Corruption hampers Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU prospects


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Leila Bičakčić
Leila Bičakčić

Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIN)

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Next Tuesday, 15 February 2022, will mark the sixth anniversary since Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) submitted an application for membership of the European Union. This year’s anniversary will recognise BiH as the slowest Western Balkan country to receive candidacy status, a process which averages around 2.2 years in the region.

In response to two rounds of questionnaires, the European Commission issued the Opinion on BiH’s membership application in 2019 and listed a number of deficiencies in the country that were considered to be obstacles to candidacy. In addition, the Opinion clearly defined 14 priorities, which need to be fulfilled as a precondition for receiving the candidacy status. Almost three years later, BiH has managed to take steps towards achieving some of the prescribed conditions, but none have been achieved in full. Silence from the country’s government on lack of progress speaks volumes on BiH’s real readiness and preparedness to enter the negotiations.

Simultaneously, the country is going through the biggest systemic crisis since the end of the Bosnian War in the 1990s. In July 2021, High Representative Valentin Inzko imposed amendments to the BiH’s criminal code, sanctioning the glorification of war criminals convicted by final and binding judgments, as well as the denial of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Serb representatives in state institutions withdrew from further participation in any decision-making. Political stalemate is still ongoing and the Republika Srpska (RS) entity’s conditions for return are unacceptable to other representatives, which further complicates the situation. It is impossible to predict when and how the dispute will end.

Despite the eroding consequences that are currently unravelling before us, the EU has kept its silence

On top of this, ongoing debate by the Croatian caucus, led by the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, is threatening to endanger the general elections in October 2022, creating further institutional standstill on almost all administrative levels. Croats claim that their right to ‘legitimate representation’, as stipulated in the Dayton Peace Accords, is compromised by the election of Željko Komšić to the Presidency of BiH. While Komšić is an ethnic Croat, he is not a member of HDZ nor has he been approved by the Croatian National Assembly, the joint assembly of all Croatian parties in BiH, which – in the eyes of HDZ – makes him ineligible to represent Croatians in BiH.

While the current state of affairs in BiH may seem like legitimate political debate, the essence of the problem lies elsewhere. Led by Milorad Dodik, RS has been looking for an excuse to block the state for years, in an attempt to further its independence agenda. The first open demonstration of will by Dodik in this direction, which was meant to test the reaction of local and international actors, was the announcement of an independence referendum on the eve of local elections in 2016. Since there was no clear response from the international community at the time and particularly the then-EU special representative, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, Dodik pushed the referendum to the final stage, only to rephrase it at the very last minute as a referendum about support for the BiH court and prosecutor office. Despite the eroding consequences that are currently unravelling before us, the EU has kept its silence, as if the referendum didn’t take place.

Dodik’s current ‘performance’ is an extension of his early activities, pushing for RS’ separation from BiH through a set of newly adopted Law on the Agency for Medicines and announced Law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, which seek to further strengthen the ‘independence’ of the RS entity by diminishing the supervisory role of state institutions.

In the background of all these separatist movements lies corruption

Meanwhile, Dragan Čović, the leader of HDZ, is pushing the creation of a third entity controlled by Croats. This move is a continuation of the Croatian separatist idea of Herzeg-Bosnia, an unrecognised geopolitical entity and proto-state within BiH proclaimed in 1991, in which political and military leadership were sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to 111 years in prison for war crimes. The idea has now been revived by Čović under the notion of ‘legitimate representation’. Claiming that Croats are not able to exercise their fundamental right to be elected to the presidency, Čović has filed a motion to create electoral units within the Federation of BiH that would effectively only represent Croats. It is a prelude to a third entity with full independence among the Croat-held territories (or cantons).

In the background of all these separatist movements lies corruption. Masked by the pursuit of the ‘original Dayton’, the movements maintain legitimacy among their electoral constituencies. Highly corrupt, nationalist leaders of all three sides exercise their power in a form of mafia-style operations. They control all aspects of political and economic life within the territories under their control. Lack of oversight by the supreme institution allows for full control of law enforcement and judicial institutions, ensuring neither prosecution nor consequences for detected criminal activities. Many investigative and other journalistic pieces are documenting abuses of office, public money and natural resources, as well as other corruptive activities by the highest officials in the country, while accumulating significant wealth in the process.

Yet, no judicial action has followed almost any of these findings. Prosecutors and other judicial professionals appear blind and deaf to all indications of criminal activities performed by political leaders. BiH continuously backslides on the Corruption Perceptions Index. On average, prosecutors on any administrative level only raise 0.5 indictments for corruption per year. In an environment with such a distorted distribution of power, the country’s fulfilment of conditions for full-fledged membership in the Union based on rule of law, let alone EU accession, is not really an option.

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