The Dayton peace agreement brought peace to Bosnians but they want more

The peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s war two decades ago is still admired as an example of post-conflict peace building, but Bosnians say it became a straitjacket that prevents them from building a functional state.

When it was signed on Nov. 21, 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, the deal instantly stopped the 1992-95 war between Bosnia’s Christian Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats wihout fulfilling the goals of any of the three.

The Bosniaks didn’t get the unified state they fought for, nor did the Serbs or Croats get to annex parts of Bosnia’s territory to neighboring Serbia and Croatia.

Instead, the Dayton compromise kept Bosnia’s external borders but divided it internally into a Bosnian Serb half called Republika Srpska and the other half shared by Bosniaks and Croats.

As a peace deal, it worked.

“Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model” for that war-torn country,” British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served for several years overseeing the implementation of the agreement, said during a recent visit to Bosnia.

Bosnians established a central bank, a border police, a state court and an indirect tax system. They agreed to a common flag and passports, and three armies melted into one. One million refugees returned to their homes — a “historical record” after such a war, said Ashdown, adding that “no post-conflict country in history has made such progress in such a short period.”

But Bosnians wanted more — a functioning country and European Union membership. The Dayton agreement now stands in the way.

Bosnia’s constitution legalizes ethnic divisions and discriminates against minorities. It prevents Jews, Roma or others from becoming president. It created a complex political setup with two mini-states with their own governments, presidents, parliaments but linked into a country by a similar set of central institutions with often overlapping authorities.

On the top of that, the Bosniak-Croat federation is divided in 10 cantons — all in all a bureaucracy so expensive that much richer countries would struggle to afford.

“Dayton has enabled an enormous diffusion of responsibility that results in an overall irresponsibility of political leaders,” said political science professor Adnan Huskic.

So Bosniaks pushed for EU-requested reforms which included a stronger central government. Bosnian Serbs balked, blocking the reforms a decade ago. The long-term Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatened secession if the autonomy granted to them in the Dayton agreement was taken away.

Dodik argued it would be better if two separate countries would apply for EU membership. Russia sympathized with the idea, but the EU said “no.”

The decade-long stalemate resulted in economic decline with almost a third of Bosnia’s population being unemployed.

This, as well as Dodik’s unfulfilled threat of secession, decreased his popularity among the Serbs. Though his party narrowly won a majority in the Serb mini-state last year, it lost the Serb posts in the central institutions.

The Serb politicians who succeeded to the central government posts then joined other parties in a push to gain EU candidate status by 2016. Dodik called them “traitors.”

The internal Serb conflict got so severe that political analyst Slobodan Vaskovic predicts violent street protests and Dodik’s downfall.

“The sooner this issue is solved, the faster Bosnia will progress toward EU membership,” he said.

That would mean abandoning the Dayton constitution and replacing it with an EU compatible one.

But if not?

Ashdown says Bosnia would go into reverse, sink into further economic decay and ethnic divisions. “Does no-one remember that this is where it all began in 1992?” he said.

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