When the Dayton Agreements that ended the war in Bosnia were signed on November 21st 1995, they were commonly seen as a major diplomatic achievement that brought peace back to the Balkans. In the protests that rocked Bosnia-Herzegovina in early and mid-February however, the dangerous legacy of these treaties became shockingly visible.
On February 4, it was just too much to take. When the workers in Tuzla got to know that their recently privatized factories would file for bankruptcy, this was the latest of a great many of ever new hardships that Bosnians had endured in the past. In spontaneous protests that quickly spread into other major Bosnian cities like Sarajevo, Zenica and Mostar they gave their claims a strong voice. The unrests lasted only for a few days but left more than 130 injured and important government buildings destroyed.
One could easily make the mistake and shrug off this new wave of protests as yet another round of the numerous ethnically and religiously motivated conflicts that have destabilized the Balkan region since the dissolution of communist Yugoslavia in 1991. This however, is a dangerous underestimation of the fundamentally new dynamics that drove the latest unrests.
The latest protests were not motivated by religious or ethnical hatred; it was the anger over the economic malaise that brought the protesters to the streets. With (official) unemployment reaching nearly thirty percent, many of them blamed the current problems on the regional and national governments, and on an omnipresent system of rampant corruption and political patronage.
It was the anger over the economic malaise that brought the protesters to the streets.
To understand these allegations it is necessary to take a closer look on the political system that was put in place by the Dayton accords. To prevent that any of the ethnic groups could ever oppress and possibly massacre one of the others again; the power distribution in the so called Dayton constitution is as decentralized as possible. The state of Bosnia-Herzegovina consists of two largely autonomous entities, the Bosnian Federation, where the majority of the riots occurred, and the Republic of Srpska. Both entities are bound by the weak national government in Sarajevo. While the orthodox Serbs are predominant in Srpska, Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Croats of catholic faith live in the 10 Cantons of the Bosnian Federation. To make matters even worse, each of these ten cantons has its own parliament and a regional government with extensive executional powers. To put the cherry on this cake of bureaucratic gallimaufry: offices in the national administration including the presidency rotate among three office-holders, one of every ethnic group respectively. These three representatives, although elected for four years, each serve two non-consecutive terms of 8 months.
This enormous bundle of competing state institutions for a population of only 3.8 million people, each enacting diverging, even contradicting policies – it is really no wonder that the Bosnian economy has difficulties getting along. The state apparatus is furthermore excessively exploited by political patronage – where they are no jobs on the regular market, powerful players try to distribute public office to their supporters. This in combination with the above mentioned obligation to fill many offices thrice leads to the stunning number of over 40 % of the Bosnian workforce who work for the government in one way or another.
So, as we can see, the Dayton accords laid the foundation for an inherently flawed political system, which by the way has also been condemned as being undemocratic in a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights because it excludes members of ethnic groups other than the major three.
What can be done about that? Well so far the international reactions to the unrests, which have been the severest outbreaks of violence since the end of the Bosnian war, have been rather cautious. The High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina is a good example. The office was created by international bodies after the war and is able to reverse laws and discharge government officials. So far the current representative, Valentin Inzko has focused mainly of preventing nationalistic tendencies from rising up again, but has in turn worsened Bosnia’s fragmentation, hampering its economic development.
The EU is apparently relying on the incentive of a future EU membership as being a sufficient motivation for reform. Its unwillingness to exert more direct influence can be seen as the rejection to take over responsibility in the region that has been a powder keg for the last 20 years.
And the authors of Dayton? Well, a statement of the US embassy in Sarajevo calling for the protestors to restrain from violence and the government to listen to the peoples’ demands has been everything that was issued on behalf of the US government. Good intentions, for sure, but not articulated very powerful.
Keeping these little efforts of the international community in mind, one can only hope that the Bosnians find their way to political reform alone and are able to avoid the temptations of ethnic and religious provocation.