The quarter century-old Dayton mantra should not dictate Bosnia’s future.

The Agreement did not stop a war. It skewed a peace.

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By David B. Kanin

In the winter of 1994-5 Ratko Mladic made a mistake that would lead to atrocities and his side’s military defeat.  Mladic decided to concentrate his forces in the east so he could reduce Bosnjak enclaves.  This strategy led his troops to commit genocide at Srebrenica.  Meanwhile, in the West Bosnjak and Bosnian Croat forces overwhelmed Bosnian Serb units, driving them West and greatly reducing the percentage of Bosnian territory under Serbian control.  This, limited NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb forces, and the destruction of the short-lived Krajina Serb Republic in Croatia is what ended the fighting.  The lines stabilized by October 1995, enabling Western powers to organize diplomacy supposedly designed to set the region on a path toward peace and stability.

Instead, what became known as the Dayton agreement was an exercise in appeasement, a term associated with the successful re-integration of France into the international system after 1815 and a much less fruitful effort to do the same with Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s (after a promising diplomatic false start in 1925).  In 1995, the American-dominated negotiations created a Bosnia saddled with both an impossibly weak central government and a division into ethnically determined entities (one already created in Washington in 1994).  This congenitally unworkable framework was made worse by Washington’s decision to stick to a formula under which a centralized Bosnian Serb republic would have 49 percent of the country’s territory, while the fractious Bosnjak-Croat federation would divide the other 51 percent.  These numbers first had been considered at a time when the Bosnian Serbs held about 70 percent of the country.  Forcing the Bosnjaks to accept it at Dayton meant the reintroduction of Serbian control into parts of western Bosnia and preventing the creation of a contiguous Bosnjak presence from the Northwest to Sarajevo.  This was fine with both Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman (who also could enjoy the fact of Bosnian Croat control of the strategic town of Jajce).   On the other hand, Alija Izetbegovic was given no choice but to swallow what became Milosevic’s one great diplomatic success during the period oi Yugoslavia’s dissolution.   

Since that time, the Western authors of Dayton have sugar-coated the contradictions they created with a narrative stressing international leadership and good faith, abetted by an alleged yearning by civic-minded Bosnians of all backgrounds for multicultural politics but thwarted by ill-intentioned nationalist forces.  It is no surprise that the Republika Srpska (RS), Serbia, and their Russian allies are the ones who want to maintain the Dayton system as it is, while the agreement’s Western authors have been engaged in futile attempts to impose changes in the deal ever since the end of the vice-regency of Paddy Ashdown.

The coincidence of Dayton’s 25th anniversary and the impending change in US administrations may well lead to a return to the policies and rhetoric that have produced so much frustration and failure.  The line almost certainly will gloss over the contradictions inherent in the old paradigm.

  • The foreigners will once again demand constitutional reforms unacceptable to at least one of the three sides.
  • They will instruct the Bosnian Serbs and Russians to stop organizing and financing separatism and threats of secession, even though the RS’s existing functional separation is made stronger every time the West issues threats that end with an empty “or else.”
  • We will be told that the well-meaning Westerners want to enable domestic Bosnian agency, but that Bosnians cannot do the job by themselves. Does this mean a return to the Samuel Beckett-like scenario of latter-day Ashdowns imposing laws, blessing or rejecting politicians, and dictating politics – and calling all this this political development?
  • Any partitions, secessions, or land swaps will be forbidden – even though the serial changes during the collapse of former Yugoslavia all involved secessions and/or partitions. These include the decentralized Bosnian status quo,  the internationally-blessed restoration of an independent Montenegro, and Kosovo’s stunted sovereignty along borders created by Aleksandar Rankovic.  So far, the Republic of North Macedonia is the single exception to this pattern.
  • The European Union supposedly will provide a clear message that Bosnia and other Balkan aspirants really do have “paths” to membership, even though everyone acknowledges that there exists no EU consensus favoring enlargement – and no one has a clue as to how long it will take to develop one. It could be decades before Bosnia or other Balkan supplicants gain membership., assuming they ever do

It is past time for the US and EU finally to think seriously about how to improve on a quarter century of false starts in their Balkan engagements.  They might consider the following suggestions:

  • First, understand the all great power and Western-imposed status quos since 1878 were meant to be final, lasted for a while, and then fell apart.  The current arrangement will be no different, in part because – unlike in much of the rest of the old continent — the wars of the Twentieth Century did not settle or overwhelm intercommunal disputes.
  • Yugoslavia was no Czechoslovakia, but peaceful separation is possible – while perpetual peace within imposed but still contested status quos is unlikely. 


  • No durable and secure solution to Bosnia’s problems is likely without an overall solution to disputes of sovereignty, boundary, and identity infecting all successor states to the former Yugoslavia.
  • Any robust regional arrangement would incorporate ascriptive and ethnic loyalties rather than continuing to vilify them.  Western-style institutions are based on personal distrust – the rule of law is supposed to enable normative consensus and reliable transactions among people who do not know each other and/oror do not share political, social, class, or religious affiliations.  Trust-based familial, tribal, or patron-client networks will continue to outthink and outlast constitutions and imposed judicial arrangements if the outsiders continue to insist on artificial norms of transparency and legal process.  (This is true not just in the Balkans.)
  • Any durable and secure solution to these problems can emerge only if a critical mass of the local actors is committed to finding one.  It would be helpful if international overseers would finally understand how easy it is for local spoilers to frustrate and exploit rhetoric from European capitals and (not as often) Washington proclaiming that those locals “must” do this, or “need to do” that.  It also would help if the internationals realize that their Balkan clients and adversaries are practicing a traditional strategy of work avoidance, under which they slough off on self-important outsiders responsibility for their future and attendant security dangers.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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