The long read: The messy business of peace

The Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian War after nearly four years, 100,000 deaths and the displacment of more than 2 million people – but two decades on, it is a messy, flawed peace.

AFP Photo Odd Andersen / AFP / Odd Andersen
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Standing beside Banja Luka’s towering cathedral with its bands of colourful light and dark stone, Milos watches his children play in the park.

“We have peace because of Dayton, but the side effect is that we have a very complicated system,” he says. Half a kilometre down the park-lined main boulevard lies the Ferhat Pasa Mosque, rebuilt in gleaming limestone after the war that ended in 1995. “We look into the past, rather than the future – how are my children going to get jobs? I don’t care about identity, I care about work.”

Outside the mosque, an old lady voices feelings heard across Bosnia and Herzegovina: “I think Dayton was good in that it stopped the war, but the politicians we have now are not worthy. They close off their national groups to stay in power and take all the money.”

On December 14, 1995, the warring parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina and representatives of the international community signed the Dayton Peace Agreement, bringing to an end a three-and-half year war that had killed 100,000 people and displaced more than 2 million.

Two decades later, the agreement still stands. Its Annex Four, which embeds the principle of ethnic identity as a cornerstone of the functioning of the state, is the constitution of the country.

Dayton was highly successful at bringing an end to the war, which at the time was by no means a foregone conclusion, and has kept the peace in a notoriously fractious corner of Europe. The example of Dayton has repeatedly been raised in discussions over the Syrian civil war, another ethno-religious conflict in which neighbouring countries have been active participants – although differences between the two are substantial.

But over the past decade in particular, both Bosnians and outsiders have repeatedly questioned whether a peace treaty that entrenched ethnic divisions can really be the basis for building a modern and functional European country based on the rights conferred by citizenship, rather than identity. Beyond the ethical and moral questions that the continued existence of Dayton raises – for example, those identifying as Roma, or Jews or merely as “Bosnian” of no religious or ethnic category are banned from the presidency – the utter stasis in Bosnian politics since 2006 suggests a system that is at best dysfunctional, and at worst, the basis of a failed state. The role of the international community remains hotly debated: should it intervene to produce the results it desires? Or should it back away?

“Dayton was emergency surgery to stop bleeding and it has accomplished its primary objective, to end a war. But it is not a therapist to heal the wounds,” says Miran Norderland, who was involved in post-war discussions at Dayton. “I don’t think that even the Americans thought it would last this long. People here are impoverished and have lost patience – but they don’t have any way of resolving it.”

In November, Paddy Ashdown, former international community high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, warned that a “perfect storm” was brewing in the country. While saying that he thought a new war unlikely, Ashdown said that Bosnia had been “the global poster boy” of post-conflict peace-building but had “moved decisively back into the dynamic of disintegration”. Threats to secede by the ethnic-Serbian autonomous “entity” and calls for Croats to establish their own entity have also raised concerns.

Days before, James Lyon, previously an official at the Office of the High Representative (OHR), warned that Serbian challenges to Bosnia’s functioning as a unitary state, and the international community’s inaction, risked another Balkan war.

Anti-government protests in January 2014 that resulted in government buildings torched and officials’ cars pushed into rivers are a sign of Bosnia’s potential combustibility, observers warn.

“Dayton established rights only for ethnic groups, not citizens,” says one Bosnian Muslim member of parliament in Sarajevo’s gleaming rebuilt parliament building. “Now is the time to open up and discuss how we can have a more functional constitution.”

Broadly speaking, the three-way conflict pitted Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) against ethnic Serbs (members of the Orthodox Christian Church) and Croats (Roman Catholics). The participation on the side of the Serbs by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) controlled by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government in Belgrade, and the less direct support given to the Croats by the newly independent government of Croatia, added to the war’s brutality.

The Bosnian War was the bloodiest of the conflicts that broke out as the multi-ethnic Communist state of Yugoslavia collapsed. The wars began in 1991 as the two richest of the six Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, declared independence. Slovenia escaped after a war lasting only 10 days; Croatia’s was to drag on until 1995, as the new government fought against the JNA and ethnic Serb separatists.

A number of factors contributed to Yugoslavia’s demise: the failure to reform the communist system following the fall of the Berlin Wall; the death in 1980 of Josip Broz Tito, the charismatic founding father of the Communist state; and the growing desire for greater autonomy among Yugoslavia’s republics, coupled with rising nationalism.

Bosnia, as the most multi-ethnic of those republics, was particularly vulnerable to those who saw it as merely a constituent part of a Greater Serbia or Greater Croatia. At the time of the last prewar census, in 1991, 43.5 per cent of the population defined themselves as Bosniak, 31.2 per cent as Serbs, and 17.4 per cent as Croats.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence was recognised by the European Commission (EC) and the United States on April 6 1991, following a referendum largely boycotted by Serbs, but overwhelmingly supported by Bosniaks and Croats.

Rejecting Bosnia’s independence, Serbian politicians and militias, with Belgrade’s support, starting carving out Serb “autonomous” areas, and ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs began accelerating. Serb propaganda raised memories of the Second World War, during which Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Serbia had been incorporated into fascist Croatia, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs had been massacred.

Originally a conflict between Bosniaks and Croats on one side and Serbs and the JNA on the other, the Bosnian War became yet more complex in late 1993 as the Croats, backed by Zagreb, turned on their Muslim allies. Perhaps the most notorious episode of the Croat-Bosniak war was the siege of the beautiful city of Mostar in the Neretva Valley, and the wanton destruction of its 16th-century Ottoman Old Bridge.

But by early 1994, Croats and Bosniaks were again fighting on the same side. NATO joined the war in August 1995, bombing Bosnian Serb positions.

Decisive action on a peace deal was catalysed by a number of factors, including the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed, and a mortar attack on the Markale market in Sarajevo in which 43 died. More cynical interpretations also see Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign and Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic’s waning patience with the Bosnian Serbs as factors.

In some cases building on previous agreements, Dayton left Bosnia and Herzegovina with a complex devolved system of government. Among its most contentious measures, the agreement formally recognised the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska, RS) as one of two ethnically defined “entities” (effectively highly autonomous regions), the other being the Bosniak and Croat-dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, itself split into 10 cantons with significant powers. It established a three-member rotating presidency, with one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat. And it established international community oversight for implementing Dayton through a high representative with powers to impose decisions on the country, including sacking politicians. Each of these has proved problematic.

As Aleksandar Savanovic, a professor of political science at the University of Banja Luka and an advisor to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), says, Dayton was “brilliant” in conception in that it brought an end to the war. But, imposed by the international community, it “lacks internal acceptance”. For Bosniaks and some moderates of all ethnicities, the RS is a reward for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Many Serbs feel Bosnia’s independence reflects the “tyranny of the majority” and fear that attempts to create a more unitary state will endanger their identity, and even their lives. And Croats were denied their own entity – and calls to create one are regularly raised.

The ethnically defined presidency also discriminates against the small-but-significant proportion of Bosnian citizens who do not identify as Bosniak, Croat or Serb. This situation was challenged by two such citizens – one Roma, one Jewish – in the European Court of Human Rights. In 2009, the court ruled that the Bosnian constitution was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. Bosnia will not be able to join the European Union without changing this part of its constitution. Failure to address the so-called “Sejdic-Finci question” is indicative of the difficulties of changing Dayton.

Since 2006, several attempts to “move beyond” Dayton have failed, some by tantalisingly narrow margins.

Almost universally, Bosnians blame politicians for their woes. But ethno-nationalist parties are regularly re-elected. The supposedly multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party (SDP) that eventually came to power after the 2010 elections was largely voted for by Bosniaks. The party squandered much of the goodwill it had, losing Bosniak support through deals it cut with the nationalist RS president, Milorad Dodik.

Meanwhile, Bosnia’s economy continues to languish. It is one of the poorest countries in Europe, with per capita GDP just 25 per cent of that of advanced European economies, according to the International Monetary Fund, while the youth unemployment rate is one of the highest in the world, at 60 per cent. The budget relies on life support from institutions including the IMF to pay salaries in the bloated public sector. Jobs in the government are also key sources of patronage for the political elite, used as vote banks and support for clientelist networks.

“Fifty-one percent of the electorate benefits from the current system,” says Leila, an elegantly dressed woman of mixed ethnicity sitting in the café of Sarajevo’s historic Hotel Europe, where headscarved women sip coffee while others drink potent fruit brandy. “There’s no incentive for political parties to change if they still win. I don’t see Dayton changed significantly any time soon, I just don’t see it happening.”

She says that while most are dissatisfied, for many the priority is keeping their heads above water. Moreover, when politicians feel their power is threatened, they ramp up nationalist rhetoric to rally support.

Many observers, like Lyon, see the RS as the biggest stumbling block. Dodik was once seen as the moderate alternative to the SDS, the party of Radovan Karadzic, but now is cast as a demagogic authoritarian nationalist by critics, including former allies. He has regularly called for secession if the RS is not given greater autonomy.

After a decade of failures, the international community has taken a new tack. In July, the state-level government finally adopted an EU-driven “reform agenda” developed by the UK and Germany, which puts economic reform ahead of the attempts to change the constitution that have floundered. Backed by international financial institutions including the IMF, the package prioritises economic liberalisation, ostensibly including cuts to public employment, as part of Bosnia’s path towards eventual EU membership.

“Getting rid of Dayton is not simple,” says one western diplomat. “We’d love to see changes, but change has to come via consensus. We hope that the reform agenda lead naturally into changes.”

As well as the priority aims of getting Bosnia’s economy moving again, the agenda is partly designed to weaken the patronage networks on which the country’s politicians depend, by boosting private sector as opposed to public employment. Diplomats insist that Sejdic-Finci must be addressed eventually, but now take the line that otherwise a radical overhaul of Dayton is not absolutely necessary as a precondition to EU membership – “it’s messy, but so is Belgium”, says one.

Dayton was hugely successful at bringing peace, but 20 years on, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not a country at peace with itself. But just as Bosnians have learned to live within Dayton, for the foreseeable future, so will the international community.

Andrew MacDowall is a correspondent and analyst based in Belgrade. He has written for publications including the Financial Times, Politico Europe, and the Guardian.