Contrary to expectations, President Zoran Milanovic has maintained Zagreb’s policy of interfering in Sarajevo’s internal affairs.
On April 26, Croatian president Zoran Milanovic stated that Zagreb should block Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession until there is a change in Bosnia’s electoral legislation.
No, this was not a Donald Trump-style mix-up of European regions. The Croatian president’s linking of the two unrelated issues has many analysts and citizens in Bosnia puzzled as to what is happening in the country’s political echelons.
When he was elected president in early 2020, Milanovic was welcomed as a breath of fresh air in the Balkans. His predecessor, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic of the Croatian Democratic Union, had pursued right-wing politics while generating headlines with gaffe-prone statements.
She sought, in particular, to paint Bosnia as unstable and Bosniak Muslims as extremists. Her foreign policy largely consisted of interfering in Bosnia’s internal affairs in an unfounded patronising fashion.
Far from playing a constructive role in the region as a member of the EU and NATO, Croatia’s foreign policy under Grabar-Kitarovic was devoid of the much-touted “Europeanisation effect."
Milanovic’s campaign seemed to offer a new path forward. Many hoped that the new president from the Social Democratic Party would abstain from provoking tensions in the region. Instead, a little over two years into his term, the disappointment in Milanovic is both profound and widespread. It has particularly been the case in Bosnia.
Pushing for an electoral law
For one, the new president continued Grabar-Kitarovic’s policy of meddling in Bosnia’s internal politics. At issue is a piece of electoral legislation and Bosnia’s Croat leader Dragan Covic’s insistence on a model that would grant his party (and himself) all but a guaranteed seat in the country’s tripartite presidency.
His key argument that Bosnian Croats are discriminated against and underrepresented is unfounded. In fact, Covic’s party wields disproportionate influence in Bosnia's politics. Most observers concur that the electoral reforms advocated by Covic would further entrench ethnic division and lay the foundations of a Bosnian Croat Republika Srpska.
Until relatively recently, Covic had managed to frame the election law reform as the most pressing of Bosnia's myriad issues.
His push for electoral reform in Bosnia is amplified and supported by a number of Croatia’s officials internationally. Foremost among them is President Milanovic, but others have joined the bandwagon. Importantly, Zagreb has been using its EU membership to frame Croat interests in Bosnia as those representing European values and standards.
A Croat member of the European Parliament Zeljana Zovko has taken up the issue of electoral reforms as one of her main priorities and declared recently that Bosnia’s elections this year would be “illegitimate.” Similarly, Croatia’s foreign minister declared that the results of elections in Bosnia would be ‘illegitimate’ unless there is election reform.
In other words, top political officials in Zagreb are echoing Covic’s talking points in the EU.
Together with Covic’s efforts, their lobbying appears to have paid off: international officials in Bosnia, including those from the EU Delegation, have been keen to grant priority to election reform.
But when Russia started its military operation against Ukraine, Covic was caught in a bind. He refused to condemn the assault and rejected a parliamentary initiative that would see Sarajevo impose sanctions on Moscow in alignment with the EU.
While his party had attempted to present itself for a while as one promoting European values, the war in Ukraine confirmed Covic as a pro-Russian politician. Now that Russia’s war is facing a determined Ukrainian resistance, Covic has found himself on the defensive and his rhetoric on electoral legislation reform has subsided — for now.
The future with Milanovic
To foreign observers, this outright interference may be jarring. Yet, Bosnian’s experience this almost on a daily basis. While Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic is a more polished and subtle politician, Milanovic is more direct.
The Croatian president regularly directs insults at his Bosnian neighbours. His racist declaration that Bosnia needed first “soap, and then perfume” in December 2020 sent shockwaves across the country. A year later, Milanovic described Srebrenica as a “grave crime with elements of a genocide,” which was widely condemned as diminishing the scale of the genocide.
In February this year, Milanovic stated that upcoming elections in Bosnia should not be held unless there is a deal on election law reform. That same month, he compared Bosniak politicians to war criminal Slobodan Milosevic. In fact, Milanovic’s controversial statements on Bosnia are now commonplace.
But a review of Milanovic’s past attitudes towards Bosnia shows that his approach to this country is not new. In 2015, as Croatia’s prime minister, he blocked the export of milk from Bosnia in a bid to pressure Sarajevo. In 2016, as leader of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, Milanovic was recorded as saying that Bosnia is not a country but a “big s*** [sic].”
Perhaps Milanovic has been consistent in his view of Bosnia all along. Having shown his true colours, there is not much hope for improving relations between the two states while he is in office. If a nominal social democrat has this track record on Bosnia, then what should be expected of nationalist politicians?
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