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Bosnia’s impaired peace may not last

Twenty years after the Dayton Accords, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains deeply divided, impoverished and dysfunctional

December 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

Twenty years ago today, the 1995 Dayton Accords were signed in Paris, bringing peace to Bosnia. Brokered by Richard Holbrooke — a renowned diplomat who, before his death in 2010, served under every Democratic president from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama — the agreement stunned the world by ending a vicious civil war that the Europeans could not stop.

I was a correspondent for Pacifica Radio at the time, covering the bloody more than three-year conflict in Bosnia among Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. I remember the elation on the streets of Sarajevo when the truce was announced. The nightmare was finally over. It was the first time since the Holocaust that genocide was perpetrated on European soil; the atrocities against Bosnian Muslims were described with a new term, “ethnic cleansing.”

But for all its merits, the Dayton settlement, negotiated near Dayton, Ohio, failed to design a multiethnic state for postwar Bosnia based on national reconciliation and civic citizenship. Instead, the agreement imposed structures that reinforced existing ethnic cleavages and rewarded populist politicians who sought to achieve by rabble-rousing and obstruction what they couldn’t through war: splitting the country into ethnic statelets.

Two decades later, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains impoverished, dysfunctional and churning with acrimony. It is loved by none of its embittered citizens and appears closer to outright disintegration than at any time since the signing of the Dayton agreement.

A non-viable polity

I left journalism after the accord to work on media reform under the transitional international administration in postwar Bosnia. There were reasons for hope. The stipulation that allowed refugees to return home, which reversed the ethnic cleansing, was an inspiring historic precedent. War crimes were being investigated, war criminals arrested, towns and bridges rebuilt and democratic elections organized. Human rights were written into every new law and policy.

But I was skeptical of some aspects of the settlement. Holbrooke insisted on negotiating with those most responsible for the war, including the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. The two leaders differed on many issues but saw eye to eye on one critical goal: to create a Bosnia that couldn’t survive.

And they convinced Holbrooke to draw ethnic-based polities in the country, basically along the front lines of their former campaigns of expulsion and murder. For example, Republika Srpska is the name for territory that Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s militias captured — its residents “cleansed” of non-Serbs and all its mosques and Catholic churches destroyed. (Karadzic is currently on trial at The Hague on genocide charges.)

The Dayton Accords mashed together the warring parties’ three polities rather than design a viable one anew. It burdened a country of 3.8 million people with a demarche for two autonomous entities, 14 legislatures, three presidents, three constitutional courts and nearly 150 ministers. It had no provisions on media reform or economic development, it allowed ultranationalist parties to run in elections, and it gave the international community little power to make changes when local power brokers flouted the multiethnic spirit of the agreement.

The Dayton plan bought into the logic of nationalist Serb and Croat leaders, who simply wanted to carve off territory that they could control.

The 1996 elections brought nationalist leaders to power — a pattern that would repeat itself for the next 20 years even though the corrupt local chieftains failed to improve the lot of anyone but themselves. The Dayton Accords’ essence was predicated on a flawed premise about Bosnia and its diverse ethnic groups, which include Jews, Germans, Roma, Albanians and many others as well as a large number of mixed families.

Most American and European diplomats and the media understood the war as a religious-ethnic conflict among the three largest ethnicities — the Orthodox Christian Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims and the Catholic Croats. Accepting the narrative of the nationalist Serb and Croat leaders, the international community believed that the warring parties hated one another for centuries. It was easy to come to this conclusion if you parachuted into the war-wracked country for a couple of days or weeks before picking up a history book and then jetted back to Vienna, Washington or Paris.

In the quest for easy explanations for a very complex conflict, the international community overlooked Bosnians who did not identify themselves primarily by nationalism. This applied to most Bosnians during long stretches of the region’s history. In the socialist decades — even after vicious internecine fighting during World War II — Bosnians of all backgrounds lived and worked together, even intermarried in the cities. Tolerance and diversity had been their pride. This spirit prevailed in Sarajevo and Tuzla and in pockets of civil society and smaller political parties even during the 1990s war.

There was nothing primordial about the prejudice or inevitable about the slaughter. Radicals, who grabbed power in the vacuum of postsocialist Yugoslavia, fueled the fear and raged with impunity, since the major European powers dithered and Washington declared it had no dog in the fight. It wasn’t as easy as throwing a match onto a pile of hay; the propaganda and violence was powerful and relentless.

The Dayton plan bought into the logic of Milosevic and Tudjman, who simply wanted to carve off territory that they could control. I left the international mission in 1999 amid equal measures of encouraging development and disappointment. I did not realize that we were actually at the high point of progress. It soon became clear that Bosnia — even though the peace was holding — could never get on its feet under its defective arrangement. At Dayton, the international community missed an opportunity to impose a workable constitution, and Bosnia’s local politicians were unwilling to create new structures that would undermine their fiefs.

In 2005 the European Union took over Bosnia’s fate, with the intention of phasing out the international protectorate and preparing the country for integration into the union. EU leaders believed that they could entice Bosnians to work together by dangling the prospect of EU membership before them, the way it had in post-totalitarian Eastern and Southern European countries. But Bosnia-Herzegovina was not in the same league as 1990s Slovakia or 1970s Portugal. However, the EU’s incompetence reversed many of the gains made in the first decade of the peace process.

Deep malaise

Bosnia has now sunk into a deep malaise. Its citizens have lost all hope in the possibility of salvation from abroad or their own power to institute change. The economy is a basket case, with an average monthly wage of $880 and joblessness at 43 percent. Every young person with promise wants to leave the country. Schools separate students of different ethnicities with fences. Bosnian Muslims almost exclusively dominate even the once proudly multicultural Sarajevo. In 2014 enraged Bosnians across the country rioted, burning down government buildings and battling police. But even this moment of crosscutting ire could not congeal into a sustainable, coordinated opposition.  

Factional ethnic infighting — perpetuated above all by the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodic — is currently at fever pitch. Dodic is threatening to hold a referendum on ending international oversight, which many see as a thinly veiled ploy to separate Srpska from Bosnia. This is in direct violation of the Dayton Accords and, should it happen, could drive the final nail in the coffin of the 20-year-old peace settlement. And it could reignite an armed conflict.  

Two decades ago, there was the possibility that the spirit of unity and reconciliation in Tuzla and Sarajevo could prevail. It was a spark that we hoped would catch — with our aid. But the shortcomings of the historic Dayton Accords snuffed it out — in the same breath that it ended the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.

Paul Hockenos is a journalist living in Berlin. He has covered the transformations of the EU for over 25 years.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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