The political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is often described as one of the most complex in the world. Established after a four-year-long war, as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, the political system of the country is based on power sharing but includes contradictory elements that incentivise confrontational politics. At the same time the region of Southeastern Europe is currently once again in the international limelight due to increased authoritarian practices, European Union enlargement prospects, and renewed geopolitical contests. A volume that attempts to portray the entirety of the political system of BiH is therefore more than welcome.
The edited volume Das politische System Bosnien und Herzegowinas is such an attempt, directed towards a German-reading audience. It consists of an introductory and ten thematic chapters. The editors, Tobias Flessenkemper and Nicolas Moll, have brought together nine further scholars who focus on BiH from both an academic and practitioners’ perspective. The interests of these scholars span across several academic disciplines, including political science, history, religious studies, civil society studies, educational studies, and economics. The editors make this extensive focus clear in their introduction by portraying the volume as a broad overview of BiH and its political system today that is intended for a wide audience, as well as being a contribution to European applied geography (europäische Landeskunde). Written in German and with explicit reference to previous German language literature on Southeastern Europe, the book is meant to meet the demand for academic scholarship on BiH in light of renewed interest of the country in German, Austrian, and Swiss politics.
In the first chapter, Moll provides a historical overview on the tumultuous past of the territory, its people and state institutions, over the past few hundred years. He aims to provide an understanding of historically competing views of what Bosnia and Herzegovina means as a country and who its people are. With a deep understanding of the country, he portrays the essence of politics in BiH as constitutional politics (Verfassungspolitik), a struggle to regulate spheres of influence among the main ethnic groups. In this sense he rejects the notion that conflict among ethnic groups in BiH is evidence of grievance and hatred but rather as an ongoing competition over power and resources. In fact, reference to historical forms of group accommodation in BiH can open the readers’ eyes to see beyond the current political system of consociational democracy and point to power sharing as a historical mode of governance.
The following chapters Three to Five focus on various elements of the political system, including an overview of the consociational institutions, federalism and multilevel governance, the legislature, and the role of political parties. This set of chapters introduces the reader to many political institutions and processes in BiH. Besides providing extensive information, the focus of each chapter, when read in conjunction, portrays the multiple levels of complexity that exist within the political system. For readers unfamiliar with politics in BiH this is invaluable information, although specialists may find some (not all) chapters trivial due to their primarily descriptive character.
Chapters Six to Ten address a number of cross-cuting issues. These include religion, education, culture, civil society, and economy. In general, several of the chapters provide very interesting background information and are useful for readers to gain a deeper understanding of how the country works. Examples thereof are the point that religion is the primary mechanism for social differentiation (primärer Ordnungsmechanismus), or the insight into structural weaknesses and specific advantages of the country’s economy. Other chapters on cross-cuting issues are less valuable either due to a narrow focus on technical descriptions of policies across sub-state administrative frameworks and lack of argumentative focus, or because they are not well integrated into the flow of the volume. Again, most of the chapters provide little new information for specialists but can be valuable (or at least interesting) for readers unfamiliar with BiH.
The final chapter by Solveig Richter ties into the subtitle of the volume and explores the relation of BiH with the European Union starting from an inglorious past towards a more promising (but anxious) future. She accurately points out that the European Union and its member states are inevitably tied to BiH, and that this will not change. The policies stemming from this linkage are less clear. In her words, BiH was and still is an experimental field for EU foreign policy. At the same time, BiH is the ultimate test whether conditionality linked to a credible EU accession perspective can achieve political change under most difficult circumstances.
In general, the book’s aim is to answer five complex and interlinked questions about Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are about the constitution and state institutions; the legacy of war and reconciliation; ethnonational territorialism; governmental complexity and inclusion; and the possibilities for institutional reform and EU integration. Most chapters manage to address one or several of these questions. Nevertheless, without a dialogue among the contributions on causes of complexity and potential for reform, readers are left wondering why any of these questions mater. The single most important and divisive issue, the question of what Bosnia and Herzegovina is and what it should become, is not emphasised thoroughly throughout.
A final word must be said about omissions from this volume. Several topics that are crucial to gain a full understanding of the political system of BiH are not discussed in detail. For example, the judiciary and the rule of law are not given enough consideration even though this has proven to be one of the weakest aspects of governance. Other neglected topics are the divided media and the dominance of the executive among the power-sharing governance entities.
Even with these shortcomings, the volume edited by Flessenkemper and Moll is a valuable contribution meant for a general and German-reading audience. As the editors point out in the introduction, their book aims to provide an introductory and broad read that is primarily meant for people unfamiliar with BiH. Policy makers and students with an interest in the politics of the region will find an easily accessible volume that will give them a basic understanding of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its institutional complexity, and socioeconomic background.