Will Bosnian protests be the final straw for the Dayton accords?


The Dayton accords ended the conflict among Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and established a nearly unworkable tripartite system of governance for the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina

Though the structure established by the Dayton accords was always meant to be temporary, the country is crumbling nearly 20 years later under the weight of corruption, a stagnant economy, massive unemployment and the ridiculous state of tripartite government at the national level, with another layer of governance within the two subunits that comprise the country the (confusingly named) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to most of the country’s Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and the Republika Srpska, home to most of the country’s Serbs.  Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, arguably more political power rests within 10 sub-sub-national cantons.  Moreover, the High Representative, an internationally appointed officer designated to oversee the Dayton process, now undermines whatever legitimacy the central and subnational governments have.

Protests provide some glimmer of hope that everyday Bosnians from all ethnic groups are ready to jettison the Dayton system for a more workable model of governance.  The protests began in Tuzla earlier this month over job losses resulting from the privatization of local businesses.  But the protests took on a national character after the protests turned violent, and they’ve now moved from Tuzla and other cities to Sarajevo, the capital.  Since the protests began, at least three of the canton-level prime ministers have resigned, including in Tuzla and in Sarajevo.  Though Bosniaks (and not Croats and Serbs) are mostly leading the protests, the problems they are highlighting are just as dire for the country’s other ethnic communities.  It’s not coincidence that the current protests are taking place simultaneous to the process of the first census in the country’s post-independence history, the results of which could fundamentally shift political reality in the county.  Preliminary results show that the population fell from 4.4 million in 1991 to 3.8 million today, a significant drop.  If the Croat population falls below 10%, for example, or if it’s dispersed much beyond Herzegovina and western Bosnia, it will undermine the political status of Croatians and the possibility of a third Croat-based entity.  If Serbs comprise even more of the Republika Srpska, for example, does it mean that its leadership will push for independence?

So if any country needs a restart, it’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Dayton Accords have perpetuated a system of patronage and corruption that’s effected in triplicate.

As Jasmin Mujanovic wrote last week for Al Jazeera, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces huge difficulties:

For nearly twenty years, Bosnians and Herzegovinians have suffered under the administration of a vicious cabal of political oligarchs who have used ethno-nationalist rhetoric to obscure the plunder of BiH’s public coffers. The official unemployment rate has remained frozen for years at around 40 percent, while the number is above  57 percent among youth. Shady privatisation schemes have dismantled what were once flourishing industries in Tuzla and Zenica, sold them off for parts, and left thousands of workers destitute, with many still owed thousands of dollars in back-pay. Pensions are miserly too; the sight of seniors digging through waste bins is a regular one in every part of the country, while the wages of BiH’s armies of bureaucrats and elected officials have only grown.

After the general elections in 2010, it took sixteen months for a state government to be formed, one which collapsed almost immediately thereafter. Since then, on the rare occasion that Parliamentary sessions have actually been held, the members of this body have mostly concerned themselves with calling for the ouster of their political opponents. Zivko Budimir, for instance, the president of the Federation entity, was arrested in April of last year on suspicions of corruption and bribery. He was released shortly thereafter for “lack of evidence” and has since returned to his post. As Sarajevo burnt on Friday, Budimir declared that he would resign if the people insisted – apparently refusing to look out his window as he spoke.

Since 2008, the country has struggled with low growth and contraction.  As of July 2013, the unemployment rate was 44.6%, and its GDP per capita fell behind every country in the region except Kosovo (including Albania, Serbia, and Macedonia).  ethnicity-based corruption and inefficiency plague state-owned enterprises, and when (or if) they’re privatized, it’s done in the most disruptive (and often corrupt) manner possible.  So it’s no wonder that everyday Bosnians are angry.

Two parties in the governing coalition have already called for snap elections, which were already scheduled for October of this year.

But the elections are a choreographed waltz — not unlike elections in the religion-based ‘confessional’ system of Lebanese politics —  predetermined to balance the Croat, Bosniak and Serb communities at every key level of government.  Each rung of the ladder, however, is an opportunity for corruption, inefficiency and bloat.

The country elects three presidents, one each from the Bosniak, Croat and Serb communities.  Though they all serve a four-year term, the presidency’s chair rotates every eight months.

Each of the Federation and the Republika Srpska will elect a president.  The Republika Srpska will also elect 83 members to its own National Assembly, while the Federation will elect its own bicameral parliament.  All 98 members of the House of Representatives, the upper house, are elected directly. The 58 members of the House of Peoples, the lower house, are appointed by each of the Federation’s 10 cantonal legislatures.

The parliamentary assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the country, not the Federation) is a bicameral parliament comprised of the House of Representatives, a 42-member body elected to four-year terms by proportional representation, and a House of Peoples, which is comprised of 15 members — five each elected from among the Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities.

Within the House of Representatives, 14 seats are reserved for the Republika Srpska and 28 are reserved for the Federation.  That means that 21 parties hold at least one seat, but only three parties hold at least five seats — two Bosniak parties, the Socijaldemokratska Partija Bosne i Hercegovine (SDP, Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and  the Stranka Demokratske Akcije (SDA, Party of Democratic Action)., and the Serb Savez nezavisnih socijaldemokrata (SNSD, Alliance of Independent Social Democrats).

Lost yet?  Here’s a chart:



It’s a system that the European Court of Human Rights ruled five years ago violates the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.  In Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina, the ECHR ruled that the rotating presidency among the Bosniak, Serb and Croat presidents violates the rights of Jews and Roma to run for and serve as the country’s president.

That’s not even taking into account the High Representative, who has a parallel role that has, in the past, felt more like the country’s proconsul than a mere facilitator of the Dayton accords.  No one personified the ‘proconsul’ style more than Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the United Kingdom, who served in the role between 2002 and 2006.

But David Rohde at Reuters argues that Ashdown and the international community have made the Bosnian situation worse:

[A]shdown, a British politician who has long championed aggressive international action in Bosnia, said the international community should force Bosnia’s political parties to accept long-stalled reforms to the 1995 Dayton peace accords. Ashdown fired scores of local politicians when he served as the top international official in Bosnia from 2002 to 2006.  “The international community has to act now,” Ashdown said in a CNN interview Wednesday. “If they don’t act now, I greatly fear that a situation where secessionism will take hold could easily become unstoppable.”

But Alida Vracic, a 35-year-old Bosnian who heads a Sarajevo think tank called Populari, said Ashdown-style international activism is the problem in Bosnia. She and a younger generation of Bosnians argue that a large international role has allowed local politicians to escape accountability. “Paddy Ashdown acted as the ultimate boss, sacking politicians from office, 80 in a day, and not using domestic institutions that the international community had set up in the first place,” she said in an email. If EU officials had become gradually less assertive at the time, she said, “maybe, just maybe Bosnian politicians would finally start making hard choices and compromises themselves.”

It’s plausible that Ashdown’s ‘proconsul’ style retarded the development of a truly pluralistic politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But the lesson isn’t that the international community should disengage — it’s that it should engage in a more productive manner. 

Ultimately, the European Union (which, it’s helpful to note, is not working through the Dayton apparatus or through the Office of the High Representative) holds the one carrot that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs in order to achieve long-term economic success — access to the European single market.  Just last year, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union, joining Slovenia as the only EU members from the former Yugoslavia.  It’s conceivable that Serbia will join in the next decade, and the potential rewards of EU membership have facilitated conversations with Serbian officials as to the peaceful resolution of Kosovo’s status.  

The power of incentive is the greatest tool that the European Union has — and it will hold a crucial role as Bosnia and Herzegovina respond, in the short term, to the current protests, and effect reforms to the Dayton structure, in the long term, that make the country more governable.

It’s still not clear how Bosnia and Herzegovina will become an economically viable nation-state with a clear national policy agenda and industries that can conjure competitive exports in the global economy (or even within the European community).

But it should be clear 19 years after Dayton that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to develop at least two major policy reforms — a new governing structure, which can serve as prelude to the development of a plan (with input from Brussels) for greater EU integration as Bosnia and Herzegovina gradually approaches a credible EU membership application.  The former will require some form of greater national identity and trust among the three major ethnic groups.  The latter will take time — even Serbia isn’t expected to accede to EU membership for a decade or so.

Neither task will be easy, and neither task will solve the country’s problems.  But given the status quo, those two steps could put Bosnia and Herzegovina back on the path toward economic and political progress.

Photo credit to Reuters/Dado Ruvic.

Many thanks to William Francis McKelvey for his contribution to this post. 

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