Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dayton and its Discontents

Four and half years after the Dayton Agreement brought an end to the Bosnia war, the country is trapped in limbo, frozen in its immediate post-conflict condition.
By Mark Thompson

The shape of the peace agreement was clear by 1 September 1995, months before Dayton, when a couple of us who worked at UN mission headquarters in Croatia wrote an internal paper, explaining why US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke's roadshow was about to deliver a hopelessly flawed settlement.

"The international community is in a strong position to identify the constitutional principles on which the Bosnia and Herzegovina, BH, conflict can be resolved," we began. "The principles by which the international team is currently operating may not fully account for the breadth of acceptable institutional options in this conflict.

" The institutional principles for a peace plan can be based on a pragmatism that is deeper than that which may be acceptable to current leaderships at this moment. This deeper pragmatism will also provide a stable and secure framework for all individuals and groups, at the same time that it reflects the situation emerging on the ground."

"The current US initiative may satisfy the minimum demands of 'Republika Srpska' and 'Herceg-Bosna' and their sponsors [i.e. Serbia and Croatia]. However, it will not satisfy the BH government. Despite the claims of US negotiators, it is viewed as a plan of partition. It is likely to produce an unstable settlement that denies democratic development to all sides as it denies to each its nationalist triumph. Despite its intentions, the settlement might merely frustrate the best hopes while it feeds the worst appetites."

We argued that BH should be turned instead into a federation of mixed cantons. "The international community is in danger of awarding all sides their second choice even when this would create an unstable institutional solution. ... In the long run, a plan based on [mixed cantons] will require less effort to sustain than a settlement premised on national principles."

When it came, the Dayton Agreement confirmed the worst fears. It consolidated the three mono-ethnic political blocs by creating a freakish, uniquely feeble state structure along with electoral rules that exonerated candidates from needing support outside their own ethnic palisades.

Four and a half years on, Dayton remains a holding operation. BH is not so much a state as a contingency. It is trapped in limbo, frozen in its immediate post-conflict condition. No longer at war, it continues to be war-torn. It cannot complete the process of normalisation and democratisation.

There is a blunt contradiction between Dayton's democratic objectives and the architecture devised to achieve them. Under Dayton, BH is not viable because its authorities have neither the prerogatives nor the competencies of a state.

The central organs cannot agree or impose requisite state-level decisions, cannot raise taxes, cannot possess armed forces or a police force, cannot execute a foreign policy, cannot pay for a constitutional court or a broadcasting network.

Citizens cannot be provided with elementary security. In hundreds of thousands of cases, they cannot even go home. They cannot obtain their basic rights under the administrative or judicial systems.

Republika Srpska is a special problem. There are insuperable moral objections to the recognition of an "entity" that only exists due to attempted genocide. Apart from this, the RS presents a massive practical obstruction. No leaders of RS can democratise without undermining their own authority. In particular, they cannot open the gates to Bosniak and Croat refugees.

Popular relief at the end of war dissipated some time ago, but the settlement has little else to offer. The effort to "implement Dayton" can be likened to "building socialism" in Tito's era; it has become an alibi for corruption and strong-arm tactics, used not only by the local regimes but by international officials too.

So cunningly do the Dayton mechanisms impede progress that international officials are reduced to searching for loopholes to try and get around the "entity" and "cantonal" bodies. When this proves impossible, the High Representive sometimes imposes decisions on bodies that were duly elected under Dayton's own provisions. It is a grotesque situation.

The three nationalist regimes have been contained at the cost of infantilising both them and their constituencies. Dayton created an electoral mechanism that empowers and legitimises elites who oppose crucial objectives of the settlement. Hence the High Representative has no choice but to exercise his locally unaccountable authority by imposing solutions.

The main point about the international role is its indispensability. BH is unthinkable without a strong international presence, providing precisely the element of central executive enforcement that is otherwise lacking in the Dayton structure. No exit date can be set. This alone gives the lie to any claim that Dayton provided a basis for establishing an independent member of the family of states.

It is not far-fetched to say that Dayton created a miniature federal Yugoslavia with the part of Tito played by the High Representative. Tito should be able to die and his authority devolve to the collective presidency. In practice, this cannot be done without the very grave risk of implosion.

As a result, Bosnia is ruled by sporadic foreign diktat. This in turn has a negative impact on the political culture. It perpetuates precisely the political irresponsibility of elites that helped to unleash war in the first place.

What to do? International indifference is a bigger obstacle to revising Dayton than potential local resistance. Seen from foreign capitals, the chronic contradictions in Dayton are no reason to overhaul it. There is no war; CNN is elsewhere.

Any campaign to revise Dayton depends on Bosnians themselves. The seeds were sown years ago by the Hrvatsko narodno vijece, HNV, which advocates a federation of mixed cantons. More recently, Haris Silajdzic took up the same cause.

What's wanted now are single-issue alliances, petitions, public meetings and lobbying by non-governmental organisations, especially those representing refugees and displaced persons. It should not be impossible to gain wide support for a set of revisions to Dayton that would give people a hope of normal life.

The great prize would be a partnership with equivalent groups in the RS. Until credible Bosnian Serb voices echo the call for democratic revision, it will be simple for international officials to dismiss the anti-Dayton argument as an example of Bosniak opportunism, backed by a handful of marginal Croats.

Mark Thompson is the author of Forging War: the Media in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Hercegovina (2nd edition, 1999). He has just completed a report for OSCE about intergovernmental organisations and media reform in the former Yugoslav countries.

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