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Edward Ferguson

British Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Part of UK in Bosnia and Herzegovina

2nd August 2016

Mostar: time to restore democracy

A joint blog with the US Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Maureen Cormack 

It has been a frustrating couple of days.  For a moment, it seemed as though the months of discussions on the Coordination Mechanism had finally come to an end, and that BiH would be able to start making the key decisions necessary for this country to advance towards European political and socio-economic standards.

Instead, we are witnessing yet another fruitless argument that will only do further damage to the international reputation of this country, and of its leaders.  It needs to be resolved, and quickly.  But this is just one of many challenges facing BiH, some of which represent a serious threat to democracy and progress across BiH.  Today, we want to focus on another of these: Mostar.

Mostar is a paradox: beautiful, but tragic.  Its historical, cultural and architectural richness is matched only by the baseness of its politics.  A city which should be a source of huge pride for all the citizens of this country is instead doing huge damage to the international reputation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a modern, democratic state.  For the citizens of Mostar missed out on elections in 2012.  And they are at serious risk of missing out again in 2016. Mostar has not had a functioning City Council for years, and it shows – in the neglected public areas, the war-damaged buildings, the struggling businesses and the lack of investment.

When we discussed Mostar at our most recent meeting, the Peace Implementation Council was unanimous in deploring the utter failure of the political parties to implement the ruling of the BiH Constitutional Court in order to allow Mostar’s citizens their basic right to vote for the first time in eight years.  And we were clear too where the primary responsibility lay: with HDZ BiH and SDA.

Other parties, as well as independents and civil society, have an important part to play, and our Embassies are in regular contact with them, including with Serb representatives.  But let’s be clear. HDZ BiH and SDA are most responsible for the mess that Mostar is in at the moment.  And HDZ BiH and SDA hold the primary responsibility for finding a solution.

As you well know, President Covic says he remains committed and optimistic that we can find a solution.  But we’ve watched as he consistently rejected every effort to find compromise during recent negotiations.  President Izetbegovic says he is pessimistic; he can’t overcome local political hurdles.  But the Presidents are the heads of their parties — and it is their job to lead.

Tuesday this week marked the expiry of the 60-day deadline that the Central Election Commission said it needed to arrange elections in Mostar on 2 October.  BiH’s Parliament will now go into recess without having amended the election law, as ordered by the Constitutional Court in 2010, to allow elections to take place.  That is a disgrace.  But we will not stop working until there is an agreement.

Our first priority is to preserve Mostar as a single, unified and multi-ethnic city.  But then we want people in Mostar to actually have the chance to vote – this year.  The Central Election Commission has helpfully noted that they can be scheduled at any point when a plan is agreed.

Only one thing has to happen for these elections to take place.  The Constitutional Court ruling must be implemented.  It’s a Dayton requirement, which is why we’re involved.  Yes, we know there are lots of other open questions, like whether the Mayor should be directly elected, whether there should be Deputy Mayors, and how competencies should be allocated to levels of authority below the City Council.  If we can secure a deal that resolves these questions too, then great.  But otherwise, we will be looking for the minimum solution – a temporary fix, reflecting a proportionate value of the vote, which would satisfy the ruling of the Constitutional Court and allow elections to proceed.  Once we have a functioning City Council in place, we can focus on more permanent amendments to the Mostar Statute and to the election law. But first, we need to restore democracy to Mostar, and to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole.

You know, we’ve had a lot of conversations about Mostar in the last few weeks, but it has been very noticeable that one interest group has not been mentioned in any of them: voters, the ordinary citizens of Mostar.  Instead, it’s all about numbers: whether one or other solution will give HDZ BiH or SDA control of more or fewer seats.  That’s not democracy.  It’s electoral engineering.  In most countries, voters choose their politicians.  In Mostar, politicians are trying to choose their voters.

What Mostar needs is politicians who feel some responsibility towards those they claim to represent, and a system which allows citizens to reward or to punish them for success or failure.

So why hasn’t this happened before?  Let’s be blunt about it.  It’s because it’s about power, and not about the people.  The current situation suits politicians on both sides.  But enough is enough.  It’s time for the leaders of HDZ BiH and SDA to show that their often-stated commitments to European standards and values are not just empty words.  It’s time for political bravery and responsibility.  It’s time to hear the voices of the disenfranchised citizens of Mostar.  It’s time for elections.