Bosnian minorities push for right to run for president
In this Wednesday, March 7, 2012 photo Bosnian Roma activist Dervo Sejdic poses for a photo during an interview with the Associated Press in Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Published Saturday, March 31, 2012 11:22AM EDT
SARAJEVO - Dervo Sejdic never wanted to be president. But angered that he was barred from running because he's a gypsy, he decided to fight for the right "as a matter of principle."
Jakob Finci is Bosnia's ambassador to Switzerland and has held many government posts. But he can't run because he's a Jew.
Both sued Bosnia in the European Court of Human Rights to force the nation to change its constitution, which allows only Muslim Bosniaks, Christian Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats to run for president or for Parliament's upper house.
The charter was drafted in Dayton, Ohio, by peace negotiators in a hurry to stop Bosnia's 1992-95 war that pitted the three main ethnic groups against one another. In order to get them to stop fighting, negotiators needed to hammer out a complicated powersharing agreement that largely excluded minorities.
The constitution carved up the country into two ministates -- one for Serbs, the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats -- linked by a central government. It established three presidents, one for each main ethnic group.
Nobody paid much attention when Sejdic and Finci won their case back in 2009. But when the EU stated last year that enforcing the verdict is "one of the preconditions for an application for EU membership," Bosnia's leaders were forced to take note, and the issue has been nightly fodder on prime time news ever since.
Despite frantic efforts to find a solution and save the nation's EU bid, another deadline set by the human rights court passed this past month without the verdict being implemented. The rival positions, Sejdic says, remain "kilometres away from each other."
The Serbs vehemently oppose significant constitutional change because they fear it would dilute the autonomy of their ministate.
Bosniaks want to change the constitution to allow minorities to run for high office, hoping it will yield more reforms that would eventually replace the powersharing system with a unified democracy.
Croats also want changes but in the opposite direction: an even stronger powersharing system that would give them equal power even though the Croats are the smallest group.
Sejdic applied to run for the presidency in the 2005 elections but was flatly rejected by the election commission because he is "neither a Bosniak, nor a Croat, nor a Serb." He appealed to the constitutional Court and received a similar rejection.
"Their answer literally said that I had to change the constitution first and then try again," he remembers. "Until then, the Roma are not a 'constitutional category'."
That's what triggered his 2009 lawsuit in the European Court for Human Rights. Soon, he was informed that another Bosnian -- Finci -- had filed a similar lawsuit. The court in Strasbourg, France, combined the two lawsuits and ruled in their favour the same year.
Sejdic and Finci became heroes for members of Bosnia's 17 minorities as well as children of mixed marriages, who complain that they have been discriminated against for two decades by being barred from running for president or Parliament's upper house.
For politicians, they are a headache that just won't go away.
Not only do they have to think about the interests of their respective ethnic groups, but also the complex logistics of carrying out the Strasbourg court's verdict.
Should one more minority president be added to the already expensive and ineffective three-member presidency? Or should there be just one president elected directly by voters from both ministates, a step toward unification so much feared by the Serbs?
"See, the devil lies in the details," says Krstan Simic, the Serb member of the Parliamentary Commission charged with finding a solution.
If Bosnia does not find a way to solve the problem by the next elections in 2014, it could be kicked out of the Council of Europe, further imperiling its EU prospects.
Meanwhile, Sejdic keeps pushing. "I love Bosnia," he says. "That's why I'm suing."
In 2010 he sued again because the verdict from 2009 had not been implemented. Only this time he asked for compensation: "Four years worth of presidential salary" -- or about 125,000 euros.
If he is not allowed to run again at the 2014 elections, he will sue for another four-year presidential salary.
"I can do this all my life."