“The authorities in Republika Srpska have taken concrete actions which represent the most serious violation of the Dayton-Paris peace agreement that we have seen since the agreement was signed. The conclusions and the decision on the referendum… are not only a clear breach of the peace agreement but also put into question all laws — I repeat — all laws enacted by the respective high representatives, claiming they are in violation of the peace agreement.”
With that statement, Bosnia’s High Representative Valentin Inzko declares the newly-proposed independence referendum by the Serb Republic an act of aggression, of provocation. His proclamation carries with it the full power of a disinterested and over-extended international community, the last flails of a dying institution no longer respected by any party under its authority, praying that the Serbs will not call its bluff.
Calling the 1995 Dayton Accords a “Peace Agreement” is a fallacy and a travesty. Dayton was built to fail, a hasty bandage applied to a situation that had nearly bled out. That it has taken 15 years to show these emerging signs of collapse is nothing short of miraculous. That the High Representative is only now seeing how shaky the foundation upon which his institution was built is testament only to his self-delusion.
Few Bosnian citizens trust the institution of the Bosnian state. The Serbs feel, often rightly, that the legal system is biased against them. The Croats feel, with powerful evidence to back their claim, that they are second-class, marginalized citizens within the Bosnian Federation. The Bosniaks themselves have little desire to share governance with the same Croat-Serb partnership responsible for the atrocities of the 90s. This was all obvious when I served as an election monitor in Brcko, the dividing line between Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation, in October of this past year. Almost 30,000 ethnic-non-Bosniaks were turned away from the polls, and the international observers were not permitted to monitor the vote count in its entirety. But Representative Inzko and his international cohorts applauded the election as free and fair, ignoring and denying the obvious breaches of democracy innate in the Dayton Accords and the laws that have emerged since.
We as observers were supposedly strengthening the democratic process, laying the groundwork for a free future for the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But what good is an election if it only upholds the illusion of democracy? The civil war that could have precipitated from that election would have been at least partially on the “humanitarians” coming in for the festivities of the election. We strengthened the facade of freedom and gave continued legitimacy to the corrupt institutions of the Bosnian state and Dayton, allowing Mr. Inzko to feel entitled to his near-dictatorial position. His feeling of entitlement is obvious through his emphasis that the referendum’s most dangerous feature is that it will “put into question all laws — I repeat — all laws enacted by the respective high representatives, claiming they are in violation of the peace agreement”. But how could a people who claim to be in any way free not reject the authorities of an externally-appointed foreign High Representative?
The Dayton Accords—the western-imposed treaty that ended the Bosnian war in an uneasy and unfair draw and left the country an ungovernable mess for fifteen years—are the crowning achievement of international bureaucracy. It’s such a Byzantine maze of backroom deals and bureaucracy that a friend of mine teaching International Law told his class “if you understand Dayton, leave now because you already know too much.” The legacy of Dayton and the High Representative is not peace but rather a long-term tentative stalemate, constantly on the verge of civil war and ethnic conflict. The political lines drawn by Dayton have left the nation (if you can call it that) divided on ethnic and religious lines and entirely reliant on foreign rule and foreign aid. Unlike most ethnically divided regions who make such choices themselves, Dayton has mandated ethnic division, with Bosniaks voting for the Bosnian representative, Serbs for the Serb, and Croats for the Croat, guaranteeing continued division.
Before the war, the region was prosperous both agriculturally and industrially. Certainly, conflict has much to do with their fall from grace, but the division of Dayton has left a fragile, stagnating economy only supplemented by a bustling black market and with no hope of restoration or local redevelopment. The only aspect of the Bosnian economy that is thriving is the multi-billion-dollar district of high-priced hotels and restaurants in Sarajevo serving the UN, EU, NATO and OSCE “humanitarians,” with all the public rebuilding that comes with such war tourism.
Yes, significant blame falls on the sectarian politicians profiting from the division and strife. But Bosnia’s systemic corruption relies on the Dayton framework, and responsibility can easily be shirked with blame placed on foreign occupiers, such as an all-powerful High Representative, an indefinite position created by Dayton. As the cracks show more and more visibly in the framework upon which the union of Bosnia-Herzegovina was built, the international community must come to terms with the reality that Dayton was built to fail.
There are dangers in dissolution and disengagement. Most children in both Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation know from a young age how to clean, assemble and fire a rifle, and most families have at least one in the house. Paramilitary civil war is not out of the question, but it never has been, even under Dayton. But the militaries of both entities are declawed, leaving neutered states, incapable of the kind of violence witnessed in the 90s (of which no side is innocent). Dissolution is decried as a guaranteed path to war, but it is more likely that the violent nationalist rhetoric that plagues this failed union can only be mitigated by disengagement. As the dysfunctional, paralyzed non-state created at Dayton, there is only poverty, strife and ethnic tension. There is no future for a united Bosnia.
Zachary Gallant is a Fulbright Scholar in Postwar Redevelopment in the former Yugoslavia and author of the e-book Voices of a Revolution.
Fulbright Scholar in Urban Redevelopment