Stalemate in Sarajevo: three presidents but no government

Sarajevo (AFP) –


A year has passed since Bosnia's elections, but the country has little to show for it: a three-man presidency has been unable to even agree on a flag, let alone form a government.

Since its 1990s war, the Balkan state has been held together by a fragile power-sharing arrangement among its three main groups: Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

Critics say the system entrenches ethnic divides and has hobbled Bosnia with a sprawling and unwieldy government.

The dysfunction has been on display since the October 2018 poll that filled out Bosnia's dizzying layers of government, including two semi-autonomous zones tied together by a central government.

At the top is a tripartite presidency that rotates between a member from each community.

But squabbles between the three men have prevented them from appointing a prime minister to lead the central government.

The Serb member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, has been mainly working from an office outside central Sarajevo that lies in Bosnia's Serb-dominated half, Republika Srpska.

There he flies the flag of that sub-region, Republika Srpska, instead of Bosnia's national flag.

Dodik, a Serb nationalist, has a long history of disparaging his country, calling it a "failed concept" and suggesting that the Serb region would better off on its own.

Now he is citing the current political paralysis as further proof.

"The fact that we have not had a Council of Ministers for a year is evidence that we do not need Bosnia. It's obvious, we can do without it," he recently told reporters.

The stalemate means that outgoing Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic now holds two roles: leader of the caretaker government and speaker of the national parliament, which he was elected to last year.

Several of his cabinet ministers are also holding two posts after the elections.

"How can we understand a democracy where the Prime Minister is also the speaker of parliament? Whose president says every day that his country should not exist?" asked Nejra Hadzic, an architecture student in Sarajevo.

"It's a circus of which we are the spectators," she sighed.

- NATO battle -

Bosnians are no strangers to political crisis -- it took 16 months to form a government after the 2012 elections.

But some suspect the record could soon be broken.

The core of the dispute between the presidents revolves around their stance towards NATO.

While the Croat and Bosnian Muslim members want to someday join the alliance, Dodik, who fashions himself as pro-Russian, is staunchly against it.

No one is ready to make "concessions, which would be interpreted in the eyes of his community as a sign of weakness and defeat," analyst Tanja Topic said of a Bosnia's polarised political scene.

Some analysts see Bosnia as a proxy for power struggles between Washington and Moscow.

The West frequently accuses of Moscow of meddling in the region to prevent Balkan states from joining NATO.

Bosnian historian and diplomat Slobodan Soja alleges that the US is forcing the NATO issue to sideline Dodik, who is already sanctioned by Washington for previous provocations.

"The interests of the two superpowers are in conflict in Bosnia," said Soja.

And "Bosnia is paying the price," he added.

- 'Pack your bags' -

As the logjam holds up governing, ordinary Bosnians are seeing little improvement on issues like low wages, rampant corruption and chronic pollution.

"The worst consequence is that all this has become normal in the eyes of the citizens," said analyst Topic.

The most common reaction now is to "pack your bags," she added.

Fed up with the disfunction, Bosnians have been leaving the country in droves.

Some 173,000 in the country of 3.5 million have emigrated in the past five years leading up to 2018, according to Eurostat data.

The high emigration rates have further eaten away at the suffering economy, leaving Bosnia in a 'brain drain' crisis.

Local NGOs estimate the trend is accelerating and that up to 50,000 people are now leaving annually.