Bosnians look to dump baffling politics after protests

Bosnia's three presidents: Dragan Covic (L), Mladen Ivanic (C) and Bakir Izetbegovic (R) - Nov 2014 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Your seat or mine? Bosnia's three presidents: Dragan Covic (L), Mladen Ivanic (C) and Bakir Izetbegovic (R)

Ask to see the president in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a snappy answer will inevitably zing back: "Which one?"

Would it be the president of the largely ethnic-Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and ethnic-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Or perhaps the president of the majority ethnic-Serb Republika Srpska?

Admittedly, there is officially only one head of state on any given day. But there are three members of the presidency, one for each of the country's major ethnic groups, who take it in turns to hold that title, with each serving an eight-month term.

Keeping track of Bosnia's presidents is simple compared with remembering its prime ministers. There are 14 of those.

This arrangement was put in place by the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995, carefully balancing the ambitions and fears of each of the ethnic groups. But what worked to end a war two decades ago seems to be holding the country back now.

Average wages are less than €400 ($488; £314) a month and those in work may be the lucky ones. Bosnia has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, with six out of 10 young people unable to find a job.

War goals

Bosnians of all ethnicities know who to blame: the politicians. They stand accused of nepotism, corruption and botching privatisations - while picking up salaries around four times the local average.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Riots and protests last February emphasised the level of discontent in Bosnia

Meanwhile, important decisions that need to be made - on the economy, healthcare, even birth certificates - languish in limbo because the ethnic leaders find it hard to agree on anything.

And yet the man currently serving as Bosnia's head of state says the current arrangement has a lot going for it.

"Any of the sides could try to use a change of Dayton to try to achieve war goals - and I'm against that," says Mladen Ivanic, the founder of the Party of Democratic Progress who won the Serb seat on the presidency in last October's elections.

"Serbs would try to achieve an independent Republika Srpska. Bosniaks would like a single government, president and parliament. Croats would try to achieve a third ethnic entity. And then we would be lost."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The protests continued throughout the year but at a lower intensity

Although a veteran in Bosnian politics, Mr Ivanic is a newcomer to the presidency and a more moderate figure than the previous Serb representative. He says he is willing to work with his Bosniak and Croat counterparts to try to improve life for all the country's people.

"My emphasis during the election campaign was to put aside the big ideological issues where we disagree and put on the table reforms on which we can agree."

But Bosnians have rarely seen politicians agree on anything - except perhaps their privileges - since the end of the conflict.

Image caption High Representative Valentin Inzko says Bosnians expect more from the international community

Riots and protests in February 2014 emphasised the level of their discontent - and there were widespread calls for international players to intervene.

Indeed, the international high representative has the power to do just that. When Paddy Ashdown held the post, he sacked scores of officials, becoming known as the "viceroy" of Bosnia in the process.

The incumbent, Valentin Inzko, has favoured a hands-off approach but says that may change.

"The politicians know that after the protests it cannot just be business as usual," he says.

"We should be more prescriptive. Bosnian people expect much more from the international community."

Internal game

Image caption Bosnians want EU assistance to bring about much-needed change

Every day protesters arrive outside the presidency building in Sarajevo to hang up banners urging the European Union to step in - warning of further civil unrest if action is not taken.

After October's elections, Brussels adopted an Anglo-German plan to use the carrot of EU assistance to encourage Bosnia's politicians to make economic and social reforms.

Previously the EU had insisted that Bosnia would have to first change its constitution so that ethnic groups other than Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs could hold public office.

"We had been asking them to start with that constitution problem, but now we are looking to focus on urgent areas where there is consensus before going on to the constitution issue," says British ambassador Edward Ferguson.

Image caption Mladen Ivanic, who holds the Serb seat in Bosnia's presidency, is looking optimistically at an EU future

"This is a low-income country where people struggle to get by. Justice is sometimes less than it should be. These are things which strike people very personally."

The prize on offer is a Stabilisation and Association Agreement - a step towards EU membership which would give Bosnia access to funds and expertise from Brussels and tariff-free access to some EU markets.

Critics have suggested that this approach does not go far enough - and that dealing with the same group of political leaders who have failed Bosnia for 20 years is a reward for incompetence.

But at least one of the country's presidents is excited by the prospect of EU membership.

"We have to be in there," says Mr Ivanic.

"It is not ideal - but we have to be part of something larger so this internal game doesn't continue."

Then his eyes twinkle.

If Serbs are united with other Serbs as part of the EU then, he argues, all reasons for war will disappear.

More on this story