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Dr. David de Bruijn

Saving Dayton: Why the West Must Stay Clear-Headed and Even-Handed in Bosnia

Piše Dr. David de Bruijn  /  18.03.2022., 15:30h
Why Bosnia is not Ukraine, and the West Must Insist on Preserving and Reforming the Dayton Peace Accords.

Author: Dr. David de Bruijn for Dnevnik.ba

As the crisis in Ukraine has reached has a crescendo over recent weeks, another Russia-fueled crisis looms over peace in Europe: the crisis centering on Milorad Dodik, the Russian-supported leader of the Republika Srpska, increasingly threatening the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

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Dr. David de Bruijn is a lecturer at Auburn University in the United States. Originally from The Hague, Dr. de Bruijn obtained degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow him on twitter @dmdebruijn. The author wants to thank Dr. Marta Vrbetić for her assistance. 

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As has been the case in Ukraine, the crisis in Bosnia has produced calls for increasing Western involvement to counter Russian interference. The analogy with Ukraine seems naturally made. Just as the self-proclaimed "independent", but de facto Russia-guided, puppet republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, perhaps the same view should be taken of the substate entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Bosniak-Croat "Federation", and, especially, the Republika Srpska (RS).  

Indeed, on 18 February 2022 members of the European Parliament submitted amendments to its Common Foreign and Security Policy report to include a specific statement targeting Russian influence in Bosnia, condemning:   

the unconstitutional secessionist moves by the Republika Srpska aimed at [undermining] the state structures of Bosnia and Herzegovina [and denouncing] the detrimental role played by regional actors and Russian foreign interference.

There is no doubt that the behavior of the Republika Srpska and its leader Milorad Dodik has been deeply problematic, and that Russian interference is a significant worry.  

However, in Bosnia the situation is not all is as it seems, and Western observers must be vigilant for certain all-to-easy efforts to re-read Bosnian politics through the Ukrainian lens. Specifically, unlike in Ukraine, the entities that comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina are provided for by a peace treaty: the Dayton Accords, the hallmark peace agreement negotiated by Richard Holbrooke to end the grotesque violence of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). As such, from powerful corners in Sarajevo there has been an unfortunate trend away from merely the effort at resisting Russian interference and separatism, to an all-out effort to reject the provisions of Dayton wholesale. What's more, such efforts have come not merely Bosnian Serbs, but equally worryingly and with increasing intensity from advocates for the Bosniak majority.    

Responding to this situation, US and European leaders must make clear that any effort to abandon Dayton is unacceptable. It conflicts with two critical Western interests in the region.  

First, abandoning Dayton would fracture relations not merely between Bosnia's Bosniak majority and its Serbian citizens, but also fracture the solidarity between Sarajevo and its Croat inhabitants. For a sense of the disastrous consequences this would have: Bosniak-Croat cohesiveness is a critical, if not the primary, pre-condition for an effective response to Russian interference in Bosnia. 

Second, abandoning Dayton would deal a critical blow to one of the most important US-European strategic initiatives of the moment: to allow the EU, and the European members of NATO, to take care of a greater proportion of Europe's security challenges. In this context, EU and NATO member Croatia is of critical significance to maintain stability in Bosnia. While Croatia should be one of the European actors to which greater responsibilities could and should be given, abandoning Dayton would needlessly antagonize Zagreb, and reduce chances of a coherent EU/NATO approach to Bosnia. 

Far from abandoning Dayton, then, Western policy should be focused on saving the agreement. To see how this is possible, we must look in more detail at Dayton's fundamental nature and Bosnia's current political challenges.  

Saving Dayton 

Opening Israeli director Dror Moreh’s hallmark documentary on peace-making (“The Human Factor”, 2019), veteran diplomat Dennis Ross provides his core take on conflict-resolution: “As a negotiator, you need to get the parties to reality. And the reality is: they’re not going to get what they need unless they address the needs of the other side.”  

Ross's insight is simple but pivotal: what peace requires is not that parties share opponents’ perspectives on the conflict or its history. Rather, what is required is that parties understand that achieving their core interests is inextricably connected to the opposition achieving at least some of theirs. This is the perspective that will rule out ambitions of satisfying maximalist demands, thereby creating space for a deal. 

This idea-- call it the "Dennis Ross Method"--is what shapes the 1995 Dayton Accords. As the deal's architect Richard Holbrooke discovered (to no end of headache), the center of gravity in the Bosnian conflict is that the fact that, at root, this concerns a three-way conflict between the country’s three dominant ethnic groups: Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats.  

Crucially but frequently underdiscussed, when the Bosnian War erupted in the 90’s (1992-1995), fighting took place between all three ethnic communities. Most infamous is no doubt the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide that the Bosnian-Serb Army (Vojska Republika Srpska or “VRS”) conducted against the Bosniak population, the Bosniak-Muslim army (Armija Republika Bosne i Hercegovine or “ARBiH”), and the Croatian Defense Council (Hrvatska Vijeće Obrane or “HVO”). Critically however, between 1992-1994 Bosniak and Bosnian-Croat forces also engaged each other in fighting. While in Central Bosnia the tide favored Bosniak forces, in the divided Herzegovinian city of Mostar, Croat forces were dominant and targeted the Bosniak half of the city. To this day, the Bosniak and Croat parts of Mostar city eye each other wearily across the Neretva river that divides the city. 

Peace --and Strife-- at Dayton 

It is an understanding of the three-way nature of the Bosnian war, then, that shaped Holbrooke's approach to Dayton. 

Surveying the increasingly brutal and intractable Bosnian conflict, the first Western step was to compel the Croat HVO and the Bosniak ARBiH to cease their internecine conflict, and focus their united energies instead on the rampant VRS. Subsequently, US airstrikes and a successful 1995 offensive by the Croatian government, the effects of which allowed for the liberatio of the encircled Bosniak Bihać pocket, provided the necessary conditions under which which the Bosniak-Croat coalition was able to break Bosnian-Serb sieges, curtail Bosnian-Serb offensives, and even retake territory previously lost. 

Enter Dayton.  

Following Ross's rules, the framework of Dayton ensures that none of the three parties should receive quite what it desired. Bosnian-Serbs had to accept remaining within the state of Bosnia, in return for receiving an autonomous sub-state “entity”--the “Republika Srpska” (RS)--located on slightly less than half of Bosnian territory. Meanwhile, Bosniaks who had hoped to be able to dominate the future of BiH in virtue of their demographic numbers, instead had to accept a dominant place in a Bosniak-Croat entity--the “Federation”--located on slightly more than half of Bosnian territory. Finally, the Bosnian-Croats who had hoped to build their own independent or autonomous entity (the "Republika Herceg Bosna") were compelled to abandon these hopes in return for an ensured political position alongside the Bosniaks in the “Federation”.  

As a capstone to this three-way compromise, the central political concept of the Dayton peace is that of the three "constituent peoples" (enshrined in Annex IV of the treaty). While the notion may sound initially foreign, the fundamental idea is both natural and politically profound. Since the Bosnian war was premised on each ethnic group's fear of being excluded from the identity and policy-making heart of the Bosnian state, the country's electoral system should rule out such exclusion out and instead ensure each group's significant fundamental moral status as a "constituent" of the Bosnian body politic.  

The Threat to Dayton 

However, today it is Dayton's core notion of the "constituent peoples" that is under siege, undermined both by a gradual process in which Bosniak politicians have edged out Croatian voices within the "Federation", and by outright calls for Dayton's abolishment. Highlighting this dynamic are two recent higher court verdicts on the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina that ostensibly pull in opposite directions. 

Ljubić: In 2016, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina held that the electoral rules of the Bosniak-Croat Federation de facto failed to give the Croat population due representation. To ensure equal parliamentary membership to the constituent peoples, the somewhat byzantine electoral rules of the Federation provide seventeen parliamentary House seats each to Bosniak, Croat and Serb members, and seven to other minorities. Moreover, the BiH Presidency is supposed to have each constituent people properly represented. As the Ljubić verdict concluded, however, such rules have in practice proven prone to distortions, as the de facto demographic dominance of the Bosniak voting public has disfavored Croat representation. It is allowed, for example, for politicians to change their ethnic classification at will, permitting seats intended to be occupied by Croat representatives to be decided based on Bosniak voting blocks. 

As such, the Court decided that the Federation in practice abridges “the right [of the Bosnian-Croat community] to participate in democratic decision-making exercised through legitimate representation” (Ljubić U-23/14]. The Court granted the BiH Parliamentary Assembly six months to pass required reforms in the Election Law, but parliamentary obstruction to date has prevented any significant changes. By contrast, both EU and US diplomats have insisted that Ljubić be properly implemented, sponsoring a recent conference in the dominantly Bosnian-Croat coastal city of Neum. 

Zornić: By contrast, the so-called Zornić verdict of the European Court of Human Rights has been argued to pull in opposite direction. In the Zornić verdict, the Court decided that the BiH Presidency—comprised with Bosniak, Croat and Serb member—provides insufficient ability for individuals not affiliated with any of three to occupy the state's supreme office. More broadly, Zornić has been taken by certain Bosniak commentators as grounds to resist Dayton altogether, arguing that only simple unitary, majoritarian democratic rule should pass muster. Since the idea of rule by simple majority in Bosnia was among the premises of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, it is little surprise that Serbian and Croatian representatives have vehemently resisted this idea. 

A Clash of Narratives 

Opposed if not in literal implications, then certainly in spirit, the Ljubić and Zornić verdicts have been employed to galvanize opposite political approaches to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, as has been unduly neglected, the cases mark a growing chasm in narratives about the Bosnian conflict, a chasm that has widened in recent years, and today threatens Bosnia's very stability.   

Dayton was shaped by an understanding of the 1992-1995 war on which the conflict concerned a national-territorial conflict between three parties. While across this conflict severe crimes against humanity, including genocide, were perpetrated (most egregiously by the VRS), ultimately these served in parties' however-distorted efforts to secure land and power. It is this perspective on the Bosnian war that gives centrality to the core Dayton concept of "constituent nations". 

By contrast, the Zornić verdict sits well with somewhat more recent narrative, recently advocated by leading Bosniak thinkers and spurred in part by the type of perspective inherent in the work of a war crimes tribunal such as set up after the war (the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia or "ICTY"), On this narrative, Bosnia was not genuinely a three-way national conflict for land and power, but purely a campaign of genocide-- perpetrated against the Bosniak population. It is clear why this narrative would militate against the sort of model embodied in Dayton, as it shifts the paradigm from conflict resolution and compromise to the undoing and punishment of illegitimate efforts directed against the Bosniak population. Befitting this perception, prominent advocates of the Bosniak position have urged not merely vigilance concerning actions by the Republika Sprska, but rather the abolishment of Dayton altogether. On this understanding, the Holbrooke-brokered Dayton Accords were not genuinely a peace settlement at all, but rather themselves an oppressive and morally odious settlement imposed on Bosnia’s Bosniak majority. Indeed, on this argument any electoral system that does not follow simple majoritarian electoral rules is “the terror of the minority” and, invoking the darkest chapters of American history, "a three-fifths compromise in the 21st century”.  

Clearly these two opposing narratives -- as the two verdicts -- are in some sense consistent, and their opposition is a matter of intense scholarly debate. However, more than the unclear legal muddle between the cases, it is the diplomatic tension between these two political programs that the international community must decide.  

The Path Forward: Bosnia is no Second Ukraine 

Squarely, serving Western interests requires taking an even-handed approach to the problematic in BiH, and one that--as the Ljubić verdict demands--takes Bosnian-Croat interests seriously. 

Morally, the Bosniak position contends that the collective political rights provided for by Dayton's notion of "constituent peoples" abrogates the individual democratic rights of the Bosniak majority. Whatever view one takes from the stratospheric heights of ideal political theory, however, this elides the fact that Dayton is a political compromise--one   moreover that managed to end Europe's most bloody modern war and provide twenty-five years of peace. In peace, the theoretically pristine must not be the enemy of the stable and realistic. 

Strategically, the matter is still more urgent for Western interests. In ending the Bosnian war in 1995, unity between Croats and Bosniaks was a conditio sine qua non. Not only was it the united effort of the Croat HVO and Bosniak ARBiH that allowed for progress against Bosnian-Serb forces, the ARBiH moreover relied on Croatia's 1995 "Operation Storm" to relieve encircled forces in western Bosnia. As such, there is something deeply uncongenial to Bosnia’s Bosniak leadership antagonizing the country’s Croat minority at a time of resurgent Russian interference in Bosnia. 

Last, the West must consider its own long-term interests. As is increasingly the transatlantic consensus, Europe should shoulder more of its own security burdens. In this regard, the West cannot accept Sarajevo politics to alienate the one EU and NATO country most obviously positioned to manage the threat emanating from Russia's role in Bosnia: Croatia. By directing conflict against Bosnia’s Croats, representatives of the government in Sarajevo are diluting energy that could be focused on Dodik, splitting NATO and EU coalitions on the topic, and complicating US efforts to divest resources from Europe to the Pacific. 

In recent weeks, Bosniak commentators have increasingly called for US or NATO intervention on their behalf. However, in the 1990's the US and its allies already did take action to help bring stability to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It did so by forging the Dayton Peace Accords. It should stand by that agreement today. 

Dr. David de Bruijn is a lecturer at Auburn University in the United States. Originally from The Hague, Dr. de Bruijn obtained degrees from the University of Cambridge and the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow him on twitter @dmdebruijn. The author wants to thank Dr. Marta Vrbetić for her assistance. 

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