and political turmoil within the country. Key political issues related to the constitutional reforms, the Sejdic-Finci case, and economic difficulties – such as high levels of unemployment, and a brain drain – have characterised the past seven years since the signing of the SAA. Bosnia’s progress towards the EU was blocked for a long time, but the country recently has made some steps forward.

Despite recent progress, BiH lags nineteen years behind Slovenia, twelve years behind Croatia, seven years behind Montenegro and six years behind Serbia in applying for candidate status.1 One of the main reasons for this is the failure of BiH’s political leaders to implement the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdic-Finci case. This could only be done through constitutional reforms, i.e. changing the Dayton Agreement. The Council of the European Union on 11 March 2011 stated that the SAA could only enter into force after Bosnian politicians made a credible effort to bring the country’s constitution in line with the European Convention of Human Rights. This was also seen as being a must for a credible application for EU membership in the 2013 European Commission Progress Report two years later. And yet, an agreement on this has not been reached.

However, the Sejdic-Finci ruling is not part of EU conditionality anymore. We could argue that this has changed due to two factors: first, because of the existence of similar provisions (legislation that requires citizens to declare community affiliation or membership for certain purposes) in certain EU countries (e.g. Belgium); and secondly, due to the February 2014 protests in BiH, which were followed by a significant shift in the EU’s approach: all BiH leaders now had to sign a written commitment to a package of reforms. This brings us to the lack of coherence in the EU’s approach towards BiH. Possible ways of measuring and assessing the existence and precise levels of credible efforts in past years were not clear. Insisting on the implementation of the Sejdic-Finci ruling for years, before suddenly changing its approach was to a certain level unfair and even counterproductive.

Mixed feelings about EU membership application

After years of stalling, in the second half of last year the situation seemed to change. Dragan Čović, the chairman of the three-member Presidency of BiH and representative of the Croat population, openly spoke for the first time about BiH’s prospects to send a formal application for EU candidacy on 17 September 2015 and described it as ‘a historic decision’. He further strengthened this statement in December 2015 when he firmly announced that the formal application will be handed over on 15 February, and that by then Bosnia would try to fulfil the last two preconditions for the application to be considered as credible by the EU: (1) to create an effective coordination mechanism for dealing with the EU and (2) to adjust a trade agreement with the EU. The current EU Council Presidency, represented by the Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, also announced that they would gladly receive Bosnia’s membership request at a formal ceremony set for Monday, 15 February in Brussels.

The news was unexpectedly received with ‘mixed feelings’ by both foreigners and BiH nationals. Many foreign observers started questioning this new enthusiasm and wondered whether this is just another ‘wishful thinking’ mechanism meant to boost diplomatic interactions and ‘sell’ the news to the media in order to combat sceptical attitudes. Heavily prejudiced articles have also started to frequently appear in Western media, especially since refugees started to use the Western Balkan route to get into the EU. A negative and stigmatising reaction that portrays EU enlargement as a form of immigrant ‘occupation’ was to be expected in the context of BiH announcing its membership application. For more nuanced observers of EU enlargement negotiations, this announcement was extremely hopeful, as it showed the strong desire of BiH authorities to speed up reforms and to set their own deadlines (and not have them externally imposed as in the past). Other observers try to be more realistic and think that there is little chance of the country joining before 2025. They feel this news should not be given such a ‘historic’ importance because it represents just another milestone, not a huge ‘breakthrough’.

BiH residents also reacted ambivalently to the news. Some hope that this will be a decisive step towards EU integration, and that BiH will receive official candidate status within 12 to 18 months of applying. Many also acknowledge that, after BiH receives candidate status, it will still have to face years of accession talks. For many the positive part of the news is that the EU candidate status, as well as the activation of NATO’s Membership Action Plan, will boost investments in the country, which for the moment is in a very grim situation. Youth unemployment currently stands above 57%.  Moreover, according to Euractiv, last year several large international companies such as Daimler and RWE have withdrawn investment on account of corruption, which hit the already weakened economy very hard.

From our point of view, these mixed, lukewarm reactions were just another confirmation that there is a general mistrust in both the EU and BiH, after their numerous policy shifts and ‘unfulfilled prophecies’ regarding their common road maps (as demonstrated by the constitutional reform debate, or the outcome of the Sejdic-Finci case). In addition to this, BiH citizens could not even celebrate the EU membership application as it was soon overshadowed by a corruption scandal. There is this dominant mind-set that all problems, or at least the crucial ones will be solved by the international community“. It is not clear whether the political leaders or the general public are aware of the most painful problems and issues that are still left unsolved.

The Radončić File and the Bosnian parallel realities

On 25 January media tycoon Fahrudin Radončić was arrested for allegedly “interfering with the work of the judiciary”. Corruption scandals are not new, but this news got everybody’s attention because of its special context. First, Radončić is an iconic figure of the post-war period in BiH. He was what we call in a local expression the wolf delegated to protect the sheep” – the man involved in many scandals who had the task to define BiH’s security policy. He was arrested on suspicion of influencing witnesses during a drug-trafficking and murder trial in Pristina. Just three weeks before this, another SBB member, Mr. Bakir Dautbašić was arrested on suspicion of influencing the deposition in the same trial. Dautbašić was a secretary of the Ministry of Security and Radončić’s Alliance for Better Future nominated him to be the next BiH Minister of Communication and Transport. The Court of BiH decided that both of them will remain in detention for 30 days.

In BiH the arrest was widely seen as politically-driven and many conspiracy theories developed. Some considered this to be a big step forward, while for others it was just another political trial. Several BiH government officials have been tried for organised crime and corruption, but none were convicted. The public is frustrated with the problems in the rule of law system and recent events have shown that multiple interest groups are somehow connected to each other. Some have speculated that it was no coincidence that Dautbašić was arrested just after the Governing Coalition was agreed upon and the political situation started to stabilise. And even though he is in jail at the moment, his candidature for the minister post was approved by the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) and Central Election Commission (CIK); it seems that in BiH you can be appointed for public service from prison. According to the Head of the OSCE Mission in BiH, Ambassador Jonathan Moore, Radoncic had told him that he would be arrested before his arrest actually happened. This scandal has shown both the BiH public and the international community how absurd the situation in BiH is, accentuating its domestic security weaknesses. Corruption remains one of the biggest domestic obstacles for BiH’s development, as the latest Transparency International CPI shows, placing it on the 76th position out of the total of 165 countries, with a worrying drop out from the 39th position in 2014.

What now?

Exactly two years ago, both inside and outside of BiH there was a general feeling that young people would be more civically engaged and that BiH would finally ‘resurrect’. In the first half of February, BiH celebrates the two-year anniversary of the most important protests that the country ever experienced after the war; the so-called ‘Bosnian Spring’ which started on the streets of Tuzla in February 2014. Hundreds of young people took to the streets of all the main cities in BiH to protest against the failure of their political class, the corrupted system, while some criticism was also raised against the reluctant attitude of the EU and the ‘benevolent’, yet inefficient international community. Unfortunately, this ‘democratic zeal’ soon passed, and it still remains unclear whether the country has finally started to implement serious reforms in its transition and integration process.

All things considered, and putting aside the small steps towards EU integration, the political picture still looks very grim for BiH. The long-lasting transition, post-war recovery and highly corrupted privatisation process have created a small, yet very powerful elite. The economic inequalities have increased in the post-war period, widening the gap between rich and poor within BiH society. The idea of parallel Bosnian realities has never been more ‘real’. One only has to take a look from Avaz tower, one of two of Radoncic’s big construction investments in BiH’s capital and see the state of the society; poor houses, unreconstructed roads, and poor railway services next to tall skyscrapers and weakthy residential neighbourhoods. This is the bitter reality. What is most worrying is that it seems that people have become accustomed to this ‘reality’, since the same people are being elected over and over again. Young people seem also seem to be trapped in the vicious circle of corruption and power, accepting the reality that party membership, and not your qualifications, is  a  precondition for work and success.

So despite the ‘historic’ news of the EU membership application, BiH citizens still have enough reasons to be worried. Many fear the potential threat of continuing endless debates on reforms, transition and a ‘never-ending’ EU integration, just like in the democratic ‘plenums’ that appeared after the February 2014 protests, which did not manage to yield new leaders or new visions for the country. Discussions on “how it was better in socialist times”, raised salaries and benefits for the enormous administrative apparatus and high youth unemployment are still present, but no credible effort has been made to resolve them, yet. Unfortunately, both the citizens in BiH and the international community got used to live in their separate ‘bubbles’ and blame each other for the present failures of the country. We think that the delayed EU membership application could be  credible ‘good news’, but only if the implemented reforms will be more about the citizens’ views and their own engagement and less about the changing EU conditionality and other external incentives or threats.

Footnotes

1. According to Adnan Cerimagic, Analyst of the European Stability Initiative