Bosnia’s Bosniaks Need to Start Serious International Lobbying – With Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats busy cultivating foreign contacts and pushing their separatist agendas, it is high time Bosniaks start lobbying.
When the proposed election law reforms about to be imposed by the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, OHR, were leaked in July, there was a major outcry in the country and beyond.
Bosniak-based political parties in Sarajevo, intellectuals, NGOs, activists and the public at large came out against changes that would have further enhanced segregation and entrenched ethnic division in the country.
Bosnians living abroad were also vocally against these highly unfavourable and anti-democratic proposed changes. A number of European politicians and American activists reacted by calling on the OHR not to proceed on this path.
The only beneficiary of the OHR’s election law reform was to be the hardline Croat Democratic Union, HDZ. This party is already overrepresented in political power-sharing at the state level and at the Federation entity, proportional to its voters. The OHR’s plan would have cemented the HDZ’s political dominance and would have guaranteed its position as a permanent feature of all future governments.
Amid the uproar in Bosnia and beyond, the OHR has now shelved its plan and proceeded to impose only technical changes to the election law. It is, however, far from certain that the OHR has completely given up on this plan as the country heads towards the October elections.
There is a widespread consensus among political observers in Sarajevo and beyond that the OHR’s plan was the result of long-term advocacy by the HDZ and Croatia.
Hardly a day goes by without Dragan Čović, the leader of the HDZ, speaking about the need for election changes in Bosnia as he envisions them. Croatia’s President, meanwhile, Zoran Milanović and Prime Minister Andrej Plenković are trying to outdo one another in their almost daily interference in what is Bosnia’s internal matter. Croatia’s meddling in Bosnia is far more pronounced now than it was a decade ago.
What the OHR’s proposed changes show, among other issues, is the importance of lobbying and advocacy in major global capitals. Of all the pressing issues in Bosnia, the HDZ and Croatia have managed to frame the election law reform as the most pressing. The anti-democratic changes are now on hold, but for how long?
While the HDZ and Zagreb advocated in Europe for election law reform, the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, has also worked on its international relationships. US Justice Department Foreign Agents Registration Act filings indicate that the Republika Srpska has been active in its lobbying in the US over the past decade. Both Republika Srpska and the HDZ are cultivating international support for their policies.
Enter Bosniak political leaders. For a nation that has suffered genocide, most Bosniak leaders still inexplicably invoke international law, norms and universal principles. Their discourse is peppered with notions of European standards and values. They frequently call on the “international community” to prevent malign actors from inflicting injustice. Some even think that the “international community” are the foreign ambassadors posted to Sarajevo and place too much faith in their contacts with embassies.
Rather than wasting time hoping for the best from international bureaucrats stationed in Sarajevo, Bosniak leaders should cultivate contacts in global capitals. Instead of seeking support from embassies in Sarajevo, they should build relationships where decisions are made – not where they are implemented. It is crucial to build bridges with both the executive and the legislative branches both in Europe and across the Atlantic. By developing a network of relationships in major capitals, Bosniak politicians could work their way around future unfavourable proposals supported by the OHR and embassies in Sarajevo.
To achieve this, it is no longer sufficient to rely on accomplished individuals in the Bosnian diaspora and to international friends of Bosnia. It is long overdue, to invest resources in hiring professional PR and lobbying firms in Washington, DC, London and Brussels to represent Bosnia’s interests abroad.
Under normal circumstances, the state-level governments would do this as is the case with other countries. But, since Republika Srpska is building its own international contacts and the HDZ is relying on Zagreb to promote its priorities, a state-level decision to hire lobbying firms is unrealistic. However, the normal should not be the enemy of the feasible.
This means there are two alternatives. The Federation has both the resources and the ability to make decisions of this nature unimpeded. The government of Federation should allocate a specific sum in its budget to hire lobbying firms to promote Bosnia’s interests. These interests would be defined from promoting accession to NATO to polishing the country’s image. The firms would additionally be tasked with opening up and facilitating wide-ranging and high-level contacts for Bosniak leaders in major capitals. This would ensure channels of communication with relevant decision-makers on a regular basis and especially when the country is faced with highly unfavourable scenarios. The Sarajevo Canton could pursue the same approach. With its impressive budget, the Sarajevo Canton could work internationally to promote Bosnia’s interests.
In opting for this avenue in this current situation, the Federation or the Sarajevo Canton would not be undermining state-level prerogatives. Rather, they would be doing what is the only meaningful and realistic response to the international lobbying campaign pursued by both Republika Srpska and the HDZ and Zagreb. By hiring professional lobbying firms, Bosniak political leaders would be working to neutralize the effects of separatist agendas while pursuing Bosnia’s interests abroad.