The Bosnian war ended. But the peace agreement left behind a cold and fragile peace.
The Dayton Accords were signed 25 years to the day, bringing an end to one of the worst bouts of ethnic cleansing to Europe since World War II.
The Accords, or as they are officially known, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, resulted in an uneasy peace, bringing together Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to end a conflict that saw more than 200,000 people killed, including 12,000 children. More than 50,000 women were raped, and upwards of 2 million people were forced to flee their homes.
The ethnic cleansing and genocide was directed mainly at Bosnian Muslims by Orthodox Serb forces, and to a lesser extent by Catholic Croatian paramilitary forces.
The brutality of a war that had raged since 1992, and culminated in the single largest killing of Bosnian Muslims in the fields of Srebrenica, leaving 8,373 dead in July of 1995, catalysed the signing of the Dayton Accords later that year on December 14.
Since then, Bosnians have had mixed feelings about an agreement that has left the country divided along ethnic lines and makes the country difficult to govern.
What are the Dayton Accords?
The Dayton Accords was a complex agreement, a compromise between the maximalist positions of the different warring parties. It reestablished Bosnia as a unitary state against the wishes of nationalist Croat and Serb forces who wished to cede and either join Croatia or Serbia.
The Accords also divided Bosnia along ethnic lines resulting in the emergence of ethnic federal structures. It resulted in the institutionalisation of Republika Srpska (“Serb Republic”) as an entity that is self-governing but within Bosnia.
Another outcome of the agreement was that it created a complicated system of power-sharing between central and local authorities, culminating in 14 parliaments, five presidents, 136 appointed ministers and hundreds of political representatives.
In the end, Bosnia was divided into two entities: 51 percent between Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and 49 percent consisting of the Republika Srpska.
So why is the agreement still contentious?
The agreement was a bitter pill for Bosnian Muslims. Yes, it stopped the war and the killing but it didn’t bring about reconciliation. The agreements' lofty aim of bringing “enduring peace and stability” failed to materialise.
In polls, 82 percent of Bosnian Muslims have said that the country can not move forward without “changing” Dayton. By comparison, just under 27 percent of Serbs agree with changing the Accords, a stark divide in a polarised country.
In establishing Republika Srpska, a Serb dominated region, the Accords hid another dark truth, it established what some called a “political entity established on genocide.”
From the ashes of the Bosnian conflict, Republika Srpska was established in areas that had been ethnically cleansed of their Muslim inhabitants.
Srebrenica, for instance, the site of the worst massacre in the war and a majority Muslim town, was left inside the borders of Republika Srpska as it had been conquered by Serb forces.
The accords sent a dangerous signal that ethnic cleansing pays.
President of the Serb dominated entity within Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, has in the past called the Srebrenica genocide a “lie”. The nationalist leader has also called for the Serb entity to secede from Bosnia, laying bare the weakness of the Dayton accords in creating a functioning Bosnian state.
Croatian and Serb political leaders within Bosnia and outside it, too, have often tried to portray the country as a failed state on the brink of falling prey to extremism.
A report in 2018 put it starkly, arguing that a “large increase in anti-Bosnian and anti-Muslim bigotry by the Bosnian Croat and Croatian political establishments and also by regional political actors. These actors continue to present Bosnia and Herzegovina as a failed state which is harbouring extremists and which needs to be territorially divided in order to secure peace and security.”
So what next for Bosnia?
Now, 25 years since the agreement was signed, academics and politicians are still divided on whether the Accords were a success or not.
According to the chief architect of the agreement, the late Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration was “impatient” and determined to end the war rather than “establish the basis for a viable and sustainable state.”
An impact report commissioned by the US government in 2013 found that the Dayton Accords may have become a stumbling block towards Bosnia’s development, and worse, was “encouraging nationalistic positioning that may lead to another armed conflict in the region.”
But no one has called for the agreement’s abolishment, just the need to reform it. Serbia, a backer of Republika Srpska and its nationalist leader Dodik, is a European Union aspirant and the bloc backs Bosnian’s territorial integrity. Pressure on Belgrade by the EU could prevent a further breakdown in the fragile security architecture imposed by the Dayton Accords.
Even so, the Accords rest on fragile grounds. The EU is distracted by Brexit, Covid-19 and a myriad of other internal issues. This, mixed in with increasing frustration amongst Bosnians of all hues makes for a dangerous regional situation.