For Nine Months, Kids in Bosnia Were Citizens of Nowhere

And that’s just one symptom of Bosnia’s political crisis


On a warm morning in early June 2013, thousands of people swarmed into Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Some were parents pushing prams—that’s “strollers” to you Americans—while others held banners and chanted.

They gathered in the square outside of the parliament building and fanned out. Before long they had formed a human chain surrounding Parliament, trapping 1,500 Bosnian MPs, civil servants and other staff inside.

The protests crossed the ethnic and religious divides which have so bitterly split the fragile country over the years. Those people in the human chain were all interested in one thing: an identity for their children. Their demands are a window into a critical period of Bosnia’s development.

Bosnian refugees during the war. Wikipedia photo

Stateless kids

Between February and November 2013, Bosnia ceased issuing identification numbers to newborn children. The crisis was the result of a bureaucratic impasse. Neither of Bosnia’s two political entities —the Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation and Republika Serpska—could agree on what form a nationwide identification should take.

An ID number is very important in Bosnia. Without it, one cannot obtain a passport, gain access to health care or get a driving license. For nine months, thousands of children were effectively born stateless.

Legislators eventually came to a compromise and a new ID law passed in November, but the anger lingers. Bosnians are angry at a system that was imposed to end ethnic bloodshed, but which to them has outlived its usefulness.

This is Bosnia 17 years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, which halted a terrible civil war and put in place the checks necessary to prevent further outbreaks of bloodshed, but failed to provide the means to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a modern European state.

The accords were agreed on a wet and windy November day in 1995. NATO had cajoled and bombed the various belligerents to the negotiating table, where they negotiated a peace agreement overseen by the United States, Russia the U.K. and European Union.

The agreement established that Bosnia would be split into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Serpska, split along the lines of existing cantons. It also called for a central government controlled by a rotating presidency shared between Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups: the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

But Bosnia’s 17 other ethnic minorities however were cut out of the political process completely and are to this day still banned from even holding political office.

The agreement also established a central bank, a constitutional court and other institutions. Finally and most importantly, the international community established the Office of the High Representative, which would act as the highest authority in the land. The peacekeeping Implementation Force, or IFOR, deployed to enforce the agreement.

Despite all of the grand gestures in the agreement, it was always intended to be a stopgap measure. But unrevised, it sowed the seeds for a very undemocratic kleptocracy state with a system bordering on apartheid.

Bosnia’s Kravica waterfalls. Wikipedia photo

Separatism in the system

In 2008, I had the pleasure of backpacking through Bosnia-Herzegovina. I took a bus from Split in Croatia over the mountains and into Bosnia, where I visited Mostar and Sarajevo.

The country in the autumn was beautiful, with its stunning mountain ranges and flocks of swallows and swifts sweeping up and down the Miljacka river that runs through Sarajevo.

There were foreboding signs, however. The two entities in Bosnia have their own postal services and their own telephone and Internet companies. The two also have their own police forces. The BiH police dress more like Western police forces, whilst those of RS have an altogether more Russian flavor.

This strict split in administration can lead to severe and often frustrating bureaucratic delays. I took the only overnight train to Zagreb, and it stopped each time it crossed a border; first at the border with RS so that a Bosnian-Serb locomotive could be attached to pull the train through its territory, then at the border with BiH so that they could pull the train.

At each stop, the respective entity’s police would delay the train further by checking papers. This single journey illustrates perfectly the monster that Dayton has created—a divided house that somehow remains standing.

At each level of government the story is the same, with most political parties split along ethnic lines. Ruled by an agreement guaranteeing the status quo and tolerated by the international community, Bosnia’s leaders have divvied up the state along ethnic lines. Come election time, politicians on all sides whip up chauvinistic rhetoric to preserve their positions.

“The entities are as strong as ever, as are the tendencies of the nationalist blocs towards chauvinism and segregation and bombastic rhetoric,” says Jasmin Mujanović, visiting scholar at Columbia University. “Ultimately, Dayton has institutionalized a class of oligarchic, kleptocratic politicians who stovepipe ethnic suspicions in order to keep a dispossessed population passive.”

This has created a bloated and uncompetitive country. Unemployment officially stands at 40 percent and debt at all levels of government is high. There is little incentive to invest in Bosnia, although some countries—Austria, Germany and Turkey, to name a few—still try.

But the investment has done little to solve the economic crisis. Bosnia has to beg for support from the IMF and other international institutions in an unending cycle of graft, kleptopcracy and waste.

A protest in Bosnia in 2008. Wikipedia photo

Park protest

The political parties in both BiH and RS are drawn largely along ethnic lines. The SDA and SDP represent the Bosniaks, HDZ and HDZ 1990 stand for the Croats and the SNSD and SDS represent the Serbs within RS.

The parties stand for very little apart from what they can get for their ethnic group. “The parties have no ‘vision’,” Mujanović notes, “other than state capture and kleptocracy.”

Worse still, some of the more extreme parties whip up ethnic tensions in order to garner votes. The horse-trading that U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrook famously bemoaned before the start of the Dayton talks still goes on.

Take Milorad Dodik, leader of the Serbian SNSD party and president of RS. A master of the veiled threat, every election he uses the possibility of succession by the RS to whip up a nationalist fervor.

Blaming the federal government in Sarajevo and the international community for the state of the country is a deliberate tactic to avoid accountability and — bizarrely — to maintain the status quo. Dodik does this despite knowing there is little chance any of his apocalyptic predictions will come true.

“The reason why Serb nationalists in the ‘90s were so gung-ho on war was because they felt that, surely, with the might of the YNA behind them, they could not lose!” Mujanović explains. “Now that even Kosovo, ‘the holy land,’ is lost, there is simply not infrastructure for war. So, for Dodik, the status quo is brilliant.”

The international community’s inaction complicates matters. The European Union has always considered the Bosnian question to be strictly its to answer and yet it isn’t committed to change. American overtures for reform either fall on deaf ears or are worded in such a way as to be merely advisory.

The Office of the High Representative, the body meant to be keep the more extreme elements of Bosnia in check, has gradually wound itself down to the point where, in Mujanović’s words, its members are merely “wagging their fingers at the likes of Dodik, never actually doing anything about him or the political system that produces people like him.”

Amid this, the people of Bosnia are largely silent, essentially deleted from the political equation. But things could change. In Banja Luka, the capital of RS, a movement has begun to protest the planned destruction of a popular old park.

The movement transcends the usual ethnic barriers and has become one of the few genuine outlets for the people of Bosnia to bring their leaders to account. The group’s name is Park je Naš—“The Park is Ours.”

Whether this group and other protestors can secure meaningful and lasting change remains to be seen.

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