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War and EU acceptance: Why did Ukraine succeed where Bosnia failed?

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By Aleksandar Brezar
A member of protocol sets out EU and Bosnian flags prior to arrivals for an EU summit in Brussels, 23 June 2022
A member of protocol sets out EU and Bosnian flags prior to arrivals for an EU summit in Brussels, 23 June 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Olivier Matthys

European leaders' decision to let Ukraine and Moldova be candidates to join the EU is something Bosnia and Herzegovina has been vying for since the end of the 1992-1995 war in the country.

The Bosnian war was considered the bloodiest on the European continent since World War II until Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February of this year.

Rumours floated around Brussels last week that Bosnia might also be given candidate status, backed by statements from figures such as Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer who said the country deserved to be included as well. 

But, in the end, it did not make the cut. 

Bosnia has been considered a contender since at least 2005 when it opened its Stabilisation and Association Agreement negotiations with the bloc. 

All the countries on the European Union's eastern and southeastern borders experienced some form of conflict in the past three decades, including the Western Balkan region, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The current push in Brussels to overlook its stringent accession criteria and reforms — which many of the Balkan hopefuls such as Bosnia, North Macedonia and Montenegro have gone through to varying degrees — for the sake of including countries at risk of becoming targets of Russian influence or escalations, lit a spark of hope in Bosnia.

Last-minute efforts on Thursday evening by the likes of Austria, Slovenia and Croatia to bump Bosnia up the ladder of accession have launched a debate over the efficiency of Bosnia's post-war political system, while also forcing a hard look at the internal failures of the country.

Accession according to the 'existing rules'

Prior to Russia's full-scale invasion, countries like Bosnia were considered ahead of Ukraine in terms of their EU prospects. Many had signed several pre-accession agreements and received billions of euros from funds specifically targeting countries that would one day be members.

Along with that, Bosnia's progress in reforming its legal, judicial and political system to align with the EU was monitored by the European Commission in yearly reports.

In 2019, Bosnia received a specific list of 14 points or reforms that would propel it towards certain membership. Of the 14 key priorities in the 2019 opinion — which include significant reforms to its judiciary, critical anti-corruption legislation and a new election process — Bosnian authorities have managed to adopt a total of less than one.

"I think it's the tragedy of tragedies," former Brussels correspondent Elvir Bucalo, now an editor at the National Radio-Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BHRT, told Euronews.

As a journalist, Bucalo observed the country's EU path front and centre — from the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2008 to its formal application in 2016.

"We need so little to have a good life," he said. "And so little is needed for that to come true."

In fact, the Bosnian authorities were not the first to submit an application for EU membership in Bosnia's name.

In 2015 Bucalo personally wrote and handed in his own "membership application" for Bosnia, much to the surprise of the Commission's officials.

Elvir Bucalo/personal archive
Journalist Elvir Bucalo in Sarajevo, BosniaElvir Bucalo/personal archive

In the handwritten letter he delivered to the Berlaymont building in Brussels, Bucalo outlined the burning desire of Bosnia's citizens to become part of the EU family — despite years of stagnant and destructive domestic politics that plagued the country for decades and stalled its accession to the bloc.

But even he has changed his mind since. Earlier in May, Bucalo wrote another public letter he read on air, asking EU officials not to grant Bosnia candidacy after all, since he believes the politicians did nothing to earn it.

"The original letter was our first and most serious application by Bosnians — without our politicians — to ask for candidate status. 

"My latest letter is a plea to ignore it because we're not ready to join in any way."

Bosnia's post-war woes, a warning for Ukraine

The decision not to grant Bosnia candidacy status can also be interpreted as a condemnation of its post-war political leaders, who have kept the country in a limbo where ethnic politics, nationalism, and petty local disputes dominate the debate in the country.

After the war, Bosnia faced a situation not unlike the one Ukraine will face once peace prevails. A highly diverse country, it was caught up in military aggression from its neighbours who purported to defend one of the country's main ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks — and claimed Bosnia should not be an independent country.

A peace agreement known as the Dayton Peace Accord was brokered by the United States and other Western countries, and then became the country's constitution. It aimed to implement extensive political rights for its main ethnic groups and prevent the possibility of renewed conflict.

The EU is also in charge of the country's peacekeeping forces, EUFOR, numbering some 1,100 members.

HIDAJET DELIC/AP
Troops from different countries attend a ceremony of handing over peacekeeping duties from NATO-led Stabilisation Force to the EU's EUFOR in Butmir near Sarajevo in 2004HIDAJET DELIC/AP

While conflict has so far successfully been kept at bay, nationalists in the country have abused the ethnic checks and balances from the peace accords to prevent the country from making any notable progress.

It took the country's leaders more than 20 years to formalise its application for European Union membership, which was finally filed in February 2016.

The process was plagued with inadequacies from day one. Submitting the answers to the Commission's questionnaire — a key document used to establish a potential member's readiness to join the bloc — took Bosnia 18 months, much longer than any of the other Balkan states.

Ukraine completed its own questionnaire in less than a month, amidst a war.

Answering the follow-up questions took another nine months, and although the Bosnian leaders patted themselves on the back for a job well done, some 22 policy and political criteria questions have remained unanswered, making the submission incomplete.

In the meantime, the country found itself in the throes of the biggest political crisis since the end of the war, with the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, threatening to pull the Serb-majority entity of the RS out of the country's key state-level institutions — a move widely understood as an attempt at secession.

The Republika Srpska or the RS entity is one of two main administrative units in Bosnia, together with the Bosniak-Croat majority Federation of BiH.

The two entities were given some autonomy in the Dayton accords, including an umbrella state-level government and a three-way presidency and a council of ministers overseeing the country's main institutions, including the army, the top judiciary, and tax administration.

Dodik, a hardline populist, is considered to be one of the most nationalist politicians in the region. He is subject to a slew of international sanctions, including an entry ban and asset freezes in the US and the UK.

Dodik has also one of the few European politicians to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the invasion of Ukraine, having a sit-down at the St. Petersburg economic summit on 18 June.

A complex system, but easy to manipulate

Bosnia has been steadily paying the price of a system that allowed the representatives of its three main ethnic groups to pit its citizens against each other to distract from their obsession with power, Ivan Vejvoda, head of the Europe's Futures programme at the Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences, IWM, told Euronews.

"Those of us who are older who lived in the former Yugoslavia and who lived through the beginnings of the breakdown, we always knew that Bosnia would be the most complicated, that was clear," Vejvoda said.

The socialist federation of Yugoslavia stretched over most of the territory now known as the Western Balkans, and its disintegration was considered a trigger for the wars in the 1990s.

"Why? All-too-simply put, it was the mini-Yugoslavia. It had always historically a very complicated system of governance, of consociational power-sharing between the three communities."

"And then, I think the powers that be, those who were elected found out very quickly that they can 'comfortably rule' by making deals with each other, whipping up emotions before elections like 'the others are out to get us, we are the only ones who can defend you'," he said.

"So we went into a vicious cycle of agreeing to stabilocracy: there wouldn't be conflict, there wouldn't be war, so Europe was okay with that and allowed for all of these machinations to happen."

Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar
Ivan Vejvoda at the IWM institute in Vienna in May 2022Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar

Matters did stall on the Brussels side over the years as well, Vejvoda argues.

"There's the famous invitation and promise from 2003 in Thessaloniki that all these countries will become member states provided that they meet the criteria for accession and the famous words of [European Commission President] Romano Prodi that they will join 'without ifs and buts'," he said.

"In 2004, in 2007, there was a momentum of reuniting Europe. As you know, the call in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall was to return these central and eastern countries to Europe."

Internal problems in the EU along with a reluctance for Balkan disputes to be incorporated into the Union brought the process to a halt in 2014 when Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a freeze on the intake of new member states.

The process was seemingly restarted with the Ursula von der Leyen's Commission, with the EU having been deemed to have "dropped the ball" after the likes of Russia, China and Turkey significantly increased their presence in the region over the years.

But the latest decision out of Brussels shows that the hesitance of EU leaders' to incorporate the six is because the countries have simply not done enough, Vejvoda believes.

And the war in Ukraine can not be their ticket out of reforming their own countries.

"The bottom line for me is, our countries in the Western Balkans need to do much more to show that they deserve to be members by meeting the Copenhagen criteria, to speak in shorthand — to show that they truly are democratic, that there's pluralism, that there's separation of powers."

"Nobody is asking for angelic institutions, they do not exist anywhere. But they need to show that they're really endeavouring to meet those goals," Vejvoda said.

HIDAJET DELIC/AP
Protesters carry an oversized Bosnian passport and a banner saying "no visa" in downtown Sarajevo, 13 February 2007HIDAJET DELIC/AP

Meanwhile, in Brussels, attempts were made at resurrecting the accession process as recently as 12 June, when Council President Charles Michel gathered the heads of all parliamentary parties in Bosnia, presenting them with a list of priorities needed for the country to reinvigorate its EU accession path.

According to Nermin Nikšić, president of the centre-left SDP party, Michel and EU top diplomat Josep Borrell both told the politicians in attendance that if they managed to agree to these demands, Bosnia would find itself next to Ukraine and Moldova.

"Both Michel and Borrell were more than open and fair from the very beginning of the meeting," Nikšić told Euronews.

"They told us that there are member states that believe that, when Ukraine and Moldova are discussed, Bosnia should be a part of that package."

"However, they were very clear in saying that if we don't reach an agreement there and then, there would be no chance of Bosnia being discussed at all," he said.

Gavriil Grigorov/TASS Host Photo Agency
Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking to Bosnian Serb member of the Bosnian presidency Milorad Dodik during their talks in St. Petersburg, 18 June 2022Gavriil Grigorov/TASS Host Photo Agency

Yet, the ongoing bickering between the various political representatives resulted in the leader of the Bosnian Croat ethno-nationalist party HDZ BiH Dragan Čović refusing to participate in the meeting.

Čović serves as a delegate in the state-level House of Peoples — the country's ethnically-divided upper house of the parliament. In 2016, he was supportive of the country's EU membership and personally delivered the membership application as Chairman of Bosnia's three-way Presidency.

In recent years, he has been behind demands for an electoral reform that would see his ethnic group — and his party — obtain preferential voting rights in parts of the country where Croats represent a majority, solidifying the country's heavily ethnicised system.

In contrast, several decisions by the European Court of Human Rights have stipulated that the country needs to become less — and not more — politically divided along ethnic lines for it to show notable progress. 

For example, in Bosnia, you can not run for president or hold other key offices unless you identify as a member of one of the three main ethnic groups, leaving citizens of Roma, Jewish or other backgrounds outside the political system.

Čović opposed the latest meeting in Brussels on the grounds that it is the Bosnian Croats whose rights are in fact in jeopardy.

"Dragan [Čović] was at a hotel in Brussels and didn't participate in the meeting, and that's his choice," Nikšić said.

"But regardless of the complicated nature of the meeting […] we reached a compromise and even Milorad Dodik voted for it, although he could have kicked it down the road."

A missed opportunity, again

In the end, Čović's HDZ BiH and two opposition parties from the RS entity, PDP and DNS, did not agree to the principles of the joint declaration, which was supposed to serve as a promise by the Bosnian leaders vowing to a series of reforms six months after the general election later this year.

Then came Thursday's disappointment, hardening the growing bitterness of Bosnians towards the bloc over stalled enlargement amid feelings of being left out once more.

"I try to put myself in the shoes of people [in charge of] the EU. In a recent House of Peoples' session, three laws were proposed that are a key condition for Bosnia's accession which I'm certain don't endanger any kind of vital interest except someone's criminal ones."

The three laws include bills regulating conflict of interest, the state-level judiciary and public procurement, Nikšić explained.

"And you reject those votes that are a precondition, and then at that same session those same delegates demand preferential treatment for Bosnia."

"I mean, who's crazy, and what do we expect from them?" Nikšić asked.

"If I were an EU leader, I'd be much more harsh and I'd ask for much more. I'd blackmail, threaten, whatever it takes, if it meant imposing true European principles."

AP Photo/Sulejman Omerbasic
President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker poses with answers to the Questionnaire together with Dragan Čović, right, in Sarajevo, 18 February 2018AP Photo/Sulejman Omerbasic

HDZ BiH's Čović has also been behind the recent decision not to have the state-level government fund the upcoming election.

The block on funding was eventually overturned by the High Representative, or HR — the country's international envoy commonly appointed from an EU country in charge of implementing the Dayton accord and maintaining democratic order.

The representative is akin to the position of a peace envoy with executive powers and can overrule a decision made by the country's lawmakers, or remove a politician from office if they violate the constitution.

Over the past year, the former Representative Valentin Inzko and the incumbent Christian Schmidt used these powers three times, imposing a law on denying genocide and nullifying an entity-level decision from Republika Srpska.

Prior to that, they had not been invoked for over a decade.

The long path to post-war stability

The country's second High Representative after the war, Austria's Wolfgang Petritsch, who served in the role between 1999 and 2002, said that the Bonn powers are a "nuclear option" and should be used only when there is no other course of action.

In charge of maintaining the constitutional order in the early postwar days, Petritsch exercised his Bonn powers to remove Čović's predecessor at the HDZ BiH, Ante Jelavić, from the presidency in 2001.

At the time, he cited Jelavić's rejection to implement the results of the 2000 general election in spite of a standing order from the Constitutional Court and organising a rally in support of creating a third, Bosnian Croat entity.

"Whenever I used the Bonn Powers, I said, this is not a good day for Bosnia's democracy. And I intentionally said, 'this is undemocratic what I'm doing, but this is an emergency measure.'"

"But this was a few years after the end of the war and postwar Bosnia was not yet settled. The reconstruction and the state-building process was not yet finished," Petritsch explained.

Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar
Former High Representative for Bosnia Wolfgang Petritsch in Vienna, in May 2022Euronews/Aleksandar Brezar

The recent uptick in the involvement of the High Representatives means that the domestic system of government has significantly deteriorated, something that Petritsch says began when the international community decided to take a step back in its involvement and attempt to have the domestic actors take ownership over their mandate.

But the system created to stop the war, without the necessary changes and now firmly in the hands of domestic leaders, only promoted further division along ethnic lines. Petritsch highlights that the political system is now used as an excuse for what has turned into a "totally corrupt, clientelistic system [which is] the symbiosis of politics and business."

"It is about pure and simple corruption. That basically means, keeping the status quo, providing the three political classes with a very solid basis for their illegal gains, which is power and money," he said.

In 2021, Transparency International rated Bosnia as 110th out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions index. The score is third-worst in Europe, behind only Russia and Ukraine.

Bosnia is also the second-poorest country on the continent, according to Eurostat data from June.

The country's EU membership bid became the main collateral of the deeply-rooted issues that have turned it into an "all-or-nothing situation", Petritsch believes.

A political change of generations — but also a major shift in Brussels' approach that has proven to be too technocratic — might be the only way to shake the country out of it.

"For Bosnia, more so than for other countries in the region, you would need a special, more hands-on approach."