25 years later, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, better known as the Dayton Accords has continued to be at the core of national functionality for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The agreement that created the later implemented decentralized structure of government formed a state which formalized the ethnic divisions which had caused the war three years prior to its signing. To better understand the issues which this system has amplified, one must understand the causes and impacts of the Bosnian War and Dayton Accords.
The Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995 which left roughly 100,000 dead from both direct armed conflict and genocide which was the first in Europe since the holocaust. While tactics of ethnic cleansing were used by both the Serbs and Croats against Bosniaks, a 1995 report by the CIA determined that 90% of the slaughter and forced starvation were directed by Serbs. Among many other atrocities, the Srebrenica Massacre highlighted the failure of the United Nations to ensure human rights were not violated but also failed to prevent the mass killing of over 8,000 Bosniak Muslims by Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces. This genocidal attack caused Pakistan to disregard the ban on providing arms to Bosnia and also spurred the involvement of NATO forces under Operation Deliberate Force leading to heavy bombardment of hundreds of Bosnian Serb targets. With the combined forces of aligned Bosniak and Croat forces against Bosnian Serbs and NATO air support, the war came to a stalemate prompting each side to come agree to talks resulting in the Dayton Accords in 1995
The Dayton Accords created a heavily decentralized government which is reliant on the three constituent people as labelled in the constitution as Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. From these ethnicity, the two sub-states of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska with two entirely separate political systems at a local level but a combined bicameral legislature at the federal level and three Presidents representing each ethnic group within the nation. Due to the decentralized nature of the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the national level government has very little true power with the two major separate polities and the self-governing Brčko District having much autonomy and thus enabling ethnic-based governance to dominate the formulation and implementation of policy. While this functioned to create a peaceful transition to statehood, it has failed to defuse the tensions which caused the Bosnian War to start in the first place.
Recently both United States Ambassador to Bosnia Eric Nelson and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell have both called for a new constitution and restructuring of the model of government to mend the divisions which have long been integrated into the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the sub-states under its rule. The failure of both the Bosnian federal government and foreign powers to enable reformist governance has created a barrier to advancement and a pathway for populist figures to exploit ethnic divisions to gain power in both the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. Hopes of renewed international involvement under US President-elect Joe Biden have been created as he was at the forefront of the effort to push NATO into supporting Bosniak Muslims who were facing genocide at the hands of Serb and Croat paramilitary groups. This opportunity has been recognized by even the Foreign Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina who was one of the first foreign dignitaries to congratulate him on his historic victory. His pledge to support Bosnia creates further support for reform in the nation which could see positive change sharply opposed by ultra-nationalist factions which have long dominated the country. This support will give reformists necessary support to implement policies which create a cohesive nation and bolsters economic growth to prevent emigration which has been a major problem to the already struggling nation.
The duality of the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina is recognized by many as reformists continue their push for national unification and ultra-nationalist Serbs push for the right of Republika Srpska to secede and create an entirely separate nation state. This struggle between ideologies is highlighted by the recent election of Fikret Abdic to Mayoralty, an ultra-nationalist who led ethnic cleansing against Bosnian Muslims, later being freed to return to the country after being found guilty and being imprisoned. The European Union hopes to further aid civic bottom-up government initiatives opposing ethnic based governance in order to undermine corruption which has been widespread across former Yugoslavia and eastern Europe as a whole. With time as the only indicator as to what leads Bosnia and Herzegovina into the future ideologically, continued foreign aid will work to determine success of either side.
“EU Urges Reforms In Bosnia On 25Th Anniversary Of Peace Deal.” 2020. euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2020/11/21/eu-urges-reforms-in-bosnia-on-25th-anniversary-of-peace-deal (22 November 2020).
Dervisbegovic, Nedim. 2020. “Dayton 2.0: Deal That Ended Bosnian War Needs Rewriting, But How?.” Balkan Insight. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/11/02/dayton-2-0-deal-that-ended-bosnian-war-needs-rewriting-but-how/ (24 November 2020).
Dizdarevic, Emina. 2020. “War Criminal Re-Elected As Mayor In Bosnia.” Balkan Insight. https://balkaninsight.com/2020/11/16/war-criminal-re-elected-as-mayor-in-bosnia/ (24 November 2020).
Ruge, Majda. 2020. “Hostage State: How To Free Bosnia From Dayton’S Paralysing Grip.” ECFR. https://ecfr.eu/publication/how-europe-and-the-us-can-take-bosnia-beyond-dayton-25-years-later/ (24 November 2020).
Gadzo, Mersiha. 2020. “Why Biden’S Victory May Present An ‘Opportunity’ For Bosnia.” Aljazeera.com. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/11/13/bosnia-biden (24 November 2020).
The Bosnia system seems to facilitate a sort of ultra-populism at the local level. Populist politicians are able to utilize an us vs. them mentality to exploit ideas of ethnic supremacy to secure power. This system seems very contentious and unstable, as populist leaders oftentimes go to great lengths to defend their supporters. Although this often occurs at the detriment of other groups at the national level, it has the potential to be successful at the local level. A system of localized, ethnically divided government creates pluralism at the national level, where extreme diversity of political thought ensures that only widely accepted ideas rise to the national forefront. However the Bosnian governmental system design seems to do little to smooth over ethnic tensions. Instead, it seems designed to exacerbate them, which is counterproductive to the country’s future. I agree that this system should be examined and seriously reformed. However, in a country that is locked between “reformists” and “ultra-nationalists”, I’m concerned about removing the autonomy and pluralism present in the country. If the international community pushes to centralize a decentralized and ethnically charged government, are we actually pushing the country further down the path of democratic erosion towards authoritarianism?