FIFA offers a surprise lesson on how to reform post-conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

A corrupt, inefficient system? Better call FIFA. EPA/Fehim Demir

Bosnia and Herzegovina recently held its seventh general election since the end of the 1992-1995 war – a conflict that left more than 100,000 dead. On the face of it, the obvious victors of these elections appear to be the country’s dominant nationalist parties, which have held power for almost two decades.

But after four particularly turbulent years – in which the country suffered catastrophic flooding, anti-government riots, and almost total institutional gridlock – there are the stirrings of change.

For the first time in almost a decade, the leading political elites seem to be willing to plan for the future rather than talking in circles about ethnicity. There is now hope both inside and outside Bosnia and Herzegovina that this may be the long-awaited moment for reform, nearly 20 years since the Balkans conflict ended.

Agreements have failed in the past but an unlikely inspiration could be used this time round for success. Popular opinion may cast FIFA as the bad guy at the moment, but it took decisive action when Bosnian football was falling apart at the seams. And its success can be replicated in the political arena.

Progress stalled

Bosnia and Herzegovina is governed by a complicated system of power-sharing between representatives of the country’s three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats. This system, guarantees ethnic representation at all levels of government, grants politicians representing each of the three groups extensive veto powers and sees the state presidency shared by a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat.

Mladen Ivanić shares the presidency with two others. Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

Power over many significant issues, such as education, healthcare and policing, is held, not by the central Bosnian state, but by the country’s two component entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. Bringing in such a balanced system was important for securing an end to the Bosnian war but it is hugely inefficient. So inefficient, in fact, that it stands in the way of progress towards European Union and NATO membership.

As well as encouraging politicians to appeal to the electorate exclusively along ethnic lines, the narrow selection criteria for appointing candidates to political posts, including the presidency, excludes members of minority groups, such as Jews or Roma. This has not escaped the attention of the European Court of Human Rights.

And since there is little incentive for Bosnian politicians to promote reforms that would weaken their power, no agreement on constitutional reform has been reached in ten years of trying.

But the election in October has offered hope. There were victories for the main Bosniak and Croat nationalist blocs, as well as the main Serb opposition alliance. In its wake, the UK and Germany have signalled their intention to kick-start the reform process. Together they penned an open letter to the Bosnian people and called on the EU to reopen talks on the country’s path to European integration in exchange for a domestic agreement on reform.

Enter FIFA

The danger is that the initiative being pushed by the UK and Germany will meet with the same fate as the many that have preceded it. And that’s where FIFA comes in – even if recent corruption scandals might suggest that this particular body offers few lessons about how to play fair.

The Bosnian football federation was until recently governed by a power-sharing arrangement that bore a striking resemblance to the country’s presidency. It had one president representing Bosniaks, one representing Bosnian Serbs and another looking after the interests of Bosnian Croats. There was an executive committee composed of five members from each group.

FIFA and UEFA accepted this arrangement in the interests of rebuilding football in the country after the war. But things soon became difficult, particularly since the majority of the members of each of the three groups on the executive committee had to agree to any proposal, like any changes to the federation’s charter, before it was passed.

In October 2010, FIFA and UEFA announced that they wanted the arrangement to be reformed. When this was not forthcoming, they suspended the Bosnian national team and all club sides from international competition.

Within days of the April 2011 suspension, FIFA imposed a so-called “normalisation committee” on the national federation, headed by the popular former player Ivica Osim and charged with reforming the federation. Less than two months later, an agreement was reached and the suspension lifted.

The normalisation committee remained in place until December 2012, when Elvedin Begić was elected as the first sole president in the national federation’s history. The following year, the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team qualified for its first World Cup appearance.

Protest power

While this account might initially read like international interference in domestic affairs, it actually shows how FIFA and UEFA used local discontent in order to promote reform.

Fans and teams had been protesting against corruption for some time before the international ban. A particularly famous example came in May 2008, when the national team was scheduled to play in Iran. The fixture was widely seen as having been arranged for political and financial reasons rather than for the actual football.

In protest, manager Meho Kodro refused to lead the team and was sacked. Enraged at this decision, the national media vowed not to cover games and supporters and 19 players boycotted a friendly match against Azerbaijan.

Similarly, the widespread political protests of February 2014 demonstrated that appetite for reform is reaching new heights.

The EU and its member states need to find a way to harness this popular frustration rather than convening closed-shop talks with the nationalist parties.

Following FIFA and UEFA’s lead, the EU should go public with all the demands it would like to make of Bosnian leaders. It should also enforce clear and non-negotiable deadlines. Likewise, outside arbiters (such as Ivica Osim in FIFA’s case) could be used to address the concerns of those looking in on negotiations, including young people, women or students, whose interests are not always represented by the country’s nationalist blocs.

The story of football reform should also show the EU that it needs to be clearer about what it wants from Bosnia and Herzegovina before it will allow it into the European club.

It has been vague in the past and, crucially, failed to see through threats of punishment when progress has not been made on the goals set out. Local leaders have come to suspect that the EU is not particularly serious about reform. That’s not a criticism that could have been levelled at FIFA in 2011.

Of course, praising FIFA does not chime with the mood of the moment. Yet in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, it achieved its goals quickly and efficiently and left a positive legacy behind.

European politicians need to follow FIFA’s lead by engaging with diverse local voices, setting out their reform expectations with much greater clarity and acting on threats to punish obstructionists who stand in the way of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s path to European integration.