By Sofía Sebastián, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sofía Sebastián is a TAPIR Fellow at the Stimson Center and the author of Post-war Statebuilding and Constitutional Reform: Beyond Dayton in Bosnia. The views expressed are her own.
The ongoing instability in the Middle East is understandably drawing much of the United States’ and Europe’s attention. But almost 20 years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War, political divisions between the three major ethnic groups continue to threaten the viability of the state. And for Bosnia, just as for the Middle East, the near-term stakes could not be higher.
So what has gone wrong?
As many analysts have noted, Dayton represented the best possible settlement to end the war. But it also burdened Bosnia with highly complicated and dysfunctional institutions. Lacking political and institutional incentives for inter-ethnic cooperation, the system instead rewards ethnic-based nationalist platforms and intra-ethnic infighting, making cross-group cooperation almost impossible. (Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, has turned to nationalist rhetoric to gain and consolidate power since 2006).
Historically, international actors in Bosnia have countered nationalist dynamics in trying to strengthen the Bosnian state. But the state-building process started to unravel in 2006 amidst increasing inter- and intra-ethnic divisions and a failure of political leaders to agree on critical reforms.
Constitutional reform initiatives were introduced in 2005 as part of a strategy by the United States, and later championed by the EU, to help build a more functional state – one that could survive the transition to full sovereignty and prepare Bosnia for EU membership. However, after years of unsuccessful discussion of reform, Dayton is no longer seen by local actors as a sacrosanct agreement. Indeed, politicians have taken to publicly challenging the agreement, advancing ethnically oriented agendas and further raising tensions.
Meanwhile, ongoing constitutional negotiations have underscored the divisions within the country – broadly speaking, Bosniaks seek to strengthen the state, while the Croats and the Serbs do not fully accept its existence.
And these divisions have only grown with the disengagement of the U.S. and Europe. Bosniaks, for example, fear the disintegration of Bosnia following the closure of the office of the high representative, the international envoy entrusted with the implementation of Dayton. Croats have, for their part, grown increasingly wary of their standing as a “minority,” and are therefore seeking to resolve “the Croat question” through the creation of a third entity for Croats, a move opposed by Bosniaks (Bosnia is currently divided into the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska).
As for the Serbs, they regard state-building as a strategy aimed at undermining their status, and are seeking a withdrawal of the international presence in the country as a way of achieving a more level playing field.
Ultimately, Bosnia’s different ethnic groups have come to view their own agendas as a matter of survival, which has undermined efforts at state-building and working toward the EU accession process. But this problem has been made worse by the fact that the international community is itself divided on how to handle Bosnia and appears reluctant to address some of these underlying issues.
As a result of this neglect and confusion, the high representative has become irrelevant, and although the recent international emphasis on local ownership is welcome in principle, it is hard not to feel that this approach is largely driven by a realization that those involved are not able to properly shape events on the ground.
If the United States and Europe want to play a meaningful role, they will need to strengthen their engagement and collaboration and provide incentives for ethnic cooperation. And they must also understand that state-building in Bosnia, as elsewhere, is always subject to constantly shifting expectations, perceptions and the interests of those involved.
Despite the uncertainties, an outbreak of violence seems unlikely, although the ethnic divisions, coming as they do against the backdrop of deteriorating economic conditions, mean there is genuine potential for social unrest. As a result, upcoming elections, slated for this October, represent a potentially decisive moment in a country that has been politically paralyzed since the last polls.
The tragic violence of Iraq and Syria might seem like it is spiraling beyond the ability of Western powers to influence events. But the U.S. and Europe still have a viable opportunity to engage Bosnia in a way that will allow for a more stable future. They must not miss the opportunity.