THE BLOG
10/30/2014 03:31 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

The Chance for a Multi-Ethnic Bosnia

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In mid-October, Bosnia and Herzegovina held national elections. The scant coverage in Western media tended to highlight the fact that "nationalists" had captured the Bosniak (Muslim), Serb, and Croat seats in the ceremonial tripartite presidency. Beyond the headlines, however, several larger developments are occurring that are more important to Europe and the U.S.

The most recent national census, whose results are due for publication early next year, is likely to show that Bosnia has become, after Albania and Kosovo, the third country in Europe with a Muslim majority population. Moreover, after a bloody civil war with foreign intervention in the early 1990s, followed by two decades of tutelage from the international community, Bosnia is making fitful progress, but still needs help to become a "normal" country. The moment has come for energetic engagement by the U.S. and the European Union to help Bosnia achieve that normalcy and move definitively toward membership in NATO and the EU.

An examination of the election results reveals a vibrant political scene. The Democratic Front, a reform effort founded last year by Željko Komšić, the Croat member of the presidency, won the second largest number of votes in the Federation, the Muslim-Croat entity, and fourth nationally. The reformer Komšić, limited to two terms, was succeeded in the Croat seat on the presidency by the nationalist party boss Dragan Čović, with 52 percent of the vote.

In the Republika Srpska, the Serb half of the country, entity president Milorad Dodik, a vocal secessionist, came within a hair of being unseated. His chosen candidate for the Serb seat on the national presidency was edged out by Mladen Ivanić, a hard-line veteran politician who is nonetheless more inclined toward Europe.

Until the prerogatives of the national government are strengthened, the direction of the country will be determined at the entity level, especially by the composition of the Federation government. The Bosniak Party of Democratic Action headed by Bakir Izetbegović, son of the revered war-time Bosniak leader, will command the greatest number of parliamentary seats, but a majority coalition of other parties is not out of the question. It took 17 months of horse-trading to form a government after the 2010 elections, an unseemly spectacle the country would do well not to repeat. Fortunately, there are a few high-profile technocrats already occupying senior positions in leading parties who could be tapped to run the Federation government.

There is widespread disillusionment with a corrupt alliance of nationalist politicians, big money, coopted media, and organized crime. Last February, widespread rioting broke out, and in May the government's handling of relief efforts after massive flooding brought renewed criticism of ineptitude and lack of political accountability. In October only 54 percent of eligible Bosnian voters exercised their franchise.

Moreover, the hopelessly complex governmental and electoral system, created by the Dayton Accords in 1995 and subsequently elaborated in an election law, cries out for reform. Such reform must occur within the geographical borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik's periodic call for a referendum on secession of the Republika Srpska is anathema to Washington. Before Serbian aggression ignited the war in 1992, on the territory of what is now the Serb-dominated entity there was a Bosniak Muslim plurality. The only reason a referendum today might yield a majority in favor of secession is the murder during the war of 100,000 Muslims and the "ethnic cleansing" of a million more.

The demands of nationalist Croats appear less extreme, but would also be fatal to the country. Supported by the government of neighboring Croatia, they call for a third Croatian entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite their inability to document any systematic discrimination against ethnic Croats in the current set-up. Because of population distribution, a Croatian entity would be a "Swiss cheese," non-contiguous patchwork, adding to the dysfunction of an already cumbersome political structure.

A basic problem documented in many polls is that although the majority Bosniak Muslims, a few numerically small ethnic groups, and a large number of people who refuse to self-label ethnically or religiously all desire a multi-ethnic country, most Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats do not.

Forging universal attachment to a multi-ethnic Bosnian state will not be easy, but the stakes for the West are high. Any attempt at division of Bosnia and Herzegovina would restart civil war and radicalize the heretofore secular Muslim community, raising the specter of an Islamist country in the heart of Europe. In addition, Moscow, increasingly involved in the Western Balkans, would love to make a secessionist Republika Srpska a Russian satellite. If Belgrade were persuaded to annex the splinter state, it would doom Serbia's prospects for EU accession, the cornerstone of Brussels' Balkan policy. Finally, radicals in Kosovo and Macedonia would agitate for a Greater Albania, further destabilizing the region.

The international community, led by the U.S., which retains street credibility in the Federation, and the EU, membership in which is still the long-term goal of a sizable portion of the population, can help to foster reform and forestall these doomsday scenarios.

First, the U.S., EU, and international financial institutions should condition future assistance on Bosnia's immediate fulfillment of a 2009 "Sejdić-Finci" ruling of the European Court of Human Rights against the most blatantly discriminatory feature of the election system.

Second, with international pressure and guidance, a comprehensive reform of the electoral system, beginning with the Federation, must be undertaken to create meaningful accountability of politicians to the citizenry.

Third, the International High Representative should invoke his so-called "Bonn Powers" to indict officials suspected of corruption and dismiss others who abuse their offices.

Fourth, Bosnia must forthwith settle the nagging issue of the ownership of defense property. Once that is accomplished, NATO should give Bosnia a Membership Action Plan, the crucial step toward joining the alliance.

These measures would require modest expenditures and effort, but not substantially detract from more pressing and costly operations in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and the Far East. Investment in building a successful, multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina is urgently needed and well within our capacity.

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Michael Haltzel is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. From 1995 to 2004 he was European foreign policy advisor to Vice President (then-Senator) Joseph R. Biden, Jr.