Bosnia-Herzegovina is a failed utopian experiment

Henry Srebrnik
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A former Yugoslav republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina (usually called Bosnia-Herzegovina) has hobbled along as a failed state since it declared its independence in 1992.

It had been an area of mixed population within Communist Yugoslavia, comprising Muslim Bosniaks, almost half the population; Orthodox Serbs, at 37 per cent; and Catholic Croats, at 14 per cent. Many lived together in mixed cities such as the capital, Sarajevo, and even ethnic intermarriages were not uncommon.

But it all quickly came undone – mainly because only the republic’s Bosniaks wanted a sovereign state. Croats wished to join Croatia while Serb nationalists, who wanted to bring Serbian-majority areas into a greater Serbia, began to engage in ethnic cleansing.

The fierce rivalries between the three groups led to a savage three and a half year war in which about 100,000 people were killed. A majority of the dead were Muslim Bosniaks; this included the massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys massacred by Serb forces at Srebrenica in July 1995. At least a million more Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were driven from their homes, while much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed.

Under intense American and European pressure, including a bombing campaign against Serb Bosnian forces, the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in November 1995, finally ending the fighting.

A few days later, President Bill Clinton hailed the agreement, declaring that the people of Bosnia now “have a chance to remind the world that just a few short years ago the mosques and churches of Sarajevo were a shining symbol of multiethnic tolerance, that Bosnia once found unity in its diversity.”

As well, NATO deployed an Implementation Force (IFOR) of nearly 60,000 troops to Bosnia. Later, a smaller Stabilization Force (SFOR) took on the task.

But the decentralized political system that the agreement engineered has entrenched rather than healed ethnic divisions.

The peace agreement retained Bosnia-Herzegovina’s international boundaries but created two distinct geographic entities within the country, a joint Croat-Bosniak-run Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, itself subdivided into 10 separate Croat and Bosniak cantons; and a Republika Srpska adjoining Serbia itself. The Brcko district in the northeast became a separate self-governing administrative unit.

The result was a bizarre political system, since in effect this was in all but name a partition.

The central government’s power is highly limited, as the country is largely decentralized. On the national level, there is a bicameral parliament and a three-person presidency, made up of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat; the chair rotates every eight months. The current incumbent is Zeljko Komsic, a Croat.

However, the country’s two parts have their own presidents and parliaments, and these are responsible for most administrative functions, including policing, education, health, and judicial courts.

Sarajevo is the capital of the entire country and of the Bosniak-Croat entity. The government of the Serb republic is based in Banja Luka.

The entire political structure is supervised by the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, selected from a European country by an international Peace Implementation Council. Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat, is the current incumbent. He has the power to “compel the entity governments to comply with the terms of the peace agreement,” including the dismissal of elected and non-elected officials.

In effect, he is the final authority, and so the country is in reality a European protectorate.

Political scientists Patrice C. McMahon and Jon Western in their September-October 2009 Foreign Affairs article “The Death of Dayton” noted that Bosnia was “once the poster child for international reconstruction efforts” and was considered “proof that under the right conditions the international community could successfully rebuild conflict-ridden countries.”

It didn’t work out that way. Bosnian Croat and Serb nationalists continued to block the emergence of a unified Bosnian state. Nationalist parties gained sweeping control of state-run enterprises, government jobs and the issuing of lucrative state contracts.

The multiple layers of government have led to corruption and economic stagnation, and today the country of 3.9 million people stands on the brink of collapse, despite having received billions of dollars in aid.

With unemployment at 44 percent and one in five people living below the poverty line, Bosnians have recently taken to the streets in a number of cities to vent their anger.

In 2004, NATO handed over peace stabilization duties to a European Union force (EUFOR), now numbering some 600 troops, but backed up by “over-the-horizon” reserves, allowing a rapid surge in numbers if needed. Renewed warfare is only avoided thanks to their presence.

Even Lewis Carroll couldn’t have created this Alice-in-Wonderland state.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Organizations: NATO, Dayton Peace Accords, Stabilization Force SFOR Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Peace Implementation Council Foreign Affairs European Union University of Prince Edward Island

Geographic location: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnia Serbia Croatia Republika Srpska Brcko Banja Luka Wonderland

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Recent comments

  • tararara
    February 24, 2014 - 09:56

    Tim: Croatia is not Bosnia - in Bosnia cleansing was done by Serbs, and to lesser part Croats. Their politics would benefit the cleansing.

  • Tim Kennedy
    February 24, 2014 - 07:51

    Whilst I agree overall with the article in that BiH is a failing state for the reasons mentioned, it is only fair to point out that the Serbs were not the only ones doing ethnic cleansing and killings. Representatives of all three communities took part in those crimes. Given that President Clinton sanctioned the ethnic cleansing of 150000 Serbs from the Kraina region of Croatia, the US should be cited too.

  • Marko Jurjevic
    February 23, 2014 - 22:53

    Totally agree with the article. Bosnia i Herzegovina is just a smaller version of Yugoslavia. We know how Yugoslavia turned out. The most sensible thing to do is....... Give 20% of the country along the eastern border to serbia. Even though they comprise of 35%, this is what you get for genocide. This can be a new state in Serbia called Novi Bosna. Give Croats - 10% of the country, half of Herzegovina. This can be a new state in Croatia called Herze Novi. Then 70% of the country can go to Bosnian Muslims. They can have there own government then. Serbs who live in the new to be Bosnia or Bosnians who live in the new serbian state will have 12 months to notify the government who will facilitate the move. like for like house, or apartment & Job. Guess what..??? Problem solved. At the moment, the only way Bosnia is heading is for another War. Bosnian's & Croatians, do not what another war...

  • Unknown
    February 23, 2014 - 19:49

    Please check your facts