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Bosnia-Herzegovina struggles 30 years after war

April 6, 2022

Separatists continue to threaten to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina. A look back indicates the tiny western Balkan state is lacking democracy, the rule of law, prosperity and the prospect of being integrated into the EU soon.

People warning themselves near the eternal flame
The eternal flame in Sarajevo, a monument to remember the fallen in World War IIImage: Amel Emric/AP/picture alliance

Every year on April 6 the inhabitants of the Bosnian capital commemorate the Day of the City of Sarajevo. The day marks both the city's liberation from the German occupying forces in 1945 — and the start of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in 1992. The day before, the Bosnian parliament had declared the country's independence from what had been communist Yugoslavia. 

On April 5, 1992, more than 100,000 people also took part in peace protests — until shots were fired on the demonstrators from the seat of the Serbian nationalist party. The bullets killed two women: the first victims of the Bosnian War. The following day, what had been the Yugoslav army, but was, at that point, under the control of Serbian nationalists, began encircling Sarajevo. The siege lasted 1,425 days and cost the lives of 11,541 people.

Most Bosnians had not believed that it would come to war — irrespective of whether they belonged to the approximately 44% Muslim Bosniaks, the 17% Catholic ethnic Croatians, the 31% orthodox Christian ethnic Serbs or numerous minorities of the tiny West Balkan state's 4.4 million population. And they had good reason. One-third of all marriages in the country were ethnically mixed. In previous decades, many people had migrated there from other parts of Yugoslavia, and there had never been any conflict up to then.

But the future of Bosnia had long been in dispute. On March 1, 1992, 99.4% of the electorate had voted in favor of independence from Yugoslavia. But the turnout was only 63.4%, as most Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum. The majority of Serbian lawmakers had already left the Bosnian parliament by the end of 1991 and had founded a proto-state called the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) on January 9, 1992.

'Ethnic cleansing'

In early April 1992, Serbian nationalists began the brutal "ethnic cleansing" of the area of Bosnia controlled by their troops. The aim was not just to crush the non-Serbian elites, but also any kind of opposition and civil society — and to unite with neighboring Serbia. In 1993, armed Bosnian Croat nationalists attacked their former Bosniak allies. They called for unification with neighboring Croatia. This "war in a war" lasted about a year.

An inhabitant of Sarajevo and his young son run to escape sniper fire during the siege of Sarajevo
Inhabitants of Sarajevo flee sniper fire from Bosnian Serbs during the siege of the cityImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Who was fighting whom in Bosnia? It was not an ethnic conflict, but a conflict waged by nationalists, who were former communist apparatchiks, members of the intelligence services and the military. Their opponents were a population whose majority wanted western European-style democracy, the rule of law and prosperity, according to all opinion polls. That, however, would have meant an end to the primacy of the existing elites. And that was why those elites were determined to stop that process whatever it took.

International efforts

From 1991 onwards international brokers — primarily the United Nations and the European Community (EC), the forerunner of today's European Union — intervened in the war that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia. However, they negotiated between the heavily armed aggressors and their almost defenseless targets as if this were a conflict between two equally strong parties.

Two UN peacekeepers take cover behind sandbags
UN peacekeepers take cover during a mortar attack carried out by Bosnian Serbs in August 1992Image: AP

One consequence of this misreading of the situation was the deployment of the lightly armed UNPROFOR force to keep the peace in an area where war was already raging. The peacekeepers were not only unable to implement any of the countless "ceasefires" in the intervening three-and-half years; they also completely failed in the UN "safe area" Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces murdered more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in July 1995.

From Srebrenica to Dayton

The genocide and Serbian attacks on UNPROFOR personnel led the international community to finally broker the Dayton Accords and forge a new constitution. According to the peace agreement, which was named after the venue of the negotiations in the US airbase in Dayton, in the US state of Ohio, Bosnia remained a state, but was divided into two "entities" — the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was, in turn, carved up into 10 cantons, as well as a self-governing administrative unit. The country has one of the most complicated institutional structures in the world with a confusing muddle of ministries and responsibilities.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) is in charge of keeping the peace and answers to the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which is made up of the powers that guarantee the Dayton Accords and includes several European states, including Germany, as well as the United States and Russia.

A dysfunctional state

The Dayton Agreement was a shabby compromise, but it was the only way to quickly end a war that had brought about 100,000 fatalities and displaced more than two million people. By 1995, the Serb side also had significant interest in bringing an end to the fighting in the face of huge military defeats against what had become a highly professional Bosnian army. While Bosnian Serbs were slaughtering people in Srebrenica, Bosnian forces advanced far into Republika Srpska. The Serbian entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina would be far smaller today were it not for the Dayton Accords.

But instead of being grateful for this agreement, the Bosnian-Serb leaders interpreted Dayton as a victory. In the following years, Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, extended his power base, turning it increasingly into a state within a state. But neither the Serbian entity nor the rest of Bosnia have developed positively from the perspective of its citizens.

Dragan Covid (left) and Milorad Dodik sitting in front of a bank of microphones
Dragan Covid, the head of the ethnic Croatian nationalists (left) and his ethnic Serbian counterpart Milorad Dodik. Image: Klix

Nowadays, the western Balkan state has just 3.2 million inhabitants. Unemployment is high and wages are low. The country has an aging population, life expectancy continues to sink, and more and more young people are leaving. Former communist nationalists such as Dodik or the Bosnian Croat politician Dragan Covic are accused by the opposition and non-governmental organizations such as Transparency International of corruption, cronyism and human rights violations.

The role of Putin's Russia

The politics of these nationalist leaders are characterized by aggressive rhetoric, continual obstruction of political business and regular secession threats. For years, Serbian nationalists have been supported largely by Putin's Russia, which hopes in this way to destabilize the political course adopted by the EU and the US in the western Balkans.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Bosnia-Herzegovina will break apart — its leaders live from the international subsidies that keep this jointly governed state alive. In addition, it is unlikely that the Serbian and Croatian governments really want a union with the Bosnian Serbs or Croats that would fundamentally change political relations in their countries.

Vladimir Putin and Milorad Dodik shaking hands
Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, visits Putin in Sochi in 2018 Image: Reuters/Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin

What Bosnia needs

If the would-be separatists in Bosnia were, nonetheless, to try to achieve their aims with violence, their uprising would be unlikely to last long. The next Russian barracks are far away, there are over 1,000 NATO troops from the EUFOR mission stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself and thousands of others in all neighboring countries apart from Serbia.

The threat that Bosnia does face is an endless prolonging of the agony that it has endured since the end of the war. To prevent that, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) have to be turned into functioning institutions and mandated to reform the Dayton Agreement. That is only possible without Moscow, which obviously does not wish Bosnia-Herzegovina to become a functioning democracy governed by the rule of law. In addition, the country needs to be given a clear prospect of EU membership and economic aid to boost living standards.

Democracy, the rule of law, prosperity and integration into the EU are the most effective weapons that could help democracies prevent the rule of powerful cliques in post-communist states. In Bosnia, Belarus or Russia.

This article was originally published in German.