Bosnia’s War Ended, But Not Its Ethnic Politics

As published in the Huffington Post Source: Bosnia’s War Ended, But Not Its Ethnic Politics | Carl Thor Dahlman, PhD

Any measure of Bosnia’s progress since the Dayton Peace Accord 20 years ago begins and ends with three basic problems: ethnic politics, economic stagnation, and enduring segregation. First, ethnic membership remains the sine qua non of Bosnians’ political rights. The constitution that governs Bosnia violates basic definitions of democratic freedom and human rights because it sometimes puts the rights of ethnic groups above individual rights. The nominal leadership of the country is a tri-partite Presidency, one elected by each of Bosnia’s three largest ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. If you happen to be Jewish or Roma, as were two Bosnians who challenged Dayton’s discriminatory constitution for example, you’re barred from running for the Presidency or the House of Peoples.

Real power is anyway exercised by the two ethnically segregated sub-national entities created by Dayton, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serb nationalists have remained in charge of the Republika Srpska since their army created it through war and ethnic cleansing in 1992. The Federation, however, involves further complex territorial subdivisions between Bosnian Croat nationalists and Bosniaks, nominally Muslim Bosnians who have been the largest ethnic group in Bosnia since at least 1971. Most of the 143 local governments at the base of the entities are themselves captured by elected ethno-nationalist interests. In total, there are more than 3,700 elected politicians in Bosnia and ten times as many candidates. At each level of government there are set-aside seats allotted by ethnicity and most candidates are members of one of Bosnia’s many ethnically affiliated political parties.

The second failure of post-war Bosnia is a prolonged economic decline. The country’s productive capacity that was not destroyed by war was made redundant by the sudden exposure of Yugoslavia’s republics to the global market. The primary commodities and simple consumer goods that Bosnia had produced in Yugoslavia’s protected market, for example, aluminum, agriculture, and shoes, were no longer competitive. Much of this cannot be blamed on Dayton, but nonetheless the corruption of Bosnia’s privatization process was a case of bungled international supervision. The few profitable firms not already grabbed as war booty were snatched up by local elites and remain firmly in their grips. The profiteering of state-owned assets was joined by the corruption of elected office as officials turned public services into salable commodities. Foreign investors remain leery of Bosnia’s irregular business conditions and political uncertainty. The result is that almost one-third of the population is jobless, including two-thirds of the young. If they can leave, they do.

Third, and exacerbating all other problems, the Bosnian people remain deeply segregated by the ethnic cleansing campaigns that began in 1992. Besides ending the war, Dayton’s greatest promise to the citizens of Bosnia, half of whom were displaced during the war, was the right “freely to return” to their pre-war residences. This right, something new under the sun of international peace deals, required a serious commitment from the international community to ensure that Bosnians could go home, as many of them wanted.

But the international community failed to meaningfully implement the right of return. In fact, it was NATO peacekeepers who turned away displaced Bosniaks attempting to visit their villages in 1996. The right of return was not an international commitment until years later by which time most Bosnians had already found durable solutions to their displacement. They remain outside the country or in the towns where they became part of Bosnia’s new map of segregated ethnic majorities that reelect ethno-nationalists.

A segregated and fearful population is as the nationalists want while still refusing culpability for Bosnia’s violent segregation. The past two decades of war crimes trials have done little to dent the denialism of the country’s leaders. As Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik told my colleague and me in an interview, “it was the life dream of people from Srebrenica to live in Sarajevo and now they do.” This callous attitude toward the ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Drina River valley echoes the denial of war crimes common in the Republika Srpska. The contents of one mass grave after another have always been dismissed. It took years of international pressure before the Bosnian Serb entity would even begin to concede the criminal violence that had established its existence. Croat and Bosniak communities have been similarly averse to acknowledge the war crimes done in their names.

The lasting significance of the war in Bosnia goes beyond the horrific crimes endured by its citizens. Bosnia also foreshadowed more to come, a template for how the international community might respond to the many conflicts that have emerged after the Cold War. The lessons from Bosnia shaped responses to Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Cyprus, East Timor, and the conflicts in the South Caucasus and the Middle East. In effect, the international community—the Western one at least—learned that stopping a war is hard enough; rebuilding a functional country is nearly impossible. It might have been different if the early years after Dayton were met with a robust international commitment to rebuilding the country for its people rather than a division of spoils for its political leaders. Instead, Bosnia has lost two decades, another generation, to the useless ethnic politics that started the war.


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