Can Europe Make It?

Bosnia and Herzegovina: twenty years on from Dayton

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a paralysed state. Can a way out be found by leaving behind the Dayton Peace Accord?

Mirela Zarichinova
5 October 2015

Sarajevo. Mirela Zarichinova/ All rights reserved.The conference centre, now named “Richard Holbrooke”, seems deserted. We walk along its empty hallways but see no sign of human existence. The only evidence that something of historical significance once happened here are five huge photos hung in the lobby. They depict men in suits gathered around a map, men in suits on red carpet, men in suits giving interviews to a bunch of reporters. Under these photos lies a pile of wedding brochures.

We continue. As we walk deeper into the building, we hear voices in the middle of a dark corridor. A woman and a man, looking no more than 25, are folding napkins and seem confused to see visitors. “A peace agreement? I’ve heard something happened here but to be honest never paid too much attention”, explains the woman who is fast to clarify that she started working here 2 years ago and that the other employees are even more recent.

Nevertheless, she knows where the meetings took place. We follow her back to the corridor where she opens one unusually thick door with a special lock. As I enter the small, messy room, which is full of chairs, three tables and some rubber tree plants, I imagine the faces of Slobodan Milošević, Alija Izetbegović and Franjo Tuđman who were here in the autumn of 1995. I imagine them angry, scared and suffocated by the lack of space, I am curious as to what they said to each other in these rooms, around these dark corridors.

We are somewhere near Dayton, Ohio, in the conference centre inside Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

20 years ago the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Agreement, was negotiated here. It put an end to the Bosnian War. The talks that took place in this small room shaped the future of a region and particularly that of one country. These talks stopped the most violent conflict in Europe after WWII but also institutionalised segregation to an unbelievable level.

“If I were you, I’d go to Cincinnati, there is nothing interesting in Dayton”, says the waitress at the only visible restaurant in the downtown area of the city. We asked her for some tourist landmarks from the negotiations as an excuse to check if anyone here knows about the agreement. No, no mark from the crucial talks seemed to have remained in Dayton, neither for the tourists, nor in the minds of its citizens; the woman at the hotel near the conference centre,;the volunteer at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force; the guard in front of the city court.

Funny how on the other part of the world, in the beautiful mountainous Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), “Dayton” is one of the most frequently used words. It pops up whenever a local tries to explain what is not functioning well in their country. Unfortunately this applies to almost everything. 20 years after the whole world looked towards the little American town of Dayton, today’s Bosnia is more and more often considered a failed state.


Inside the conference centre at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Mirela Zarichinova/ All rights reserved.

Bosnia before the war

Before the war, the three main ethnic groups in Bosnia – the Muslim Bosniaks, the Christian Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats - were highly mixed within the Socialist Republic of BiH, one of the six federal units of Yugoslavia. The leader, Josip Broz Tito, managed to suppress conflicting ethnic identities and encourage a Yugoslav one which, at the time, played the key political role. After his death in 1980, however, with the deterioration of the political and economic situation in Yugoslavia, ethnic identities became a source of nationalist sentiments which turned into tensions, gradually resulting in the ethnically-rooted war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The war was a political one, however “the existing religions played an important role in defining the national histories of the three groups in tragic terms. All the respective religions in the area perceived themselves as frontier religions and were inclined to act and react as such”, writes the Croatian sociologist Srđan Vrcan.

By 1995 the conflict had lasted for almost 4 years. The capital, Sarajevo, was suffering the longest siege in modern history. Mass rapes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and genocide were all taking place. Approximately 100,000 people were killed and more than half of the population (2.2 million) was displaced, making this war the most devastating conflict in Europe since World War II.

A never ending conflict

It seemed to last forever and, even worse, no hope for successful resolution was seen on the horizon. The truly multicultural environment,t which had been a source of Bosnian pride during Yugoslavian times, was now  reason for their agony. People were so mixed, they were practically fighting with their neighbors. There was no political will from within the country to end the conflict and all peace talks had failed. After enormous pressure from the international community the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and then-Yugoslavia finally agreed to meet in a neutral zone. Thi would be Dayton.

A vast, radiant land, sparsely populated and surrounded by rivers where no person could be seen outside of a car: this is how the area around the military base in Dayton looks in the late summer of 2015, I doubt that much has changed since 1995. This is definitely a location to keep the minds and bodies of the harsh men away from any distraction. What followed this very unusual decision-making process was the creation of perhaps the world's most complicated governing system.

The conference was chaired by chief US peace negotiator Richard Holbrooke and co-chaired by Russian and EU representatives. Not only did the sole agreement for a cease-fire have to be reached here, but also all the specifics of how the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina would function had to be agreed. Furthermore,  the lives of the warring ethnic groups who had been fighting for years and were now expected go back to normal had to be reorganised. There, in Dayton, the three leaders had talk to each other without using the media as a propaganda tool and, above all, without running away.

Bosnia after Dayton

The Constitution of BiH came as an Annex to the Peace Agreement. In an attempt to create inter-ethnic balance in Bosnia’s political affairs, the participants in the conference set up a very uncommon federal state structure and divided the country into two main entities. One is Republika Srpska with a Serb majority and the second is Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Federation) with a Bosniak and Croat majority.

Republika Srpska is highly centralised and unitary in character, while the Federation consists of ten cantons, each having their own cantonal government and parliament with broad constitutional powers and discrepancies in the areas of culture, healthcare and education. Even more complicated is the Brčko District: a neutral, self-governing administrative unit, established in 2000 after an arbitration process undertaken by the Office of the High Representative. The special status of Brčko came as a result of its geostrategic importance, now forming a corridor between the two sections of Republika Srpska.

If we cite the former High Representative to Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, Dayton was “a superb agreement to end a war but a very bad agreement to make a state”. The agreement and the system of governing that it brought did indeed stop the bloodshed but the price was, still is, and will probably continue to be fierce institutional division between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

Two schools, one roof

One of the most painful paradoxes of post-Dayton Bosnia is the so-called "Two schools under one roof” system, which operates in a number of schools in the Federation, particularly in municipalities with mixed Bosniak/Croat population. There the pupils attend classes in the same building while being physically separated. They use different classrooms and sometimes enter the building through different entrances. Schools have two sets of administration. The teachers follow different national programmes and teach in the national language of one of the two groups – either Bosnian or Croatian - two languages so close to each other that it is almost impossible for a foreigner to make a distinction).

The legal system

There are four court systems in the country: one on state level, one each in the two entities and the separate court system of Brčko District. Each of the two entities has its own Constitutional and Supreme courts. The same complexity applies to the legal acts in the country which results in huge legal discrepancies and makes the system too confusing even for experts working inside of it.

The “Others”

The Dayton Constitution makes a distinction between two categories of citizens: the so-called “Constituent Peoples” (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) and the “Others”. Bosnia is ruled by a collective Presidency of three members, composed of a Bosniak and a Croat from the Federation and a Serb from Republika Srpska. The chairmanship rotates every eight months. The same goes for the House of Peoples, which consists of five Bosniaks and five Croats from the Federation and five Serbs from Republika Srpska. This means that Jews, Roma, other national minorities, people who come from mixed marriages or just refuse to declare affiliation with one of the three ethnic groups cannot run as candidates for the two highest state organs, as well as for many other public posts.

In Bosnia, collective rights are much better protected than the individual ones. A person does not exist as an individual and cannot rely on the system if he or she is not a member of one of the three ethnic groups, says Dennis Gratz, the former chairman of Naša Stranka (a political party which is multi-ethnic and a striking exception of the general rule). A person is not provided social benefits or any assistance from the state outside their entity or even canton, adds Gratz.

Mirsada, a 27-year-old woman from Tuzla, illustrates the problem: “My health insurance is not valid in Sarajevo. So, after I came here to live, I had to choose between traveling to Tuzla every time I have a problem or to pay for insurance. I could not afford both and basically every time I get sick I try to take care of it myself”.

Could Dayton be changed?

Clearly, such discrimination is unacceptable for a modern state, especially one that has expressed plans to join the EU. “Changing of the Constitution is a very delicate matter, mainly because the authorities of Republika Srpska see it as the guarantee for the existence of the entity,” says Nataša Kovačev, a Serbian journalist based in Sarajevo. She does not see the possibility of it happening soon as feasible. There are arguments supporting her opinion.

In the famous “Sejdić and Finci” case, two Bosnian citizens of Roma and of Jewish origin, challenged the Dayton Constitution at the hightest European level - the European Court of Human Rights. In 2009 the Court confirmed that the two were discriminated against and ascertained that BiH had to change its Constitution in a way that the “Others” could also run for high political posts. This was a crucial decision because its implementation would mean a complete change of the Constitutional order in the country.

Essentially, it is not so much about Romani and Jewish people but about destructing the vicious model of segregation in all aspects of Bosnian political life through including the “Others” and thus decreasing the importance of ethnic belonging. The decision was never implemented.

Due to the incredible educational, legal and political complexities not only is the system hard to understand but it is slow, inefficient and, most of all, corrupt. “If something is flourishing in Bosnia today, this is corruption and clientelism”, says Lana, a student of political science in Sarajevo. For many the current system means property qualification and obstruction of their right to free movement.

Locals criticise the government for being more interested in their property gains than in any social problem. Most striking, however, is the social contrast - the salaries of Bosnian MPs are more than six times higher than the average one in the country, making them the best paid in Europe. This provokes strong social discontent. For example, one of the most viral pictures of Pope Francis’ visit to the Bosnian capital in June was the one comparing the modest car he was using to the super-luxurious ones of the government officials welcoming him.

While Bosnia sleeps, in Dayton the weather is incredibly hot, the air is not moving, the wide sidewalks are empty and there is no one around. Dayton looks sad and lonely today, only cars and a few trolley buses pass us by. These trolleys are just as empty as the streets and look quite unusual for an American town. They make me remember the overcrowded trolleys passing from the remote Dobrinje neighbourhood to the centre of Sarajevo. Last winter sometimes city transport would stop in the capital of Bosnia because of unpaid bills and people would have to walk home.

The Presidency is set alight

The trolleys in Sarajevo also had to stop in early 2014 when people’s despair and anger exploded into fierce protests and thousands demanded immediate changes in the social politics of Bosnia and the country’s main cities again witnessed violent scenes. Demonstrators in Sarajevo, Tuzla and other big towns attacked buildings, threw eggs and stones, broke windows and even set fire to a section of the Presidency building. In Bosnia one in five people lives below the poverty line and youth unemployment is almost 60%.

Lana directly points out at the Dayton Agreement as the true roots of this social unrest, saying that “This system has made impossible any economic progress, our country is in fact a neocolonial state. It is here not to help the citizens but only to serve the interests of the Westerners and of our corrupted politicians”. Despite being an active participant in the protests, she does not believe they changed anything.

According to Federico Sicurella, screenwriter of the documentary "Sarajevolution" and an academic researcher focused on the Balkans, the majority of the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina have implicitly ratified the status quo by keeping the political parties that have most profited from the system's numerous faults and loopholes in power. He points to the blogger Jessie Hronesova who convincingly argues that this electoral behaviour is in fact highly rational and pragmatic. Jobs and the entire civil service are attached to party allegiance, which means that voting for a non-established party could significantly undermine one's chance to get or maintain a job.

The way out of this vicious circle would be to create new economic opportunities, to make the people less dependent on the state structure and therefore more inclined to challenge the establishment. This, however, is not in the interest of the established political parties.

“Twenty years on from the end of the war, Bosnia is yet to come to terms with its past. There is a strong argument that advancement towards the EU would provide firmer foundations for the process of reconciliation”, says a Western diplomat in the Balkans who asked that his identity not be disclosed due to the nature of his work. In his view, whilst the prospect of EU membership remains distant, the incentives for reform will also remain weak.

Parallel actors

Lana is not the only one in her opinion against foreign intrusion. On the streets of Sarajevo you hear a lot of EU skepticism and a general negative attitude towards any foreign interference – American and western European NGOs, charity organisations from the Gulf countries and so on. In the presence of an almost non-existing state, therefore, it is no surprise that parallel actors take over the empty space.

For example, Sarajevo previously lacked a convenient public library, one was was recently opened with the money provided by the state of Qatar. It combines all the necessary features of a good library – it is clean, spacious, silent, air-conditioned but comes with certain demands. For example, women are not allowed to wear pants and skirts above the knees or to show their shoulders. As long as this is the only option to study in a calm environment, then women follow these rules.

Ever since the war there has been the concern that Islamist militant groups will use Bosnia to spread Islamist ideas and recruit fighters – a concern that is recently gaining traction with the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Kovačev gives the example of Zvornik where a man attacked a police station shouting “Allahu Akbar” in April this year, one policeman was killed and two more were wounded. In her opinion, however, media sensationalism plays a great role around this topic due to the current situation in the Middle East.

The journalist believes that the actual threat is the damage such sensational reporting could bring to smaller mixed communities. It risks raisng tensions between different ethnic and religious groups which have already suffered a lot and are only now slowly rebuilding trust and cooperation.This threat of new interethnic tensions is what keeps the country inside its paradoxical state and paralyses any attempt for radical change and it is a card played by all actors involved.

As for Dayton, it seems too hot, unfriendly and lifeless. The waitress is maybe right – there is nothing interesting here. So, we decide to spend the night somewhere else. As we try to find our way out of it, we see a huge sign on the road: “Dayton. Exit only.”

It’s not just us trying to find a better place to stay. Bosnia’s way out of its dead end is clearly through leaving the Dayton system behind. Whether it is too soon or too late for the little Balkan country to start an independent life is something we don’t yet know.

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