Mostar: a democratic ‘ghost town’ in Europe

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Irma Baralija
Irma Baralija

Vice-President of Naša stranka (Our Party)

Knowing that Europe is considered the birthplace of democracy, and considering how committed the EU institutions are to democratic values, it is astonishing to see that, in 2020, there is still a European city with no democracy whatsoever. Mostar – one of the most beautiful touristic destinations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) and home to over 100,000 – has been deprived of democracy for years now.

There have been no local elections in over a decade. Mostar’s city hall has remained empty since 2012. The only person authorised to distribute the city budget provisionally until the next elections was the last elected mayor of Mostar. At the end of 2019, that mayor was admitted to a hospital in neighbouring Croatia due to serious health issues. Ever since then, Mostar has been a sort of political ‘ghost town’ with a vacant city hall and mayor’s office. How did this happen and who is to blame?

Mostar was already a divided city. Geographically, the Neretva River cuts through its centre. The war created new divisions: ethnic rifts emerged as a result of the conflict. Now, on the east bank live the Bosniak (Muslims) – who mostly back the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). Meanwhile, the western bank is largely populated by Croats (Catholics) under the influence of the biggest Croat national party, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ).

Fresh memories of the conflict and belligerent rhetoric from all sides exacerbated tensions

After years of bloodshed, six Bosnian Croat officials were found guilty of crimes against humanity and other abuses against Bosniaks. After this, it was near-impossible for the international community to gather local parties around the table to negotiate the reorganisation of the city. While elections were held in 1996, fresh memories of the conflict and belligerent rhetoric from all sides exacerbated tensions. This lack of consensus led the High Representative of the International Community in B&H to impose a City Statute in 2004.

While two local elections were held afterwards, problems persisted in the division of electoral constituencies. The number of seats and councillors guaranteed for every constituency in the city hall was not proportional to the number of citizens living in those constituencies. The Bosnian Constitutional Court was forced to step in, ruling the Statute as unconstitutional in 2010.

The local council should have responded to this ruling by using the rest of its mandate to discuss and rectify the Statute, but it didn’t. It lacked leadership, courage and political responsibility. It saw little reason to fix something that, they argued, the ‘High Representative broke’. After the council’s mandate ended in 2012, there was nobody left in city hall to fix this mess.

The victims in all of this were the citizens of Mostar

The State Parliament also failed to act on Mostar. It should have amended the electoral law, yet the case was used as a political tool by HDZ representatives. They used the situation as leverage for their objective of modifying the way the Croat Member of the B&H presidency is elected.

The victims in all of this were the citizens of Mostar. Electoral deadlines came and went in 2012 and 2016, with no votes held. An entire generation of young people in Mostar has grown up without the right to vote. This is a crying shame, as they are the same people who could have created a brighter future. They were born during or after the war and do not remember the terrible past. Yet, sadly, they have been completely excluded from the system.

These are the reasons why this case had to be taken to the European Court for Human Rights. As a citizen of Mostar, and in the name of citizens of Mostar, I sued the country of B&H for discrimination. The case was won and, just recently, the court issued its final judgment. The battle was over, but the war remains.

According to the ruling, the State Parliament of B&H has six months to find a solution. Failing that, the Constitutional Court can impose a provisional solution in order for the elections to be held.

The people of Mostar and Bosnia-Herzegovina know that the EU is capable of much more

The countdown has begun and although it is uncertain when the elections will be held, the fact that they will be taking place is not in question. As an old local saying goes: “Snow doesn’t fall to cover the hills but so that each beast may show their tracks.” While it is terrible that the citizens of Mostar had to go through this, the case of Mostar uncovered some important facts.

First, it showed that the so-called ‘defenders’ of the national interest – in this case the two dominant parties – would rather focus on narrow party interests than that of their citizens. For these narrow interests, they are willing to sacrifice anything, including the rights of thousands of Bosniaks and Croats.

Second, it exposed flaws in the international community. The 2004 Statue was imposed hastily, without any plan B. This only made things worse in the long run. Largely leaving locals to fend for themselves created disillusionment among citizens of Mostar. Equally disturbing is the EU’s silence in the face of scandalous and shameful glorification of aforementioned convicted war criminals by certain elected European politicians.

However, the people of Mostar and Bosnia-Herzegovina know that the EU is capable of much more. It is more than a big faceless bureaucracy whose actions are limited to producing long, often one-sided reports with the same buzzwords. They still believe in the European dream and its project of peace, integration and solidarity. They just need more evidence of it. Now is the time, using the case of Mostar, for the EU to reach out to help create a proper, sustainable solution that could set an example for the rest of the region.

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