Optimism Needed to Transcend BiH’s Strictly Defined Ethnic Categories

Damir Banović From The Center For Political Studies

[wzslider]By Medina Malagić

Damir Banović is a young legal scientist who works for the Center for Political Studies, a newly-founded non-profit think tank based in Sarajevo whose main activities center on research, education and advocacy for the promotion of active political participation. He spoke to us about the upcoming activities that the Center has planned, emphasizing that at the moment the focus is on constitutional reform, ethnicity, rights of national minorities and the implementation of the ‘Sejdic-Finci’ ruling. He expressed his optimism regarding initiatives meant to foster a more inclusive concept of BiH citizenship, one that transcends strictly-defined ethnic categories. However, the challenge that this poses stems from the fact that BiH is a multicultural state, which makes it difficult to deliver and implement decisions because its political system is not predicated on a parliamentary majority. This is something that has to change, and he notes that perhaps the economic crisis would impel that much-needed change.

What types of programs/seminars/conferences does CPS intend to carry out this year, and as a newly formed organization, what are some of the priorities at the moment? 

We have a couple of goals at the Center for Political Studies. The idea is to work in the area of European integration, ethnic discrimination, cultural politics and educational politics through research, education and advocacy. These are our main priorities in which we would like to work. We had this conference on vital interest, which is something that we are working on with the ‘Coalition of Equality’, with our partners. We have also applied and received some funds from the Heinrich Boll Stiftung and we are going to continue working within this area of ethnicity, with a special focus on the ‘Others’. Without partner Heinrich Boll Stiftung we are also planning activities within the areas of EU integration and Green politics. The others are national minorities and especially those who do not want to identify themselves through these ethnic categories. We are planning to have one study by October, which will reflect on sociological and theoretical issues, or perspectives on the ‘Others’-What are they? We would also propose some legal recommendations to work with the implementation of the “Sejdić-Finci” ruling. We would also include some roundtables, maybe in the capacity of the conference.

The other idea is to have a proposal for constitutional reform on the entity level for the RS and the Neretva-Herzegovina Canton, which is a mixed canton and has some problems with functioning of the system, and is thus in a very delicate situation.

The idea is to have roundtables to discuss the tradition of the ‘Others’, or these specific mechanisms that is usually only reserved for the constituent peoples, or specific elements of political participation in general. This is our main focus.

I think it would be possible for us to have two roundtables. One would be in June and the next one in July to continue discussions on whether ‘Others’ should have collective rights or some mechanism to protect their collective interest. It is also important to define what is the collective interest or if the others can define their vital interest. Our idea is that the ‘Others’ can have vital interest. If Bosniaks can have it regarding monoethnic educational programs and curricula, then why can’t national minorities and people who don’t want to identify with a particular group, have multiethnic educational program or curricula?

Usually from this theoretical point of view, you can find some arguments on which to base your statements.

How would you assess the level of political participation in BiH and the state of civil society activism? For example, there was a recent campaign by ‘Koalicija za Jednakost’ to promote a civic conception of citizenship in BiH and was centered on the upcoming 2013 census. If initiatives like this continue to occur, how much impact, if any, do you think it would have on inducing change and raising citizen awareness?

I think the first condition is to see how many people subscribe to this more civic, abstract category of citizens. So, numbers are needed. We are now reaching the point where many people do not want to identify through the three categories. It is very important to have such a campaign where you can attach a face to the sign, to show the multifaceted ways in which people can identify themselves (man, woman, citizen of the world, citizen of BiH, etc.). I think that it will have an impact because without optimism you cannot do anything. If we did not have an idea of reaching something or some goals, we would not do this. I think that there are lots of people who will think differently than through the current ethnic categories.

It is also very important to not only have this campaign in big towns, but also in smaller places throughout BiH. We held this photo shooting campaign in almost every bigger town in BiH. Another reason why I think this will have an impact if because there are a large number of organizations that are included in the ‘Coalition of Equality’ (24 civil society organizations), and not just from Sarajevo, but from all over BiH.

What can you say about the level of cooperation between civil society organizations in BiH?

I think that there is a good level of cooperation with this new generation of civil society organizations. There are many more than the organization I have mentioned earlier, ‘Coalition for Equality’. We are creating a new coalition to be in charge of monitoring reviews for EU integration. I think that this new generation will have some impact on society. There are a couple of organizations within the coalition. There are also smaller ones that do not have sufficient capacity to conduct one bigger campaign, but they support our common activities. For example, they provide technical support. Thus, I believe that there is potential for some impact.

So far, Sejdić-Finci has only been implemented in Sarajevo Canton. What do you think will be the implications for this in the near future? Will this create a domino effect and be eventually implemented in other cantons?

We had a roundtable a month ago in Tuzla to see the possibility to implementing the ruling there. From the political side, the idea is that if you cannot have implementation at the state level, at least it could be realized at the cantonal/municipal level. The decision to have the ruling implemented in Sarajevo was a political compromise. We began to work in Tuzla because we saw that there is capacity to implement the decision.

The other legal problem now is that the Constitution of the Canton Sarajevo is not aligned with the Constitution of the FBIH. When I view this from a scientific, legal side, it can be an issue. We have the European Convention on Human Rights, which is a part of the BIH constitution, and within the Constitution, there are visibly discriminatory elements. Nothing is aligned, so you have something very paradoxical here.

So, I think a domino effect can be made in Tuzla and maybe a few other municipalities, and that is probably all.

There are some parallel processes going on with the recommendation on reform of the FBiH Constitution. If implemented, there will be some changes in the FBIH. All the parallel processes are making the reform more difficult because we do not have a clear picture what competences are at the federal or cantonal level.

From the EU side, they have not made any conditions on how this ruling should be implemented, whether the changes would be small or radical and how to implement it in the proper manner. When you have a multicultural state, it is difficult to have one powerful collective organ. It is much better to have representations of different groups in national assemblies. It is why this decision to have three members of presidency is not logical. If you have, for example, just one member from the RS and two from the FBIH without ethnic balance, you would be able to have one Serb from the FBIH and one from the RS. When you have an indirect way of elections, with two electoral units in the FBIH, there is the possibility that this paradox could occur in the Presidency. In the end, you will have one constituent group with double representation. The best idea is to decline the Presidency and to transmit competence to the Council of Ministers and have the number to around 12. Within this Council, all groups could be presented, from the constituent groups to national minorities to others.

There is also an idea for within the House of Representatives to have mechanisms for vital interests. That is a possibility and one side of it. This implementation can be made more real, and on the other hand would make the system more economical.

So, is the main problem that there are just too many layers of governance in the FBiH?

This is especially true in the FBIH. There is no clear division of competence between the FBIH and the cantons. From a functional point of view, there are more problems within the FBIH regarding the division of competences and an unclear division of power than in the RS, where it is more centralized and easier to deliver decisions and laws and to implement them.

While EU accession is at the core of BiH politics, the level of dissatisfaction among citizens remains high. We see the same thing happening—EU officials warn BiH politicians that they are holding the country hostage, meetings are held between BIH political parties and EU officials, more warnings are issued, promises are made and but never kept. Do you see any way out of this status quo?  

Maintaining the status quo is the best solution for political parties because in this way, their resources and power are contained, within the FBIH and the RS. BiH is a multicultural state with a different way of delivering decisions, in contrast to Serbia and Croatia. They have a system with parliamentary majority and it is easier to deliver laws. If you have a system of quotas and similar mechanisms, it is more difficult to reach some kind of consensus. This is why we will always have six or seven parties within the Council of Ministers or government. From this theoretical point of view, it is difficult to reach a consensus in normal democracies. For example, there was a political crisis in Belgium that lasted for more than one year, and Belgium has a similar system as in BiH. At some point, this will have to change, especially because of the political crisis. The crisis could be a potential for change.

Does the EU issue any recommendations on this?

They do not.. Within the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission delivered different recommendations on issues and specifically on vital national interest, especially regarding the representation of national minorities. We tried to see if there were possibilities to solve this. The problem with defining the mechanism is that there is no single provision in the BiH Constitution on vital national interest. There are some norms and provisions in the FBIH constitution, but these general provisions mean that interest can be defined as whatever the ethnic group considers to be vital to their national interest. This should be more restrictively defined, maybe in two or three parts and include something like language, tradition, etc.

There are criticisms that not much attention is being paid to issues that directly affect the citizens, such as education and healthcare. What is your opinion on this? 

Without a clear division of competence and without making some reforms, there can’t be substantial reforms of health and education because it is all part of the political system. It is all interconnected.

Has the Center been involved in youth activism?  

We have not worked with youth in general. We work with young scientists (Master and PhD level). We launched a call for young research volunteers. We now have seven working at the Center. They conduct research-the representation of others, BiH within international organizations, etc. In this sense, we are giving our support to young people in this sense. Our volunteers are included in our projects. They write articles for papers, for example. One of our volunteers will be included in the writing of a shadow report on EU integration. This is our way of giving support to young people. We also have a call for IT volunteers to see whether it is possible to combine IT and social sciences. We currently have an informal group of 30-40 young scientists working on these issues.



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