Dayton plus ten: Europe interrogated

Louise L Lambrichs Michel Thieren
24 November 2005

It took three weeks of intense negotiations in an inhospitable military airbase in Ohio for three heads of states – Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman – to sign the eleven articles and annexes of what constitutes the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or “ Dayton accords”, on 21 November 1995. The Dayton documents ended four years of a war that killed tens of thousands of people, displaced and ruined millions, and made Europe a site of genocide half a century after the liberation of Auschwitz.

Ten years later, Dayton’s legacy remains questionable. The political landscape in Bosnia is highly polarised and the region is still vulnerable to a nationalist revival. In these conditions, the commemoration of Dayton’s anniversary is less a celebration than an opportunity for renegotiation.

Michel Thieren is a Belgian physician specialising in humanitarian affairs and human rights. He was head of office in northern Bosnia for the World Health Organisation in 1995-6.

Louise L Lambrichs is a French novelist and essayist. Her most recent book is Nous ne verrons jamais Vukovar (Philippe Rey, 2005).

The authors participated in a conference (Bosnie, je me souviens…) in Caen, France, from 5-19 November 2005

Also by Michel Thieren in openDemocracy:

“There was genocide in Srebrenica” (July 2005)

“Katrina’s triple failure” (September 2005)

“Kashmir: brothers in aid” (October 2005)

The political construction of Europe, after all, depends on its capacity to resolve once and for all the legal status of its territories and the citizenship of its peoples. Dayton’s accords left a de facto partition in the most sensitive zone of Europe. In 1995 it was an effective ceasefire agreement; ten years later it is failing to act as a guarantee of peace. As long as the accords are not reopened, the stability of Europe will remain in doubt.

But to discuss the prospects for a renegotiation of Dayton’s accords requires a review of how misconceptions about the Yugoslav war led to Dayton’s failure in the first place.

A conflict “over there”

In December 1991, in reaction to the siege of Vukovar and the invasion of Croatia by the Yugoslav federal army, intellectuals like Annie Le Brun criticised what they called the “national communism” in power in the Belgrade of Slobodan Milosevic. The term was purposely used to echo Hitler's "national socialism", with its territorial and ethnic-cleansing ambitions.

The prominent French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, meanwhile, talked about Belgrade's territorial conquest and Serb propaganda’s "instrumentalisation" of the Nazi holocaust. The incremental toll of horrors as the conflict unfolded confirmed his and Le Brun’s judgment: the killing of the wounded civilians gathered at Vukovar's hospital in 1991, the concentration camps in Bosnia in 1992, the relentless siege and bombing of Sarajevo and the “safe areas” – a cycle that culminated in July 1995 with the genocide of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Despite this mounting evidence, political elites in France and Britain remained evasive about the conflict from the beginning. They considered Milosevic’s Belgrade the locus of legitimate power in the region, and talked of the “civil war” and the “inter-ethnic conflict” as something happening “over there”, a matter for “them” to resolve. Such distancing provided countless opportunities for political denial: of the ultra-nationalism that impelled the war in Yugoslavia, of the fact of territorial expansion and ethnic cleansing in the middle of Europe.

The wilful misunderstanding of the true nature and dynamic of the conflict went further: it was embodied in an arms embargo which left first Croatia then Bosnia defenceless, a humanitarian policy of massive population displacements (a form of disguised ethnic cleansing), acceptance of the reactive spread of regional nationalism from Belgrade to Zagreb, support for a territorial partition of Bosnia. All these measures strengthened the position of the aggressor throughout the conflict.

Dayton can be understood in this context as belonging to the same logic of favouring the aggressor. The result is that today Bosnia is more divided, economically neglected and socially segregated than ever. Meanwhile, Republika Srpska’s borders extend way beyond the Drina river approaching the vicinity of Sarajevo, graphically displaying the evidence of Serbia's victory.

Europe’s wrong choice

The late 1980s was a period of growing pan-Serbian agitation in Belgrade, manifested in everything from political speeches to novels, music and historical narratives. When the ultra-nationalist wave turned from verbal to physical violence with the invasions of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, it helped reinforce the tendency to hardline nationalism among the Franjo Tudjman government in Zagreb and among Croats who hoped to recapture Croatian territories now under Serbian control.

Why couldn't Europe, during this period, learn the lessons of its mistakes of appeasement in the 1930s? Europe needs to reflect on this embarrassing question if it wants to address the legacy of Dayton effectively. What happened during the wars of ex-Yugoslavia is that Europe chose to call a “national-communist campaign” an “inter-ethnic conflict”, thus confusing aggressors and defenders and misleading public opinion.

Many must remember the impression a decade ago of never knowing exactly what was happening in Yugoslavia, and of losing track of the numerous peace agreements hastily established to endorse Serbian military “facts on the ground”. Few seemed to have a strong sense of where evil was coming from and who the victims were. Was it because Europe was terrified of seeing a Bosnian Muslim state at its heart that it preferred to indulge pan-Serbian racist ideology?

This shameful attitude is embodied in the Dayton accords, which split Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities: Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim federation. With the exception of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina today resembles a developing country filled with poverty and socio-economic breakdown. Unlike Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina has no concrete project, no possibility to develop itself. The country is locked in "inter-ethnic" and nationalist postures and as a result is becoming more a prey to radical Islamism.

By fearing Muslim expansion in the heart of Europe in 1991, by betting on the aggressor and its criminal ideology, by sealing the Serbs’ implicit victory in Dayton's accord, Europe has made Bosnia and Herzegovina a fertile land for Islamic fundamentalism. Dayton's bleak legacy raises the question of how Europe can rescue Bosnia – for both the country’s and the continent’s sake.

The challenge of renegotiation

The renegotiation of Dayton has one goal: Bosnia’s future. It aims to free the country from its de facto ethnic partition and help it find its project within the European Community. The details and methods of implementation of the renegotiation of Dayton will be complex, as indicated in the response to recent proposals developed by the United States and reluctantly embraced in Europe. For it to work, it is vitally important that a post-Dayton settlement is based on two essential principles: a radical self-examination by Europe, and the right of Bosnia to decide its own future without being compromised by the presence of those involved in the 1995 process.

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)

Dusan Velickovic, “Belgrade: war crimes in daily life” (June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, “Srebrenica: ten years on” (July 2005)

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

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

TK Vogel, “Dayton’s ambiguous legacy” (November 2005)

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The first principle requires a triple examination of European conscience:

  • Europe must reconsider its complacency towards Serbia’s denial and national mythologies, but also its acceptance of Serbia’s refusal to recognise its overwhelming and unilateral responsibility for the Yugoslav war
  • Europe must admit its complicity – through its political representatives of the time – for ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, fifty years after the destruction of European Jews
  • Europe must confront the ambiguities of its feelings about European Muslims.

All this will take time – perhaps an entire generation. But this approach to Dayton would give Europe an unprecedented opportunity to address its ideological fractures, free itself from nationalism and associated mythologies, and escape the deadly dynamic of repeating conflicts. Perhaps this is the test Europe needs to pass in order to give its political union a chance to thrive.

The consequence of failure would be that Dayton freezes Serbian supremacy over 49% of Bosnia and institutionalises the growth of radical Islamism in the other 51%. It would reconfirm Europe’s longstanding complacency towards ultra-nationalism and its antagonism against its new internal enemies, the Muslim communities of Europe. International inertia over Dayton would send a clear message that "European values" are for Christian Europeans only.

The second principle requires a pact between Brussels and Sarajevo.

In 1995, there were five signatories of the Dayton accords: Bosnia and Herzegovina; its two entities, the Croat-Muslim federation and the Republika Srpska; Croatia and Serbia. The accords’ major flaw came from the fact that Slobodan Milosevic signed both for his own Serbia and on behalf of the Republika Srpska in north and northeastern Bosnia. As a result, Bosnia’s President Alija Izetbegovic could speak for only half of his own country.

Ten years later, it would make no sense to have these same parties renegotiating the accords. Croatia is an independent state on the doorstep of the European Union, with no territorial claim over Bosnia and no interest in renegotiating anything there. Similarly, Serbia should have no reason to participate in discussions of Bosnia’s future.

In short, the European Community should undertake the process of negotiation with Bosnia and its two entities only. This independence for Bosnia in the renegotiation process is crucial because the matter under review is precisely an agreement that in 1995 implicitly granted Serbia control of almost half of Bosnia. Bosnia needs a full reform package to scale up its readiness for a path to the European Community. The goal of this reform is not to homogenise the country or deny its socio-cultural diversities, but to guarantee a viable distribution of political power between the central state and its two regional entities. Moreover, a new constitution for Bosnia should abide by European values of tolerance and not retain anything suggesting that political power can be based on ethnicity.

The process of creating this new constitution requires that Brussels negotiate directly with Sarajevo. This message was delivered by three members of the European parliament – Daniel Cohn-Bendit, José Maria Mendiluce and Haris Silajdzic:

"it is essential, ten years after, to reassess the content of Dayton's accords, a text that was imposed on Bosnia and Herzegovina, more as a ceasefire than a real constitutional guarantee of its viable future and adhesion to the European Union and the Council of Europe … [Today] many are surprised to realise how difficult it is in Bosnia to empower democracy and plural citizenship instead of ethnic and religious ideology. The split presidency (Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic) is a permanent sabotage against any alternative to the logic that was conducive to the conflict" (La Bosnie-Herzégovine après dix ans de Dayton, Le Monde, 10 October 2005).

The criteria for accession to the European Union are measured in economic, political and legal terms. The obligation of Croatia and Serbia to collaborate with the international criminal tribunal in The Hague is an additional requirement – but, even more important, this should extend to a thorough examination of national memories and an assessment of national myths and realities. All this is hard enough for Balkan countries to fulfill, but makes it even more important that they demonstrate full accountability and transparency over the political decisions that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The Czech philosopher and dissident Jan Patocka once labelled Europe the continent of “interrogated life”. Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia’s own self-interrogation is necessary, but not enough. The whole of Europe should "interrogate itself" and account for its wrongdoing in the Balkans. Europe now should fully commit itself to help bring Bosnia and Herzegovina up to the highest standards of European values. A principled renegotiation of the Dayton accords is an essential step.

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