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Bosnia: moving on from the Dayton Agreement?

Though the Dayton Agreement vanquished military fighting, it’s since come under heavy criticism. Is it time to move on?

Election posters in Bosnia. Demotix/Mahir Vranac. All rights reserved.“Stable but stagnant.”

That’s one way to describe Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnia) almost 20 years after international actors stopped a brutal civil war in the region. The break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s strained relationships among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, Bosnia’s three primary “constituent peoples.” Some 100,000 people were killed in the ensuing three-year land grab.

Though the Dayton Agreement vanquished military fighting, it’s since come under heavy fire: Ethnic self-identification hasn’t changed at all, and the peace deal set up what can only be described as an enormously dizzying government system, shrouded in international bureaucracy, that’s contributed to Bosnia’s being one of Europe’s most corrupt states.

So, has the Dayton Agreement failed?

The problem is in the question. The Agreement has done a lot to broker peace and stability in the formerly war-torn region, including creating postwar property laws to support ethnic minorities who were expelled from their prewar homes. This isn’t to say that the peace deal doesn’t deserve any criticism for cementing Bosnia along its already tendentious ethno-religious lines or for divvying up power in such a way that it’s now all too easy for high-handed political elites to get away with bad governance from their mono-ethnic perches. But one peace settlement wasn’t ever going to be the silver bullet that ends decades’ worth of deeper national tensions.

What we ought to be asking ourselves is this: How might we deal with the Agreement’s legacy? The answer may lie, at least in part, in the European Union (EU). The carrot of EU membership could drive leaders to pursue reforms so that their country can access the privileges of the club. The peace deal has been the crux of many of Bosnia’s current problems. Yet without a total constitutional overhaul, something that’s extremely unlikely given the political environment, finding an elite-driven remedy that incentivizes the political leadership to do anything that could make the central government less dysfunctional would be a historic step forward.

Take care: This lofty enterprise of “EU conditionality” isn’t a perfect tool, and it’s admittedly attained a somewhat overblown mythical status. But how might it work for Bosnia?

Joining the EU doesn’t happen overnight. Countries that want to become members must meet the Copenhagen criteria’s conditions and pass the thousands of pages of legislation that make up the acquis communautaire, the EU’s body of law. But rarely do these costly processes deter states. Bosnia’s been a potential membership candidate since 2010. Its quest to join the EU has been held up largely by the Sejdić-Finci question, which goes back to a 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that declared part of Bosnia’s power-sharing unlawful because it discriminates against people who don’t identify as one of the three main national groups. Bosnian leaders haven’t yet fixed the problem, but EU foreign ministers, fueled by Anglo-German resolve, have recently agreed to unblock the country’s path to the EU on the critical condition that leaders pledge to implement a range of economic and political reforms.

There are some caveats, of course. First, the prospect of EU membership shouldn’t give wily politicians the impression that the Sejdić-Finci question isn’t important. It rightly tasks leaders with making a needed change to the constitution. And second, economic reform doesn’t always lead to political reform, especially when the status quo enables elites to line their pockets. Bringing about non-cosmetic change in Bosnia will require extinguishing client politics.

Still, joining the EU could put Bosnia on the right track. This sort of soft power has always been key to the EU’s diplomatic power of persuasion, whether formally or informally. Take the 1980s and 2004 enlargements. They show how preparing for EU membership can help poorer nations, such as by increasing per capita GDP, and leverage systemic change. Bosnia is a bit different, due largely to its legally entrenched diversity, so if this tool is to have any hope of being a catalyst for change in Bosnia, then the EU will have to tailor the process to the needs of a state that’s still facing obstacles in the form of old cleavages and old ethno-nationalist spoilers.

In short, postwar transitions rarely, if ever, play out in the same way, but the political payoffs of gaining EU membership are often similar: “Joining the EU is about binding one’s country to a strong and proven system of values that can underpin a fragile democracy.”

Or, to put it more plainly, EU membership could pressure elites to “steal less and govern better.” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said last year that, “yes, there can be a new start for the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina. We [the EU member states] are ready to engage.” And so are Bosnians, according to last year’s fierce demonstrations. EU membership alone won’t be a silver bullet, either. But two decades after an ugly civil war, it could inch Bosnia past Dayton.

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About the author

Brandon Tensley is an independent journalist. His work focuses primarily on democratic transitions, minority politics, and nationalism. Follow him on Twitter.


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