The fragility is there for all to see. A decade and a half after the ratification of the Dayton Agreement that brought the war in Yugoslavia to an end, the threat of violence in Bosnia hovers ominously over the Balkan region. Two weeks ago, tensions reached dangerous new heights when Croatia’s president threatened to use force to prevent Serbian attempts to partition Bosnia. After the relative harmony of the 1995 peace agreement, Bosnia appears to be careering unstoppably towards another violent conflict – one that will have grave consequences for the fragile Balkans region and shatter the illusion of European unity promoted by the E.U.
Bosnia’s problem appears to be its inability to escape its turbulent past. The angry rhetoric shown by the Croatian president strongly parallels the type of irresponsible grandstanding that marched Bosnia (and Yugoslavia) to war in the early nineties. In other words, many of the same issues that led to the initial conflict remain unresolved. Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups are Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs. In 1992, conflict erupted in Bosnia because of a three-pronged tug of war to control the country. Serbia, then under Slobodan Milosevic, wanted parts of Bosnia to be incorporated into Serbia, Croatia wanted parts of Bosnia to be incorporated into Croatia, while Bosniaks wanted Bosnia to be an independent nation. Flash forward to today, and Bosnia may be one nation in name, but the three-way divide persists.
Ironically, many commentators blame the Dayton peace agreement for the current powder-keg situation. Dayton established Bosnia as an independent nation, made up of two essentially autonomous regions – one Serb, one Croat. The two separate entities, the Bosnian-Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat federation of Bosnia, each have their own president, parliament, police force, etc. Outranking these entities is the central Bosnian government, with its rotating presidency that changes each month between a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak. Dayton also created the Office of High Representative (OHR) to oversee the rival factions and ensure the country’s cohesiveness. Nevertheless, the OHR position is only supposed to be temporary and the impending end of its mandate has created cracks in Bosnia’s fragile institutions – the same cracks that led to the 1992 war.
Last October, the U.S. and E.U. held crisis talks with the three main ethnic groups in a bid to reform Bosnia and prepare it for the closure of the OHR office. Despite pleas from U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, the talks were a failure and the alarming discourse from the three groups has continued to rise unabated. Lady Ashton, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, has singled Bosnia out as the most unstable corner of Europe.
For all the doom and gloom, there is reason to believe that Bosnia will not tread the same path as it did in 1992. For one, global powers such as the U.S. and the E.U. are keeping a close eye on this situation, and will do everything possible to prevent the outbreak of war. This contrasts deeply with 1991 attitudes, when, in response to the collapse of Yugoslavia, U.S. secretary of state James Baker washed his hands of the matter saying “we don’t have a dog in this fight.” The EU has also had the foresight to maintain the OHR post until all sides in the current dispute reach an agreement. Most importantly, ordinary Bosnians do not want to see their country turned into a battlefield, and their lives torn apart for the second time in just twenty years. Nevertheless, it will take a lot of hard work and commitment from all parties concerned if they are to prevent history repeating itself.
Michael Collins, February 2010