‘They have tricked us’: Protests erupt in Bosnia over ‘discrimination’ by peace envoy

Protests were held in front of the parliament building in Sarajevo today in response to constitutional changes made on Thursday evening by Christian Schmidt, the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Several hundred people gathered, booing and chanting loudly while holding Bosnian flags. Significant police forces were present both inside and outside the parliament, with armoured vehicles guarding the perimeter.

“They have tricked us several times, but this is the last time, they won’t be able to do it again,” said Refik Lendo, a member of the Party of Democratic Action or SDA.

Bosnia is the only country in Europe that has the peculiar position of an international peace envoy. After the bloody war of the 1990s, the country’s development has been monitored by the Office of the High Representative, or OHR, created by the UN Security Council.

Smoke billows from a building in downtown Sarajevo after a mortar attack. Buildings near the parliament were damaged during the fierce combat. 22 April 1992

A body composed of Bosnia’s allies, including EU members as well as the US and Canada, select the new High Representative and their budget is provided by the UN.

Schmidt, who was a German politician with the Christian Social Union in Bavaria before being appointed to the role, has the power to remove politicians and pass laws circumventing the country’s institutions.

The protest was taking place while a parliament session was underway.

What are the constitutional changes?

When the war ended, the international powers involved in ending the fighting put together a peace deal — known as the Dayton Peace Agreement — and divided the country into two entities and separated power between the country’s three main ethnic groups.

They are the Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the Bosniak and Croat-majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which each have their own parliament and governing bodies and are overseen by a state-level government.

Each constitutionally defined ethnic group has its own member of the tripartite presidency.

Christian Schmidt, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, addresses the media in Sarajevo, Bosnia. 5 October 2022.

The decision by Schmidt, which was made public on Thursday evening, introduced a number of changes to the constitution of the Federation’s entity, allowing for its prime minister to be approved by the two houses of the parliament even if one of the entity’s vice-presidents refuses to back the nominee.

It also introduces the possibility of a snap election in case of prolonged blocking of the process by representatives of any of the three main ethnic groups or major political parties — a measure that was previously non-existent in the country’s legislation.

On Thursday, Schmidt said he was pushed to make this decision after the winning parties in the elections were unable to form an entity government for six months.

“We must say that we are witnessing a political deadlock and that it is not a conflict between the constituent nations. However, the will of the citizens expressed in the elections must not be ignored,” he said in a statement in front of his offices.

Why are people against it?

The ruling coalition is composed of several Bosniak, Croat and civic parties. Despite a majority in the House of Representatives, as well as a president and a vice president, they could not appoint a prime minister prior to the 6 April deadline.

Lendo, the Bosniak vice president of the entity and member of the biggest Bosniak ethnonational party, SDA, refused to approve the appointment of the new government, which lacks any SDA ministers.

In his defence, Lendo claimed he was willing to support a government with no SDA, but also no HDZ — the main Bosnian Croat ethnonational party. HDZ has been accused of being one of the main culprits blocking political processes in the country.

The coalition broke up after the deadline passed, but a new one was formed soon after. The House of Representatives still needs to vote on the new government.

Critics of Schmidt believe he is actively trying to subvert the Bosniak votes in the country. This is a sensitive issue since the Bosniak ethnic group were subject to extensive ethnic cleansing during the war by their Croat and Serb compatriots.

This includes the genocide in Srebrenica, an east Bosnian town where the bloodiest massacre on European soil since World War II took place. More than 8,000 Bosniaks, mostly men but also women and children, were slaughtered over the course of three days.

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