The war in Ukraine has, quite understandably, overshadowed other conflicts in Europe and around the world. The standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh is one such conflict; the simmering political tension in Bosnia is another. The 1995 Dayton Agreement ended the terrible war in Bosnia, but it set up a wasteful and unwieldy political system that entrenched ethno-national conflicts and crippled the country’s economy. These tensions have not yet erupted into a new armed conflict in the Balkans, but this remains a distinct possibility.
Russia’s inability to forcibly subjugate Ukraine has raised fears that Vladimir Putin could try to open a second front in the region. While its military struggles in Ukraine make this a remote possibility, the geopolitics of war have exacerbated tensions in an already tense region.
Emina Muzaferija is a graduate researcher based at Virginia Tech university in Washington, DC, specializing in the politics of postwar Bosnia. She spoke to Jacobin’s Chris Maisano about the history of the Bosnian War, the conflict-ridden political system created by the Dayton Agreement, and the lessons Bosnia teaches us about the possibilities of finding an effective and durable settlement for the war in Ukraine. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Let’s begin with the Bosnian War of the 1990s. How did the war set the stage for the creation of modern Bosnia?
The Bosnian War grew out of disagreement over the fate of Bosnia and Herzegovina as Yugoslavia collapsed. It was one of five conflicts that together constitute the Yugoslav wars of secession and independence. In Bosnia, it is commonly understood that the war began on April 6, 1992, but official Croat and Serb narratives date the beginning to either the second half of 1991 in the Croat case, or to mid-April 1992 in the Serb case. There were three main belligerents that took part in the conflict: the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Army of Republika Srpska, and the Croatian Defense Council. The war lasted nearly four years, displaced over two million people, and killed over one hundred thousand.
The defining characteristics of the Bosnian War were the systematic campaigns of ethnic cleansing, destruction of cultural and religious heritage, relentless shelling of civilians, siege of the capital city and several others, and concentration camps. One of the main outcomes of the war is that it changed the multiethnic character of Bosnia into a country that is now characterized by largely mono-ethnic spaces. The war ended with a peace treaty in late 1995 that entrenched these ethnic divisions in a new political order and partitioned Bosnia into two separate political entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and Republika Srpska (RS) — both of which constitute parts of a larger Bosnian state, plus the Brčko District, a buffer zone that splits the territory of RS in two.
That agreement is known as the Dayton Agreement. The negotiations took place here in the United States, and they were brokered and led by the Clinton administration. What was it trying to accomplish in sponsoring and brokering the Dayton Agreement?
The United States was the midwife of the Dayton peace agreement. The Clinton administration’s push for a peace treaty at that time was seen as a possible positive foreign policy outcome for Clinton that would help his chances at reelection.
The issue of Bosnia and the inability to end the war plagued and defined the early years of Clinton’s presidency, possibly more than any other foreign policy issue. The treaty was negotiated in Dayton, Ohio in order to remove the belligerents from their comfort zones and speed up the negotiations process. The agreement was reached in November 1995, and formally signed in Paris in December 1995. One of the most interesting parts of the agreement is that it was not only a peace treaty, but an ambitious tool of statecraft and nation-building that created the constitution of the modern Bosnian state.
As I previously said, this settlement entrenched ethnic divisions. It split the territory of the Bosnian state into two entities, where RS got 49 percent of the territory and the FBiH got the other 51 percent. What also came out of these negotiations is the Office of the High Representative (OHR), an internationally appointed official overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement, which exists to this day. This is one of the most criticized parts of the Dayton peace agreement, as it embodies a sort of colonial relationship between the international community and Bosnia because of the OHR’s power to impose binding decisions and remove public officials from office. Overall, Dayton has become highly controversial in the last two and a half decades, especially among Bosniaks who see it as dysfunctional and unjust.
On the other hand, officials in Republika Srpska are eager to keep Dayton as it is because the agreement, after all, is the birth certificate of Republika Srpska as it exists today. What made Dayton possible, as opposed to previous attempts at making peace, was that Serbia was militarily defeated by US-backed Croatian forces in 1995, and there was a direct NATO intervention in Bosnia the same year. This paved the way to push for negotiations and finally reach an agreement.
As you say, Dayton has come under a lot of criticism for being unworkable or unjust. You mentioned the OHR, which is currently filled by a German politician. What role does the office play in Bosnian politics, and what are some of the issues or controversies it has been part of in Bosnia today?
The high representative heads the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement. The position comes with substantial powers that allow direct involvement in Bosnia’s internal affairs. But the OHR is also a temporary mechanism that can be closed down if a number of internal political reforms are successfully completed. The current high representative, a German politician named Christian Schmidt, has been part of several controversies since he took office in August 2021.
Most recently, he came into the spotlight on election day last October when he imposed changes to the election law right after the polls closed. He came under fire mostly from the Bosniak side, which has been experiencing disputes over the election law with Croats in Bosnia, and accused Schmidt of legislating apartheid. Officials in RS have also criticized the OHR, which they see as an imperial arm of the West and an expression of the same international community that made it possible for NATO to bomb Belgrade in 1999.
Dayton was the birth certificate, as you put it, of Republika Srpska within the Bosnian state. What is Republika Srpska, and was it established as part of the agreement? How does it interact with the other main part of the Bosnian state, the FBiH?
Republika Srpska was declared in the run-up to the referendum on Bosnian independence, on January 9, 1992. This day is celebrated as the founding of RS, although ruled unconstitutional by Bosnia’s constitutional court; its establishment continues to be a major source of controversy in Bosnia. RS was declared as a republic of the Serb people of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the assembly of the Serb population in Bosnia and Herzegovina, led by Radovan Karadžić and his party. The assembly that declared RS was only a few months older than the entity itself.
In essence, RS was conceived in opposition to the internationally recognized state of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it was defined publicly by Karadžić and his party as a way to protect the interests of Serb people in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, what they sought by establishing RS was to prevent parts of Bosnia from seceding from Yugoslavia, especially the parts that had a majority or large numbers of Serb people, because this would end up in a situation in which the Serb population was territorially disconnected from Serbia proper.
How do RS and the FBiH negotiate over issues and come to agreements?
The political system Dayton created is a hybrid, asymmetric political system, best understood as a consociational democracy where three major ethno-national groups — Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats — have a guaranteed share of power. They are defined as “constituent groups” in the constitution. The two entities, RS and the FBiH, are semiautonomous — each has its own government and president, even its own flags. They each enjoy responsibility over a vast number of issues within their territories, such as the education system, customs, and police forces. But there still is a central government and central state institutions in which the representatives from the FBiH, RS, and Brčko District take part.
They are subordinated to a common three-part structure: the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bosnia’s bicameral parliament. This is an arena for various disputes, where the functioning of the state can effectively be blocked for a prolonged period of time. We witnessed this in 2021, and up until February 1, 2022. Consensus is a necessary condition for just about any decision to be taken by the country.
This need for consensus is the country’s soft underbelly. Each of the three constitutional groups (Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs) essentially hold veto powers to prevent certain policies from being passed through parliament, on the grounds that they violate the national interest of a particular constituent group. Bosnia is therefore nearly always in a state of political gridlock over various issues.
Who is Milorad Dodik? He’s become a very controversial figure in Bosnian politics. What is he and his party trying to accomplish?
Milorad Dodik is one of the defining figures on the Bosnian political landscape, and he is currently serving as the president of RS. This is his third mandate, although not a consecutive one. He began his political career in Yugoslavia almost forty years ago and has held various positions since. But the most prominent positions he has held are two mandates as a prime minister of RS, one mandate as a member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and now three mandates as president of RS.
One of Dodik’s defining characteristics is that he and his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), went from being a moderate reformist alternative to the ultranationalist Serbs in the Karadžić party to champions of Bosnia’s Serbs’ right to secession and independence. Now he’s most well-known for his very close ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia, and his political discourse has a distinct ethno-national flavor centered on ideas of Republika Srpska’s right to an independence referendum, and himself as a “guardian of RS” and “guardian of original Dayton.”
A referendum is not allowed under the Bosnian state constitution, no?
It would be completely illegal. Neither of the two entities nor the Brčko District have the right to secede from Bosnia as per regulations set forth in the Dayton Agreement. Secession would be unconstitutional, and would almost certainly amount to a new armed conflict. The signatories of the Dayton Agreement — then president of the Republic of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegović; then president of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević; and then president of the Republic of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman — agreed to respect the territorial sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
If, hypothetically, any part of Bosnia were to break away and opt to territorially unite with any of the neighboring countries, this would constitute a violation of a binding international agreement. Therefore, there are no mechanisms through which RS, the FBiH, or any other political entity could legally and peacefully secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Is the current government in the Republic of Serbia backing and encouraging Dodik’s actions in Bosnia? What’s the relationship there?
Since its creation, RS has held close ties with Serbia. During the Bosnian War, Serbia supported and funded RS’s wartime efforts, and the two enjoy “special parallel relations” established by an agreement in 1997 and implemented in 2010. But Dodik’s pursuit of RS secession is not openly or officially supported by Serbia. There are several reasons for this. First, lending support for a de facto secession would violate commitments Serbia made in Dayton in 1995. Second, it would substantially damage the relationship that Serbia is pursuing with the United States and EU, and could lead to heavy sanctions and even isolation. And third, backing RS secession could further complicate matters in Kosovo by setting a precedent. There is little doubt that Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić and his government would suffer rather than benefit from taking such a path.
What about the relationship between the Republic of Croatia and the Bosnian Croats? Croatia was also a party to Dayton and played a major role in the war too.
The Croatian Defense Council was one of the main belligerents in the Bosnian War, and the Republic of Croatia was one of the parties to Dayton, but the relationship between Bosnia’s Croats and the Republic of Croatia has significant differences compared to Bosnia’s Serbs’ and RS’s relationship with the Republic of Serbia. The sources of these differences can be traced to the largely different outcomes that Croatia and Serbia achieved at the Bosnian War’s end. While Serbia got a satellite state within Bosnia in the form of RS, Croatia agreed to have Bosnia’s Croats form a federation with Bosniaks within Bosnia. This move effectively abolished the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, a breakaway entity that Croatia supported during the Bosnian War.
This entanglement in a power-sharing system with Bosniaks shapes the Republic of Croatia’s relationship with Bosnia’s Croats, and has produced a political dynamic that revolves around dissatisfaction with the electoral law and a sense of injustice regarding Croats’ position in Bosnia. The Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH) — a major political party of Bosnia’s Croats — champions the idea of Bosnia’s Croats being disenfranchised, underrepresented, and consistently outvoted by Bosniaks in the FBiH. Croatia’s government shares this position and publicly supports this narrative while framing the issue as an obstacle to Bosnia’s path to EU membership. In essence, HDZ BiH is seeking more political power that it believes rightfully belongs to Bosnia’s Croats.
The Bosniak side, however, rejects this narrative and often compares it to Croats’ unfulfilled wartime objective — the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, which would have been Croatia’s satellite state in Bosnia. For some on the Bosniak side, it stands for a more serious and more dangerous issue than Dodik’s calls for and steps toward RS secession.
And what about the largely Muslim Bosniak population within the FBiH? What are its views, and who are its allies and patrons?
One part of the Bosniak population understands the United States as its major ally and friend because of the role the United States played during and after the Bosnian War. Bosnia’s pursuit of membership in the EU and NATO alliance are commonly shared goals, although critics exist. Those who are critical of the EU and NATO membership path and don’t recognize the United States as Bosnia’s major ally tend to emphasize the failure of the international community — predominantly the UN, EU, and United States — to prevent wartime atrocities and ethnic cleansing of the Bosniak population. There are also those who view Turkey as Bosnia’s singular ally given the two countries’ centuries-old ties. A much smaller group has adopted a somewhat cynical view on interstate alliances, arguing that Bosnia has no “true allies” but has been historically used and abused by empires, great powers, and neighboring states. However, these critical voices are marginal, whereas the pursuit of EU and NATO membership tends to be understood as a priority for the majority of Bosniaks and their political parties.
Coming back to Milorad Dodik, as you noted before he has very good relations with Putin and the Russian Federation. Just last month, he awarded Putin some kind of state honor. This has raised fears that Putin may try to open a “second front” in the Balkans amid the war in Ukraine. How real is that fear?
Yes, on January 9 Dodik awarded the highest medal of honor in RS to Putin for his “patriotic concern and love” for Republika Srpska. This caused an enormous controversy, not just in Bosnia but in the region and even beyond.
The danger of Putin opening up a “second front” in Bosnia relates to these very real and legitimate fears that emerged in the early weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When Russia invaded, there was a sense that Bosnia might slide into armed conflict through a Russian-sponsored RS secession from the Bosnian state, either as a means to distract attention from Ukraine or weaken the capacity of the EU, United States, and NATO to address the crisis in Ukraine.
A few months before the war in Ukraine began, Dodik visited Putin in Moscow, and this really induced a belief in Bosnia that Dodik was informed of Putin’s invasion plans at that meeting and planned an RS secession accordingly.
But the fear of the Balkans becoming Putin’s second front is a sentiment that was and is contingent upon Bosnia’s intense internal political dynamic. It was made possible by two parallel crises that unfolded in 2021. One of them, as I noted before, is a dispute between Bosniaks and Croats over election law in the FBiH. And the second was the boycott of state institutions by representatives from RS, and actual steps that Dodik and some RS lawmakers took toward institutional independence. The boycott began in response to the former high representative’s decision to impose a ban on genocide denial.
The boycott effectively blocked the functioning of Bosnia’s parliament, the Council of Ministers, and Bosnia’s presidency. And it was in this environment that a fear of a new war began developing. From fall 2021 through February 2022 there were many calls from Dodik and other RS representatives to withdraw from key state institutions such as the judiciary, armed forces, intelligence and security services, and the tax system. This culminated in an actual vote by the RS national assembly, which in December 2021 voted in favor of starting the procedure for RS to withdraw from central government institutions. The opposition party in RS opposed the vote, which resulted in a nonbinding resolution. Either way, it was a signal that Dodik, his party, and the politicians loyal to him in RS are serious about their secession plans.
The boycott of state institutions, the RS vote in favor of withdrawal, and Dodik’s secessionist rhetoric not only angered the FBiH side, but produced an atmosphere that for many resembled the mood prior to the Bosnian War of the 1990s. The dispute over the election law simmered along with this crisis. But it did not factor into the fears of a new war as directly as the crisis with Bosnia’s Serbs. By the time Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Bosnia’s media landscape was already well saturated with war rhetoric. On the same day, the European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) decided to activate reinforcements for existing troops in Bosnia, which to many seemed like confirmation that Russia might extend its military offensive to Bosnia through RS.
The tension was also heightened by statements the Russian ambassador to Bosnia made in March last year. In a series of public interviews, he said that if Bosnia were to join NATO then Russia would react accordingly. In a sense, he was saying that Bosnia would face a Ukrainian scenario if it opted for NATO membership. Although he called his statements a warning, not a threat, this was a major source of concern for Bosniaks specifically. This fear of an impending conflict grew stronger in Bosnia in the weeks leading up to the war in Ukraine and several weeks after. But in reality, RS’s path to secession slowed down prior to the invasion and came to a halt shortly thereafter.
There was a mismatch between the sentiment going around and what was happening in reality. The national assembly of RS allowed its representatives to return to Bosnian state institutions on February 1, 2022. This effectively ended the boycott, and the dispute over what sort of position Bosnia should take regarding the Russian invasion soon took primacy in the media and in the political landscape.
In the meantime, Dodik has only inched closer to Russia and Putin. Since the invasion he has openly supported Putin’s rationale for war. He’s called Putin’s war a justified reaction to the hypocritical actions the West has been pursuing in the past twenty years or so. He’s also supported the “people’s republics” in Donbas. In fact, there were a few individuals from RS who came and helped out with sham referenda in Donetsk and Luhansk.
But as of now, there are no real indicators that Putin will open up a second front in Bosnia through RS, at least not in terms of conventional warfare. There has been a significant increase in the activities of the Russian Federation through its Bosnian embassy since the invasion was launched. But I would say that this mostly relates to a campaign of disinformation and misinformation rather than threats or a possibility of actual armed conflict.
Do you think that there’s a realistic path toward reforming the institutions of the Bosnian state so that the underlying conflicts might actually be addressed? If so, what are some of the major things that could be done?
There is a way, but the major issue is that major institutional reforms are not in the interest of Bosnia’s political elites, ethno-national entrepreneurs, and major political parties.
Bosnia is a country saturated with ethno-national political parties that, on the surface, seem to be mortal enemies trapped in perpetual political conflict. Below the surface, there is no substantial political conflict, but fabricated disputes that serve to keep ethno-national parties in power. Simply put, the ethno-national parties in Bosnia, however they may appear on the surface, share the same premise in which ethno-national identity is understood as the primary political identity. These parties reinforce each other. Stronger ethno-national sentiments among Bosnia’s Serbs mean stronger ethno-national sentiments among Bosniaks and Bosnia’s Croats. The stronger the sentiments, the bigger the likelihood for ethno-national parties to remain in power and enjoy its fruits.
Since 1995, ethno-national parties have remained in power by targeting the population’s deep reservoir of collective war trauma through discourse that evokes fears of a new war, new bloodshed, and new mass suffering.
But there is an interest on the part of the country’s population that identifies as “Bosnian” or “Other” to pursue reforms, because this political system has deeply crippled the country’s economy and induced a mass brain drain. The most sustainable and promising way to undo this is to elect parties to the political institutions that would not further this ethno-national agenda and use the war trauma as a way of getting people to vote for them. I think we’re beginning to see some of that with the last general elections. The Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the single most important Bosniak party in Bosnia since before the war, has lost positions in the state’s tripartite presidency and the Council of Ministers. There is a younger generation coming into the political institutions that might be able to initiate a more thorough transformation of Bosnia.
What lessons, if any, do you think the Dayton Agreement teaches us regarding a potential settlement of the war in Ukraine?
I think there are at least two lessons that can be drawn from Dayton with regard to the potential settlement of the war in Ukraine. The first one relates to the difficulty of negotiating an effective peace agreement. The second relates to the dangers of negotiating a Bosnia-style peace agreement for Ukraine.
In the first case, the path to Dayton was made possible, as I said, by Serbia’s military defeats in Croatia by the US-backed Croatian army, which committed numerous war crimes in Operation Storm and Operation Flash as it attempted to defeat Serbia. It was also made possible by NATO’s direct involvement in Bosnia and the enforcement of the peace agreement. The implementation of the peace settlement in Bosnia was made possible by a multinational peacekeeping force that oversaw the heavy weapons withdrawal commitments in Bosnia by materially creating a zone of separation between former belligerents.
It is unlikely that any sort of similar scenario would occur in Ukraine or would be a positive development. The United States and the EU have circumvented this direct involvement option by choosing to support Ukraine through intelligence, arms shipments, and sanctions against Russia. In this case, reaching a peace treaty by militarily defeating Russia is entirely in the hands of the Ukrainian army, although it is heavily dependent on continued support of the United States and EU.
I don’t think it would be a positive development for Ukraine to seek a Dayton-style agreement. As I said, Dayton required direct military involvement of outside parties. This could be a catastrophic dynamic in Ukraine because the Ukrainian war features great power rivalry, and there are nuclear powers involved.
The other reason why I think there is a great danger in pursuing a Bosnia-style peace in Ukraine is that it would essentially replicate all the setbacks that happened in Bosnia.
A Bosnia-style peace in Ukraine could result in the Ukrainian government allowing for the creation of semiautonomous entities in the country’s east as a way to keep Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This would essentially create a Republika Srpska within Ukrainian territory, which means that the governance of Ukraine would also depend on the participation of pro-Russian forces. Ukraine would, within its territory, have entities that are loyal to Russia and not to Ukraine.
Another real danger is that a Dayton-style agreement could further impoverish Ukraine and completely cripple its economy, as has been happening in Bosnia. Ukraine, like Bosnia, has a history of notorious corruption. A Dayton-style peace agreement would produce a system that is functional for only a small group of political elites who would be able to manipulate the treaty and the system to amass wealth.
Dayton created an enormous governmental structure for a country that now has some three million people. Nearly two-thirds of the state budget is needed to fund the administration, and that of course creates severe economic difficulties for everyone else in the country except political elites. I would say it’s in the best interest of Ukraine to not seek and to not agree to a Dayton-style peace treaty, because this would replicate the issues in Bosnia and continue to be a source of concern for the world.