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Bosnia: Is A Renewal Of Conflict On The Horizon?

This article has been written by contributor James Beamish


Earlier this month, the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, issued a stark warning; the Dayton Accords are at serious risk of collapse. Bosnia, a country delicately held together by the Dayton Accords ever since the Bosnian War of 1992-95, may well break apart, threatening to plunge the country once more into open war. Two questions must be asked about this: firstly, why has the situation deteriorated to this point? And secondly, can anything be done to restore the country’s stability?

In order to grasp the current crisis in Bosnia we must understand the context in which it is taking place. Signed in 1995, the Dayton Accords was a treaty which ended the brutal Bosnian war, and outlined the new governmental structure which was to take the country forward. Bosnia was split into two entities, each consisting of the two largest ethnic groups who had engaged in bitter inter-ethnic conflict in the preceding war.The first of these is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, representing Bosniak Muslims as well as Catholic Croats, while the second is Republika Srpska, which comprises the Orthodox Serb population. Both regions have significant autonomy, though are united at the national level by a government equally conscious of providing for ethnic balance. The Presidency, a unique apparatus in the modern world, consists of three men- one Serb, one Bosniak, and one Croat. Here, The centrality of ethnicity to politics is vividly demonstrated by the fact that a declaration of one’s ethnic identity must be made in order to run for public office.

Clearly, whilst the bitter ethnic fighting was brought to end, its legacy was enshrined within the country’s system of government. Rather than seeing politics as progressive way to solve collective action problems, this new system fell for Clausewitz's famous dictum and inversed it: politics is war by other means. Thus, as Julian Borger has written, Bosnia has been subjected to “purgatory: life in the absence of war, but never quite at peace”, for how can a true and collaborative peace be found in a political environment that institutionalizes the conception of the inherent differences between ethnicities.

Out of this divisive political environment a figure has arisen who is determined to bring about the independence of Republika Srpska: Milorad Dodik. The Serb member of the tripartite Presidency, he has for over a decade, now, been pushing for greater Serb autonomy in Bosnia. Recently his threats have taken on a more concrete form, with legislation currently being proposed to the National Assembly of Republika Srpska which, in the words of Chrisitan Schmidt is “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it ''.

Triggered, ostensibly at least, by the High Representative’s introduction of a law which would criminalize the denial of the Srebrenica Genocide- in which over 8,000 Bosniaks were slaughtered by Serbs- on October 20th, Dodik introduced the dull sounding ‘Law on Medical Equipment and Drugs. Its effects, however, are incendiary. A new medical agency would be established for Republika Srpska, completely replacing the federal agency founded in 2009, and thus emphatically undermining the national government’s role in the Serb territories. This is but one piece of an intended raft of legislation which would eject the Bosnian national government from the affairs of Republika Srpska. Withdrawal from the armed forces and from the judicial, tax, and policing systems would all-but bring about Serb independence from the rest of Bosnia and shatter the Dayton Accords’ plan for peace. Obviously, such a conclusion would be intolerable for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who are strong supporters of the Dayton Accords and wish to keep the country united, thus risking the re-emergence of armed conflict between two sides whose demands are wholly incompatible.

The problem for the West is that it is not just a matter of simply upholding the Dayton Accords, for it is growing increasingly intolerable, both from the perspective of the Serb, and that of the ordinary Bosnian. The tripartite Presidency and its complex ethno-centric political system, even beyond the issues raised above regarding the entrenchment of ethnic identities, has also caused the Bosnian state to be remarkably ineffective. Described by some as “the world’s most complex system of government”, it has led to a lack of political accountability, obscene levels of corruption, and poor economic and governmental performance. Bosnia currently has an unemployment rate of 16% and a youth unemployment rate of 34%, It is no wonder, then, that 87% of Bosnians believe the country is going in the wrong direction, This has only further inflamed Serb separationist tendencies for, to quote Borger again, “the anger and despair fuels yet more nationalism, in part because the system is rigged that way. It is a self-sustaining machine for producing misery”.

Such a point was not necessarily lost on the Americans, even whilst negotiating the Accords. Daniel Sewer, a US envoy at Dayton, described how “we thought it was just a house of cards about to come tumbling down”, whilst Nicholad Burns, another US diplomat at Dayton, describes the Accords as “an incomplete peace, but it is a peace”. The point here is that Dayton was never meant to be a permanent settlement, rather it was an expedient device used to stop the immediate bloodshed. Unfortunately, over time the Dayton Accords have become increasingly Reified. The Bosniaks support it as the only way to keep the country united, yet this has inhibited institutional reform, further fueling the rise of Serb nationalism who are dissatisfied at the results of a Bosnian administration incapable of reform. This in turn has further entrenched Bosniak attachment to the Dayton Accords as a mechanism to combat such nationalism. A vicious cycle has emerged, or, to put it more accurately, a new equilibrium has been reached. The Accords are now regarded by all involved to be the only way to keep the Bosnian state united, yet it is the Dayton Accords themselves which are the source of the modern Serbian secessionist movement that is fracturing that same state.

Thus, any Western involvement must be predicated on the revisal of the terms of the Dayton Accords. However, due to the emergence of this new equilibrium, such revision may come too late. To abandon Dayton may well be to abandon Bosnia, and yet to uphold the Accords is to encourage the same fate. Unless an ersatz Metternich can be found amongst European or American diplomats, the situation in Bosnia seems destined to escalate towards either war, separation, or both.

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