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Dayton’s ambiguous legacy

TK Vogel
21 November 2005

Ten years ago today, on 21 November 1995, a set of accords were signed at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio that brought an end to three and a half years of war and horrendous violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yet a decade on, the country is no nearer to a resolution of the issue that lay at the heart of the war: the shape of the Bosnian state. Now, voices are calling for a redefinition of Bosnia as part of a new constitutional settlement. But what should that look like, and how do the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the “international community” get there?

The slow disintegration of federal Yugoslavia, as its constituent republics Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia sought and declared independence in 1991-92, had left millions of ethnic Serbs putative citizens of the new states of Croatia and Bosnia. The Belgrade regime of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, supported by the Yugoslav army, swiftly conquered sizeable chunks of Croatian and Bosnian territory and expelled most non-Serbs; almost 2 million people from all nationalities were driven from their homes during the war.

The Serbs also besieged Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, where regular shelling and sniper fire killed around 10,000 civilians over the course of the war. Ongoing research by the independent Research and Documentation Centre in Sarajevo estimates the numbers killed in the war across the country at around 100,000 – far less than the 250,000 previously thought to have perished, but still a staggering number for a country of fewer than 4.5 million.

More on Bosnia and ex-Yugoslavia in openDemocracy:

Alix Kroeger, “Bosnia’s war of memory” (August 2002)

Ivan Krastev, “The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?” (June 2005)

James Walston, “Kosovo: the end of the beginning” (October 2005)

Andrew Wachtel, “The western Balkan outlook: beyond 2007” (November 2005)

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The last massacre

The Serb massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) men and boys in the vicinity of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 was a crucial event in strengthening the determination of the international community, led by the United States, to seek an end to the conflict. Another pivotal moment that paved the way to Dayton was the Serb shelling of Sarajevo’s main market on 28 August – the fortieth month of the siege – that left thirty-eight people dead.

“The impact of the 120mm shell”, the Washington Post’s Stacy Sullivan reported from the scene, “created a hellish landscape of blackened bodies, severed limbs and rivulets of blood running through broken sacks of vegetables. Screams of pain and terror echoed through market stalls as survivors picked among the debris searching for friends and relatives. Bits of flesh clung to nearby walls and shop fronts.”

The market massacre was the final element needed by an edgy United Nations commander in Sarajevo, Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, to unleash Nato bombers on the Bosnian Serbs, facilitating in turn a military advance by joint Croatian and Bosnian-government ground forces. The offensive reduced Bosnian Serb territory from roughly 70% of Bosnia-Herzegovina to around 50%, thus bringing it close to the 49-51% figure which international negotiators had been pursuing for some time. The foreign ministers of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia accepted this proportion in Geneva in early September 1995.

This territorial division was the foundation on which the peace of Dayton was built: two “entities”, one mainly Muslim and Croat, the other almost exclusively Serb (called indeed Republika Srpska), were recognised in November 1995, opening the way to a comprehensive peace deal.

But the quarrel over the nature of Bosnia-Herzegovina continued after the guns fell silent. Ten years on, the legacy of Dayton remains contested and ambiguous: while it has worked in bringing peace to Bosnia, it has failed to turn the traumatised country into a proper state.

The wars in former Yugoslavia were fought over the very make-up of the successor polities – their geographic and demographic boundaries. Conquered territories were relentlessly purged of members of other ethnicities. This conflict remained fundamentally unresolved at Dayton, though Dayton also created conditions for refugees to return home, which softened up the “ethnic purity” created by the war.

The ambiguity of the peace was above all the result of clashing domestic visions for the future of the country that remained unmediated at Dayton, but the settlement also reinforced a lack of vision on the part of the international community – there was a desire to “settle” the conflict but not really to “resolve” it by addressing its roots. This failure of vision manifested itself as a lack of coordination among the scores of non-governmental organisations that poured into Sarajevo after the war. Their planning was haphazard, but even more disabling was that the challenge of establishing their legitimacy was never tackled in any systematic way.

For a decade, the international community’s one-dimensional view of Bosnia has given rise to a process of simulated state-building that has created a virtual state with all the outward trappings of statehood – a state, however, that is at its core hollow. It is unable to engage in any sort of redistribution; it has failed to provide security to its population; it still needs a European Union force, albeit a small one, to keep the peace; and it has not succeeded in commanding the undivided loyalty of its citizens.

Dayton’s success and failure

The picture is not universally bleak. Rebuilding political authority in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the ruins of a one-party state torn apart in a bloody war was always going to be difficult, and some achievements are evident. The peace itself has proved surprisingly stable: not a single peacekeeper has been killed by hostile fire, no skirmish has occurred between the former enemies, and no large-scale violence has been directed at the considerable number of refugees returning to rebuild their destroyed homes. In that respect, Dayton has been a clear success – one that the current high representative, Paddy Ashdown – whose successor, probably Christian Schwarz-Schilling, will take office in January 2006 – never tires of touting.

But equally, Dayton has been a clear failure in the most fundamental way: it has failed to build a state on the ruins of the pre-war Yugoslav republic. This decade has brought peace to Bosnia, but at a cost: the agreement has frozen the country in the local balance of power of late 1995, one which leaves out of account important factors like economic development, good governance, justice, and the demands of European Union integration. Dayton, in short, has turned from being Bosnia’s life-vest into its straitjacket.

If Bosnia-Herzegovina is a safe place today, this has more to do with the demise of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade and the Franjo Tudjman cabal in Zagreb than with any coming together of the country’s citizens or politicians. The former in their great majority go to separate schools, read different newspapers and effectively live their lives according to whether they are Croat, Serb or Bosniak, not citizens of a single, unified Bosnia-Herzegovina; the latter continue to bicker over every single competency that should now be transferred upwards from the entity level to the central government in Sarajevo to help the country move nearer to the holy grail of EU membership.

True, the external trappings of a state, and even some of its real powers, are in place. The Bosnian constitution agreed at Dayton ascribed ten areas of authority to the central government, including foreign policy, trade policy and air-traffic control, while defence, policing and taxation were left to the “entities”; today, the downtown Sarajevo building hosting the common institutions of the state is now the headquarters of nine ministries.

The country even has a small national police force and a unified state border service, plus elements of a national army designed gradually to replace the current, largely segregated armies. The transformation of the country’s police forces, currently split along entity lines, into a unified body policing functional rather than political regions is underway after the country missed several European Union deadlines because of the refusal by Republika Srpska politicians to agree to such a model.

A hollow state

But these structures are empty shells, like the bombed-out, high-rise former parliament standing next to Sarajevo’s government building. There is one main reason for this: although Bosnians and the international administrators may share the view that the Dayton constitution and the office of the high representative have outlived their usefulness, they cannot agree even on a minimal vision on what the country should look like in the longer term.

Such a vision is needed if effective state-building is to generate the political legitimacy required to implement far-reaching change. In its absence, the temptation – particularly strong for those who came to Bosnia to implement the peace – is to see technical competence as a substitute. The result in Bosnia is that today’s external state-builders are skilled at establishing and strengthening the formal institutions of the modern state, but largely helpless faced with the challenge of building the state as an instrument to fulfil a social contract.

These outsiders cannot carry the sole responsibility for the absence of such a social contract among Bosnia-Herzegovina’s communities, but they should have more strongly focused on creating the conditions for it to emerge. With hindsight, the high representative should have prescribed clearer and firmer definitions of acceptable political conduct immediately after the war – and then have left the political process largely alone. Instead, Paddy Ashdown pursued an opposite course: allowing the fascist parties and the ideologists of ethnic purity to operate, while managing the details of running the country.

The European factor

Dayton included mechanisms for constitutional change based on consensus. In the absence of consensus, it has again fallen to the international community – this time in the form of United States diplomat (and former deputy high representative) Donald Hays – to deliver progress. Hays, with funding from the US Institute of Peace and the full backing of the state department, has produced a draft constitution that seems to address many of the issues that have bedeviled the country since the war – without, however, touching the Republika Srpska.

This goes to the heart of the matter: while many Bosnians of all backgrounds may agree that the country’s extreme federalism is unworkable, there is no consensus – not even tentative – that the entity system should be scrapped. In fact, it seems doubtful that even the more limited Hays plan will succeed. Initial negotiations among the main Bosnian parties in Brussels in mid-November failed to produce any agreement.

The location of this meeting reflects the fact that Brussels is the symbolic centre of important reform impulses in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but was also designed to highlight the fact that the US initiative had Europe’s support. The problem is that the European Union – while the only serious source of improvements in Bosnia’s bleak political, social and economic situation – is in its present phase singularly uninterested in politics.

TK Vogel is a Balkans editor with Transitions Online and a senior fellow of the Democratisation Policy Council, a trans-Atlantic initiative for accountability in democracy promotion.

Among his articles is (with Eric A Witte) “America should ditch its tyrant friends” (International Herald Tribune, 15 August 2005)

This condition has served the EU well, for it has allowed the Brussels club to absorb ten new entrants in the enlargement process of May 2004, most of them from former communist east-central Europe. The EU’s technocratic vision and its “soft-power” approach have first stimulated and then consolidated a remarkable transformation of these countries in a very short time. This transformation is primarily of a legal and bureaucratic nature that is well-suited to the problems of (for example) Poland or Hungary; it appears less appropriate to the candidates due for membership in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania, with their systemic corruption and parallel structures. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it may well reach its limits.

Moreover, things have changed since the east-central European states acceded. The European Union itself is undergoing an identity crisis after the rejection of its draft constitution by French and Dutch voters – a rejection that itself had much to do with enlargement issues, especially the prospect of Turkish membership. Turkey will command much of the EU’s enlargement agenda once Romania and Bulgaria (and Croatia, perhaps in 2009) are inside the community; this will leave little space for the countries of the western Balkans – where Albania, Macedonia, and Serbia & Montenegro as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina are knocking on Brussels’ door.

The EU negotiation technique of “frontloading” problematic issues (“chapters”) and not proceeding before they have been resolved puts a further obstacle in the way of states like Bosnia that are often little more than scaffolding around a crumbling structure. This may well be the only proper way of dealing with such issues without raising unrealistic hopes – but it also underscores the failure of ten years of peace implementation to create a proper state.

Not all the responsibility for this failure can be placed on the international community, however. Some analysts focus on the sweeping powers of the high representative with often facile and unenlightening comparisons with colonial rule. But external state-builders cannot substitute for processes that can only occur within the local society. It may be possible to reconstruct the state as a “service station” through technical interventions from outside, but this will not be sufficient to hold together societies just emerging from traumatic events. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a prime example of this challenge.

The horrors of Srebrenica, of Bijeljina, of Banja Luka, of Omarska, of Sarajevo, and of dozens of other sites of atrocity in the 1992-95 war may have receded from view, if not from memory. But as long as the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina is not founded on a stable basis that will allow all its communities to come together, the potential for the conflicts that allowed such violations to be committed will remain.

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