SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The three members of Bosnia's multi-ethnic presidency will meet Tuesday to try to break a deadlock on forming a new government, more than ten months after the general election in October.
An agreement between Bosnia's Muslim, Serb and Croat leaders is crucial because the lack of a government has stalled economic development in the Balkan nation that is still recovering from a devastating 1992-95 war.
But disagreements between Bosnia's pro-Russian Serbs and the other two groups over Bosnia's future relations with NATO could hamper the government deal, plunge the country deeper into crisis and exacerbate ethnic divisions. Here's a look at Bosnia's complex political situation:
WHO'S WHO IN BOSNIA?
Bosnia is governed by a three-member presidency that has Serb, Muslim and Croat representatives and is divided into two semi-autonomous regions, one ruled by Bosnian Serbs and the other by Muslims and Croats.
Its election last year mainly saw nationalist parties and politicians from those three groups win the most votes in their regions. The pro-Russian Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, who repeatedly argues that Bosnia should not exist as a unified country, became the Serb member of the Bosnian presidency. Dodik's party also won the parliamentary election in the Serb half of the country while nationalist parties among Muslims and Croats won in their joint entity. In an exception, moderate politician Zeljko Komsic became the Croat member of Bosnia's joint presidency but his election did little to bridge Bosnia's sharp ethnic divide.
WHY IS IT SO HARD TO FORM A GOVERNMENT IN BOSNIA?
Bosnia went through a bloody ethnic war in the 1990s that killed more than 100,000 people and left millions homeless. To stop the war, the U.S.-brokered peace deal in 1995 created Bosnia's complicated network of governing institutions that include its three-member presidency, the Council of Ministers that is the de facto government and several assemblies within the entities. In order to form the joint national government, politicians from the three ethnic groups must all agree on the division of ministries and the future policies. Western officials had hoped Bosnians would eventually reform this complicated system as time went on, but this has not happened.
WHAT IS THE MAIN PROBLEM?
The main stumbling block is whether Bosnia will move toward joining NATO by submitting a plan for reforms that are needed to do so. NATO last year gave the green light to Bosnia to advance, but the country's Serbs — who are Orthodox Christians and staunchly pro-Russian — are strongly opposed to the idea. The NATO question has stalled the formation of a new government, with the Muslim and Croat presidency members insisting on NATO reforms and Dodik, the Serb member of the presidency, saying he will only accept Bosnia's European Union membership goals, not eventual NATO membership.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
The dispute reflects a mounting conflict between the West and Russia over the future of the Balkans. While the West wishes to see the still-volatile region reform and eventually join the EU and NATO, Russia has used its historic ties with Serbs to undermine this idea. After another Balkan historical ally, Montenegro, turned its back on Moscow and joined NATO in 2017, Serbia and the Serb-run Republika Srpska in Bosnia have remained the only allies of the Kremlin in the region. Serbia has claimed military neutrality and the Bosnian Serbs have said they will follow suit.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR BOSNIA?
If there's no agreement to form a national government, Bosnia will likely face further political crisis that would cement its ethnic divisions. A deadlocked Bosnia will remain behind other Balkan EU hopefuls, diminishing hopes of a better future for the country's youth, who are already leaving by the tens of thousands each year. Corruption is ripe and nationalist politicians could easily foster further fragmentation along ethnic lines.
The instability in Bosnia also means instability in the entire Balkans, where the West also is trying to restart talks between Serbia and Serbia's former province of Kosovo on normalizing their ties after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a move Belgrade does not recognize.
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.