Bosnia and Herzegovina is again moving towards the brink of conflict. In the 1990s, the Balkan country experienced the worst violence on European soil since World War II, forcing a peace agreement that divided the country into two semi-autonomous regions: Republika Srpska and The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. President Dodik of Republika Srpska recently held a referendum to change Republika Srpska’s national holiday to January 9th to honor the day in 1992 that the Bosnian Serbs declared their own independent state, thus beginning a war and ethnic cleansing that only ended after NATO intervened. Bosnia’s highest court ruled the referendum unconstitutional, but the Serb majority defied the Bosnian government and international pressure by overwhelmingly approving the provocative measure. The Bosnian government’s inability to respond to Dodik’s actions stems from a stagnant institutional culture designed by the Dayton Accords. Dayton’s weaknesses threaten Bosnia’s peace, and the United States and European Union (EU) should help Bosnia modify Dayton to improve Bosnia’s future government.
Dodik and the Serbs’ willingness to ignore national laws should alarm policymakers that a Bosnian Serb secession could occur, sparking future violence. Dodik openly supports a future referendum on Serb independence, but Bosnia’s constitution prohibits secession. Republika Srpska carved out much of its territory through ethnic cleansing and genocide, and the non-Serb population fears a similar approach in a modern Serb quest for secession. Despite the possibility of violence, Bosnia’s Serbs follow Dodik’s lead because he represents their views to a weak and paralyzed central government.
The Dayton Accords created the dysfunctional Bosnian government that frustrates Dodik and the Serbs and prevents solving internal issues. Dayton ended the war in 1995 but burdened Bosnia with a complicated government. The weak central state, the ethnicity-based political offices, and the double bureaucracy of two semi-autonomous entities prevent basic governance. Constructs from Dayton exacerbate Bosnia’s problems including politicians’ failure to compromise across ethnic lines, high unemployment rates, inability to attract foreign investment, and a severe brain drain. Dayton’s inherent weaknesses also limit the government’s ability to enforce its laws, allowing Dodik to defy the courts and threaten unified Bosnia.
The Dayton Accords are an unsustainable peace arrangement, and the West should use its influence in Bosnia to replace components of Dayton. Western negotiators included a powerful oversight tool in the Dayton Accords: The Office of the High Representative. The High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, appointed by the EU, has nearly unlimited legal authority to steward the country. These powers include the authority to fire public officials, but simply removing troublesome leaders like Dodik ignores Bosnia’s underlying issues. Instead, removing disruptive leaders increases reliance on the High Representative to solve internal problems. Rather than making small improvements within the current system, the West should renegotiate and replace several elements of Dayton.
The replacement agreement should focus on three points:
1. Bosnia’s central government needs consistent labor and employment laws and practices. Dayton decentralized labor and employment practices, leading to overlapping systems that stymie job creation through unnecessary bureaucracy and inconsistent application of labor laws. Bosnia’s government must generate economic reform and decrease poverty and unemployment. Structural labor reform will allow the government to address these issues and discourage the current corruption, inefficiency, and widespread government distrust.
2. The government should not be constructed along ethnic lines. In a country with three sitting presidents, Serbs vote for the Serb president, Croats for the Croat president, and Bosniaks, Bosnian Muslims, for the Bosniak president. The Dayton system encourages and systematizes ethnic divisions. Compromise is discouraged, preventing governance and fueling nationalist politicians. Bosnians must trust laws that protect minority group interests rather than designating political positions according to ethnicity.
3. The new system should dissolve the Office of the High Representative. The High Representative has the authority to implement changes to end the current gridlock, but the position’s existence is unhealthy for Bosnia in the long-term. The position encourages dependence on the EU to solve internal problems and denies the Bosnian people a true representative democracy. Uncompromising politicians currently rely on the High Representative to make tough decisions to avoid upsetting their supporters. Additionally, the existence of the Office prevents the country from obtaining EU membership.
Bosnia’s central government recognizes that EU membership can improve Bosnia’s future. Joining the EU would offer access to the European market, potential inclusion in the Schengen Area, and the stability of belonging to the European community. EU officials acceptedBosnia’s membership application a week before the Serb referendum, but the holiday declaration referendum and increasing nationalist rhetoric may stall Bosnia’s pending membership and restrict its access to European community benefits.
Helping Bosnia achieve a healthier future government is a U.S. and European responsibility that can be successful. Critics will deny responsibility or claim that replacing and improving Dayton is impossible. The United States helped build modern Bosnia, and U.S. leadership can improve Bosnia’s future. Richard Holbrooke, diplomat and chief architect of the Dayton Accords, acknowledged that Dayton was imperfect, but it shows that change is possible. Dayton ended a violent war. A modern replacement could fix the flaws that allow Dodik to threaten Serb secession, prevent the central Bosnian government from addressing internal issues, and delay Bosnia’s EU membership.
The United States has a chance to finish the work it started in 1995 by creating a long-term agreement that removes the ethnic divisions that governed Bosnia’s past and address the internal obstacles in its future. Preventing a new conflict in Bosnia provides an opportunity for the new administration to work with European partners and demonstrate renewed engagement, hopefully leading to future EU membership. The citizens of Bosnia want a better future, but the structural failings of Dayton make that future nearly impossible to achieve. Bosnians need U.S. help to fix the system built at Dayton. They deserve a government that represents all Bosnians equally, regardless of ethnicity, so they can build a peaceful and better future together.
Brian Devlin is a student in the Elliott School’s Master of International Policy and Practice (MIPP) Program and a U.S. Army Foreign Area Officer. Through his career he’s had the opportunity to live, work, and travel throughout much of the Former Yugoslavia. The opinions expressed are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Army.