Twenty-Two Years Later: A Failing Peace Without Unity in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Alexander de Boer discusses the fragile peace agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Islamic State, North Korea, the various wars in Africa. Amongst all these conflicts, it is sometimes easy to forget other historically troubled areas. While most of the world looks on, their underlying problems do not simply go away. One such example is that of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The festering ethnic volatility between the Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs in this region both provided the spark that ignited the First World War, and later led to the largest genocide in Europe since the end of World War II.

The Dayton agreement which ended the Bosnian War in 1995 sought to provide a lasting structure to withstand both internal and external pressures. While it is generally considered a success story, fractures have formed, which have become increasingly worse. Under the agreement, the country we now know as Bosnia and Herzegovina was established, consisting of the Bosniak and Bosnian Croat dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as the Bosnian Serb dominated Republika Srpska autonomous territories. The Office of the High Representative (led by the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina) was established to oversee the implementation of the agreement and was given a large array of powers to do so, including the power to adopt binding decisions that cannot be appealed and the power to remove public officials from office.

While the agreement did provide for peace, arguments can be made that it is fundamentally flawed, in that it might be able to keep this peace, but it is unable to do much more than that. The Dayton agreement consecrated internal boundaries roughly according to the regions that were controlled by the warring parties when the ceasefire came into effect. What they did not account for, however, was that significant territorial gains by the Republika Srpska were the product of genocide and mass atrocities committed against the local population. Furthermore, the focus on having all three major groups represented in the government has created an unsurmountable barrier of entry for other ethnic groups. On top of all this, the incredibly complicated state structures established by the agreement, have created a country with numerous layers of government that provides those members working for it with salaries several times the country’s average as well as other objectionable privileges.

As such, while Dayton was generally considered the best possible outcome at the time of the talks there is a consensus now that it either needs to be drastically altered, or replaced entirely. How such a new arrangement should look, however, is deeply contested, and the willingness to use political capital to achieve it is equally lacking. Apathy from the global media, and the specific agendas of local, regional and even global actors also all contribute towards exacerbating existing tensions and increasing the defiance against the OHR and Dayton agreement.

One of the most recent confrontations with Dayton came following a constitutional court ruling that the Republika Srpska would not be allowed to hold a national holiday on January 9 as it would be discriminatory to citizens who were not of the Serb ethnicity or Orthodox faith. Despite this ruling the holiday was still held on January 9 of the next year. The Republika Srpska proceeded to call for a referendum where on September 25, 2016, 99.8% of the electorate voted to reject the court ruling and maintain January 9 as the Day of Republika Srpska. A week previously, Valentin Inzko, the High Representative, had stated that going ahead with the referendum was a direct violation of Dayton. Thanks to Russian support for the Republika Srpska, however, those objections largely fell on deaf ears. While this is the most notable defiance of a court ruling in recent history, it is far from the only one.

Perhaps the greatest illustration of the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found in the most recent report by the High Representative. According to his findings, despite US sanctions, the Republika Srpska remains committed to holding the holiday and is supported in its actions by the inflammatory rhetoric of its president. The ruling party’s platform calls for a referendum on independence for the Republika Srpska, and radicalisation is on the increase amongst Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats calling for a reorganisation along ethnic lines. As such, a conflict seems to be on the horizon, and Dayton may well prove incapable of preventing this. As the Croatian president has stated, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina poses a regional threat. With the neighbouring states being either NATO member states (as well as EU member states) or Russian allies it also seems a reasonable assessment that a possible conflict would spill over to the global level. To preserve peace in the Balkans it seems apparent that something needs to change on a fundamental level.

Photo by craigy_p