Could Bosnia Be Europe's Next Domino?

Could Bosnia Be Europe's Next Domino?
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Russia's brazen geopolitical maneuvers and naked military intervention in Eastern Europe have many in the West wondering what will happen next. While Russian President Vladimir Putin's foray into Georgia caught many by surprise, a nuanced reading of Ukrainian history -- and of Putin's signals -- could have helped forecast his moves in the region. However, Eastern Europe's next about-face may come from a country that was never under Soviet control: Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia's constitution -- which was brokered by American negotiators to end the region's civil war -- has kept the country intact for the last 20 years by ensuring that leadership is shared between the country's three main ethic groups: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. But the same constitution that has kept the nation violence-free has kept it out of European Union consideration due to its lack of inclusion of minority groups in the country's unusual system of governance. With 99 percent of Bosnia's population coming from its three ethnic groups, the constitution states that parliament and the presidency must be represented equally by the three groups. However, this constitution explicitly excludes certain minorities from holding elected office, putting it at odds with the EU's Copenhagen Criteria -- a set of rules for joining the EU.

The Copenhagen Criteria considers "stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities" a requirement for membership.

With neighboring Croatia recently joining the EU and Serbia vying for membership, talk of restructuring Bosnia's constitution could come to fruition, which could lead to renewed bloodshed in Europe's powder keg.

In other words, there's a method to the madness when it comes to Bosnia's unconventional constitution.

It was the death of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito and the fall of the Soviet Union that set the Balkan conflict into motion in the early 1990s. Without a pragmatic, respected and at times ruthless leader to keep order -- and with independence sweeping Eastern Europe -- nations within the territory formed states that fit their ethnic makeup. With numerous groups claiming the same land, civil war ensued. Rape was used as a tool of war and genocide occurred in Europe for the first time since the Holocaust.

The war reached a tipping point when the UN failed to protect the Bosnian town of Srebrenica from Bosnian Serb military forces, who then murdered or "ethnically cleansed" 7,000 men and boys.

With American credibility declining because of mismanagement of the conflict, an election year looming and another act of genocide, President Bill Clinton tore off his gloves. The combination of Operation Deliberate Force -- a NATO bombing campaign that decimated Bosnian Serb targets -- and a ground campaign by Croats, which reversed the Serb's territorial control from 70 percent of Bosnia to less than 50 percent, forced all three sides to the negotiating table at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Known as the Dayton Peace Accords, the imperfect treaty that ended the war partitioned Bosnia into two entities -- Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation -- and framed the shaky constitution.

While Dayton's equal inclusion has kept Bosnia functioning, it is the constitution's encouragement of exclusion that has critics calling for change. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Bosnia to enter the international community by including the disenfranchised. This sentiment was echoed at the University of Illinois in 2013, when Bosnian President Željko Komšić called for more inclusion in his country.

The rational solution to this systematic exclusion is to reverse 180 degrees and open elected offices to candidates of any ethnicity with one president presiding over the country and no guarantees of equal ethnic control in government posts.

Should Bosnia organize parliamentary districts like the United States, the makeup of parliament would likely reflect that of the country. Judging by how votes have tallied in the past, this situation is likely.

Even if districts were gerrymandered to elect a more equal ethnic parliament, it is unlikely that any one of Bosnia's super minorities would win. Should the improbable happen, effective governance from the elected minority would be nearly impossible with other branches of government likely controlled by dissenting majority ethnic groups.

While a well-intentioned, meaningful change to include the country's minorities would move Bosnia closer to a traditional EU democracy, it could open fresh wounds.

Bosniaks comprise 48 percent of the population, while Serbs account for 37 percent and Croats 14 percent. Should a constitutional change occur granting the presidency to one individual, control over the "Serb land" of Republika Srpska could fall under the auspices of a Bosniak president and parliament. From that point, a charismatic opposition leader with a strong message to the country's youth -- 62 percent of whom are unemployed -- is all that is needed to renew the conflict that has existed in the Adriatic states since the 14th Century.

Secession has been a theme of Bosnian Serb politicians in recently, with the current Serb representative to the presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, campaigning and winning on the theme of secession in 2010. With Kosovo recognized as an independent state, Bosnian Serbs see legal justification for their secession. Bosniaks have warned that secession could lead to war.

Putin's land-grabs are forcing Europe to deal with questions deferred for more than a decade. Bosnia cannot join the EU without changing its constitution, which moderate Bosniak and Croat leaders welcome to the chagrin of the Serbs. Bosnia's dismal economic situation -- coupled with fresh memories of a war that forced enemies to govern together -- would likely lead to internal turmoil and possibly bloody conflict. The alternative is to kick the can down the road and ensure peace.

Bosnian leaders and likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have expressed interest in seeing Bosnia adopt Western-style democracy. The Transatlantic community needs to weigh its options should Bosnia choose to revise its constitution. Thankfully, the ticking time bomb in the Balkans has been defused since the Dayton Accords. Let's hope the clock doesn't start clicking anew with the stroke of a pen.

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