Peace at any price – How Dayton has failed ordinary Bosnians


From 1992 to 1995, Bosnia was the Syria of its day. The country was engulfed in a three-way civil war in what has been described as the most brutal conflict fought in Europe since World War II. Out of a pre-war population of approximately 4.4 million - 105,000 people lost their lives and roughly 1.4 million were displaced. 


Armed conflict ceased in Bosnia in December 1995 with the acceptance of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) – however ordinary Bosnians will not be taking to the streets later this year to celebrate its 24th anniversary. 


The DPA denied all parties what they had tried to achieve during the war. Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) were forced to accept a political model with weak central powers, Bosnian Serbs were provided with a semi-autonomous territory within the country (Republika Srpska) but were denied unification with Serbia, while Bosnian Croats were denied both unification with Croatia and their own semi-autonomous territory. 


By transferring the conflict into the fragmented political realm imposed by the DPA and driven by widespread dissatisfaction with the new status quo, the Bosnian state has been locked in stasis for over two decades – the ultimate victims of which have been the Bosnian people, whom may live without conflict, but who lack economic opportunity or security.


Before casting judgement on the DPA, it is first necessary to broadly outline how it shaped the modern Bosnian state. 


At one hundred and forty-nine pages in length, the DPA serves as both a peace agreement and Bosnia’s de facto Constitution. The Agreement is comprehensive – covering military consolidation, refugees, elections and public corporations.


Under the DPA, Bosnia has multiple layers of government. Governing the country is a directly elected tripartite Presidency; one candidate for each post is drawn from the three ‘constituent nations’ - Bosniak, Serb and Croat. The President works with a national bicameral Parliament. The next level splits Bosnia into two separate entities - the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska – both of which have their own House of Representatives, Prime Ministers and Ministries. The Federation is further divided into ten cantons, each with its own administrative government. The end result is a country of less than four million citizens with thirteen Ministries of Education and 150 Ministers.


The DPA’s primary flaw is that it fundamentally embeds ethno-nationalists into the machinery of the state, granting each group a fragment of political power. While the DPA guarantees individual rights, it simultaneously undermines these rights by politically excluding those who do not align with one of the ‘constituent nations’. This structure works to preserve ethno-segregation and enhances the notion of Bosnia as a geographic location with battling peoples, as opposed to a modern nation-state.


Having empowered ethno-nationalists whose enduring objectives are inherently contradictory in a byzantine political structure, it is hardly surprising that effective governance is difficult. This can be seen in Bosnia’s record of legislative achievement as between 2010-2014 Bosnia passed only 160 laws - over the same period the Serbian government passed 500 and Croatia about 750.


Beyond being ineffective, the complex political structure incentivises patronage networks within the public administration and state-owned companies. The provision of favours or the fear of losing income streams keeps voters loyal to ethnic political blocs. As a result of this, Bosnia has a disproportionately large public sector, with public expenditure theorised to be as large as 70 per cent of GDP.


These factors have contributed to Bosnia’s poor business environment – which is the worst in the region. The flow on impact of this is that only about one in three working-age adults has a job, with much of the population drawing their income from informal activities, remittances, or welfare. 


The persistence of Bosnia’s weak economic situation can clearly be seen in the International Monetary Fund's World Economic Outlook. In 1997, Bosnia was ranked 113th globally with a GDP per capita of $1,219 USD ($1,780 AUD) – its Balkan neighbour, Bulgaria was ranked 112th with a GDP per capita of $1,228 USD ($1,793 AUD). In 2019, Bosnia was ranked 104th with a GDP per capita of $5,076 USD ($7,410 AUD) – while Bulgaria was ranked 76th with a GDP per capita of $9,204 USD ($13,436 AUD).


These issues could be equated to a long-term recession, with the Bosnian economy consistently underperforming. In economic terms this is called ‘scarring’ in that it refers to long-lasting damage to individuals’ economic situations as a result of poor national circumstances. An example of this would be that due to a lack of jobs, Bosnian parents may be unable to afford investing in the education of their children. This creates intergenerational disadvantage – with economic hardships for parents translating into economic hurdles for their children.


It is in this manner that the DPA has failed Bosnian citizens. Political paralysis has empowered sectional interests and prevented economic reform. An overriding desire for peace has resulted in a situation where the only opportunity for many Bosnians to get ahead or to improve the lives of their children is to leave the country.


James Stevens is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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