YOSSI MEKELBERG November 23, 2021
Almost 30 years after Yugoslavia was plunged into a political crisis that led to the country’s breakup and the worst bloodshed in Europe since the end of the Second World War, Bosnia is on the brink of another major political crisis. It remains to be seen whether the country can escape further conflict and division, but recent developments there embody a much larger failure by the international community — that of focusing on conflict management at the expense of essential conflict resolution and peace building.
This is also the case in other protracted conflicts, such as those in Kashmir, Chad, Israel-Palestine, Mali and Syria, among others, that are characterized by their longevity, intractability and volatility. For short-term convenience, as much as a lack of courage or constructive imagination, efforts are concentrated on preventing the situation from imploding in the immediate future. However, tackling the root causes and resolving them in a manner that will enable these societies to genuinely move forward is almost completely absent.
In late November 1995, on the eve of Thanksgiving Day in the US, negotiating teams of the warring Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks reached an agreement in Dayton, Ohio, under the auspices of and pressured by the Clinton administration. There was much to give thanks for as a three-and-a-half-year war that had claimed the lives of at least 130,000 people and seen widespread war crimes and devastation came to an end.
However, the wounds of this collective trauma have never healed and the arduous work of peace building, beyond simply peacekeeping, has been avoided, while the scars of massacres, genocides and rape as weapons of war also have not been addressed. Instead, they remain a political and social taboo and the perpetrators of these atrocities still deny them and their role in committing them.
The sheer nationalistic venom that led to the horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 was a shock to the system, especially at a time when the US and Europe were driven by post-Cold War euphoria and subscribed to the soothing illusion of the “End of History,” from the school of thought of Francis Fukuyama, which claimed that wars in the liberal-democratic world had been confined to history.
Ostensibly, Yugoslavia, which was said to be less repressive than the Soviet Union’s other communist satellite countries, was expected to make a smoother transition to a liberal democracy than its East European neighbors. However, the curse of nationalism struck again in a country whose historical memory goes back to the 14th century and the Battle of Kosovo, a conflict that was particularly significant to Serbian history and identity.
Divisive nationalism broke up the country and war followed. Since the Dayton agreement, calm and stability in Bosnia have been but a thin veneer concealing ethnic tensions bubbling beneath the surface. It would be wrong to wholly blame the Dayton agreement for failing to go deep enough and end divisiveness in Bosnia, as it had a more limited mandate to put an end to what could have otherwise led to further conflict and bloodshed with wider international implications.
However, it was not the beginning of a new dawn for a nation state called Bosnia but, instead, merely perpetuated the ethnic divisions between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. It did not establish a new entity through which its citizens could develop a common identity and courageously deal with their past for the sake of future generations.
More than anything else, it set in stone that there are three separate identities in two different regions. The agreement divided Bosnia into two regions: The Serb-run Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were given wide autonomy but remain linked by some joint institutions.
Each entity has its own legislature and president. The central institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina include a directly elected tripartite presidency, which rotates every eight months between one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat member. Most decisions of any importance have to be decided by a consensus of all three. To suggest that this is an inefficient and dysfunctional system of governance that preserves divisions and discord would be a gross understatement. From the outset, Republika Srpska was constantly seeking greater autonomy, Croat parties have been lobbying for a third entity, and Bosniak parties hope to concentrate more power in the hands of the country’s central government.
To further complicate matters, the 1995 agreement created, with good reason, the position of high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, together with the staff at the Office of the High Representative, oversees the civilian implementation of the agreement, represents the countries involved in the Dayton accords and can also introduce laws.
One such law introduced this year — that of making genocide denial illegal — sparked the current crisis. Conveniently, it irked Milorad Dodik, leader of the Bosnian Serbs; or, more accurately, gave him an opportunity to threaten that Republika Srpska would quit state institutions, including the national armed forces, which for all intents and purposes amounts to secession.
It is not shocking news that Dodik reacted the way he did, as he is well-known for denying that a genocide was committed when 8,000 Bosniaks were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in July 1995. Chiefly, it serves him as a useful populist tool to advance the cause of Serb separatism in Bosnia and leaves his people on the brink of, in the words of recently appointed High Representative Christian Schmidt, “secession in all but name.” This has thrown the country and the international community, especially the US and the EU, into a diplomatic mini-frenzy in order to avert this eventuality.
More than anything else, the Dayton agreement set in stone that there are three separate identities in two different regions.
For now, such efforts are bound to concentrate on ensuring that the country stays together and adheres to the Dayton agreement, but this will remain far from satisfactory until it is accompanied by a genuine and long overdue truth and reconciliation process; one that painstakingly and painfully leads to a journey of multi-ethnic nation building.
A contributory factor could be reviving the prospects of joining the EU, leading to a process of fortifying democratic values and institutions, while simultaneously inducing economic development that takes power away from the Dodik-style populists, who are cynically exploiting the socioeconomic hardships and the ghosts that still haunt Bosnia in order to enhance their own power.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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