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Monday, 7 November 2016

Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace

Adis Merdzanovic (Junior Research Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford)

Two decades after the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) ended the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the country once again finds itself in a precarious situation. While the war has certainly stopped, BiH faces deep political, social, and economic crises that threaten the stability of the state and its structures. But why has BiH, which received enormous institutional and financial aid from the international community, not become a self-sustaining democracy? 

This question is central to Christopher Bennett’s new book Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace, which the author presented at a SEESOX seminar on 3rd November 2016. The event was chaired by Adis Merdzanovic (St Antony’s College) and Richard Caplan (Linacre College) acted as discussant. 

As Bennett explained, the book presents an analysis of the breakdown of Yugoslavia, the war in BiH, and all the political developments since the Dayton Peace Agreement. It was written with the deep conviction that there exists a solution for what Bennett has termed the ‘Bosnian Question’, namely a way for Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats to peacefully live together within a political framework that actually works. In order for this to happen, however, one needs to understand the structural preconditions for the current challenges.

On the outset, the current problems include the functioning of the state, as exhibited by the 25th September referendum in Republika Srpska (RS), the problems surrounding the local elections in Stolac and Srebrenica, the threats of a secession referendum in RS, or the Croat demand for a third entity. At the same time, the Gulf States have increased their investments and Turkey is exercising more influence, while the international community, especially the Office of the High Representative (OHR), is losing influence due to international developments and self-imposed restrictions. According to Bennett, the deeper structural problem lies with the DPA, which in its annex 4 included BiH’s post-war constitution. Similar to the first democratic elections in 1990, the post-Dayton electoral system created a division between the ethnos and the demos, while giving the ethnos precedence. This meant that BiH effectively became an ethnocracy characterised by zero-sum politics and political deadlocks and patronage. 

In his talk, Bennett substantiated his view by discussing several key moments in the country’s post-war development: the 1996 elections; the 2000 Constitutional Court decision on the ‘constituency of peoples’; the 2005 Venice Commission report entitled ‘Opinion on the Constitutional Situation in Bosnia and the Powers of the High Representative’; the April package; as well as, after 2006, the unilateral surrender of powers by the OHR and the international community. As a result, Bennett is convinced that we have now entered ‘Dayton’s endgame’: BiH is basically bankrupt and kept alive by the IMF and commercial borrowing, which is rising. At the same time, EU and US influence is declining and new players have entered the political space, including Turkey, Russia, Croatia, Serbia, or the Gulf States. 

As Bennett told the audience, to make BiH functional, a paradigm shift is necessary, which would include a combination of three major factors: firstly, the intervention powers of the OHR, the so-called Bonn powers which have not been used in recent years, should not be abolished, but retained within a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework; secondly, one would have to think about introducing shared sovereignty, which may also include confederational arrangements with Serbia or Croatia; finally, political reforms need to be put in place that would incentivise cross-ethnic cooperation and allow multi-ethnic candidates to gain votes, i.e. a centripetal electoral system. 

In his discussion, Richard Caplan highly praised the book and found it difficult to disagree substantially with the general outline of the argument. He did however remind the audience that while the unilateral surrender of the Bonn powers might have been unwise in retrospect, the real question was how sustainable prolonged intervention would have been. Many hopes for BiH’s transformation lay in the process of EU accession, which did not pan out. Caplan was furthermore sceptical with respect to the R2P framework for keeping the Bonn powers as the usage of this instrument has become quite conservative in recent years. 

Christopher Bennett (2016): Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace. London: Hurst Publishers. 

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