The draft treaty to end the Bosnian War was completed on November 21, 1995, after weeks of negotiations. German diplomat Michael Steiner, who took part in the talks, told DW that many mistakes have been made since then.
The leaders of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia - from left Slobodan Milosevic, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman - reached a peace deal 20 years ago
During the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Michael Steiner helped coordinate the peace efforts on Germany's behalf, a role which placed him at the negotiating table in Dayton, Ohio in late 1995. After the war he acted as deputy high representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1996 to 1997.
DW: Mr. Steiner, 20 years after the signing of the Dayton Agreement, the situation in Bosnia is still bad. In Dayton, it was agreed that Bosnia would be split into the Republika Srpska/Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. That decision has proved to be the main hindrance to a functioning state. Would it not have been possible to anticipate this problem in 1995 during the talks?
Michael Steiner: You must consider the situation back then. At the time, everybody - the international community and the people of Sarajevo, too - had the primary goal of achieving peace, of ending genocide. That's what it was about. And achieving that in a situation in which there was a certain hesitance on the part of the international community to act against the will of the different parties or simply against one party in Bosnia. The international community wasn't ready at this point to intervene against the parties' will with "boots on the ground."
You helped negotiate the Dayton Agreement. The war was ended because of it, but was there no alternative to a two-entity-solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina?
No, not a real one, because we had a fundamental problem. The Bosniaks wanted to maintain the state, as did the international community. The Croats wanted an interim solution, extensive autonomy. And the Serbs just wanted out: they just wanted a piece of the cake that was as large as possible.
At the time, we had to overcome this contradiction in a situation where we were reliant on the agreement among the parties. And we were only able to solve this conflict to the extent that was accomplished by the Dayton Agreement. I didn't like these terrible complications that we had to include, either. However, we were thinking that this would be the first step toward reaching any sort of peace. And with that in mind, the reforms that allowed the country to be run more effectively would be a matter of course. But they never came.
But the partitioning into the Republika Sprska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation cemented the country's ethnic division.
We had to act in the real world. What would have been the alternative? The alternative would've been that the conflict didn't end because the international community wasn't ready to go into Bosnia without the assent of the parties that had diametrically divergent concepts. The 60,000 soldiers that came in early 1996 only came on the condition of the parties' consent. Of course, had we been able to say: "Either agree to a constitution that we like or we'll come and force you to make one," we would've been in a different situation. But we didn't have that option.
However, I don't think that this is the decisive factor. The decisive factor is that we, on the international side of things, perhaps also on the Bosnian side, imagined that when peace came first - that is to say, when the gunfire fell silent and democracy came - then things would develop in the right direction on their own. That was, of course, a mistake. I was always convinced that a transitional administration - what we referred to as a protectorate solution - should've been created for a year or two right from the beginning, with the international side having great authority. That would've been better than this light civilian presence that we had there. Only then should we have taken the next step, namely restoring the autonomy of the country by organizing elections.
It was a misconception that you create democracy first and then order, justice and security - it has to go the other way around. You need an organized entity first, you need a feel for security for the population first. Only then can you vote, not the other way around.
This was very clear to both Carl Bildt (the first high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina) and to myself when we fought tooth and nail against elections which were going to take place too early. But that was an international requirement, one that certainly proved to be false. If we had applied the dedication that we have shown over the past 20 years from the beginning, the costs as well, we would most certainly be a step ahead today.
If you had the power to change something in Bosnia, what would it be?
I certainly do think that it's in the interest of the Bosnian people - that is to say, the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks - for the country to receive a functioning constitution. The Dayton Agreement was the means to reaching peace because there were no other options. Of course, it's an anachronism. And besides, there's a legal obligation because the European Court of Human Rights also demanded changes in 2009. So, adapting the constitution to what's necessary for a state to really function is a legal obligation, as well as a political obligation in the interest of the people. That also includes using objective reporting to thwart the unspeakably ideological propaganda that existed back then, that has existed over the past 20 years and that still exists today.
Who, in your opinion, failed in Bosnia? The international community, because it didn't look after the situation properly, or the Bosnians because they - as is often heard in Brussels - couldn't come to an agreement?
Everyone carries part of the responsibility. The international community knows today that it was a mistake to focus solely on the end of the war and then to treat the follow-up work lightly, so to speak. But the people of Bosnia have a personal responsibility, too. There was a domination of nationally-formed thought that was stronger than a sense of responsibility for a functioning shared community. That's where the Bosnians are to blame. We could have all made more progress together than we actually have.
But there's one thing you can't forget: In Dayton, peace was secured and in Dayton, we ended the horror of the years before, something which many people doubted would happen. And that is a huge asset. Naturally, we must achieve more, but what we did achieve shouldn't be underestimated because the years that preceded it were a nightmare for those people and that's why it was so urgent. In that sense, it worked. The war was over.