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Analysis: Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The Dayton Debate Revisited

  • Patrick Moore --> Many people inside and outside Bosnia believe that the 1995 Dayton peace agreement has outlived its usefulness. There is, however, no consensus on what to put in its place, or on whether fundamental changes in Bosnia would have a negative impact on the rest of the Balkans (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September and 19 December 2003, and 16 April and 8 October 2004).

The Dayton agreement unquestionably served its immediate purpose of ending the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina and preventing a resumption of hostilities. In the past few years, however, a debate has ensued both in Bosnia and abroad over the allegedly dysfunctional nature of the constitutional system set down in the treaty.

It provided for a loose central authority over two separate "entities," the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. The federation is further divided into 10 cantons, which are more or less ethnically based. In addition to the two entities there is the internationally run district of Brcko, which was the one part of Bosnia that proved impossible for all concerned to agree on at the Dayton conference or even later.

Throughout Bosnia, political power at most all levels is carefully divided according to ethnic criteria. This nationally oriented approach is reinforced by the fact that most elected officials, at least since the 2002 general elections, come primarily, if not exclusively, from the three main nationalist parties. They are the Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which was long linked to the name of the late President Alija Izetbegovic; the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which was formerly headed by wartime leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic; and the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which was an offshoot of the Croatian party of the same name, particularly until the death of President Franjo Tudjman in late 1999.

On top of this complex structure is the international community's unelected high representative, who has the right to legislate and remove elected officials at will without any right of appeal. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has a staff of several hundred local people and foreigners.

This elaborate system was obviously the result of tough negotiations that led to the end of the war. Since the return of peace, however, many critics say that the Dayton system is not only unique and a bit weird but also counterproductive. But there the broad agreement among the critics ends.

There are four basic models under discussion to replace Dayton, the differences between them depending on what one considers to be the root of the problem. The first model calls for strengthening the OHR on the grounds that this is the only way to effect change and break the power of the nationalists. Advocates of this approach tend to be among those forces inside and outside Bosnia strongly opposed to the nationalists. Those opposed to this model argue that it is inherently contradictory, seeking to impose democratic and European values by fiat and a colonialist administration.

The second model seeks to remedy such problems by first reducing and then eliminating the role of the OHR. Its proponents can be found primarily among the established politicians in Bosnia and some foreign NGOs. The problem with this approach is that it effectively acknowledges that power will rest with the elected nationalists, who will then be left to police themselves and clean up the crime and corruption in their own midst. It is true that precommunist Bosnian political parties tended to be ethnically based and that voters even then cast their ballots along ethnic lines. But the problem now is that many of the people entrenched in the nationalist power structures are responsible for ethnic cleansing, theft, and worse during the 1992-95 war.

The third model calls for scrapping the Dayton system and calling a new constitutional convention to map a fresh start. The difficulty here is that, like the second model, it will most likely leave power in the hands of the nationalists, assuming that they are able to agree among themselves on a new constitutional system.

But that is unlikely because their respective agendas are largely mutually exclusive. The SDA wants a strong central authority and Muslim dominance within the federation. The HDZ, for its part, would like to see the federation replaced with a Croat entity on equal footing with a Muslim entity and the Republika Srpska. The HDZ seeks to keep the central authority weak, as does the SDS. In fact, the SDS regards any attempt to limit the role of the Republika Srpska in favor of the central government as unacceptable. After all, the reason Bosnian Serb leaders accepted Dayton in the first place is that it enabled them to tell their followers that the agreement gave them a "sovereign" Republika Srpska.

All these views stand, moreover, in contrast to those of the minority nonnationalists, who tend to prefer replacing the current ethnically based system with a purely civic one.

A fourth model advocates the still more radical approach of partitioning Bosnia along ethnic lines on the grounds that Bosnia is unlikely to ever be a truly multiethnic society again in the foreseeable future. Some proponents of this model argue that there will, in fact, eventually be a partition, and that it is best for all concerned to get the matter over with sooner rather than later.

But critics say that partition would only solidify the results of ethnic cleansing and trigger a chain reaction elsewhere in the western Balkans toward ethnically based states, undermining in particular the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement in Macedonia. In Bosnia, the Muslims, as so often before, would find themselves the odd ones out, with some favoring gravitating toward Belgrade, others toward Zagreb. There would be concerns in Washington and elsewhere that unsavory Middle Eastern elements might turn a rump Muslim state into their beachhead in Europe.

It thus seems that there are at least a few flaws in each of the models posed as an alternative to Dayton. This has prompted some observers to suggest that it is perhaps best to stick to Dayton, warts and all, until a better system can be devised. But that might be more easily said than done.

RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service recently broadcast a program in which it discussed possible revisions of Dayton and their likely impacts on the region.

The program quoted Sulejman Tihic (SDA), who is the Muslim member and chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as saying that he hopes for serious talks about revising Dayton as soon as 2005.

But Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic (SDS), Serbian President Boris Tadic, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica all stressed their support for Dayton, warning that tampering with it could undermine regional stability. Some participants from Serbia and Kosova told RFE/RL that any constitutional changes in Bosnia could lead to calls for frontier or constitutional changes in Kosova, Montenegro, or elsewhere, perhaps with unpredictable consequences, including renewed violence.

Professor Rusmir Mahmutcehajic of Sarajevo denied that reform in Bosnia would trigger any regional "domino effect." He defended the position of many Bosnian nonnationalists by saying that time has come to stop thinking in ethnic terms and start thinking about the good of Bosnia as a whole. The present political situation, Mahmutcehajic argued, is the result of the war and must be changed.

He warned, however, that both Serbia and Croatia might not want to leave Bosnians of all ethnic groups in peace to manage their own affairs by themselves. But Mahmutcehajic suggested that Serbia and Croatia would best serve the interests of their own societies and the region by helping Bosnia to rebuild and to heal, much as "Germany has an obligation to work actively on behalf of the Jews, Israel, and others" it wronged in the 20th century.