Trouble in Bosnia and Herzegovina tests limits of Dayton Agreement

The 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War has held Bosnia and Herzegovina together for almost three decades. But with dual political crises in the country’s two entities, the fragile agreement is being stretched to its limits.  

The Dayton Agreement brought an uneasy close to three years and eight months of inter-ethnic civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) that saw over two million people displaced, 101,000 people dead, and horrific ethnic cleansing—over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica alone.  

The peace accord divided the country into two entities—a Serb-majority Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, shared by Bosniaks and Croats—held together by a weak central government. Both entities have their own presidents and parliaments. An annex of the Dayton Agreement serves as the country’s constitution and established a tripartite presidency for the entire country that rotates between a Bosniak and a Croat president—elected by the joint constituency of the Federation—and a Serb president elected by Republika Srpska.  

Since the presidents of Serbia, Croatia, and BiH agreed to the accords at a United States Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio in 1995, its substance and implementation have been roundly criticised for entrenching territories’ ethnic homogeneity resulting from the war’s ethnic cleansing.  

BiH has lost five cases against its own citizens in the European Court of Human Rights, which has ruled that the BiH constitution discriminates against the country’s Roma, Jews, and other minorities barred from running for the tripartite presidency reserved for ethnic Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.  

Nationalist Bosnian Serbs have called for Republika Srpska to become independent or unify with Serbia, some Croats want their own entity, and Bosniaks—who make up half the population, over thrice the population of Croats—are proportionately under-represented in co-equal tripartite ethnic quotas. 

Nevertheless, the country has not seen a resumption in mass violence since the adoption of the Dayton Agreement. The international community continues to play an active role in the governance of BiH through the Office of the High Representative (OHR)—which represents the countries of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), tasked with implementing the Dayton Agreement. Established in 1995, the OHR’s powers were expanded in 1997 when the PIC meeting in Bonn gave the High Representative the ability to make binding decisions when local “parties are unable to reach agreement” and remove Bosnian officials from office if they work against the commitments of the Dayton Agreement.  

The OHR is not elected by Bosnians and is only directly accountable to the PIC, and there is limited opportunity for officials removed by the OHR to appeal their diktats. 

Another OHR intervention in the Federation 

On April 27, High Representative Christian Schmidt—formerly Germany’s Minister of Food and Agriculture under Chancellor Angela Merkel—intervened in Federation politics for the second time in under seven months. 

One of the chambers of the Federation’s parliament, the House of the Peoples, proposes its president and vice-presidents. The entity’s executive government required the approval of the Federation’s president and two vice-presidents then confirmation by its House of Representatives—the other chamber of its parliament. 

Minutes after polls for Bosnia’s elections closed on October 2 of last year, Schmidt used his ‘Bonn Powers’ to change rules concerning how the entity’s president and two vice-presidents are elected. He also set new deadlines and “consequences for ignoring these deadlines” concerning the formation of the Federation’s government and passage of a controversial package of electoral and constitutional reforms.

He also increased the number of representatives in the Federation’s House of Peoples to make the chamber more proportional and allow for the inclusion of minorities besides the main three ethnic groups—Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. 

“These decisions aim at preventing the paralysis of the Federation after the elections,” Schmidt said. “So this is why I’m doing it and deciding it today”. 

Schmidt’s attempts at preventing post-election paralysis have proven anything but successful. Schmidt’s reforms seem predicated on the assumption that one coalition would control both chambers of the Federation’s parliament—which did not happen. 

After six months of gridlock following the October 2022 elections, the governing coalition of the entity was unable to confirm a prime minister by the April 6 deadline. The coalition of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and Bosniak and civic parties held a majority in the Federation’s House of Representatives as well as its presidency and one vice-presidency.  

However, the second vice-president—a member of the largest Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA)—refused to support the coalition’s proposed government unless its Bosniak members were from the SDA.  

The ministers in the Federation’s government had been appointed in 2015, after the 2014 elections, but had been serving since 2018 on a “technical mandate as a result of political blockades related to demands for electoral reform,” according to Balkan Insight

When Schmidt used his Bonn Powers on April 27, he overrode the objections of the SDA to approve the proposed government and amended the Bosnian constitution so that if one of the vice-presidents does not agree to the new government within 30 days of the appointment of the president and vice-presidents, “the president will have another 30 days to appoint the government with the signature of only one vice-president”. 

Schmidt also reclassified political bribery as a criminal act. 

People gathered outside the parliament building in Sarajevo to protest the constitutional changes—accusing Schmidt of discrimination against Bosniaks by bypassing the Federation’s Bosniak vice-president. 

Sabre-rattling from Republika Srpska 

As the Federation of BiH languished in gridlock, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik spoke at a ceremony in the town of Gradina for the victims of the Jasenovac concentration and death camp on April 24. The Croatian Ustaša regime was the only Nazi-collaborationist government to build and operate its own system of extermination camps—between 77,000 and 99,000 Serbs, Jews, and Roma were killed at the Jasenovac alone.  

“No one will prevent us [Serbs] from uniting because it is our right and our history. The last century was the century of Serbian suffering, and this century is one of Serbian unification,” said Dodik. “Serbs will not survive in these areas if Republika Srpska does not become independent in the coming years.” 

This is not the first time that Dodik has called for the secession of Republika Srpska—he had most recently done so just days prior on April 14. In his almost three decades in Bosnian politics, he has served as the prime minister of Republika Srpska and as the Serb member of the tripartite Presidency of BiH. Dodik awarded Russian President Vladimir Putin a medal of honour in absentia in January and has called the Srebrenica massacre a “fabricated myth”.  

Dodik clashed with the previous High Representative, Valentin Inzko, over Inzko’s intervention criminalising genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals in July 2021.  

“Hate speech, the glorification of war criminals and revisionism or outright denial of genocide and war crimes prevent societies from dealing with their collective past, constitute renewed humiliation of the victims and their loved ones, while also perpetuating injustice and undermining interethnic relationships,” said Inzko. “All of this causes frustrations, makes the society chronically ill, and prevents the emergence of desperately needed reconciliation.” 

“Republika Srpska rejects this, genocide did not happen, Serbs must never accept this,” declared Dodik, then the Serb member of the Presidency of BiH.  

Since then, Dodik has intensified his efforts to withdraw Republika Srpska from BiH’s central armed forces, intelligence agency, and tax authority. He opposed Schmidt’s appointment as High Representative because Russia did not approve it on the UN Security Council. 

In a report to the United Nations Secretary-General, Schmidt called Dodik’s efforts to form a military for Republika Srpska “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”. 

Dragan Stankovic, the director of the Administration for Geodetic and Property Affairs of Republika Srpska, played a leading role passing the Law on Immovable Property in Republika Srpska. The law declares agricultural land, forests, and rivers used by Republika Srpska institutions to be the sole property of the entity rather than the central Bosnian state. The entity-level Constitutional Court ruled the Law unconstitutional, and Schmidt used his Bonn Powers twice to suspend its implementation. The US sanctioned Stankovic. 

Dodik has remained defiant. In retaliation to the US sanctions, he announced Republika Srpska would end cooperation with the US and UK embassies from March 23. In his remarks calling for secession in April, Dodik explicitly linked secession to the issue of the property law.  

On April 27, the parliament of Republika Srpska voted to order its judges on the state-level Constitutional Court to quit—the latest Bosnian institution from which Dodik’s government has moved to withdraw.

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