Twenty years after the Dayton accords

The 1996 agreement stopped the war but hasn’t ensured peace. The country waivers between the nightmares of thepast andthedreamof abetter future.


Just over 20 years have passed since the liberation of the city of Sarajevo in late February 1996. Just a few months before that, in November, the presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina signed the Dayton Peace Accords, which put an end to a conflict that had lasted nearly four years, resulted in more than 100,000 casualties and created over two million refugees.

Two decades on, the streets and walls of Sarajevo still bear very visible signs of those days and of the war. This is the result of an explicit political choice rather than a lack of funds for making repairs. Each year, the city uses red resin to repaint the explosion marks left by mortar shells in the sidewalks and roads. These craters have come to be known as Sarajevo’s roses. A few kilometres west, near the international airport, the underground tunnels that helped the people of Sarajevo survive during those 44 interminable months (the duration of the siege by the Serbian- Bosnian troops) are now the city’s biggest tourist attraction. There is even talk of the local government opening up more sections, as currently only several dozen metres can be visited. 

Twenty years separate February 1996, the point at which the last of the Serbian troops left the hills around the Bosnian capital, and this past February, when Dragan Covic, the Croatian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, filed the country’s EU membership application in Brussels in a move widely publicised by the international media. “Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to follow its neighbours on the European path”, said Covic, assuring everyone that his country is determined to undertake the necessary reforms.

The Bosnian politician’s optimism notwithstanding, it is hard to consider Sarajevo’s candidacy as little more than a cosmetic charade.  Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions have yet to undo the many knots in which the country's development is thoroughly ensnared.

Everything leads back to the 1995 peace accords, to “Dayton”, as it is simply called here, as if it were a living being. Bosnians often say that Dayton ended the war, but did not ensure peace. In order to stop the fighting, the international community accepted the path of least resistance at the time, which meant crystallising the existing situation on the ground and de facto legitimising the ethnic cleansing; in effect, giving it constitutional and administrative weight.

Today, the country is made up of two entities, one majority Serb (the Republika Srpska, or RS) and the other Muslim-Croat (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). The latter of these two entities is, in turn, divided into ten cantons which are drawn along ethnic lines. Applying the famous Annex 7, the section of the accords that calls for the return of refugees to the regions out of which they were driven by ethnic cleansing, has proven over time to have been a utopian ideal, whose practice has for the most part been confined to paper.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a nation profoundly divided over mundane problems, ranging from education (students are segregated, often even physically, when "sensitive" subjects such as language, history and, naturally, religion are taught) to politics, which is paralysed in a sterile showdown among the elected representatives of the three main ethnicities.

The foremost clash that comes to mind is between the central government, in Sarajevo, and the institutions of Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Srpska. The latter invoke their right to autonomy from the "centralising" ambitions of the state government, while the former accuses the Serbs of wanting to destroy the country with their separatism.

But when all is said and done, the conflict between the two hubs of power has not yet produced any serious consequences. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, has threatened more than 30 times over the years to organise referendums that would reject a wide range of topics such as Sarajevo’s sovereignty, the authority of the state’s judicial system, and the authority of the international High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, whose office is still called upon to preside over the implementation of the peace accords.

So far, Dodik has not followed up on a single one of those threats, a sign that for the moment, Banja Luka’s separatism is little more than a paper tiger. “90% of Serbs are in favour of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Dodik recently said in an interview with the Turkish press agency Anadolu, though he was careful to emphasise that the support is nevertheless for the “Bosnia and Herzegovina that was outlined by Dayton". In other words, the custodians of actual power must continue to be, above all else, the two ethnic communities.

In this tug-of-war between Bosnian Serbs who want greater autonomy, and the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who want a more unified state, the "stone guests" are the Croats, who historically have been represented by only one party (the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZBiH). Although the Croats are indispensable partners in every stable government, most of them are actually indifferent to the call of a "Bosnian homeland” to which they do not feel like they belong.

While the media pays less attention to the lack of affection that Bosnian Croats have for their country than they do to Dodik’s bombastic declarations, so far it is the former that has produced the most tangible consequences: a growing number of Bosnian Croats are leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina, taking advantage of their dual citizenship with Croatia, which has become an entrée into the EU since Zagreb joined the European Union.

Yet Bosnian Croats are by no means the only ones leaving. Every year, Bosnia and Herzegovina loses some 30,000 citizens, which by local standards is the equivalent of a respectable-sized city. Those who can pack up and go, do so with few regrets because the country’s current immobilism is first and foremost the result of its terrible economic situation: unemployment is at 27% (and over 60% for young people, the highest in the world) and 15% of the population live on less than €120 a month.

Twenty years after the end of the war, Bosnians want two things above all else: jobs and change. Employment opportunities are non-existent, except abroad. And change has thus far been castrated by institutions that are immune to any kind of external pressure: the long period of protests – which lasted from the summer of 2013 to the uprising of February 2014 and, due to the violence of the demonstrations and a number of government buildings being burned, was covered extensively by Italian and other media – has produced no results. On the contrary, the latest political elections ultimately went to the same three ethnically delineated parties (the SDS, HDZBiH and SDA) that won the first democratic elections in 1991 and took the country to war. Bosnia and Herzegovina is forced, it seems, to eternally return to the past.

This impasse is a grave one, and it could erase the smile with which Dragan Covic presented Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU candidacy. The situation could even deteriorate: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragility renders it helpless in the face of growing international tensions, especially the dangers of another explosion of Islamic radicalism and the worsening relations between Europe and Moscow.

Statistically, Sarajevo is already among the leading exporters of foreign fighters for the region’s Islamic State: economic desperation and marginalisation have driven hundreds of young people (at least 217, according to figures from Bosnian authorities) to choose Jihad over starvation. And Vladimir Putin could easily play a destabilising role, especially if Russia were to attempt to reinforce relations with their “Orthodox brothers”, the Bosnian Serbs, in an anti-NATO move.

In an increasingly unstable world, with Europe buckling under a growing list of problems and no real reference points, taming even the paper tigers of Bosnia could prove to be a difficult task.


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