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The country where Jews are not allowed to run for the presidency

Despite legal rulings, a de facto status of second-class citizenship exists

    No more than 800 Jews still live in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo today
    No more than 800 Jews still live in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo today (Photo: Getty Images)

    In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Jew cannot be elected president.

    The country’s election law requires each of the state’s three presidents, who serve concurrently, to be from each of the country’s three ‘constituent peoples’: Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats.

    This construct is the product of the vicious civil war in the 1990s that saw the three groups fight each other as Yugoslavia disintegrated. It came unstuck when a Jewish citizen of BiH, as the country is known, took his country’s government to the European Court of Human Rights.

    Jews are not alone in facing this de facto status of second-class citizenship. The court ruled that effectively prohibiting Jews, Roma and others who do not identify as one of the three constituent peoples from standing for, and being elected, president was a breach of BiH’s commitments under European human rights law.

    Against the backdrop of a political system perpetually in crisis, the failure to tackle institutionalised discrimination is perhaps easier to understand, though no less shameful. Compromise and working for the wider public good are not part of the vocabulary of many political leaders.

    Indeed, the situation for Jews in BiH appears to be getting worse.

    A Bosniak-dominated district in Sarajevo recently named a school after Mustafa Busuladžić, a notorious antisemite and propagandist for the Nazis. When the Israeli government protested, Bosniak authorities and media chose to attack Israel for its settlement policy.

    The broader issue here is the need to reform the political structures in BiH created by the Dayton peace agreement in 1995.

    This agreement has since been supplemented by arbitrary rulings made by the viceroy-like Office of the High Representative, which has extraordinary powers to interfere in the political system to maintain functional governance.

    Indeed, the Jewish discrimination case brought by Jakob Finci is not the only reason why the presidency voting system needs reforming.

    In December 2016 the country’s constitutional court ruled that another part of the country’s electoral laws — which allows Bosniaks to elect candidates from other ethnic groups, including Jews — was unconstitutional.

    Reforming this part of electoral law in time for October’s general elections has proved as tricky as righting the injustice against Jewish citizens of BiH. Croats have been at the vanguard of imaginative and progressive solutions to modernise the legal framework in a way that would extend equal rights to Jews and other minorities, but their efforts have been rebuffed. Until recently, the international community was insistent on tackling the inherent discrimination against Jews in BiH, but it now appears to be going soft on the idea.

    It prefers to nudge political factions towards the bare minimum of change needed to hold October’s election, rather than demand the deep and ambitious reforms the country so desperately needs to move forward as part of an integrated Europe.

    Croats and Jews have common cause in ensuring each other’s voices — the voices of reason in an increasingly hysterical discussion — are heard loud and clear.

    Discrimination, whether by commission or omission, has no place in modern Europe.

    Ivan Pepic is at the Institute for Social and Political Research in Mostar