Dayton, 10 Years After

The following originally appeared in the New York Times. Laura Silber is a senior policy advisor at OSI and co-author of the book Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation.

A decade after the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country's development remains hamstrung by the very Dayton peace agreement that rescued it from destruction and saved the lives of many of its people.

The time has come to revise Dayton with an eye toward Bosnia's eventual integration into Europe. Indeed, the European Union's accession process may offer the best opportunity Bosnia will ever have to build the peace Dayton could not deliver.

The Dayton accords, signed 10 years ago today, snuffed out a four-year war that had killed some 102,000 people and driven more than a million from their homes. Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton administration's chief envoy to the Balkans, led three weeks of negotiations among the warring sides at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base just outside Dayton, Ohio. The agreement that emerged was probably the best one that could have been obtained at the time, but it also had serious flaws.

Dayton won the grudging endorsement of rival leaders by embodying contradictions, most significantly within the constitutional structure of the new state. Bosnia was to be a unified country that was nonetheless divided into two entities—a Muslim-Croat federation and a separate Serbian "republic." In order to ensure that the Serbs, who had waged war against an independent Bosnia to begin with, would back the deal, the negotiators agreed to establish a weak central government that ultimately lacked authority over the ethnically-based entities.

The accord created 13 overlapping constitutions (for the 10 cantons of the Muslim-Croat federation, the two entities and the central government), as well as reams of laws and regulations that have made the country a bureaucratic nightmare. Left to its own devices, this union of three mutually distrustful groups, overseen by a weak central authority, would be deadlocked. And so an international administrator, the high representative, was given the wide-ranging powers necessary to cajole and threaten Bosnia's leaders into action. While this arrangement allowed the state to function, it may also have stunted the development of a democratic political culture.

For years after Dayton's signing, the hope was that the mere absence of war would lead to the rebirth of a shared Bosnian identity among the country's Muslims, Serbs, Croats and children of mixed parentage. But Bosnia's ethnic groups now mostly live apart, and even in towns and villages where they reside in close proximity, they lead virtually segregated lives, sometimes going so far as to send their children to separate classes within the same school building.

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina identify themselves, perhaps more than ever, by their ethnicity rather than their citizenship. A recent poll indicates that most Serbs and Croats in Bosnia do not even consider Bosnia and Herzegovina to be their homeland. Only a tiny minority of the country's residents see themselves as Bosnian, as opposed to Serb, Croat or Muslim. As a consequence, the handful of politicians who envision a modern, multiethnic Bosnia enjoy scant popular support.

Indeed, the rush to hold elections in Bosnia in September 1996, barely 10 months after Dayton was concluded, made it all but impossible for a new set of moderate political leaders to emerge. The very nationalist parties that had prosecuted the war entrenched themselves in power, where they still hold sway over a divided country. These nationalists delayed by years the efforts of international administrators to create institutions and structures that might bring the country together and heal the wounds left by the war.

It does not help that two of the Bosnian war's most notorious criminals—Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and his leading military officer, Gen. Ratko Mladic—remain at large. They are living, breathing reminders of the atrocities of war and the failures of peace.

Bosnia today is a country muddling through. Like many other countries in transition, it is plagued by economic woes, corruption, unemployment, a brain drain and lawlessness, compounded by the legacy of war. The economy has improved, mainly because of postwar aid, but donors have shifted their attention to other crisis zones. American soldiers have long since left, and the remaining European-led force is just a few thousand strong. Even the European Union, which now runs the show, is preparing to wind down its engagement in a year or two.

But Bosnia cannot make the transition from international protectorate to independent state until it surpasses the limitations of the Dayton accords. What helped the country take life 10 years ago today hinders it from becoming a stable democracy with a thriving economy.

Meeting the European Union's high standards for integration will get Bosnia partway down that road. Last month the country reached a milestone in this regard when its Serbian entity approved a reform that will unify the police, thus clearing the way for Bosnia to sign a European Union stabilization and association agreement. Fulfilling the terms of that agreement will require Bosnia to achieve European standards in the movement of workers, goods and capital. Although Bosnia is a long way from candidacy for European Union accession, the country's leadership should focus on that goal by streamlining Bosnia's laws and institutions to conform with the "acquis communautaire," an 80,000-page catalog of European Union regulations that accession candidates must adopt.

The European Union and the United States, meanwhile, should endorse the reforms the Dayton framework needs in order to solidify the state. Namely, Bosnia needs a stronger central government. The government's current weakness impedes economic progress. Every decision requires protracted negotiations among ethnic entities with conflicting aspirations. In the end, the international overseer has had to step in to break the resulting gridlock. Changing this does not mean abolishing the Serbian entity, which, like it or not, is part of Bosnia's post-Dayton reality; but it does mean negotiating a new modus vivendi in which the parts no longer have the ability to paralyze the whole.

It is up to the Bosnians themselves to develop new arrangements that will allow the country to function as a unified state without an international administrator. To that end, the negotiations on Bosnia's new constitution should not take place in Brussels or Washington but in Sarajevo, Mostar, and Banja Luka.

The distant lure of European integration may not be enough to create cohesion among nationalist Bosnian politicians who do not share a common vision. But there is so much to be gained along the road to European integration—whether the journey takes 10 years or 25—that Bosnian politicians have every reason to wise up and take charge.

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