Dan Simpson: Bosnia-Herzegovina ignites

Time to toss out the poisoned fruits of the Dayton Accords

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Hearing of destruction and violence last week in Bosnia-Herzegovina cities where I’ve lived and which I know is painful and causes me to reflect on what needs to be done to improve that country’s prospects.

The Department of State loaned me to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2000-2001 to oversee part of the elections there in 2000. One embarrassing aspect of the assignment was that the elections coincided with the Florida, hanging-chad, Supreme Court-intervention U.S. presidential election. We were supposed to be telling them how to have orderly, democratic elections when our own was a sow’s ear strenuously resisting transformation into a silk purse.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, generally prosperous and almost a model of religious and ethnic cooperation when it was part of Yugoslavia under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, began to fragment in 1990. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s major problem is its ethnic/​religious composition. Of roughly 3.8 million people, 48 percent are Muslims or Bosniaks, 37 percent Orthodox Christian Serbs and 14 percent Catholic Croats, all disputed figures.

It gets worse. As Yugoslavia began to break up, Serbia took up the cause of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serbs; Croatia, its Croats. Some humanitarians and some of the world’s Muslims helped the Bosniaks. Money and arms flowed in. A war was fought from 1992 to 1995, first with the Serbs vs. the Croats and Muslims, and then with the Croats vs. the Muslims.

An estimated 100,000 died. The country — and, obviously, its economy — were devastated. Physical wreckage and a heritage of vicious cruelty were left behind. When my wife and I arrived in Mostar, in effect the capital of Herzegovina, there were streets and streets of bombed-out ruins and terrible stories.

The United States, led by the late ambassador Richard Holbrooke, negotiated an end to the war in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio — the Dayton Accords. He brought together the three presidents, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and thumped out an agreement.

It ended a very bloody war. The problem, though, is that the structure of government Mr. Holbrooke sold to get the parties to stop fighting turns out 18 years later to be unworkable.

I thought so in 2000, but at that point, only five years after the end of the war, and given the almost devotional attachment to “Dayton” that prevailed in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the time, particularly among the many international organizations involved there, I was not prepared to undertake the mission of heresy required to push reform of the agreement.

Now, the violence in Mostar and Tuzla, two places we lived, and in other Bosnia-Herzegovina towns, including the capital of Sarajevo, Bihac Travnik and Banja Luka, makes it clear.

The country has remained poor, with as high as 40 percent unemployment, and outside the European Union, unlike two of the five other ex-republics of Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia. Serbia is now knocking on the EU door.

It is perfectly obvious that the only bright future for Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the EU, but it is in no shape whatsoever, with the government structure it inherited from Dayton, to accede to the EU.

The fatal problem of that structure, even though it was probably necessary for Mr. Holbrooke and others to put it into place to end the war, is that it makes concrete the basic divisions among the Bosnian-Herzegovinians, disabling the country’s ability to function internally and in its relations with the rest of the world.

The country has, for example, three presidents, one for each of the three ethnic-religious groups. The next layer is composed of a federation government of Muslims, Croats and the Republika Srpska, the Serbian sub-government. Each has a passel of ministers. Each territory ruled by the latter two is further subdivided into the equivalent of states. The result is a Bosnia-Herzegovina that does not function as a country, nor as a negotiating partner, and is rife with corruption.

What is needed is a constitutional convention of all Bosnian-Herzogovinians. It needs to be understood in advance that the Dayton Accords are to be scrapped: they ended the war but did not provide a viable instrument for governing the country in the long run. The foreigners need to be kept out. All four of Dayton’s fathers — Izebegovic, Milosevic, Tudjman and Holbrooke — are deceased.

There is evidence that Bosnian-Herzogovinians see a strong need for change. The violence is occurring across the country, in some 20 cities. Few except those making money from the chaotic enterprise even pretend that government in Bosnia-Herzegovina is working.

At this point, the international organizations involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina may need to take the initiative in launching the reform conference. These include the United Nations, OSCE, the European Union, NATO, the World Bank and others. But they should set the conference and then stay out of the deliberations.

Dayton served its purpose — ending the war — but now it is time for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to determine how they will be governed. The United States had the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation in 1781 and finally the Constitution in 1787, amended now 27 times. It’s time for change in Bosnia-Herzegovina before Dayton’s fruits further poison the country’s future.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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