By Olivia de Vesci

In September 2016, the 28 member states of the European Union accepted Bosnia and Herzegovina’s membership application, starting the long process of accession to the bloc. First the European Commission will decide if Bosnia meets the criteria for candidacy, which could take up to a year, and then determine the conditions for Bosnia’s attaining full membership. The Commission will evaluate Bosnia’s economy, its protection of human rights, and the rule of law, among other requirements.

The European Union accepted Bosnia’s application citing progress in many areas, but urged Bosnia to continue its reform agenda in “socio-economic reforms (and) reforms in the area of rule of law and public administration.” Member states also asked the European Commission to monitor the enactment of the 2009 Court of Human Rights ruling, ordering Bosnia to allow ethnic minorities to seek office. Currently only members of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – can run for high office, a potential sticking point on Bosnia’s path to EU membership. While the EU’s acceptance is a great step forward, significant legal and political hurdles still lie ahead.

Bosnia’s convoluted governance structure seriously impedes the implementation of reforms. The 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War left the country with a tripartite government and a population divided along ethnic lines. Bosnia has two autonomous entities: the Federation representing Croats and Bosniaks in a convoluted system of parliaments at both the federal and cantonal levels, and the Republika Srpska representing Bosnian Serbs. The central government is led by a three-member presidency with one Serb, one Bosniak, and one Croat. The limitations on who can seek political office prevent the upheaval of the delicate ethnic balance, but also disenfranchise Bosnia’s ethnic minorities. Bosnia’s complicated institutional setup has entrenched its ethnic party system, preventing necessary constitutional reform.

The mass demonstrations that occurred in early 2014 are emblematic of Bosnia’s political and economic strife. The demonstrations and riots, which began in Tuzla but quickly spread to other cities in the Federation, were the largest since the end of the Bosnian War, with protesters targeting widespread government corruption and economic stagnation. While Bosnia’s unemployment rate hovers around 45%, the political elite have fueled their personal wealth with state funds. Transparency International ranks Bosnia as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. Corruption significantly impedes economic development and foments distrust in public officials and government institutions. Citizens consider protest as a legitimate form of political action, as they believe that voting is ineffectual. The 2014 protests caused an initial wave of resignations by local level politicians, but eventually fizzled out without enacting any constitutional reform.

Extensive constitutional restructuring will be a formidable challenge. New politicians and parties are necessary to bring about real change, but ethnic divisions restrict voter options. Further, reform is often immediately represented as benefitting or detracting from one ethnic group, preventing any reasonable compromise on universally beneficial reforms. Efforts by the European Union have been unsuccessful at encouraging political elites to initiate change. Unlike those in other countries, Bosnian politicians have preferred to reject EU-driven reforms for fear of angering domestic constituencies. This may soon change; Bosnia’s application gives the European Union leverage to drive political and economic reform.

More complications may arise during the long process towards accession. A referendum in the Republika Srpska in October 2016 has led some analysts to question whether Bosnia can remain a unified state. Bosnian Serbs overwhelming voted to approve January 9th – the date in 1992 on which Serbs declared their independence within the Bosnian state – as Bosnia’s national holiday despite the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. The referendum has strained ethnic relations and poses a direct challenge the Constitutional Court, the European Union, and the High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, who oversees the implementation of the Dayton Agreement. Some experts argue that by holding the referendum in violation of the Constitutional Court, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik has endangered the Dayton Accords and weakened the very credibility of the Bosnian state.

Dodik claims this vote was a trial run for an illegal independence referendum to be held in 2018. While the European Union expressed disapproval of the September referendum, an independence referendum would be a direct breach of the Dayton Accords and is ostensibly a red line for the international community. It is within the power of the High Representative, currently Valentin Inzko, to remove Dodik from elected office, but he is unlikely to do so without the international community’s backing. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin supports Dodik and Bosnian Serb secession as part of greater strategy for sowing discord within the European Union. The lack of a strong Western response to the Republika Srpska’s recent referendum could embolden Dodik to continue defying domestic institutions and the international community .

Divisive rhetoric and rising ethnic tensions since Bosnia’s membership application present serious challenges for EU-based reforms. In elections held in both the Republika Srpska and the Federation in October 2016, nationalists on both sides have prevailed, yet again. With ethno-nationalists benefitting from the status quo, the hard reforms required for EU membership are unlikely to occur. And recent actions by the Republika Srpska National Assembly to decorate war criminals – including Radovan Karadzic who was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity in March 2016 – has increased tensions. Examining prospects for Bosnia’s future requires weighing the simultaneously diverging trends between progress towards Europe and relapse towards nationalism, divisiveness, and potential dissolution.

Membership in the European Union is not only a path toward economic prosperity for Bosnia, but also toward permanent peace and stability in the face of escalating inter-ethnic friction. In late 2014 the European Union launched their reform agenda focusing on economic change with the short-term goal of improving growth and jobs for ordinary Bosnians, and the long-term goal of increasing the private sector and reducing public sector jobs to weaken patronage networks. The European Union continues to push these economic reforms with the hope of facilitating the required constitutional reforms for member-state status, and to strengthen the state as a cohesive, unitary entity; however, some experts argue that the European Union is too beleaguered with its own succession of crises to exert any significant pressure on Bosnia.

Despite these massive incentives, Bosnia’s political elite may resist reform and preserve the status quo; so far, Bosnia’s leaders have shown little enthusiasm for surrendering personal gain for the greater good. Bosnian citizens of all affiliations are united in their desire to join the European Union. Perhaps another mass movement could propel enactment of reforms to overcome the Dayton structure and join to the European Union, and in doing so improve prospects for Bosnia’s future.


Olivia de Vesci is a sophomore at the George Washington University in the Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Europe and Eurasia and a minor in German Language & Literature. She is especially interested inter and intra-European politics with particular emphasis on EU integration and expansion, EU-Russian relations, and developing political and civil society in post-communist states.