Dayton Ain’t Going Nowhere

The Dayton Agreement was meant to end a war, not govern a state. But now, 20 years later, Bosnia is still stuck with it.

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Twenty years after the Dayton Agreement brought three and a half years of brutal war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Herzegovina to a close, a single article of the peace treaty still functions as the country’s constitution. For over a decade, there has been a consensus among outsiders that Dayton is not fit for the purpose of running a state that aspires to be a full member of the Euro-Atlantic, liberal-democratic world.

Bosnia aims to join both the European Union — almost the only thing that its fractious political elite can agree on — and NATO. The Dayton settlement, at least in its current form, is both intolerably unjust and mind-bogglingly unwieldy. It was never intended to last this long, and even those tasked with its implementation rue the fact that it had no timeframe for expiry or revision. But for the foreseeable future, Dayton is here to stay, thanks to a lack of political will to find a viable alternative.

The international community, now led by the European Union, rather than the U.S., has effectively conceded this with a new approach to Bosnia’s development that’s based on economic, rather than constitutional, reform. Given the entrenched positions of the country’s ethno-nationalist elite, which thrives on networks of patronage and exploits fears of a return to conflict, Dayton may be the least-worst option for managing and running the country.

Signed in Paris on December 14, 1995, the Dayton Agreement had an overriding aim: to bring the three-year-old war in Bosnia to an end. The war killed nearly 100,000 people and displaced more than 2 million. The 44-month siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica Massacre (which itself claimed 8,000 lives) were particularly horrendous episodes. Images of emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire in prison camps evoked the Second World War in modern Europe. The agreement was worked out by Richard Holbrooke, President Clinton’s chief negotiator and Assistant Secretary of State, and a figure of gravitas and determination: the sort of character that has been all-too-lacking in the international community’s dealings with Bosnia over the past decade.

Dayton pulled apart the country’s warring sides: the Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats on one side, and the Serbs on the other. The agreement recognized two territories of approximately equal land area: the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation, which has a larger share of the population. These two entities are now effectively autonomous regions with their own governments. In a post-Dayton move in 1996, the Federation was further divided into ten cantons to stop another war that had broken out between Bosniaks and Croats.

The result is a top-heavy system of government with multiple tiers. With continued ethnic animosity and the individual greed of politicians and officials thrown into the mix, the Dayton arrangement can easily be abused. As a Bosniak MP put it to me, “Dayton gives tools to develop, but also a lot of tools to block that are stronger.” In 2013, protesters took to the streets after deadlock between tiers of government meant that newborn babies were not issued with identity numbers needed to travel abroad for emergency health care. The child at the center of the case eventually died.

The Dayton Agreement established an international council of 55 countries and organizations to oversee its implementation, headed by a “High Representative.” But since the U.K.’s Paddy Ashdown’s tenure in this position ended in 2006, the international community has taken a hands-off approach, hoping that domestic politicians would take the lead in reforming this clumsy system. The United States, in particular, has backed off, focusing on other, more pressing regions. The result was a decade of stasis and rising nationalist rhetoric.

“We’ve gone backwards over the past decade, but I’m afraid of the alternatives,” says Adnan Huskic, a political analyst from Bosnia. “It’s still us versus them, as it has been for years. There are irreconcilable positions, as irreconcilable as they were before the war. I don’t see the capacity of the political elites to come up with a better solution, or how they would do it.”

“Dayton did was it was intended to do, and it was not a foregone conclusion that peace would happen, or would be sustained,” says one Western diplomat. “But a peace agreement to end a war not the same as an agreement that creates the basis for a modern, vibrant, pluralist European society. The state presidency rotates every eight months, there are thirteen ministries of education and 150 ministers for a country of four million. The country has too many ministers, and too few leaders.

Not only this, but Dayton explicitly denies some of Bosnia’s citizens’ political rights. For years, rightly or wrongly, the international community has identified the so-called “Sejdic-Finci question” as the single biggest problem with the current system. Sejdic and Finci are Bosnians of Jewish and Roma ethnicity who successfully challenged the Dayton constitution in the European Court of Human Rights, specifically the stipulation that the three-member state presidency, and membership of the upper house of parliament, is limited to those specifically identifying as Bosniak, Serb, or Croat. This essentially disenfranchises all other ethnic groups, and Bosnians who shun ethno-religious labels altogether. But attempts to change Sejdic-Finci have failed, following extensive horse-trading over other issues.

Another flaw in the presidential system is that the Croat president has, on a number of occasions, effectively been elected by Bosniak votes, as the two ethnicities vote together in the Federation. This has prompted Croats to complain that they are not getting to choose their own president, with some calling for the creation of a third, Croat, sub-state to solve this problem. Paddy Ashdown identified this movement in November 2015 as one of the factors leading the country towards a “perfect storm” and a possible repeat of the centrifugal forces of 1992.

“We already have enough problems with two entities, imagine what it’d be like with three,” says one Bosniak member of parliament.

For many of the country’s non-Serbs, the existence of the Serb Republic is the biggest affront in the Dayton settlement. They view the entity as the product of and reward for ethnic cleansing and genocide, with a degree of justification. During the war, Bosnian Serbs, with the support of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army, carved out territory through ruthless ethnic cleansing; much of that territory is now the Serb Republic.

The man most often accused of throwing a spanner in Bosnia’s works is Milorad Dodik, the Serb Republic’s pugnacious president, who regularly agitates for greater autonomy or even independence. He has repeatedly challenged state-level institutions and called the viability of Bosnia and Herzegovina into question.

This year, Dodik has called for two referenda: whether state-level courts should have jurisdiction within the Serb Republic, and whether it should secede outright if these demands are not met. Both, however, are unconstitutional (i.e. legally inadmissible under Dayton), and the date set for the first was quietly missed. The second is due to take place in 2018.

Dodik is widely seen as the greatest threat to Bosnia’s integrity and stability, but he insists he is merely upholding the guarantees of Serbian autonomy enshrined in Dayton. Sources in Banja Luka, the Serb Republic’s de facto capital, suggest that his increasing nationalist rhetoric is not founded on genuine desire for independence, but is bluster to shore up support after an unusually close election in 2014 left him barely clinging to power. It is also motivated by concerns about what corruption a more robust central judicial system might unearth in the Serb Republic.

Despite calls to abolish it by some Bosniak politicians and others who want a unitary state, the Serb Republic isn’t going anywhere. British Ambassador Edward Ferguson, an increasingly important figure given the U.K.’s leading role in driving EU-mandated reforms, describes such calls as “just as unacceptable as Serb attempts to undermine the State judicial institutions or to promote secession.”

While Dodik appears to be the most obvious nationalist demagogue, politicians of all three ethnicities have learned to exploit the system. Patronage and clientelism are rife, with the public administration and state-owned companies stuffed with political appointees. Fear of loss of jobs, and worse, keeps voters loyal to ethno-nationalist parties — while another half of the electorate stays away from the polls altogether.

“The system has created a caste of politicians legitimized by elections, spraying money at certain social categories and the overstaffed state apparatus and state-owned enterprises,” says Huskic. “If you want a paradigmatic case of state capture, look no further.”

In a provocative article following anti-government protests in early 2014, former British ambassador to Sarajevo Charles Crawford suggested that the Bosniak elite, and the vast networks of others who benefit from ties to it, was no less culpable than the Serbs for the country’s failures. Crawford argues that an economically successful, liberalized and less statist Federation would encourage Serbs to drop some of their resistance to the unitary country.

Patronage networks are far from uncommon in post-communist societies and emerging markets, and to lay all the blame at Dayton’s door would be unfair. But Bosnia’s government system and ethnic element makes the scenario more dangerous and complicated. Youth unemployment is running at 60 percent — the highest rate in the world — and a growing number of impoverished young people disillusioned with mainstream politics can prove fertile ground for radical Islam, despite Bosnia’s predominant tradition of moderation and secularism.

With the difficulty of changing the Dayton system and the pressing need for jobs, the EU launched a new strategy for Bosnia in 2014. Adopted by Bosnia in 2015, the new approach seeks to promote economic liberalization rather than wrestling with thorny constitutional issues. The prize for reform is an enhancement of Bosnia’s EU accession process and support from international financial institutions such as the IMF.

As well as the goal of boosting employment and growth, diplomats openly say that one of the aims of the “reform agenda” is to reduce the public administration and cut back on state-owned enterprises, weakening the structures that have kept ethno-nationalist politicians in place. They hope that a more affluent, economically successful Bosnia, with a larger private sector trading across ethnic lines, will be more willing to address constitutional reform and reject nationalist rhetoric. Whether the elite will accept economic reforms that specifically target their power bases is questionable, however.

More broadly, the international community has backed away from radical changes to Dayton, despite its many drawbacks. “If there’s political will, the system can work,” says one diplomat. “I think we were occasionally guilty of excessive ideology. Changing Dayton is not a prerequisite for EU membership, with a few exceptions like Sejdic-Finci. The system can be made to work, with goodwill.”

Calls for the Office of the High Representative to reassert its active role in Bosnia — even to the extent of abolishing the Serb Republic if Dodik oversteps his mark — are unlikely to be heeded unless the security situation worsens significantly. While there’s a widespread understanding that OHR eased off too quickly after 2006, the diplomatic consensus now is that change must come from within, albeit with the external lures of EU support and IFI cash. From within — and inside the Dayton system.

The file photo, taken 14 December 1995 at the Elysee Palace in Paris, shows Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic applauding after signing of the Dayton peace agreement.

Photo credit: GERARD JULIEN/AFP/Getty Images

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