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Opinion: Dayton made Bosnia ungovernable

Christian Schwarz-Schilling Kommentarbild App
Christian Schwarz-Schilling
February 2, 2020

The Dayton Accords, which led to the creation of Bosnia and Herzegovina urgently need reforms. But that won't happen until a conference of those involved in the 25-year-old peace deal, says Christian Schwarz-Schilling.

Muslim refugees being evacuated from Srebrenica
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Leading politicians in the Western Balkan state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and neighboring Croatia must accept that the people are now rejecting their national-chauvinist policies. In the 2018 elections in Bosnia and Herzogovina, the Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ) suffered a hefty defeat: Not their leader, Dragan Covic, but the moderate democrat Zeljko Komsic was elected to the three-member presidency of the Balkan state.

Then, at the start of the year, the HDZ received another slap in the face in neighboring Croatia. Here, in the EU's newest member state, the incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic — a nationalist-populist, like Covic — lost to the social democrat candidate, Zoran Milanovic.

Bosnia's constitution was part of the Dayton Accords

In spite of this, the HDZ has clearly failed to realize that in both countries its chauvinist-reactionary policies are outdated and no longer in favor with the people. Yet everyone in the Balkans must have noticed that the Croatian nationalists' defeats have already had political consequences. 

For example, immediately after his election victory, Milanovic spoke to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is considered to be a great supporter of Bosnia. One of the issues discussed was said to be a reform of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in the Balkan country 25 years ago.

Christian Schwarz-Schilling Kommentarbild App
Former German minister Christian Schwarz-Schilling was a mediator during the conflicts in the former YugoslaviaImage: Oliver Rüther

Bosnia's current constitution, written in the US city of Dayton under pressure from the US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, was part of the Accords. The Dayton Constitution divides Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities: the Republika Srpska, which is populated mainly by Orthodox Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats are in the majority.

Dayton made Bosnia and Herzegovina ungovernable

This very complicated state structure, with several levels of government, was intended to safeguard the interests of the three largest ethnic groups in the country. In practice, however, Dayton turned Bosnia into an ungovernable state. Holbrooke himself repeatedly stressed that the Dayton Accords were not made with the intention of leaving the bad situation in Bosnia unchanged; they were supposed to be the basis for gradual progress, with the long-term prospect of the country joining the EU.

The legitimacy of the Dayton Constitution is being called into question today for three main reasons. First, it was not created democratically and contains many provisions that contravene international law. For example, only members of the three main ethnic groups are allowed to run for the office of president; members of the country's many minorities, such as Roma and Jews, are excluded as candidates. Above all, though, Dayton needs to be changed as it is clearly dysfunctional.

So far, however, this has proved to be impossible. No amendment proposal has made it as far as parliament since 2006, because the representatives of the three biggest ethnic groups are unable to agree. Today, many Bosnians, especially in the Federation, are calling for international assistance in establishing a "Dayton 2.”

Bosnia's constitution is an internal matter

Mention "Dayton 2” in the Republika Srpska, however, and you will usually encounter rejection. The Bosnian Serb leaders fear the idea because it was under the original Dayton Accords that the Republika Srpska — created during the war by the expulsion of Croatian and Muslim Bosnians — was recognized as a political entity. Under no circumstances do they want to risk its existence being called into question.

Aleksandar Vucic, the president of neighboring Serbia, also emphasizes that "without Serbian acceptance, there will be no change to the Dayton Accords.” He is not interested in the idea that a country's constitution should be its own internal affair. Instead, he refers to the fact that Serbia signed Dayton in 1995 as a guarantor power.

Is Bosnia never to be allowed to change its constitution without asking its not very friendly neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, for permission? Of course not! The path must finally be cleared for it to do so, and this requires the support of the international community, especially the EU.

Reform is a question of political will

The development of Bosnia and Herzegovina is being closely followed in Brussels. In December last year, the respected German lawyer Reinhard Priebe published an EU-commissioned report on the status of the rule of law in the Balkan country. The report stresses the need to reform the Bosnian judicial authorities, to implement the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights there, and to strengthen the rule of law as a whole. But all this can only work if there is constitutional reform. And a very well-prepared international conference is needed in order for that to happen.

The new Croatian president, Milanovic, maintains that this is cannot be done, as all the parties to the Bosnian war would have to be brought together for a "Dayton 2,” which he says is impossible. Of course, it's possible. All that's required is the political will to do it.