More than thirteen years after the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to the three-and-a half-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), it has regained international focus. The reason is that since 2006 the country has made little progress in reforming itself towards a viable democracy which can take responsibility of its own affairs, free of international monitoring. Particularly after the October 2008 local elections, BiH has even started sliding downwards, torn by intensified nationalist rhetoric among its ethnic leaders – Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak), Serb and Croat – the powerful of the day ever since Dayton. Talks are going on even about a possible renewal of hostilities, fed by rumours of secret rearming among the population. European Union (EU) membership has been generally deemed the necessary lure for the Western Balkans on their way to democratisation and the efficacious remedy for the region’s war-torn past. While it has partly worked for Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia, this cannot be said about BiH, a multiethnic country still on its path to nation-building and the one to suffer the most from the 1990s conflicts. The EU membership perspective for all of the Western Balkans has dimmed in light of the so-called “enlargement fatigue” following the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and the Irish referendum last year. But this perspective has all but vanished for BiH for lack of reform, caused by nationalist bickering reaching new heights around each election.
It seems that BiH is facing a turning point. On the one hand, the state is dysfunctional, consists of many layers of power with overlapping authorities and resembles nothing that could in its present form become an EU member one day. The country’s constitution is an annex to the Dayton Peace Agreement, which may have been an effective tool to end the war but is not a basis for a democratic system. Intrinsically, Dayton is designed to keep the balance of power among Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, that is, it rests upon ethnic principles and excludes many democratic principles. Because of Dayton, Bosnian political parties function and gather public support along ethnic lines and not along ideologies – they are simply not designed to evoke mass participation. On the other hand, the international community has been increasingly aloof to what is happening in BiH, reducing both its political and military engagement. The United States was the main broker of Dayton, but it gradually withdrew from this project, allowing the EU to take care of its own backyard. Following 9/11, the Bush administration diverted all its energy towards the fight against terrorism and the Middle East and Afghanistan. The policy, if any, of the EU, which accepted BiH as its own responsibility, has been unclear due to a lack of coherent plan which takes into account BiH’s peculiarity as the only Western Balkan country with three dominant ethnic groups or due to divergence of the positions of different member states. This combination of internal structure and Western indifference has further kindled ethnicity politics in BiH and has provoked reaction by Western media and think tanks. It is clear that, should BiH progress on its path to the EU, its constitution should be reformed and international presence asserted.
However, there is another set of factors that hold BiH back and that make imminent progress doubtful and EU membership hardly visible on the horizon. Bosnian Serbs, an essential part of the country’s population (31% according to last census in 1991) and a factor in Bosnian politics, have been generally in favour of the status quo and would accept no constitutional amendments that would curb the autonomy of their ethnic region, the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska, RS). While Bosniaks, as the biggest ethnic group (43%) which would benefit the most from a more unified state, and Croats, as the smallest and most vulnerable group (17%), favour centralisation, Serbs are satisfied with what they achieved during the war and are not willing to cede it even if this would endanger BiH’s EU perspective. This reluctance would not be as important as it is, given BiH’s nature of international protectorate and the West’s existing powers of intervention, were it not for the Serbs’ traditional ally – Russia. Since Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia, it has led a coherent foreign policy to reassert itself as Great Power following the loss of the Cold War. The instruments of Russian foreign policy to this end vary from direct military intervention (as in Georgia in August 2008) to engendering dependence on its energy resources in the target regions. The Balkans has been a playground of Russian interests since the 19th century, when it challenged the spheres of influence of both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empires. Unstable BiH, and Bosnian Serbs specifically, can be instruments in Russian hands that would pay off enormously and keep its leverage in the region crucial. Russian policy in the Balkans will aim to neutralise Western attempts, in case they are reinforced, to position BiH firmly on the path to EU integration as a democratic state which is founded on the principles of inclusion and participation and not ethnicity-driven. While any renewal of conflict and resort to military action by the different ethnic groups in BiH is highly unlikely, the status quo remains the most probable line of development at least in the medium term.