Thousands of people gathered outside the gates of the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo on Monday night, shouting slogans like “you will not divide us” between chants of “Bosna, Bosna, Bosna” to an office whose European and American staff had likely already checked out for the night.
They waved the blue flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose prominent yellow triangle represents its three constituent ethnic groups.
They were protesting news leaked last week, which shows that the Office of the High Representative, or OHR, will use its powers to impose a new electoral system in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina — one that protesters say will favor nationalist parties and further shun minority groups.
Among those particularly concerned about the changes is the country’s small Jewish community, whose leaders have been fighting against inequality in the country’s electoral system for over a decade. If implemented, the changes would come just months before Bosnians are set to head to the polls in October.
An unelected body, the OHR was established at the end of the Bosnian war to oversee the implementation of the new civic structure in the fledgling post-Yugoslav state. Since its inception, all of the OHR’s heads have been picked from the European Union, by an international Peace Implementation Council, while their deputies have hailed from the United States.
The high representative, currently German diplomat Christian Schmidt, has the mandate to unilaterally dismiss elected officials as high up presidents, implement or annul laws, and even change the country’s national symbols.
The post has been compared to a colonial governor or a medieval viceroy.
Fewer than 900 Jews, mostly Sephardic, live in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a total population of 3.2 million, but Sarajevo’s Jewish community made a name for itself during the nearly-four-year siege of the city during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, running convoys out of the city to bring thousands to safety, using the only active local synagogue at the time as a shelter and operating an underground pharmacy, soup kitchen and school, all while cut off from most of the wider world.
However, at the war’s end, the Bosnian constitution established under Annex 4 of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement divided high-level representation in the new state among its three major ethnic groups: Muslim Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats – who were all termed “constituent peoples.” The agreement also divided the country into two legislative regions, the largely Bosniak and Croat federation, and the majority Serb Republika Srpska.
At the time, it was hoped that the arrangement would put to bed the brutal violence that erupted with the fall of Yugoslavia. So far, it has, but the law also had a side effect of completely disenfranchising at least 17 national minority groups who are not eligible for a part of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, or for representation in its upper house of parliament, the House of Peoples.
“The House of Peoples shall comprise 15 Delegates, two-thirds from the Federation (including five Croats and five Bosniacs) and one-third from the Republika Srpska (five Serbs,)” reads the Dayton agreement, with the parenthetic specifications included. “Nine members of the House of Peoples shall comprise a quorum, provided that at least three Bosniac, three Croat, and three Serb delegates are present.”
The agreement goes on to list a plethora of other cases where at least a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb must all be present or consulted.
In addition to the small Jewish community, the arrangement also cut out Bosnia’s Roma population — its largest non-constituent minority, numbering nearly 60,000 — from top-level political representation.
In all, over 100,000 citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are believed to be excluded from positions because they don’t belong to any of the constituent peoples. And 300,000 others not in the minority groups are similarly excluded because they live in the wrong part of the country for their constituent people, according to Human Rights Watch. In the Republika Srpska, for instance, people of Croat heritage can vote, but they can’t become president of the region.
Jakob Finci, the President of the Bosnian Jewish community, and Dervo Sejdic, a prominent Roma leader, brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights in the mid-2000s, and in 2009 won their case. The ECHR demanded that constitutional reform was a key step for Bosnia to move forward for consideration as an EU member state.
“When we do everything, then we will be on the right European path,” Finci told Bosnian media this week. “To show Europe that we are ready for the changes that lead us on that path and probably, in the end, become a candidate country, and one day I think a member country of the European Union.”
Nonetheless, more than a decade on, no efforts have been made to change the laws. Nearly three decades since the end of the war, many Bosnians of all backgrounds feel that ethnic quotas are no longer a necessary rubric for electing their government.
“Bosnian politicians still have not ended second-class status for Jews, Roma, and other minorities a decade after the European Court of Human Rights found that the Bosnian constitution violates their rights,” Human Rights Watch said in a 2019 statement.
It was Sejdic who called for the protest in front of the OHR.
“If we, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina now, are not united by Schmidt, by his imposition of a racist Election Law, in the fight against fascism and racism, no one else will,” Seijdic wrote on his Facebook page. “Let’s gather and rally in protest outside the OHR until the senior representative rejects his document.”
As it stands, high-level positions in both Bosnia’s national government, as well as several of those on the local level, are equally distributed between members of its three constituent peoples, regardless of the population of those people in the local constituency. The OHR’s proposed change would weigh local demographics, which would, in turn, further consolidate the power of the ruling ethnonationalist parties.
In districts that have low percentages of one of the main ethnic groups, the political seat allocated for that group’s ethnicity would move to a district where there is a higher percentage of people with that ethnicity. For example, a district with very few people of Croat ethnicity would see the local Croat seat move to a different district — helping the local Croat majority there have an outsized say in parliament.
Districts that will lose influence are ones that have similar percentages of the three majority groups. The effect: mono-ethnic enclaves will get outsized power, while more diverse cantons, or legislative districts, will lose representation.
Bosnia’s Jews, Roma, and other non-constituent minorities don’t break 3% — the proposed threshold — in a single one of the country’s 10 cantons. On Wednesday, Schmidt reportedly gathered the heads of major Bosnian political parties and gave them six weeks to solve this so-called “3% issue” themselves with an agreement of their own before he would impose the change under powers of the high representative. Protests have continued in front of his office throughout the week.
“With this law we’ll have even more discrimination than ever,” Vladimir Andrle, a Bosnian Jew and president of the community’s philanthropic arm, La Benevolencija, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at Monday’s rally. “Under it, minorities are never going to get rights and it’s quite disturbing for all of us.”
“With this law he’s ignoring all the verdicts of the court of human rights,” Anderle added, referring to Finci’s case along with several others.
The irony that Schmidt is an EU citizen, that he is in a role that was established under an agreement the EU helped broker, and that he is acting to further entrench a system that the EU’s own courts have ruled violates human rights, is not lost on many in Bosnia. Many fear that the changes will turn back decades of stability, reigniting secessionist movements which could bring the country back to the brink of a war it hasn’t seen since the 1990s.
However, the likely changes have been hailed by the Croat HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) and Serb-majority SNSD (the Alliance of Social Democrats) parties, who stand to gain the most from it. Andrej Plenkovic, prime minister of neighboring Croatia, also voiced his support.
Present at the rally were the leaders of all the so-called “pro-Bosnian” political parties — those who support moving to a national civic identity of “Bosnian-Herzegovinians,” rather than the ethnic identities of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.
Bosnian-Herzegovinian is an identity already held by many of the 100,000 citizens who are not members of the constituent peoples, including the Jewish community.
As leaders of major Jewish community organizations in Bosnia, Anderle and Finci joined with 30 other “pro-Bosnian” leaders, including those of some major political parties, in signing a declaration opposing the changes.
“It is indeed crazy if you are looking at this issue from a citizen’s perspective. Jewish people, along with other minorities, are deeply discriminated against,” Anderle wrote after the rally in a WhatsApp message. “The irony of the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the fact that BOSNIANS AND HERZEGOVINIANS [sic] are minorities.”