bosnia report
New Series No: 27-28 January - May 2002
Petritsch's constitutional legacy
by Ivan Lovrenovic

After painful and occasionally farcical negotiations between some of the most influential parties from the Federation and Republika Srpska under the aegis of Wolfgang Petritsch, Bosnia-Herzegovina has acquired redesigned constitutions for both entities, thereby also removing all obstacles to holding general elections. These will be held on 5 October 2002, as the B-H Electoral Commission announced the day after the constitutional amendments had been enacted. For the first time in the seven-year history of post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina, the elections will be held not according to the provisional rules and under the supervision of OSCE, but in accordance with a domestic electoral law whose finalization had to await these constitutional changes.

The satisfied camp

Those who see the proverbial glass as half full, proclaim these changes the most significant political event since the end of the war and Dayton; while those others for whom the empty space in the glass is key, think that what is involved is a rotten compromise, if not a pure swindle. Both groups are interesting and by no means homogeneous. First place among the contented is occupied, of course, by Wolfgang Petritsch himself, who has managed to create the illusion that he did not impose the constitutional solutions, although that is just what happened - in the Federation because the amendments did not pass in the parliament’s house of representatives, and in Republika Srpska because Ivanic, Kalinic and co. from Banja Luka attempted to trick him in the classic mode of street politics, but everything was executed in such a way that Petritsch ended up satisfied and the Banja Luka politicians cooperative. The Banja Luka Serb establishment is likewise contented: first, through the generous understanding of the international community they achieved the maximum in preserving the ethnic character of their para-state; and secondly, they succeeded in avoiding the odium for the imposition of solutions, laid this time at the door of the Federation. Happy too are the leading politicians of the Alliance for Change in the Federation, although their happiness does not have a uniform intensity and tone. It goes from the ecstatic triumphalism of Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of the SDP, via the moderate happiness of Kresimir Zubak, president of the New Croatian Initiative, to the niggardly, doleful and as it were official optimism of Safet Halilovic, Haris Silajdzic’s successor in the Stranka za BiH. Such a spectrum of nuances accurately reflects the basic political divisions among these parties.

Satisfaction with the constitutional changes can be sensed also in part of public opinion, among all those (journalists, intellectuals, public figures) who simply consider that worst of all is the status quo, which in this way is significantly disrupted, and that we are seeing the start of a process that will eventually lead to ‘a state without entities’, to a ‘normal state’, in which equality - both civic and national - will be a political axiom.

The dissatisfied camp

First place in the discontented group is occupied by the old national parties - SDA and HDZ. They prevented the house of representatives of the Federation parliament from adopting by a sufficient majority the amendments (which the house of peoples had adopted smoothly), thus provoking tremendous ire from Petritsch, who vengefully and with comical belatedness called them dinosaurs, doomed to extinction. However, only this autumn’s elections will show to what extent he is right, and to what extent his very own actions will perhaps increase their prospects in the old game of ethnic homogenization.

The unhappiness of these two parties with the constitutional changes is naturally not of the same kind. The SDA, to be fair, has always shown far more concern for the fate of Bosniaks in Republika Srpska than has the HDZ for that of Croats. Croats in Republika Srpska have actually been for the HDZ just what Serbs in the Federation have always been for the SDS (and the other Serb parties): an irrelevance or liability. Until a short while ago, moreover, the HDZ was actively campaigning against recognition of any general national equality in Bosnia-Herzegovina; the fact that the HDZ ‘cadres’ on the B-H Constitutional Court, when the ruling on uniform constituent status for the country’s peoples was on the agenda, raised their hands against it will always remain as lasting historical proof of this. On the other hand, the circumstance regularly cited these days by SDA president Sulejman Tihic - that Alija Izetbegovic, in his capacity at the time as chairman of the B-H Presidency, was officially responsible for initiating the process that led to the Constitutional Court’s historic ruling - has only relative value; for the truth requires us to recall that the initiative in question was born under the auspices of a Sarajevo NGO: the Serb Civic Council. It is nevertheless obvious that there is no similarity in this matter between the SDA and the HDZ, even though their political stance vis-á-vis Petritsch’s talks has ostensibly united them. When Sulejman Tihic today doggedly and systematically explains at press conferences why Petritsch’s constitutional changes in Republika Srpska - both in themselves and in comparison with those in the Federation - are unacceptable from the Bosniak point of view, you may see the man as a political conservative, but you cannot fail to bear in mind his own many years of arduous struggle and mistreatment in the RS assembly. By contrast with this, the HDZ has always functioned in just the same way as the SDS: each has been interested in ‘its’ people only on ‘its’ territory - as voting fodder and as a milch cow. So in the current humbug from the HDZ and its little satellite parties across Herzegovina about how these constitutional changes are unacceptable because ‘they make Croats into a national minority’ and ‘they cement the division of the country into two parts’, even with the best will in the world you cannot perceive anything other than a lamentable, hollow lie.

But Bosnian (political) reality is a stage of mere paradoxes, a game with endless layers of masks, in which you never know for certain whether what you have seen is a true face or just one more mask. So it has come to pass that the segment of public opinion containing most independent voices (in the national, political and party sense) now finds itself allied formally in unhappiness at the constitutional changes with those two national parties of whom ‘God and the world are weary’.

Asymmetric and dysfunctional

This more or less pessimistic segment of public opinion is well aware that the very idea of negotiating over the Constitutional Court ruling, instead of its being applied unreservedly and equally in both entities, in a sense discredits the ruling itself. This stance contains a judgement, in profound contrast with the optimistic one, that through these agreements Bosnia-Herzegovina is permanently losing the possibility of further political progress towards instinctive democracy and full national equality. With Republika Srpska as an administrative-territorial unit where a model of ethnic and religious exclusivity and inequality (somewhat attenuated yet powerfully reinforced) is gaining this high European level of legitimacy, and with the Federation where an absolute alignment of the three peoples in terms of rights is henceforth in effect - Bosnia-Herzegovina will continue to be an asymmetrical and dysfunctional state, but now with far less hope or possibility that things may gradually be put right. That is more or less how this last group of people see things, and it is hard to disagree with them.

This article has been translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 27 April 2002


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