Religious and ethnic divisions that fed war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the breakup of Yugoslavia still haunt the country 20 years after the war ended with the Dayton Accords, and that very agreement that led to the end of the war is a key cause, says Edward P. Joseph.
Joseph, who served on numerous international missions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said, “It ended the war but on a very, very flawed framework. It used an ethno-territorial solution."
He continued: “In other words, as a way to induce Serbs and Serbia to accept the agreement, they were given an entity – Republika Srpska [or the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina]. It was the wartime aim of the Bosnian Serb leadership, although they wanted it to be completely independent. Nevertheless, they were given territory, which was their primary objective. They also got many aspects of statehood in the Serb entity. Therefore, everything that has happened since that time has been mainly a product of the Dayton agreement itself.”
Joseph, now executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a Lecturer & Senior Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, served in the divided cities of Mostar, Brcko and Mitrovica. He also served as deputy head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.
RFE/RL interviewed Joseph extensively in advance of the 20th anniversary of the completion of the Dayton Accords, reached on Nov. 21, 1995.
The interview appears below, as edited.
RFE/RL: The 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords, which is approaching, is a stark reminder that Bosnia still faces intractable challenges. It is divided across the ethnic [or religious] lines and has been a nonfunctional state. There have been several proposals in the US Congress including the most recent by Janice Hahn, a Democratic representative from California, asking President Barack Obama to appoint a special representative for the Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Joseph: I’m not aware of that initiative. The Obama administration has consistently backed away from appointing a special envoy for the Balkan region. Washington has created a low-ranking post for a person to work on constitutional reforms in Bosnia but it doesn’t amount to a special envoy. But the Obama administration is to eventually make a decision. So, until then… I’m not putting much stock into it.
RFE/RL: The president of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two entities, has pushed for a referendum on whether the federal constitutional court is a legitimate force in the RS.Nationalism is on the rise, and the economic situation is precarious. What is the way out of this situation?
Joseph: The way out of this situation is, first, to recognize how serious it is. It is not only politically deadlocked, but also the economy is in terrible shape. For that reason, the country has a very poor future. On the top of this there are twin specters of resurgent Russian influence and the attraction of radical Islam, i.e. the “Islamic state” and the fact that there are foreign fighters from Bosnia, and Kosovo as well…going …(to the Middle East) and the possibility of them coming back …and radicalizing relations in the Balkan countries.... We know that the situation there is ripe for … ethnic [and religious] incidents and reactions to them which could trigger a spiral of violence. It won’t be on the scale of the 1990s, but nevertheless it could very seriously aggravate a fragile political climate.
The second step…is to understand that the cause is actually very straightforward. It is in the very agreement whose anniversary is nearing, i.e. the Dayton Accords. In other words, a zero sum relationship between the entity of Republika Srpska and the [federal] government in Sarajevo has been established. It means that if the government in Sarajevo becomes stronger, then by definition Republika Srpska would become weaker. No Serb leader – not only [RS President] Milorad Dodik – wants that, and Dodik has become more radical in his views. This is a basic dynamic and the central cause of the problem that prevents any significant reform in Bosnia. For that reason the country is too dysfunctional to join the EU.
RFE/RL: So the problem is in the founding document itself. Was it possible to conceive, to hammer out a different deal in Dayton?
Joseph: Yes. The proof of that is in the Ohrid Agreement (in 2001) in Macedonia. It didn’t rely on the ethno-territorial solution. Albanians who conducted the violent insurrection were not rewarded territory…[In movement of ethnic populations] Albanians had fled Skopje while a lot of Macedonians had fled Gostivar and Tetovo in the west of the country. In addition many called for a partition modeled on the Bosnia style solution. But the US, working with France, brokered the Ohrid Agreement, which didn’t rely on territorial settlement. Instead, it gave Albanians more rights in national institutions and locally. The country was decentralized but preserved as a whole. It means Macedonia has been organized on the level of the central government in Skopje and, at the same time, municipalities. Therefore, there are neither cantons nor entities like in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact that Albanians don’t have [a specific] territory-- in which they could act as a unified political force--has contributed to stability in Macedonia.
RFE/RL: Who is responsible for conceiving the Dayton Agreement?
Joseph: A lot of credit goes to Richard Holbrook, but he also has to take responsibility for the mistakes. In later years, he understood to a certain degree that it was a flawed agreement. His overriding imperative was to end the war – not to create a stable base for governance of Bosnia. He recognized from the very beginning that the Dayton Agreement’s implementation would be even harder.
Therefore, the flaws in the Accords are much more than hindsight – they tell us what we have to do. Namely, there will be no substantial progress in Bosnia unless there is some adjustment in the power relationship between the central government and the two entities. All other ideas -- like new personalities coming forward or a younger generation replacing existing politicians, or increasing trade between entities – have been hoped for and disapproved as solutions.
The only way to improve the situation in Bosnia is to address the power relationship between the entities and the central government. And this is possible. We know that because it was almost done in 2006 in the “April package”…. Until the power relationship is remedied, Bosnia won’t be functional and won’t advance politically, economically and, hence, to the EU.
RFE/RL: But the key issue is how to get Milorad Dodik to accept such a compromise because Republika Srpska enjoys veto power over any significant changes of its status. By the way, it was Haris Silajdzic, member of Bosnian Presidency, who scuppered constitutional reforms in 2006.
Joseph: …It is not impossible to go forward with reforms. The situation in 2006 showed that Serbs, though at that time under different circumstances, could accept a substantial reform to the Dayton Constitution in order to make the country more functional. So we know that these fatal flaws in the Dayton agreement could be corrected if the right incentives and pressures are put on political actors. It’s true that Haris Silajdzic was chiefly responsible for torpedoing the “April package” acting quite irresponsibly.
RFE/RL: But at that time Milorad Dodik was not so intransigent like now. Meanwhile, in 2008, Kosovo declared independence, which Dodik has frequently used as a pretext to raise the issue independence for Republika Srpska. Have Serbian political and intellectual elites tacitly admitted that Kosovo is lost to Serbia? Are they now looking at Republika Srpska as a kind of compensation and the only tangible gain in the wars of 1990s?
Joseph: Yes, emotionally it can be the case that many Serbs see Republika Srpska as the only compensation and vindication for all that happened in 1990s and the collapse of Yugoslavia. However, it certainly is not the politics of the Government in Belgrade as long as Prime Minister [Aleksandar] Vucic is in power, and as long as most political parties are committed to and supportive of the entry of Serbia into the EU. So, anything that would suggest other than full support for the independence and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina – not Republika Srpska – would prevent the advancement of Belgrade to the EU. It would put Vucic’s primary political objective at risk.
Second, we know that Vucic’s doesn’t have good relations with Milorad Dodik. Third, as of Mr. Dodik, it’s well known that his own political fortunes have weakened. He is no longer a dominant political figure he once was. In fact, very likely one of the reasons he is putting forward the controversial, dangerous and provocative referendum is to divert attention from the growing problems he faces, like a very serious opposition. And then, the economy doesn’t perform well at all. In addition, a lot of questions have been raised about corruption.
Nationalism and a referendum are great distraction for Dodik to use in order to avoid addressing any of these questions. …We no longer need to be so afraid of Milorad Dodik as the person who can completely dominate a political landscape in Republika Srpska. We know that there are responsible figures who don’t want to see the Bosnian Serb entity in a confrontation with the international community.
RFE/RL: Meanwhile, representatives of the Bosnian Croats have sought a third entity for their ethnic group, which additionally complicates this equation.
Joseph: This is a distraction because it is not the main issue. The Croats’ seeking a third entity is not the main concern. The question of Bosnia has always been the Serb question. Serbs by far are the most substantial people who are not in a plurality. The Serb-Bosniak dynamic is key for the situation in Bosnia. Croats have always followed trends. The war between Croats and Bosniaks followed the outbreak of war between Serbs and Bosniaks. And if Serbs and Bosniaks come to an understanding about a relationship between Republika Srpska and the [Bosnian] capital in Sarajevo, there will be no issue with Croats and their third entity. It means that this question arises only because Bosnia is not a functional state.
RFE/RL: Is[u6] Bosnia and Herzegovina a kind of “victim” of 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US? Namely, until 2001, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s International High Representatives were very tough in pushing for the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, even firing recalcitrant domestic officials who opposed those reforms, which was not often the case after September 11, 2001. Although the West is very critical of the Milorad Dodik’s secessionist policy does it in fact tolerate him as a kind of buffer to the threat of rising Islamism in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Joseph: I don’t think there is any evidence that shows 9/11 has had any substantial impact on Western policy in Bosnia. In fact, the international intervention in Bosnia reached its peak in 2005, when the tenure of Paddy Ashdown as the High Representative came to an end. That was four years after 9/11. He was very vigorous and a lot of progress was achieved during his tenure. Therefore, I don’t see any connection between the two [9/11 and the situation in Bosnia]. In fact, if you look at the actual record, the Bush administration was interested in downgrading its role in Bosnia well before 9/11 ever happened. The US is involved in Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and other countries in the region but not as intensely as it once was. So, there is the continuing US involvement, but the Balkan region remains less of a concern for Washington than other areas in the world, for example the Middle East and Ukraine.