Lack of Bosnia election reform before key ballot splits Croatia and EU Commission

Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi(L) and Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gordan Grlic Radman during press conference in Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Zagreb, Croatia, on April 25,2022. [EC - Audiovisual Service/Denis Lovrovic]

Discontent with the absence of a hoped-for electoral reform in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Zagreb has blasted as “illegitimate” the upcoming elections in BiH, while the European Commission repeated they were key for the fragile Balkan country’s European future.

“Without an election reform, the coming elections, based on the existing election law, would be illegitimate and election engineering would continue to the detriment of BiH Croats,” Croatia’s Foreign Minister Gordan Grlić Radman told a news conference on Monday (25 April).

He spoke after meeting with the European Neighbourhood and Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, who was in Zagreb on a flying visit announced publicly on the same day.

The biggest Bosnian Croat party, the HDZ, and its leader Dragan Čović – who despite claiming support of the majority of Croats is not a current member of the country’s tripartite presidency representing the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs  – has been pushing for electoral reform in the country, with the support of Zagreb.

The HDZ refuses to acknowledge the current Croat representative in the presidency, Željko Komšić, saying he was elected thanks to the votes of Bosniaks, who are a dominant majority in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, which constitutes one half of post-war Bosnia. The other is the Serb republic, and both are highly autonomous of the central government.

With general elections scheduled for October 2022, the Croats are worried that they could lose precious seats at various levels of governance in the country. Čović and the HDZ have demanded an overhaul of the electoral law to bolster Croats’ position in elections.

However, with Brussels and Washington failing to achieve progress on negotiations between the three ethnic groups in Sarajevo, electoral reform is likely on ice until after the elections.

Meanwhile, EU member Croatia has been lobbying EU institutions and bloc members on behalf of the Croats in Bosnia, though with little success so far.

Bosnia's election law unexpectedly on the table at European leaders' meeting

Zagreb used the political momentum in Brussels to push for the interests of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) at EU summit on Thursday (25 March).

Croatia wants “a stable, functioning state in which all three constituent peoples exercise their legitimate political rights, a country that makes steady progress on its European journey and eventually joins the European Union,” the minister said, Hina reported.

“What is now necessary is the continuation of the joint engagement of the EU and the USA to provide impetus for the completion of talks to enable free elections,” Grlić Radman said.

Meanwhile, Várhelyi said that crucial time for Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2021, when there was a chance to rectify certain aspects of the election law and the constitutional reform, had unfortunately been lost.

In his view, the elections in October must be free and fair, with equal representation of all three constituent peoples, which he said was key to BiH’s long-term stability.

“Boycott or refusal to recognise the election result will lead us nowhere,” he said.

The Commissioner expressed great disappointment with the lack of progress on the home policy front in BiH, which needs “a constructive internal climate”.

“We have not seen progress on the home policy front and that is really a big disappointment,” the EC official said.

He noted that omissions regarding amendment of the election law and the constitutional reform have repercussions for the very progress of talks on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s obtaining EU candidate status, and repeated that it was important for BiH to meet all 14 criteria in the bloc’s demands to launch accession talks.

BiH applied for EU membership in February 2016 and the Commission adopted its opinion (avis) on its application in May 2019, identifying 14 key priorities the country should fulfil before opening accession negotiations. There has been little progress since then and Bosnia is still not an official EU candidate.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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