The ‘others’ discriminated against by Bosnia’s ethnic quotas

The ‘others' discriminated against by Bosnia's ethnic quotas

Jovan Divjak, in the office of his NGO, with a picture of him during the war (left). Elma Softić-Kaunitz, in the only synagogue left in operation in Sarajevo after the Holocaust (centre). And Dervo Sejdić, sitting in a cafe in Sarajevo (right).

(Ricard González )

There is no apparent difference between Elma Softić-Kaunitz, Dervo Sejdić or Jovan Divjak and most other citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They all speak the language of the country perfectly and their ancestors are laid to rest in this land. Neither their skin colour nor their dress distinguish them from their compatriots. Yet none of them is a fully-fledged citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country still struggling to heal the deep wounds and traumas left by the bloody civil war of the 1990s. In this country of minorities, the constitution, drafted almost a quarter of a century ago by Western experts, vaguely defines the most minority of ethnic groups as ‘others’.

The Dayton Accords, which ended the war in 1995, reserve privileges for the country’s three largest ethnic groups – Bosniaks (majority Muslim), Serbs (majority Orthodox) and Croats (majority Catholic) – defining them as the ‘constituent peoples’. The rest of the population, some 17 minorities in total, are categorised as ‘others’, and are deprived of the right to hold certain political positions. They cannot, for example, hold the presidency of the country, a position rotated every eight months between a Serb, a Bosniak and a Croat. Nor can they be members of the parliament’s upper house. Some estimates suggest that as many as 400,000 people, around 12 per cent of the population, are subjected to these privations. “Making an accurate estimate is, in fact, very difficult, partly because of the discrimination against the ‘others’,” warns Clive Baldwin, a senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch who has worked closely on this issue.

Sejdić, a prominent leader from the Roma minority, has, from the very outset, been one of the fiercest critics of the constitution, which was included in the Dayton Accords. “I presented my grievances to the various parties on several occasions, but they took no notice. That’s why I decided to file proceedings with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR),” explains Sejdić. In 2009, the court ruled in his favour and determined that the constitution discriminated against the ‘other’ citizens. “More than ten years have gone by and the ruling has not yet been applied,” he protests. Not even the pressure brought to bear by the European Union, which has even made cuts to the financial assistance it gives to the country, has made any difference.

For Bosnia’s 75,000-strong Roma community, the largest minority in the ‘others’ category, holding senior positions in public institutions would be very useful in tackling the deep-seated social stigma attached to them throughout the centuries. “The stereotype is that we are all thieves or beggars, but there are many Roma people with good jobs. Some are doctors, architects, and so on. Unfortunately, many of them conceal their origin, for fear of being marginalised. There is a lack of positive examples,” says Sejdić, who chairs the Roma Advisory Council. The rights activist also points to the fact that, albeit informally, even civil service positions are distributed according to ethnic quotas that discriminate against his minority.

According to the Roma Regional Survey, only 26 per cent of Bosnian Roma have a job, and some 80 per cent of Roma children live below the poverty line. “Physical attacks are unusual in Bosnia but hate speech is routine. Racism towards Roma people has been normalised since the war. No one tries to hide it anymore,” says Sejdić, who goes on to explain that some public schools have refused to take in Roma children and some hospitals have refused to treat Roma patients, telling them to “go and get washed first”. Although there is legislation that punishes any expression of racism, the difference with communist Yugoslavia is that it is rarely applied now.

The ECHR merged Sejdić’s complaint with that of Jakob Finci, one of the representatives of the Bosnian Jewish community, and the case became known as Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina]. The Jewish community of Bosnia has deep roots in the history of the region, with many of its members descending from the Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. “We are a smaller community now. There are around 1,000 Jews across the country, and 650 in Sarajevo. But it is said that before the Second World War we were the biggest ethnic group in the capital, with around 20 per cent of the population,” says Elma Softić-Kaunitz, secretary general of the Jewish community of Bosnia. An estimated 14,000 Bosnian Jews died in Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“The Jewish community is not faced with the degree of racism and social exclusion suffered by the Roma. This is one of the European countries with a smaller degree of anti-Semitism. We don’t suffer any attacks or aggressions. Sarajevo has a long history of tolerance. There has never been a ghetto here,” says Softić-Kaunitz, in the only synagogue, a beautiful edifice from the end of the 19th century, still operating in Sarajevo. The other is now a museum. “Jews have the same problems as the other citizens, such as high unemployment. The only real discrimination is not having the same political rights, which is our main demand.”

A boon to nationalists

The list of other minorities excluded from political life is long: Albanians, Hungarians and Macedonians, to name but a few. There are also people who belong ethnically to one of the three so-called ‘constituent peoples’ but suffer the same restrictions as the ‘others’. One such example is Jovan Divjak, a Bosnian Serb soldier, considered a national hero for having been a member of the general staff that managed to prevent the capture of Sarajevo by Serbian troops during the extremely long 1425-day siege. “I consider myself to be a citizen of Bosnia. Nothing else. I do not identify with any group, even though my parents were Serb,” says Divjak, who is still affectionately referred to as ‘the general’ by many of his compatriots.

By law, if a Bosnian citizen does not register as Bosniak, Serb or Croat, he or she is not entitled to apply for positions distributed under the ethnic quota system. Azra Zornić, a retired civil servant, refuses to define herself on the basis of ethnic affiliation. She too filed a complaint with the ECHR, which ruled in her favour], in 2014.

“The current constitution makes no sense. It only benefits the nationalist parties. What we need is a state with the same rights for all citizens,” says Divjak, who is still, at the age of 83, head of Education Builds B&H, an NGO devoted to financing the studies of youngsters from disadvantaged families and bringing together children from different ethnic communities.

There are also thousands of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs that do identify on the basis of their ethnic background but are nonetheless excluded from certain political roles. In their case, it is because they are part of a minority group living in one of the decentralised entities comprising the complex political-administrative map of this Balkan country: the 150,000 Bosniaks living in Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb Republic), for example, or the 50,000 Serbs in the Bosniak-Croat entity.

“Dayton was useful for bringing an end to the war, but not for building a state,” says Halid Genjac, general secretary of the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), Bosnia’s largest political party. “We are in favour of amending the constitution in line with the ECHR ruling [on the Sejdić and Finci case], but the Croat and Serb representatives are blocking it,” says Genjac, who was a member of the Bosnian negotiating team in Dayton. Serbs and Croats see the quota system as a safeguard against the potential domination of the political scene by Muslims, who represent more than 50 per cent of the country’s population.

The bitter differences between the nationalist parties of the various ethnic groups prevent important decisions from being made, as the system requires that they be reached by consensus. Almost a year and a half has gone by since the last elections and a government has not yet been formed, for example. This political deadlock is damaging the country’s economy, one of the poorest in Europe, with an already high rate of unemployment (20 per cent). And the consequences do not distinguish one ethnic group from the ‘other’.

This article has been translated from Spanish.