Making Federalism Work In B-H

Author: European Stability Initiative
Uploaded: Monday, 02 February, 2004

A radical proposal for recasting B-H's administrative/political structures - without (it is claimed) directly challenging Dayton - that has already stimulated considerable discussion within Bosnia, receiving a guarded welcome within the Federation, which it proposes to abolish, but a hostile judgment from RS.






8 January 2004



Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina continue to be punctuated by regular calls for fundamental constitutional reform.  Some call for the disappearance of Republika Srpska.  Some argue for a third Entity.  Some advocate for a return to a unitary state, with administrative regions drawn according to historical or economic criteria.  It seems that few people believe that the present system of municipalities, cantons, two entities, one district and a distant central government is capable of delivering the kind of government which Bosnia needs – that can lead the country out of its economic crisis and towards Europe.


However, all these constitutional proposals suffer from the same fundamental flaw: they fail to indicate how to move forward from a dysfunctional here to a functional there.  They do not begin from the current reality – from the constitutions, parliaments and governments which exist, and the real interests which lie behind them.  Their supporters make no serious attempt to persuade anyone who does not already share their particular vision of Bosnia’s future.  Nothing ever happens with these proposals, because nobody knows where to begin.  As a result, many Bosnians feel trapped – dissatisfied with their present constitutional system, but unable to conceive of a practical way forward. 


This paper offers a different kind of constitutional proposal.  It was developed in recent months through extensive consultations with leading politicians and public figures across the country.  Rather than offering a competing view of Bosnia’s ideal future, it outlines a practical process of reforms on which Bosnia’s politicians and citizens might actually agree.


The proposal is to progressively abolish the Federation, and with it the constitutional category of “Entity”.  The result would be a simplified, three-layered federal state with twelve autonomous units: the ten cantons of the current Federation, Republika Srpska and the District of Brcko.  This would represent a fundamental change to the structure of the state, turning it into a normal, European federal system with central, regional and municipal governments.  As all of the institutional building blocks are already in place, it is readily achievable within a few years, before Bosnia begins negotiations for full EU membership.  The process of dismantling the Federal government could begin immediately, through legislative actions in the Federation and cantonal parliaments.  This is a reform which can be, and indeed would have to be, negotiated and implemented by Bosnia’s own democratic institutions. 



A map with a difference


The starting point for this proposal is a map of contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It shows Bosnia’s existing autonomous regions – the ten Federation cantons, the Republika Srpska and the District of Brcko – each with its own flag and constitution, parliament and bureaucracy, revenues and responsibilities.  This is the contemporary political and administrative landscape that has emerged from two peace agreements (Washington 1994 and Dayton 1995) and one international arbitration (Brcko 1999). 


Yet there is one profound difference in this map.  It shows Bosnia and Herzegovina as a three-layered federation, with a central government, twelve autonomous regions and their municipalities.  The “Entities” – that curious invention of the Dayton Agreement – have disappeared as a constitutional category, leaving behind twelve equal federal units. 


Bosnia and Herzegovina’s recent political history has seen many mapmakers.  Redrawing boundaries has been a feature of both local politics and international peace-making for some time, with tremendous costs in terms of individual lives and institutional instability. 


In this map, there are no new boundaries.  It presents a Bosnia and Herzegovina that is already closer to a normal, European federal model than most people imagine.  To show this, it is useful to compare three of the autonomous regions found on this map – the District of Brcko, Republika Srpska and Tuzla Canton.



Map 1: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s federal units




Brcko District, with a population of 71,000, has broad autonomy in regulating its own affairs.  It passes its own laws, collects revenues, and exercises responsibility for police, education, health and most economic policy.  International officials have often praised the fact that Brcko’s autonomy has allowed it to implement bold reforms in a whole range of areas.  In a system of two Entities, Brcko is an anomaly.  In a system of 12 autonomous federal units, Brcko fits easily.  One might call it the first canton of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


Republika Srpska, with an estimated population of 1.1 million people, has all the same autonomous functions as Brcko.  In addition, it maintains a (rapidly shrinking) army and runs its own pension and veterans funds.  Over the past five years, Republika Srpska has built up substantial administrative structures in Banja Luka.  It has also agreed to give up some important functions to the state-level institutions.  De facto, Republika Srpska is today the second canton of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


What about Tuzla canton?  With its 507,000 people, Tuzla has half the population of Republika Srpska, but six times the population of Brcko.  Like Republika Srpska and Brcko, it manages health care, education, policing, and most social and economic policy.  Some of its laws are passed at the Federation level, but for all practical purposes, the canton is by far the most important level of government to the people of the Tuzla region.  Unlike Republika Srpska and Brcko, Tuzla does not

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