Like many Americans and Henry James characters before him, Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist, wants to make his name in Europe. His new project, called “The Movement,” hopes to prop up “right-wing populist nationalism” across the continent. Right-wing governments have already taken power in countries like Hungary, Austria, and Italy, and he hopes to help install like-minded politicians in the European Union parliament next year. But as of now, one of Bannon’s main targets is, of all places, Bosnia.
Even though he is an unofficial, non-state actor, Bannon’s efforts as an American in Bosnian politics constitute a dramatic break with the past. The United States has a unique stake in Bosnia’s stability. Modern Bosnia was, in effect, created in Ohio, where the peace accords that finally ended the Bosnian War were negotiated in November 1995. Annex 4 of that framework, known as the Dayton Agreement, is still the nation’s constitution. The Serb politicians whom Bannon supports want to secede from the country, oppose the European Union, and ally themselves closely with Russia.
In late July, Bannon met with Prime Minister Željka Cvijanović of Republika Srpska, one of the two autonomous entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, at his home in Washington, D.C. So did a few other former Trump staffers like Corey Lewandowski and Kellyanne Conway. Former Trump campaign aides Jason Osborne and Mike Rubino have also registered to lobby for Cvijanović’s party, the SNSD—this despite the fact that the party’s leader and Republika Srpska’s controversial president, Milorad Dodik, was specifically targeted by US sanctions last year for sowing ethnic discord.
Today, the “American interest” in Bosnia is extremely murky. It’s not simply that the US has taken a back seat in the Balkans, as it did during the Obama administration, but that Trump, who once brought Bannon into the spotlight, may tacitly approve of Bannon’s European antics, despite their alleged falling-out. Trump, after all, is also fond of nationalist leaders and is hostile to the EU. Bosnia’s eighth postwar general election is scheduled for October 7, and the foreign influence of the aforementioned Americans and an ascendant Russia may tip the volatile state away from the liberal international order to which it was conditionally admitted after the war.
Aside from this, the country also has a potential constitutional crisis on its hands: its election law is incomplete. In 2016, some Bosnian Croat politicians argued that parts of the law disadvantaged Croat citizens’ votes and the Bosnian Constitutional Court annulled those clauses, but then failed to provide any revisions in its place. So it is possible that the national House of Peoples will have empty seats this fall, or that the Federation half of the country will be unable to appoint a president or convene a parliament.
More likely than total failure is that the built-in expectation of chaos will lead to some unscrupulous maneuvering. “I’m more concerned about the influence and back-door deals that will take place under the pretext of an electoral ‘crisis,’” Mirna Buljugic, a journalist who directs the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, told me in Sarajevo. “As if our politicians need another excuse for corruption.”
With its rotating tripartite presidency and jagged internal borders, Bosnia may have the world’s most complex democracy. It comprises three main ethnicities (Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats) that each elect a co-equal national president. The territory is carved up into two autonomous geographical entities, Republika Srpska (populated mostly by Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosniaks and Croats), each with its own president and parliament, plus a free city called Brčko that belongs to neither entity. This was all laid out in the Dayton Agreement, a stopgap document that no one expected would still be governing the country in 2018. The provisional government is showing signs of age all over the country: the election law is full of holes; its public sector balloons while foreign investment is stalled; a major city, Mostar, is unable to hold local elections, because its electoral statute was annulled in 2012 and its Croats and Bosniaks have not found a compromise solution; the national anthem still has no lyrics.
“Bosnia is the American defeat that no one knows about,” said Haris Pašović, who runs the East West Theatre Company in Sarajevo. “The US came here with a very unique mission, with no material interest, to end the war. For once, they showed that America had a heart. And then they walked away.” Pašović directed Susan Sontag’s production of Waiting for Godot when the city was under siege in 1993, an experience that she later recounted. We spoke at a riverside café in his neighborhood, Grbavica, whose residential towers are still pitted with bullet holes from the war. “We all were swollen with tears when Obama won,” he said. “And then for eight years, he didn’t mention Bosnia once.” (An exaggeration, but perhaps not a very large one. It’s worth noting too that the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the chief architect of the Dayton Agreement, died just two years into Obama’s first term.)
In early 2017, during the last days of the Obama administration, the US broke a long silence in the region to impose sanctions on Dodik because he held a referendum to celebrate “The Day of Republika Srpska,” which the Office of Foreign Asset Control said violated the spirit of the Dayton Accords. (This summer there have been reports that the US will lift sanctions, though the American embassy in Sarajevo has denied them so far.) Now, Dodik is running to be the Serb member of the tripartite presidency. “He wants to signal to voters that his relations with America aren’t completely terrible by meeting with former officials like Bannon,” said Dragan Močević, a Serb journalist who founded the popular Republika Srpska news website frontal.ba. “It’s still a liability to have this black mark of American sanctions over his head.”
Besides his antipathy toward a united Bosnian state, Dodik cares little for the EU, which he has characterized as “fading away” in importance. If he wins, he would not be the only obstacle in Bosnia’s flailing EU candidacy, which has progressed only in fits since 2003. A successful, orderly election in October would help the country’s case; the more likely event of a chaotic election, threatened by an electoral crisis and the attendant maneuvers to cobble together a government, would do the opposite. The European Commission drily stated in a report from April 2018 that “Bosnia and Herzegovina is at an early stage with the reform of its public administration and no progress has been achieved in the past year.”
The European Court of Human Rights has also criticized Bosnia’s electoral law as a human rights violation because minorities such as Jews or Roma cannot run for the country’s highest office. There is no way Bosnia can move its European Union candidacy forward without an entirely new constitution. “But there is no political will to write one today because there is a ‘party-ocracy’ and the major parties benefit so much from the Dayton quota system,” explained Mietek Boduszyński, a professor of Eastern European politics at Pomona College. As things stand, Bosnia does not even have candidate status for EU membership yet—lagging behind all the other Balkan countries except Kosovo.
“Of course the goal should be less Dayton, more Brussels… but it is going too slowly,” said the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, at his headquarters in eastern Sarajevo, a white, ice cube-like office with a grid of mirrored windows on each side. “There is no rule of law here,” he said bluntly. Politicians have little motivation to enter a system that might punish their corruption, he said, which is a problem because the EU has a hands-off approach to membership, presenting requirements like a functioning market economy and the protection of minorities that countries must pursue on their own. “But here, if the EU says to implement something in six months, even after nine years it won’t be done,” he said. The High Representative is an idiosyncratic Dayton creation: a foreigner with sweeping authority to uphold the Agreement and fire any Bosnian politicians who threaten the peace. Inzko, an Austrian career diplomat who has held the post since 2009, has also conceived of his role as rather hands-off. He seemed surprised to still be in Sarajevo and said that he is “probably the last” High Representative; his predecessors usually held the office for just two or three years.
“You know how it is, if you do everything for your children, the children will be spoiled,” said Inzko, with a shrug.
He meant that the office’s days of direct action and firing people are basically over. The Office of the High Representative has used its executive powers to sack almost two hundred Bosnian officials since 1995, including three entity presidents. But these actions date mainly from its first years of operation; Inzko has not fired anyone since 2009. Of late, politicians like Dodik have openly questioned whether there was really a genocide at Srebrenica, where eight thousand Muslim men and boys were systematically murdered by Serb forces in 1995, without serious pushback from the OHR.
Inzko said “the international community should draw a red line” on genocide denial, but the main action he himself has taken is issuing statements. It is unlikely that the OHR will intervene if there is an electoral crisis this fall; a spokesperson for the body later clarified to me in an email that the executive powers of the High Representative are in place only as a “last resort” if party negotiations totally fail.
The withdrawal and indifference of the US, the international community represented by the OHR, and the technocratic, hands-off EU have left a power vacuum in a region that has always been an irresistible target for foreign influence. Notably, with its long-standing ties to Serbia, Russia has seized on the opportunity. Moscow has been supporting a paramilitary force in Republika Srpska, is sharing its intelligence personnel, and has promised training for the entity’s police force. “The basic interest of Russia in the region is destabilization,” said Boduszyński. “They promote Republika Srpska’s separatism because it would decrease the military power of a united Bosnia, which might even join NATO.” Even though Republika Srpska would ostensibly benefit from being part of a stronger Bosnia, it has divergent defense views, like its deep distrust of NATO, which bombed Serbs in 1995 and 1999.
Turkey and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also been plowing resources into the region. Their investments—in malls, resorts, residential buildings—have been welcomed in the sluggish postwar economy. But none of these countries, which are led by either authoritarians or monarchs, have much interest in preserving Bosnian democracy.
For all these challenges, there will be some improvements to Bosnia’s elections this year—though mainly on the grassroots level of the ballot box. Past elections have been rife with fraud like vote-buying and the mishandling of absentee ballots.
“Our main problem is that the elections are so politicized: over 140,000 people are employed by [over a dozen] political parties to staff polling stations on election day,” said Dario Jovanić, the young project director of a nonprofit coalition called Pod Lupom (“Under the Magnifier”) that has been working for fairer Bosnian elections since 2014. I met him at his office, which is startup-like, with large conference tables and whiteboards. He chain-smoked Lucky Strikes as we talked on a balcony overlooking the National Museum.
To increase transparency at polling stations this year, he said, the Central Election Commission will publish the names and parties of everyone working at every polling station in the country, forty-five days before the election. Jovanić showed me another practical intervention: smaller, redesigned voting booths to prevent group-voting fraud (when families or other groups vote together, violating the principle of secret ballots). Also new this year is that, after the vote, ballots will be stored in transparent boxes instead of metal ones, which will make it harder to stuff them with extra or fraudulent votes.
“All in all, I think the 2018 elections will be better than in 2014,” said Jovanić. “It’s becoming a public story now: that we, the citizens, can discover election problems, surface them to public attention, and actually improve them.”
But such improvements to Bosnia’s civil society, which are not negligible, are offset by a shrinking number of engaged citizens. Bosnia has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world, over 55 percent. Tens of thousands of young people emigrate to work abroad each year—a problem in most Balkan countries today—although official statistics are hard to pin down. The birthrate also fell over 40 percent from 1997 to 2013.
In Bihać, a northwestern city on the banks of the blue-green Una River, I was introduced to a twenty-nine-year-old Bosniak journalist named Muamer to discuss some of the issues facing young voters in Bosnia. When we met, in the second-floor café of a mall, he revealed sheepishly that he, too, would be leaving the country in October. (He didn’t want to share his last name because his Bosnian employer doesn’t yet know this.)
“I don’t want to live here hoping that something will change, wasting the best years of my life,” he said, surprising both me and the intermediary who had introduced us, who had described Muamer as one of the best young writers in Bosnia. He and his wife already have two small children. “The public sector is eating the private sector, because there is so much administration, and there are not enough skilled jobs,” he said. He used to play soccer with a dozen friends here, and every one of them now works in the EU. He is planning to work as a medical technician in Germany.
“Don’t get me wrong, the quality of life is definitely better than it was during the war,” he said. “People have houses and cars. But also, because of globalization, you can see how much better it is in countries that are not so far away. And things are changing too slowly here.” His is a sentiment common among the postwar generation: that Bosnia’s problems are simply too deep for it to be worthwhile for individual citizens to stay and struggle to fix them. This means not only are the US and the international community gradually abandoning Bosnia, but so, too, might its own people.
“Normal life still goes on here, of course,” said Pašović, the theater director in Sarajevo. “People intermarry. Serbs and Bosniaks do business with each other. We are friends with each other. But there is no political articulation of that, which is disappointing.”
He ended on a point that Muamer and Buljugic made as well, in almost the same words. They once thought the war was the hard part, but during the war they had hope, one that was widely shared: that the war would end. “It’s worse now,” said Pašović. “We don’t know what is really left to hope for.”
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.