Bosnia, corruption and state capture

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Professor Robert Barrington and Berina Glusac from the Centre for the Study of Corruption’s MA in Corruption & Governance examine the political situation in Bosnia Herzegovina and look at the role that corruption has played in the crisis.

Unless you are a dedicated Balkans-watcher, you may well have missed the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is amidst its biggest political crisis since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s complex tripartite presidential structure, declared in late 2021 that the Serb-run part of BiH, Republika Srpska (RS), would withdraw cooperation and involvement with key state-wide institutions, in violation of the 1995 peace agreements. He announced that the Bosnian judiciary, security, and intelligence organisations would no longer be allowed to operate in the RS, which would instead operate its own alternative structures.

Dodik makes no secret of the fact that this is a precursor to secession, although he claims it would be achieved by peaceful means. This naturally leads to a reflection on the heavy price that was paid during the war of the 1990s. In Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II, 100,000 people were killed and two million displaced. Over 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were killed in the Srebrenica massacre alone in 1995. Thousands of bodies have still not been recovered three decades later; new mass graves are discovered each year, and most of the countryside remains covered with active land mines. The Genocide is relevant to the situation today; Dodik denies that such events took place and uses his control of the media to support his message. This plays strongly to his nationalist support base.

What has this do to with corruption? Quite a lot. Shortly after Dodik’s declaration, he was placed on a sanctions list by the US Treasury for ‘Destabilizing and corrupt activity.’ Like so many US announcements, this has produced a document that gives a useful read-out – presumably based on the US’s exceptional intelligence capabilities – of what Dodik has been up to. The main charges are the cronyistic allocation of public contracts and monopolies from whose proceeds Dodek dispensed bribes and patronage. The relevant wording of the US Treasury announcement is:

“Dodik is… responsible for or complicit in, or having directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption related to the Western Balkans. Specifically, he has established a patronage network in BiH from which he and his associates benefit. As one example of his corrupt actions, Dodik has provided government contracts and monopolies in the RS directly to close business associates. With his corrupt proceeds, Dodik has engaged in bribery and additional corrupt activities to further his personal interests at the expense of citizens in the RS.”

These mentions of other ‘corrupt activities’ hint that the US government has more information, but there is no fuller detail. More may emerge in due course, but for now it is enough to know that we must consider corruption to be part of this complex picture.

BiH’s circumstances are unique, and it would be unwise to extrapolate general lessons. However, this situation does illustrate some of the common elements of de-democratisation and state capture – albeit in this case, it is a geographical segment of the state that has been captured.

What we can see here is a politician using corruption both to strengthen his political position, and for personal financial benefit. In terms of state capture, there are some classic ingredients: First of all, a democratically-elected populist politician using nationalist messages and distorted truths to gain and maintain power; a deliberate attempt to dismantle or subvert key state institutions, including the judiciary; political power allocating control over state assets and resources; control over the media (the main television company is also placed on the US sanctions list), which is used to pump out fake news; and finally, a foreign policy that supports strongmen and oppressive regimes (in this case Serbia and Russia). To enrich himself and consolidate his power, Dodik uses patronage, cronyism and bribery.

In such a small country, this might pass unnoticed by the outside world were it not for two significant factors. First, there is a very real possibility of armed conflict and renewed genocide at the heart of Europe. Secondly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made central European countries, and whether they support Russia, more strategically important to the EU and NATO.

Unfortunately, although the world has learned a great deal in the past thirty years about what does and does not work in tackling corruption, there is no established exit strategy from one of the biggest problems: state capture by populist nationalists. It is a gloomy picture, but sometimes internal or external pressures can help generate a rapid turnaround. In such circumstances, having a good problem analysis will be fundamental to finding solutions. One of the important aspects of such a problem analysis will be recognising, amidst the many other complexities, the role that corruption has been playing in the unfolding situation in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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