US Push for Decentralisation May not Solve Bosnia’s Problems

by Petr Čermák

January 22, 2021

With a change to the US administration in sight, discussions about expected changes in Washington’s policy towards the Western Balkans have also intensified. Expectations of the new administration are especially high in Bosnia, which is considered to be particularly important for Joe Biden because of his previous engagement in the region.

Bosnia has been destabilized by long-term internal conflict between the ruling elites of the three constituent nations over the revision of the constitutional order based on the 1995 Dayton peace agreement; the new US administration is expected to push local actors to find a compromise harder than before.

While it is early to estimate if these expectations will be met and what would be the specific steps proposed by Washington, central principles of the US-led agenda can be deduced from the first statements made by Biden’s advisors.

One of those already providing advice to the new administration based on his direct experience from the region is Daniel Serwer, who was US mediator between the hostile parties in the late stage of the Bosnian war in the 1990s.

In his current statements to the regional media, Serwer has presented some possible measures supposedly intended to reform the Dayton arrangement. His argumentation is based primarily on a call for more centralisation that would limit the powers of Bosnia’s ethnically defined entities and cantons.

Besides this rather predictable agenda, Serwer is also mentioning another potentially important institutional reform that should go hand in hand with the centralisation – strengthening local governance.

While the mix of reforms proposed by Serwer would lead to the centralisation of Bosnia on a state level, it would enhance political power on the decentralised level of municipalities.

Serwer, who is familiar with the country and its ethno-political divisions, is definitely aware that any attempt to centralise the country would be opposed by the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats who instead seek more ethnic autonomy.

So, enhancing the local level of governance might be intended as a compensation that would be offered to them, as a partial reward for the loss of power on the sub-state level.

Nevertheless, the principal question that should be asked before any shift of power to municipalities is made is whether the local level as such provides better governance and facilitates inter-ethnic compromise and moderation.

We need to look at existing models of state-level centralisation combined with strong local-level governance in North Macedonia and Kosovo, and at the current experience of municipality-level governance in Bosnia.

Based on the mixed record of outcomes of local power-sharing between representatives of different ethnic groups across the region, it could be argued that local-level governance is more often a reflection rather than a solution of state-level problems. Its potential for moderation thus should not be taken for granted.

North Macedonia and Kosovo offer important models

In his argumentation, Serwer is presumably referring to experiences of “imposed” decentralisation in North Macedonia and Kosovo, where similar constitutional provisions, combining centralised power on the state level (instead of a federal structure) with enhanced decentralised local governance, have been put in place to resolve local ethnic conflicts.

In North Macedonia, shifting the decision-making process over many ethnically sensitive issues to politically enhanced municipal institutions was a cornerstone of the 2001 Ohrid agreement that ended inter-ethnic violence in the country.

The deal provided the country with a relatively stable model of inter-ethnic balance in state-level politics based on the consociational concept of power sharing.

Local-level politics has played an important role in inter-ethnic political stability as the grand coalitions between the leading Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties have been generally transferred to municipal level politics in mixed areas.

In Kosovo, decentralisation of otherwise centralised decision making to the level of municipalities was one of the ruling principles intended to grant the Serbian minority partial autonomy in the newly declared state politically dominated by Albanians under the Ahtisaari plan in 2008.

However, the results of decentralisation in Kosovo in regard to the inter-ethnic political balance between Albanians and Serbs are questionable.

In some mixed areas, the two communities effectively share local power regardless of their majority and minority position.

However, many Serb-dominated municipalities still function partly in their own parallel system, sponsored by Belgrade, independently of the central government and ignoring the presence of local Albanian minorities. Meanwhile, Serbian minorities in some mixed municipalities ruled by Albanian parties blame the local majority for their exclusion from local decision making.

‘Unregulated power-sharing’ in Bosnian municipalities

In a Bosnia characterised by a complicated institutional system of multi-level power sharing, the municipal level of politics has so far been the only institutional layer where the division of power among the constituent nations was left almost unregulated by law.

Except for two sui generis cases, Brcko (since 1999) and Mostar (since 2020), where the consociational model of power-sharing is applied in local governance, Bosnia’s towns and municipalities have no mechanisms to effectively grant local minorities access to legislative or executive power on the local level.

Unregulated municipal politics in mixed areas thus reveals how the relations between leading ethnic parties may work outside of the rigid power-sharing structure of higher institutional levels.

The recent record of this unregulated power-sharing presents both promising cases of smooth inter-ethnic cooperation as well as alarming situations of majority rule and discrimination.

Leading ethnic parties representing different groups have been involved in stable grand coalition governments in many mixed municipalities. Bosniak and Croat returnee minorities’ representatives have been supporting the ruling Serbian parties in most municipalities of north-east Republika Srpska where they are present as significant local political factor.

Ethnic parties representing Bosniaks and Croats have been together ruling many of the ethnically mixed municipalities across the Federation entity, without attempting to take advantage of their relative majorities to overrule minorities.

While these instances of smooth inter-ethnic governance show competing ethnopolitical forces can cooperate on the local level despite absence of any power-sharing mechanisms, there are also cases where local majorities exploit their political advantage at the cost of local minorities. 

Representatives of Bosniak minorities accuse the Croat ruling party of discrimination in the mixed towns of Stolac, Capljina or Kiseljak, where Croats form the demographic and political majority.

Conversely, Croat representatives say they face the same political exclusion in Novi Travnik or Travnik, which are dominated by Bosniaks. Bosniak representatives in parts of the RS also claim they are eliminated from the local decision making by the local Serbian majority.

Would decentralisation bring moderation?

The different stories of local ethnic power (non)sharing in Bosnia, Kosovo and North Macedonia described above have one important feature in common – leading ethnic parties as the main protagonists.

Regardless of whether the outcome is inclusion or exclusion of the minority group, the actors determining the outcome are the same ethnic parties that rule the higher politics.

Local governance as such does not bring new civic or non-ethnic forces to play. In Kosovo, North Macedonia as well as currently in Bosnia, the municipal level of politics is dominated by the same ethnic forces that have dominated state politics since the end of the conflict.

Political moderation on the local level thus depends on the ability of ethnic representatives to agree on sharing power.

Therefore, it would be naïve to expect decentralisation of political power to the local level automatically to bring more stability and inclusion to a country characterised by long-term political instability and exclusion on higher political levels. Throughout the region, the local politics has not been a solution to state-level problems but rather its reflection.

The Biden administration’s expected attempt to push for centralisation of Bosnia will meanwhile spark a strong counter-reaction from the Bosnian Serb and Croat ruling elites.

If the local level decentralisation is intended to serve as compensation for losing the ethnic autonomy on cantonal and entity levels, it should also provide regulation for power-sharing between groups in ethnically mixed areas.

The empirical record from the region shows that local politics provides space for inter-ethnic cooperation, but also for conflict, especially if it is left unregulated.

The potential of local-level politics to facilitate political moderation should thus not be taken for granted – especially in Bosnia, where the ruling ethnic elites might transfer their rivalries from cantonal and entity level politics to municipal assemblies functioning out of sight of local and international watchdogs.