Tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not calming down. And if tensions in that state are a frequent occurrence, they have never been at the level that they are now. The reason for this is the announcement recently by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik that he wants to regain the competencies of the Republika Srpska, which the international community has taken away in the past years.
The Bosniak (Muslim) political elite has categorically rejected this—especially now that the president of the United States is Joe Biden. In their view, with Biden in power—a person who strongly supported Bosniaks in the 1990s—they can now move more aggressively to fulfill their national interests. Recently, the leader of the biggest Bosnian political grouping, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Bakir Izetbegović, stated that “a unitary and civic model” was the only one on which Bosnia and Herzegovina could be based as a state, dismissing a demand that it be defined as a complex union made up of three constituent nations. In other words, Bakir Izetbegovic’s proposal is an open violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
The Dayton Agreement is, of course, the peace settlement reached near Dayton, Ohio, in the U.S. on the 21st of November 1995 and formally signed in Paris on the 14th of December 1995. These accords put an end to the three-and-a-half-year-long Bosnian War, one of the Yugoslav Wars. The warring parties agreed to peace—and to a single sovereign state known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, composed of two parts: the largely Serb-populated Republika Srpska and the mainly Croat-Bosniak-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
That is why the Bosniak political elites are now actively lobbying the United States to make changes to the constitutional structure which ended the Bosnian War—so that the country can “move from ethnocracy to more representative democracy.” Such changes would curtail the powers of the Republika Srpska, greatly increase the power of the central government, and disempower “ethnically-based political parties.” Supposedly, not taking these steps risks precipitating an “implosion” of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
However, these proposals have been repeatedly rejected since 1990 by the elected representatives of the Serbs and the Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina—which is about half the population.
From the first elections in post-socialist Bosnia, the voters overwhelmingly partitioned themselves into three separate and mutually exclusive ethnonational constituencies: Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs. This tripartite division has occurred in every relatively free and fair election held in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this situation, representative democracy must necessarily mean a form of tripartite consociation between these three ethnonational constituencies, under their respective elected leaders. The Dayton Peace Accord, which ended the Bosnian War in 1995, provides just such a structure—even though the Serbs and the Croats fought against being included in a Bosnian state. They accepted Dayton precisely because the central government would have almost no authority over them.
In two-thirds of Bosnia’s municipalities, 70-99% of the population consists of one ethnonational community; at most, nine of 143 municipalities have the same demographic distributions as in 1991. There is no reliable evidence that the majority of Serbs and Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina are willing to accept governance by a centralized government.
Since 1990, demands for a centralized state have only been made by parties that attract almost exclusively Bosnian (Muslim) voters, while being repeatedly rejected by the elected representatives of the Serbs and Croats, whose peoples fought the war to ensure it would not be imposed upon them. Furthermore, before the 2020 election, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) proposed amendments to the constitution that would enact the centralization. The SDP received less than 5% of the vote in the Republika Srpska and in the Croat-majority municipalities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, doing relatively well only in a few heavily Bosnian-majority ones.
The goal of Bosnian politicians is to encourage the United States and the European Union (EU) to form a unitary state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than that, the international community must convince the country’s the country’s citizens (Serbs and Croats) to determine changes to the country’s constitution and decision-making structures that are feasible in the short- to medium-term and that deal decisively with obstructionist actors who have blocked previous reform efforts.
However, what is meant by “decisive dealing” against obstructionists? And what exactly counts as an obstruction? Since nearly every Serb or Croat elected since 1990 has been against the demands of the Bosnian political elite, this would seem to be a plan to ban the political programs favored overwhelmingly by those peoples. Proclaiming the repeatedly demonstrated political will of Croats and Serbs to be “illegitimate” will not encourage them to instead accept whatever foreigners mandate.
The Bosniak ruling party SDA wants to enable “individuals who do not identify with one of the ‘constituent peoples,’ to be able to design and implement a new architecture of the state more responsive to their needs.” Yet the 2013 census found very few such cosmopolitan desires. More than 96% of the population declared themselves Bosniak, Croat, or Serb, and 99% of those who did so also indicated their corresponding language and religion, patterns seen in all censuses and elections in Bosnia since the end of the Ottoman period.
The most ominous demand is that “EUFOR or a NATO-led Force” should be able “to enforce High Representative decisions.” This is a call for military occupation, a foreign force to support a foreign viceroy against the local citizens, which also shows the falsity of the statement that this whole scheme would be “domestically driven, citizen-led.”
There is little evidence that the people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina want or anticipate conflict, nor is there any evidence that the Serbs and Croats will accept the imposition of rule by a centralized government selected by foreigners. However, if someone wanted to produce conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a very promising way to do so would be to try to centralize the state against the will of about half of its population, non-randomly distributed ethnonationally among those three constituent peoples.
Any reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina must take into account the situation on the ground—that is, the will of the people living there. Reforms should ensure that the Central Electoral Commission, the Constitutional Court, the State Investigation and Protection Agency, and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be used by members of one of Bosnia’s constituent peoples, by themselves, or with the active engagement of foreigners, to try to impose centralizing rules on the entities or cantons, without the acceptance of the polity that would be subjected to them.
Similarly, another crucial reform would be to undo the changes to the election laws that have disenfranchised the Croats from choosing Croat members of the presidency and of the House of Peoples by enabling Bosnians to do so instead. It is difficult to see why the Croats would abandon the demand for a separate Croat entity as long as they are unable to elect their own representatives.
Bosnia is not the way it is because of the Dayton system; it is the way it is because of the divided nature of Bosnian society. And that is an axiom that must be understood by all who want to deal effectively with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Slavisa Milacic is a historian and a graduate of the University of Montenegro. He writes in English and Serbian about the Balkans and Europe.