The actions of United States (U.S.) officials in the process of electoral reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in the last year have not been unequivocal. The statements and speeches of the new U.S. Ambassador to BiH, Michael Murphy, are an indicator of a more balanced approach that was lacking in Matthew Palmer’s work.
Ahead of the first round of talks, which took place in September 2021 in Sarajevo, Matthew Palmer said the goal was to remove ethnic prefixes from the BiH presidency and House of Peoples elections, saying the U.S. supports the principle, one country, two entities, and three constituent peoples. On that occasion, he added that the competencies of the House of Peoples will not change, but only the process by which individual members are elected but to a limited extent.
Adoption of partial solutions
Nervousness in Sarajevo intensified ahead of the second round of negotiations when an internal document of international representatives compiled by Palmer leaked to the public, which stated that the functionality of the Federation of BiH (FBiH) was not the primary task of the negotiations.
Palmer was ready to push for partial solutions, and he saw space in the disunity, on almost all issues, of the parties in Sarajevo. The statement he gave on October 26th in Zagreb showed that this interpretation was correct.
”In electoral reform, we need to identify what is achievable and focus on it. I think both problems can be solved. But if that proves difficult, I am in favor of making the election model for the three members of the Presidency a priority,” Palmer said.
Undoubtedly, a partial solution would also benefit the HDZ, because securing the BiH Presidency would be delivering only an additional blockade mechanism, without the Bosnian political factor getting anything in return. In that sense, the HDZ would continue to blockade in the next term with stronger cards until it secures the FBiH House of Peoples.
An agreement at any cost is not acceptable
In such an atmosphere, which Palmer carefully shaped, three rounds of negotiations on electoral reform failed. Following his appointment as U.S. Deputy Ambassador to London, his position was filled by the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to BiH Michael Murphy.
”A particular refusal to accept reasonable changes that would improve the functioning of institutions in the Federation has made it impossible to reach a balanced agreement to ensure the functioning of government,” Murphy said, adding that it was better not to reach an agreement than to make a bad agreement.
”The U.S. believes the elections must be held in October. If a party decides to boycott the elections, I’ll tell them – that’s not very smart of you. That would be a mistake,” Murphy warned.
The basic US position on the need for electoral reform has not changed, but the different approaches of Palmer and Murphy have shown that the operationalization of American policy on the ground often depends on the person leading the processes. While Palmer completely ignored the position and interests of the Bosnian political factor, Murphy took it into account, emphasizing that an agreement at all costs is not a good solution.