Bosnia and Herzegovina is drowning. Torrential rains have unleashed roaring funnels of water and mudslides that have consumed entire villages and taken more than 30 lives, according to official Bosnian counts. Almost a million are reported displaced; many more remain at risk. The economic toll will reach into billions of dollars in a small country with a tragic history. As one Bosnian remarked, “We were already struggling, now we are sinking.”
But Bosnia is drowning for another reason, too, this one no act of God. It has been eight years since a painstaking effort, started in 1995, to establish efficient, shared institutions began to steadily unravel under a fresh onslaught of nationalism, corruption, cronyism and international neglect — a stagnation that seeped slowly but overwhelmingly into Bosnia’s political, economic and even spiritual life. Even before the torrents began, few Bosnians, whether Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), saw much future for their country. Many young people simply hope to leave.
Indeed, the abysmal response by Bosnia’s leaders and institutions to the current crisis reflects the country’s pervasive dysfunction. Layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and cumbersome decision-making mechanisms, nominally intended to respect group sensitivities, have been exploited by self-serving politicians who pander to ethnic fears, dispense patronage and fund party coffers, while avoiding accountability.
In the wake of the flooding, Bosnians have used social media to lash out at government ineptitude — for example, a decision by public television stations to broadcast Turkish soap operas instead of emergency information. Furious flood victims say bureaucrats and officials at all levels of government have ignored their cries for help.
Neighboring Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro have been far quicker to offer flood relief to both Bosnia and Serbia, and do so without considering recipients’ ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, the cataclysmic flooding has forced many Bosnians out of their ethnic isolation to help one another, rekindling a long-missing sense of solidarity across ethnic lines.
One might have hoped that the politicians of the country’s two ethnically divided regional units would have put aside their polarizing tactics now. Alas, the flood has become another way to score political points for elections next October. The divisive Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik used an emergency meeting with Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, to restate his disdain for any policies emanating from Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, which in his estimation serves only Bosniak interests. Among Bosniak politicians, the federal premier, Nermin Niksic, and the recently dismissed state minister of security, Fahrudin Radoncic, have focused on trading political accusations against each other rather than delivering disaster relief.
In short, Bosnia needs urgent international assistance not only to deal with the floods, but also to end the country’s political paralysis. Hands-on international supervision kept Bosnia functioning for a decade after war ended in 1995, but that supervision gave way, in 2006, to a new policy of “local ownership.” When the new international high representative surrendered his powers to break local political deadlocks, he gave the fractious parties a green light to paralyze governance while Bosnian civil society and outside powers looked on passively.
Meanwhile, the prospect of European Union membership, which was prompting reform in neighboring Croatia and Serbia, had little effect in Bosnia, whose polarizing leaders remained satisfied to cling to power through corruption, cronyism and appeals to ethnic loyalties. Angry public protests earlier this year momentarily caught the political establishment’s attention. But the protests then petered out, and with them went hopes for a sustained, indigenous movement for change, or for an international initiative to jump-start reforms.
The floods provide a fresh opportunity for all to get serious about making Bosnia governable. Even the protesters, who embraced unrealistic notions of “citizens’ democracy,” need to recalibrate their approach by acknowledging that there is no substitute for properly functioning institutions led by elected leaders. Their next campaign should focus on electoral victories in October, when they will have a chance to throw out leaders whose performance disgusted them, in favor of politicians who will meet their responsibilities. Maybe that prospect could force Bosnia’s cynical and complacent leaders to change their approach.
Enduring change can come only from within, but it will not come without a strong catalyst from the United States and the European Union. Re-creating full-throated outside oversight is not an option. Instead, the outside powers should devise new ways to make joining the European Union a practical possibility, so long as Bosnia’s institutions function well for its citizens. Good ideas for reforming Bosnia’s Constitution, curbing corruption and changing election rules abound, both abroad and in Bosnian civil society. What’s lacking are inducements to adopt those reforms.
The full challenge posed by the floods will not just be getting relief assistance to flood victims, but also generating the will in Washington and Brussels to help Bosnia move forward politically. A failure to act boldly now could well produce a resurgence of the calamity of interethnic violence in the not-too-distant future.
Edward P. Joseph is a senior fellow and lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Srecko Latal is an editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.