A retired Foreign Service Officer and veteran of the Balkan crisis offers a clear-eyed assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina a quarter-century after Dayton.
Twenty-five years ago, the United States brought forth on the European continent a new state dedicated to the proposition that citizens are not equal as individuals but rather endowed with group rights. Those three groups (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), denominated as “constituent peoples,” are entitled to block numerical majority decisions. We have tested whether that state — Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) — or any state so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
The answer is now clear: It can endure, but it cannot function effectively to enable its citizens to prosper and enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. B&H is trapped in a scheme of governance that permanently empowers those who appeal to group ethnic identity and disempowers those who try to appeal across ethnic lines to people as individuals or groups that include more than one ethnicity. There is no real possibility of alternation in power or representation of civic interests, only reformulation of elite bargains among ethnically defined and centrally commanded political parties.
This ethnically based scheme is not a total failure. It ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, attracted massive international reconstruction assistance and permitted some people to return to their homes and restart their lives. B&H today has a per capita gross domestic product close to double that of the former Yugoslavia before the 1990s wars. People of all ethnicities can travel safely in the entire country, even if living and working in areas where they are in the minority can still be difficult. Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim Bosnians worship freely, many of them in restored churches and mosques.
But politics at all levels remains frozen in a constant struggle of conflicting ethnic group rights. The elaborate architecture of the state — division into two “entities,” majority-Serbian Republika Srpska (R.S.) and the (Croat-Bosniak) Federation; division of the Federation into cantons; and, ultimately, division of both entities into municipalities — ensures ethnic vetoes over all important decisions and many unimportant ones. Government jobs, state-owned companies and other public resources are divvied up on an ethnic basis. Difficult-to-remove party bosses thrive and stash ill-gotten gains abroad, while citizens complain and hope to emigrate.
The promise of eventual European Union membership, a strong incentive for reform when it was first enunciated in the early 2000s, is now in doubt, as Europe is preoccupied with its own problems and unreasonably delayed accession negotiations with qualified candidates like North Macedonia and Albania while refusing Kosovo visa-free travel. With the United Kingdom exiting, and ethnic nationalists dominant in Poland and Hungary, the European Union is no longer the beacon of liberal democracy it once was.
Nor is the United States, where the Trump administration has applauded Brexit and is trying to undermine the E.U. The substantial successes of peace implementation in the first 10 years after Dayton resulted from the United States and Europe working in tandem for the same ends. That has become far more difficult. The current dissonance between Washington and Brussels echoes in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
What is to be done?
A Near-term Threat
Nothing needs to be done in haste. B&H has been peaceful, if poorly governed, for most of the past 25 years. It can continue in that state a while longer, if only because those in power benefit from its dysfunctionality. But there is a risk that an ethnicity-based land swap between Kosovo and Serbia could destabilize the country. That proposal would exchange majority-Serbian territory in northern Kosovo for majority-Albanian territory in southern Serbia, with dire consequences for the future of Serbs living elsewhere in Kosovo and Albanians living elsewhere in Serbia.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s collective presidency, has said that such a land swap will trigger his promise of declaring Republika Srpska independent. He has already prepared the ground for this move by denying the validity of the constitutional court’s decisions in R.S. and arming the R.S. police far beyond the level required to counter criminality. He has also gotten Russian paramilitary training for them and boasted of wiretapping his opponents, many of whom might line up to support R.S. independence.
Citizens who are loyal to Bosnia and Herzegovina will not let Republika Srpska go without a fight. If Dodik moves toward independence, a Bosniak-led force might try to seize the northeastern municipality of Brcko, the scene of horrific Serb atrocities and ferocious fighting during the 1992–1995 war. It links the two wings of Republika Srpska: one in the east and one in the north and west, where the R.S. capital of Banja Luka lies. The Republika Srpska cannot survive without Brcko, so it will be the center of gravity of the next war, even though today the municipality is a model of reintegration as the result of successful American arbitration and supervision that made it constitutionally distinct from both the Federation and R.S.
How can such a disaster be avoided? Most immediately, by avoiding any land swap between Serbia and Kosovo and moving all (European) troops still stationed in B&H to Brcko, where they would prevent both R.S. and the Federation from gaining exclusive control. In the longer term, what needs to be done is to end the division of the country into two ethnically defined entities derived from the warring parties of 1992–1995 and embedded in the current constitution.
A Critical Reform
As necessary as that division seemed at Dayton in 1995, it is a birth defect that prevents B&H from ever qualifying as a serious candidate for E.U. accession. Belgium is constitutionally similar, but it is a charter member of the European Union, and Brussels is the Union’s executive capital. The E.U. will not be taking in any new members whose governance is as dysfunctional as Belgium’s, and B&H’s is far worse. Only with the best intentions, which do not exist, would it be possible for Dayton’s Bosnia and Herzegovina to qualify for E.U. accession.
There is no reason other than its hard-to-amend Dayton constitution why B&H could not be governed without the entities of R.S. and the Federation (including its 10 cantons). The central government in Sarajevo would need to be responsible for foreign affairs (including trade and customs), monetary and fiscal policy, and defense, as it is today, as well as have all the authority needed to negotiate and implement the acquis communautaire, the body of E.U. law and regulation that all new members are required to accept.
The Sarajevo Parliament would need to be liberated from the various ethnic vetoes by which it is now constrained. But simply requiring a supermajority (60 percent or more) to form a governing coalition would ensure that no single ethnicity could rule alone. The court system’s independence, professionalism and capacity to protect individual rights would need to be improved. The constitutional court would need to continue to have three foreign members, to break ethnic blockages.
Without the entities and the cantons, the basic unit of subnational governance would then be the municipalities (aggregated in the larger population centers to form city governments), which have long had far more potential to get things done. Since they became popularly elected in 2003, B&H’s mayors have learned how to govern more effectively than their party masters in most of the cantons and Sarajevo. No matter their ethnicity, mayors need to fill potholes, attract investors, keep the schools running, and maintain law and order. It is hard to reduce governance at the municipal level to ethnicity.
“What needs to be done is to end the division of the country into two ethnically defined entities derived from the warring parties of 1992–1995 and embedded in the current constitution.”
Ethnicity would not, however, evaporate as a political factor. Devolving additional authority to B&H’s 143 municipalities would empower local ethnic majorities. Most (if not all) of the 64 municipalities in Republika Srpska are majority Serb. Most of the 79 municipalities in the Federation are majority Bosniak, but a significant number are majority Croat. Eliminating the entities and cantons would still leave ample opportunity for ethnic nationalists to prove their point at the ballot box, but there would also be electoral competition within plurality or majority ethnicities, raising the political value of local minorities.
This is not a new idea, but it contradicts the current constitution and would weaken B&H’s ethnic warlords, who for more than 25 years have commanded the resources required to muffle dissent. The moment to move forward with such a reform may have arrived. Tight fiscal conditions in the aftermath of the COVID-19 epidemic will provide a powerful incentive to simplify the constitutional architecture. Croatia and Serbia, also weakened financially, will want to reduce subsidies to their co-nationals in B&H. Straitened finances could incentivize massive popular mobilization. Bosnians would need to insist on reform, as they began to do in the aftermath of disastrous floods in 2014 and continued to do in multiethnic demonstrations against police abuses of power in 2018 and early 2019.
International Support Needed
Bosnian mobilization will need international support to effectuate change. The United States and the European Union are the prime candidates for foreign partners. Bosnia and Herzegovina is smaller in population than more than half of U.S. states, whose counties and other local subsidiary governments are roughly analogous to B&H’s “municipalities.” B&H is also smaller than 20 of the European Union’s 27 members. There is no need for either entities or cantons to govern a country of this size, and the E.U.’s principle of subsidiarity (doing things at the lowest level of governance possible) favors empowering the municipalities. Strengthened municipal governance in both Macedonia and Kosovo since their 1999 and 2001 wars has been successful and has empowered numerical minorities.
Some may worry about a ripple effect in the region, especially in the municipalities of Serbia’s Bosniak-inhabited Sandzak or Vojvodina and Montenegro’s Serb-inhabited municipalities in both the north and south. But those areas have a mutually deterrent relationship: Anything Serbia asks for municipalities inside Montenegro it should be willing to concede to municipalities inside Serbia. Reciprocity is one of the most fundamental of diplomatic principles.
Twenty-five years after Dayton, this is the constitutional reform Bosnia and Herzegovina needs: simplification of its state architecture, with devolution of powers to the municipalities while the central government (B&H citizens call it the “state” government) focuses on preparing the country for E.U. and NATO membership. The Brcko District, in all but name a municipality that has had a special, autonomous status for more than two decades, points in the right direction. It has prospered while managing its ethnic tensions better than most of the rest of the country.
There is no sign that the powers that be in Bosnia and Herzegovina will seize the opportunity without tandem pressure from Washington and Brussels, which has been vital to all substantial progress since the war. In the aftermath of COVID-19, they, too, will lack the means to subsidize B&H as they have for 25 years. The United States and the European Union would need to convince Turkey and Croatia to use their considerable leverage in B&H with the Bosniak and Croat communities, respectively. Belgrade and Moscow would likewise need to use their influence in Banja Luka. Belgrade knows that strengthening municipal governance has benefited Serbs in Kosovo, and Moscow understands it could be part of the solution in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk, as well.
The United States and the European Union have good reason to be proud of what they did for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 and thereafter. But the process has stalled short of completion. Enabling the country to enter NATO and the E.U. as a fully functioning state of all its citizens would be eloquent testimony to renewed American and European commitment to democracy worldwide. Municipalization, combined with refocusing the “state” government on NATO and E.U. membership, would hasten that day.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies since 2010, retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 1998 after serving as deputy chief of mission and chargé d’affaires in Rome, providing support to the Bosnian Federation during the war, and negotiating the first agreement reached at the Dayton peace talks. He served thereafter as vice president for peace and stability operations at the United States Institute of Peace. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.