In Bosnia, divided they stall

Sixteen years after the Dayton accords, Bosnia remains a failed state—with no will to set things right

Divided they stall

Amel Emric/AP

In late July, a great crowd gathered in Sarajevo to mark an occasion: the opening of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s first McDonald’s. Beneath the golden arches, perched high above the routine bustle of Marshall Tito Street, there was much fanfare. The president was on hand, as was the U.S. ambassador and Sarajevo’s stern-faced mayor (who bought the first burger). Patrons, who gathered by the hundreds, were quoted in the international press, saying things like, “We’re a normal country now!” or, “McDonald’s is a symbol of the Western world and I’m happy that Bosnia is joining it.”

It had been a long haul for the burger behemoth. “We faced problems with a very complicated system of government and administration, a difficult tax system and patent corruption,” Adi Hadziarapovic, McDonald’s local marketing director, explained. The chain must be relieved, then, that months later the place is still hopping with round-bellied men and flocks of well-heeled women in floral dresses clasping Big Macs. And the venue, a colossal new building whose glass facade overlooks the central thoroughfare, is still pristine. Two tidy-looking employees stand at attention by the door, straight-backed, brooms in hand—watching stoically over Bosnia’s new national treasure.

The gloss is misleading.

Almost 20 years after the outbreak of the Bosnian war, and 16 years after the Dayton agreement brought fragile peace to the Balkan region, all is not well in Bosnia. Politicians at the highest level are calling for the dissolution of the state. The economy is floundering, ethnic tensions have ratcheted up, and attitudes toward foreign observers have soured. As neighbouring Croatia, which also fought in the war, builds glitzy tourist resorts on its spectacular pebbled beaches and primes for its 2013 EU accession, Bosnia sinks deeper into paralysis.

“Bosnia faces its worst crisis since the war,” the International Crisis Group reported in May. “Violence is probably not imminent, but is a near prospect if this continues.”

Daniel Serwer saw it coming a decade and a half ago. He’d arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, to help the U.S. State Department negotiate an end to the Bosnian war. The Dayton agreement was concluded in November 1995, but Serwer felt uneasy. “We all said after Dayton that [Bosnia] was a house of cards and we weren’t sure it was going to last.”

Dayton was, by most tallies, a diplomatic success: it stopped Bosnia’s three warring factions—Serbs (backed by Serbia), Croats (backed by Croatia) and Muslims (“Bosniaks”)—from slaughtering each other, and ended a three-year-long conflict. But Serwer told Maclean’s that, even then, he was troubled by what the agreement left in its wake: a broken country, with two ethnically divided entities bound loosely under an anemic central government. Serwer, then a U.S. special envoy to Bosnia, says he made his concerns clear to then-assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, who in return accused him of being “disloyal” and “not with the program.”

Of course, the point of Dayton was to stamp out fighting that had claimed nearly 100,000 lives and uprooted over two million people—not to design the most elegant of post-conflict states. The two entities it created—one Serb republic called the Republika Srpska (RS) and one Croat-Muslim federation—were a concession to factions that might otherwise have found union unpalatable. But Dayton, in Serwer’s words, gave birth to a country that is “inherently ungovernable.” While the agreement did end the war, it was always seen as a crude and temporary stopgap that would need to be reworked as the country stabilized. Sixteen years later, that has not happened—and Bosnia-Herzegovina has ceased to function.

In the capital city of the Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, over an early autumn lunch of c´evapi—a dense, funnel-shaped ground beef sausage that takes the lead role on many a menu in the country—Ozren Jungic´ discusses what he calls the latest proof that “democracy isn’t working in Bosnia”: it has been almost 14 months since general elections, and the country is still without a government.

Jungic´, a buoyant graduate student at Oxford University who studies the former Yugoslavia, says it’s the result of a standoff between moderates and rigid ethnic nationalists. Since Dayton, Bosnia’s national Council of Ministers has been governed on a rotation, with Serb, Croat and Bosniak leaders taking turns at the head office. It’s now a Croat’s turn to rule, and a moderate Croat candidate was selected. “But Croat nationalists said he doesn’t really represent Croat interests, so they blocked him” Jungic´ says. “And they were backed by Serb leaders who want to bolster Serb interests and undermine the central state.”

Before the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of its six constituent republics. Declared in 1943, the socialist federation began to falter in the 1980s, as member states began flexing their muscle against the Serb-dominated centre, ruled by the notorious Slobodon Miloševic´. When Croatia voted to secede in 1991, it kicked off a regional war that soon swallowed Bosnia, with its large Croat and Serb populations. In 1992, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, propped up by Miloševic´, launched a nation-wide barrage that inspired ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Throughout it all, the international community sat on its hands, only authorizing NATO air strikes in 1995 after the infamous Srebrenica massacre .

Today, a visitor might mistake Bosnia for two separate countries. Everything from the alphabet used on street signs (Cyrillic in the Republika Srpska, Latin in the Croat-Muslim federation) to the brand of beer served in local bars changes when the unmarked border is crossed. The impoverished countryside of the RS is dotted with opulent Orthodox churches; the impoverished countryside of the federation with Catholic churches and crumbling mosques. Adding to the unwieldiness is a plethora of governments. The two entities each have their own parliaments with wide-ranging powers—like the ability to conduct independent foreign policy. Within entities, there is a mess of overlapping governments with separate education and law enforcement policies. By recent estimates, Bosnia has over 150 government ministers. The central state’s mandate is limited—and anyway, ethnic groups can veto any decision that purportedly threatens their interests.

It’s all become a political issue anew as Bosnia pushes for EU membership. “We want the western Balkans to accede,” explains an analyst at the EU Enlargement Commission who was not authorized to give me his name. “But it makes no sense to have non-functioning members.” Of particular concern is Bosnia’s president. Or rather, presidents. Bosnia has three: one for each major ethnic group. (Hence the old joke: if you ask a Bosnian about politics, he will answer, “I am of three minds about that.”) Bosnia must revise its constitution before the EU will even consider it as a candidate. But a 2006 reform package was rejected by parliament; talks in 2008 and 2009 also broke down. “It’s a question of political will,” says the EU analyst. “It could happen tomorrow or it could happen in 10 years. But we can’t force Bosnia’s hand.”

Amidst all this, the international community holds tight to emergency powers it was granted at Dayton. The Office of the Higher Representative (OHR), the international government set up by Dayton, can still fire elected officials and impose law unilaterally. As early as 2003, the OHR claimed it was ready to phase itself out. Instead, amidst fears that Bosnia is incapable of self-rule, its mandate is extended year after year.

The way Bosnians are talking these days doesn’t help. Oversight groups like the UN Refugee Agency, as well as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, have identified a ratcheting-up of “nationalist rhetoric.”

“Relations between communities were better in the 1990s,” says one foreign diplomat, who spoke from Sarajevo on condition of anonymity. “In big cities, it was virtually irrelevant whether you were Croat, Serb or Muslim.” Today, the diplomat says, young people are radicalized. “They have no experience living together. They’ve been segregated for 20 years. It’s a recipe for disaster.” Indeed, reports suggest inter-ethnic marriages, once commonplace in large cities, are rare today.

Of course, those reports amount to little more than guesswork. No official stats on Bosnian ethnicity are available—since Bosnia hasn’t carried out a census since 1991. In the years immediately after the war, counting citizens seemed too politically and ethnically fraught an enterprise. Today, in 2011, “to poll or not to poll” has become a nationalist tug-of-war. Serb parties, confident in their numbers, want a census, but Bosniaks, whose numbers dwindled through a mass wartime and postwar exodus, don’t. Meanwhile, efforts to pass a census law failed in 2010 and 2011.

There’s been more consensus on licence plates. Before the war, Bosnian plates—which include letters and numbers—indicated place of residence (for example, SA for Sarajevo). But towns are often relatively ethnically homogenous and so, during the war, licence plates became proxy declarations of ethnicity—sometimes to troubling effect. In 1998, in a move backed by the OHR, the old vehicle registration system was scrapped. Licence plates no longer note place of purchase. And letters that are used must appear the same in Cyrillic and Latin (like A or K), so it isn’t obvious which entity the car was purchased in.

In many areas, however, these efforts to blur ethnic lines have foundered. That’s most obvious in Sarajevo. While Banja Luka could be any mid-sized Balkan city, Sarajevo, the federation’s capital, is a decidedly Ottoman town. The curved domes and dark minarets of its old city hearken back to 1463, when the Bosnian kingdom was conquered by Turks. Elaborate—if often bullet-riddled—mosques are set against the cascading hills that bear down on the city.

Today, a chunk of Sarajevo’s population helps set the Moorish tone. Women in various stages of veiled, from loose head scarf to full burka, stroll alongside more modish locals in short skirts. In the late afternoon, women and men, also in traditional dress, gather on the streets outside the Husrev Bey madrassa.

Sarajevo didn’t always look like this, says Xavier Bougarel, a researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, who studies Bosnian Islam. “Since the war,” Bougarel says, “we’ve seen the Islamization of the Bosniak national identity.” Under Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia, public religious displays were illegal. But since Dayton, that tide has turned. Religion has become a valuable nationalist currency. And the veils are back.

At least among the population too young to remember bloodshed, schools must shoulder much of the blame for hardened ethnic lines. Segregated schools still exist—and children are often bused out of district to attend classes with ethnic peers. In the federation, a “two schools under one roof” policy sees Croats and Muslims studying in the same buildings, but sitting in separate classrooms and even entering through different doors. Explained one Bosnian education minister, Greta Kuna, in 2007: “ ‘Two schools under one roof’ will not be suspended because you can’t mix apples and pears. Apples with apples and pears with pears.”

History continues to weigh heavily on this region. Almost every middle-aged man is a war veteran. And everyone has a war story. “My generation is the most touched by war,” says Aleksandra Panic, 41, a thoughtful woman who lives in Banja Luka. “We’re disturbed, disoriented. We don’t know where north is.”

Panic, a Bosnian Serb, lost four cousins to fighting. And when her extended family was forced to flee the border area, Panic’s tiny apartment became home to 27 relatives. Her great-aunt, who was too old and sick to evacuate, was burned alive. Though Panic never saw bullets exchanged, she paid a different price. “I’m not married and I don’t have children,” she says. “When I was the right age for all that it was wartime. And I didn’t have the courage.” Today, she says what troubles her most about Bosnia is “the state of the soul.”

In recent years, Bosnians have watched their history unfold on TV, as war criminals are dragged before the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague. The last of the ICTY’s 161 indicted fugitives was arrested in July. But the trials are further proof of the competing historical narratives that vie for public attention. In April 2011, the ICTY convicted former Croatian general Ante Gotovina of crimes against humanity for his role in “the permanent removal of the Serb population” of Krajina in 1995. Serbs see Gotovina as a monster. But on the day of his conviction, the popular Croatian newspaper Vec´ernji List dubbed him a “hero.”

“Bosnia is the s–thole of the world,” Marko, a tall, pale young man, tells me one evening in Banja Luka over a carafe of “homemade wine” that tastes mildly of paint thinner. Marko, an engineer who dreams of moving to Germany, is a man for hyperbole, but his frustrated observation that “big companies [don’t] do business with us” is all too real.

The Bosnian economy is hardly fertile ground. Production—which took an 80 per cent hit during the war, according to CIA statistics—is sluggish. Homegrown businesses haven’t gained traction; only one Bosnian company made the cut in Deloitte’s ranking of Top 500 Central European businesses. A cash-strapped state is surely part of the problem: the country’s umpteen governments, with their overlapping functions and redundant offices, soak up 50 per cent of GDP.

In May, Moody’s credit rating agency downgraded Bosnia’s government and foreign currency debt from stable to “negative.” The World Bank ranks Bosnia 125th out of 183 countries in terms of “ease of doing business.” Add to that fraught ethnic relations and it’s no wonder multinational corporations are staying away.

But a lot is mitigating against another great Balkan battle. Unlike 1992, “mother countries” Serbia and Croatia are not goading on ethnic affiliates in Bosnia. The OHR is also on the watch. And frankly, most people want nothing to do with violence.

Still, says Stuart Cantellow, a 35-year-old lieutenant commander with EU troops in Bosnia, “across the country there are [minor incidents].” And “substantial amounts of small arms still exist in private ownership” from the first war. Cantellow, who is from Northern Ireland, admits the situation looks familiar: “I see a lot of similarities from my childhood. There’s a real need to bring people together.”

That likelihood may be small. “Nobody is in a hurry to change anything here,” says Jakob Finci, a prominent public official and the country’s ambassador to Switzerland. “This is the Bosnian paradox. Everyone agrees that we need reform. And it’s easy to pass resolutions.” But all that comes of them are toothless working groups. Indeed, Daniel Serwer, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute who spends time hopping to Tripoli and Cairo, says the Dayton accord might serve as a warning to diplomats: that in a post-conflict situation, “the temporary can become the permanent.”

Today, he has mixed feelings about the famous peace deal he helped to broker. Given the ways things turned out for Bosnia, Serwer says he would have done it differently. Even “when things looked like they were really going to hell in a handbasket,” he says, he would have held off, let the fighting go on for another week or 10 days, let the situation on the ground get more severe. “What would have happened?” he asks. “I don’t know. It might have been outright partition. It might have been a single Bosnia.” But it would not have been a single state divided down the middle.

“In retrospect,” Serwer says with a sigh and an understatement, “it was not an ideal peace.”

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