Post-Dayton Bosnia: the other path

The virtuous circle initiated by the Dayton-Paris agreement has turned into a vicious one. As elsewhere in Europe, federal constructs are overrun by centrifugal forces. Bosnia finds itself is a similar situation to Spain, Belgium and Scotland - all countries endangered by a possible breakup. A reality check is needed.

Christophe Solioz
28 November 2012

Seventeen years ago, the internationally negotiated General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP) brokered in Dayton was signed in Paris on 14 December 1995. The Dayton Accord ended the nearly four-years-long war: it stabilized and pacified the country. It further imposed an institutional package including a highly decentralized constitution - drafted exclusively by outsiders - and established an international administration with a massive foreign civil and military presence.

This peace settlement was preceded by the 1994 Washington Agreement, which worked for peace between the Croat and Bosniak warring parties and founded the ten-cantons-strong Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two entities. The other one, the Republika Srpska, was created under the Dayton Accord as a unified territory comprising 63 municipalities. Richard Holbrooke, the ‘architect’ of the 1995 agreement, admitted in 2005 to having made a mistake with the words “Republika Srpska” - which is to this day interpreted in Banja Luka as if the entity would become an “international legal subject”.

 “Dayton Bosnia” was conceived as an ambitious state-building project. It proved to be successful in post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction and, up to a certain point, was instrumental in state building, notably strengthening joint institutions - a gradual process which took place in the years 1997–2005 but which, since then, is gridlocked. The country’s asymmetrical and complex governance structure, overloaded with too many levels of governance - one central state, two entities, ten cantons, municipalities and the self-governing district of Brčko - prevent the country from becoming an efficient state.

A multilateral body - the Office of the High Representative (OHR) - was entrusted with the responsibility for the administration of the country and tasked to monitor the implementation of the peace settlement. Unfortunately, neither was the military component placed under its authority, nor were the different international actors brought together under a single umbrella. The absence of an integrated structure weakened the accord’s implementation, which became even more problematic because it was an unstable compromise among the warring parties - one side arguing for an unified state while the other wanted extended federalism.

As the local parties were, on the one hand, struggling with compliance with the accord and, on the other hand, deeply involved in influence, administrative corruption, economy and state capture, the OHR received, over time, more authority. From December 1997 onwards, the High Representative received further substantial powers - so-called “Bonn powers”. He could adopt binding decisions when local parties were unwilling to act, and remove from office public officials who violated legal provisions or the Dayton Accord. High Representatives Wolfgang Petritsch (1999–2002) and Lord Ashdown (2002–2006) extensively used them, particularly for the adoption of the amendments of the Entity Constitutional Laws in April 2002 and the defence reform of April 2003.

Between the poles of, on the one hand, supervision that relies essentially on cooperation between the local parties and the international administration - as illustrated by the UN Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) - and, on the other hand, transitional administration with full executive authority exerting direct governance - as embodied by the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), - Bosnia exemplifies the case of ‘shared sovereignty’… i.e. supposed not to last indefinitely.

Handing over

The key is thus a “handing over” strategy: the gradual transfer of power to local authorities, and the design of a follow-on action plan - both highly technical and politically complex matters. Petritsch introduced a coherent “ownership policy” involving local politicians as well as representatives of civil society. His successor, Lord Ashdown, followed-up with a “handing-over strategy” which was supposed to complete the transfer of competencies and powers retained by outsiders to the local authorities. Unfortunately, this process was never completed. The Bosnian case illustrates the problematic balance between international responsibility and “country ownership”, and the great difficulty in enhancing the latter.

The Kosovo example may be a good case in point. The international administration took here the form of direct governance. Indeed, on 10 June 1999, the UN Security Council Resolution 1244 established Kosovo as a UN protectorate, with a massive NATO-led military and UN civil (UNMIK) presence. Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17, 2008, UNMIK continued in a minor role and the International Civilian Office (ICO) was tasked with ensuring the full implementation of Kosovo’s status settlement and any support required for its European integration. Despite the modest results and the pervasive severe internal dysfunction, the ICO ended the “supervised independence” in September 2012 - only four years after Kosovo proclaimed independence. Compared to Bosnia, Kosovo illustrates a quite short-term handling of the exit strategy - of course, the situations had markedly significant differences, among others, the fact that the war in Kosovo clearly culminated in a winner.

In both cases, Bosnia and Kosovo, the initial objectives were only partially achieved. The failures are similar, notably in the fields of employment, education, corruption and still open territorial disputes. The outcome could be similar: after the departure of the OHR in Bosnia, as of the ICO in Kosovo, the international community will nonetheless be present with a follow-on arrangement involving various international and regional agencies. But this will not be enough to overcome the obvious limits of the “Dayton Bosnia” and the dramatic absence of consensus among Bosnian politicians.

Missing consensus

Experts on international governance of war-torn territories mention among the factors contributing to the success of an international administration: the early deployment of sufficient resources, the clarity of operational aims, effective leadership, unified authority and strong coordination. They also present as the key factor the capacity of the local stakeholders to compromise, to accept a peaceful accommodation of differences and work out a consensus about the future of their country. This is precisely what is missing in Bosnia.

Bosnia’s political leadership has not stepped up to its responsibilities and is incapable of drafting a credible EU membership application including, among others issues, mechanisms of coordination for the various levels of government. Furthermore, it proved to be unable to agree on a series of tough compromises - notably in the implementation of the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdić-Finci case (that requires the guarantee of equal treatment for all citizens with respect to their  legal rights, and not only to the “Constituent Peoples”: self-declared Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks). Against the background of a worsening social and economic crisis, after a protracted government paralysis, the country remains deeply entrapped in a political and legislative gridlock. Delaying further the reform and EU integration processes only serves to consolidate fiefdoms of impunity established by the Bosnian political “elite”.

Republika Srpska

Meanwhile, Republika Srpska has regularly defied and ignored key provisions of the accord. Furthermore, in recent months its authorities intensified a secessionist rhetoric that openly advocates for the dissolution of the country. The forthcoming seventeenth anniversary of the Dayton Accord has provided Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik with another opportunity to challenge the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence. Dodik published a document, dated September 17, 2012, supposedly written by the Academy of Science and Arts of the Republika Srpska (ANURS), a document calling for the country’s transformation into a confederation of three units - including thereby the creation of a third, Croat, one. Division or dissolution is the alternative “offered” by Dodik.

The virtuous circle initiated by the Dayton-Paris agreement has turned into a vicious one. As elsewhere in Europe, federal constructs are overrun by centrifugal forces. For different reasons, Bosnia finds itself is a similar situation to Spain, Belgium and Scotland - all countries endangered by a possible breakup. A reality check is needed: either for Catalonia, Flanders, or for Republika Srpska, there is no future outside their respective country and the European Union.

Beyond the rhetoric and the state visits

Also the changes in the EU have to be acknowledged. The Union has yet to fully absorb the 2007 enlargement wave and faces the eruption of the global crisis affecting different member states. The imposed diagnosis and its attendant therapy today targets Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. If not a mission accomplie, the situation in Bosnia is considered to be at least “under control”. Beyond the rhetoric, there is in Brussels less interest in the Balkans and the EU becomes less attractive for the post Yugoslav states. Meanwhile, Turkey and Russia have become key players in the Balkans… without showing any capacity for altering Bosnia’s fate.

External pressure from outside authorities, regular visits to Sarajevo of high ranking politicians (only during November 2012: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton European Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle) have proved powerless in compensating for the absence of domestic political will - a blind spot in the Dayton Accord. As recently recognised by Ashton, there is no more time to waste on unproductive conversations. Political action is now needed: clearly, the international community’s intervention urgently requires a new steer.

The Dayton Accord - focusing on stability and short-term goals - was designed for and instrumental in post-conflict intervention and reconstruction. Introducing fundamental changes and state-strengthening dynamics calls for a different framework which can approximate to a long-term approach. The time is ripe to open a new chapter, to overcome both the Bosnian “culture of dependency” and the international habit of strategic compromise. Spring 2013 must become a “Bosnian Spring”.


The now indispensable shift from the OHR trusteeship to an EU follow-on arrangement focusing on Europeanisation and nation-building processes could lead to a turning point. An effective exit strategy of the OHR could create a window for a new pluralist and inclusive political dynamic. A more cohesive and willing Union could take the initiative - together with the Obama II administration - of a political process revising the Dayton Accord. Bosnia deserves today a functional institutional set-up, and domestic sovereignty instead of an internationally constructed one.

Moving beyond Dayton must focus on a long-term political alternative based, firstly, on political, economic and social reforms: second, on constitutional matters. The latter should acknowledge proposals developed by Bosnian experts as the basic principles for a new constitutional model, as drafted by the Sarajevo-based Public Law Centre in June 2012. Instead of discussing a finalised constitutional text, the search for consensus on principles and generally accepted public-legal standards should come first. A college of local and foreign politicians and experts could follow-up and advise a locally anchored political dynamic.

While Bosnia is “evaporating” and on the brink of dissolution, it is high time for the Union to take political leadership, react and forge a new strategy. Bosnia’s continuing EU inclusion should provide the framework for the above political alternative outlined here and based on democracy, not ethnicity.

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