Bosnia: 25 years since Dayton Accords, divisive politics live on

Bosnia’s Serb-run entity Republika Srpska could ‘very possibly attempt to secede’ sometime in the future, analysts say.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, left, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, centre, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, right, initial the peace agreement after 21 days of talks in Dayton, Ohio, November 21, 1995 [File: David Longstreath/AP]

The US-brokered Dayton peace agreement reached on November 21, 1995, in Dayton, Ohio officially ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but attempts to further divide the country are continuing, analysts say.

From April 1992 until December 1995, Bosnia was under attack by Serb and Croat forces aiming to carve the country up into a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, respectively.

The agreement drafted at an airbase in Dayton, Ohio – signed by the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, carved Bosnia into two entities – the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity and the Serb-run Republika Srpska.

While halting the war brought much-needed relief for Bosnians, the agreement was still widely viewed as legitimising war crimes as “Greater Serbia” sympathisers, accused of mass killings, were presented with 49 percent of the country with the Republika Srpska entity.

The Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, currently imprisoned at The Hague for genocide and war crimes, acknowledged their achievement following the accords.

Radovan Karadzic, convicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader indicates to a map of Bosnia & Herzegovina during a news conference in London in August 1992 [File: Denis Paquin/AP Photo]

“We are an internationally recognised fact, or rather an internationally recognised constituent part of this union, which is only one step away from international recognition,” he said, as quoted by Serb TV.

“For example, Slovenia had less in the Yugoslavia of the 1974 Constitution than we have in this union. So when I say an internationally recognised state, we are not quite there yet, but we are an internationally recognised fact, an internationally recognised entity.”

Twenty-five years later, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s rotating tripartite presidency, once described as “a breath of fresh air” by then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, shares Karadzic’s sentiments.

For years he has been threatening that Republika Srpska will secede and join Serbia to achieve “the final frame”, but recently these threats have escalated – he is now joined by Croat officials trying to push for a third, Croat entity in the country.

Following a visit to Zagreb in September, Dodik said it was likely that Serbs and Croats will demand to secede, lamenting that the Bosniak political party was pushing for a civic state not based on ethnicity.

Some analysts say secession and joining its eastern neighbour Serbia seems unlikely for Republika Srpska, as the former, considered a frontrunner for European Union membership, would be unable to join the bloc.

Serb member of Bosnia’s presidency Milorad Dodik speaks in Banja Luka, Bosnia during an official commemoration ceremony in September for Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik, who died of COVID-19 [Radivoje Pavicic/AP]

However, Marko Attila Hoare, a historian and associate professor at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, told Al Jazeera that once Serbia joins the EU, Republika Srpska secession “becomes much more feasible”.

“The Republika Srpska could then secede if it has the support of Serbia and Russia and the acquiescence of Croatia. Croatia is in a position where it could decide the issue either way. If the Republika Srpska attempts to secede with the support of Croatia as well as Serbia, it might be difficult for the international community to prevent it,” Hoare said.

“Bosnia’s situation is precarious… It is possible that, whatever [Dodik’s] strategy is, his constant talk of secession could eventually generate a momentum that he will not be able to control, and that he will become the prisoner of his own rhetoric.”

According to Ajla Delkic, head of the Advisory Council for Bosnia based in Washington, DC, Republika Srpska’s significant lobbying in the US is “very dangerous” for Bosnia but “the warnings seem to be falling on deaf ears”.

Republika Srpska officially opened up an office in Washington, DC in 2013, but has been lobbying the US for much longer, according to Delkic.

“They have spent over $20m on lobbying efforts against Bosnia. Croats have also spent millions on lobbying, while the Federation [entity] has spent $0 because clearly, they must feel that lobbying the US is not necessary. That is not a strategy and naive thinking at best,” Delkic said.

“The Republika Srpska has a long-term plan and a strategy, and while people point fingers at them and say how they will not succeed – I do not think their goal is to have their objective realized today or tomorrow. It is a long term investment into the future.”

Commander of NATO mission in Bosnia, US Navy Adm. Leighton Smith talks at a press conference at the Sarajevo airport in December 1995, with the new map of Bosnia divided into two entities displayed behind him (File: Santiago Lyon/AP]

Greater Serbia project continues

Moves by Serbia have also raised alarm.

In December 2019, Serbia’s parliament adopted a national security strategy, stating it was ready to protect Serbs anywhere in the region.

“Preserving Republika Srpska as an entity … and advancing the position of Serbs in the region and world is of special importance for the security and defence of the Republic of Serbia,” the strategy read.

“The Republic of Serbia, as a guarantor of the Dayton agreement will continue to advance special parallel relations with Republika Srpska.”

The strategy alarmed Bosnians as it bore a close resemblance to the 1986 SANU Memorandum written by Belgrade academics, which served as the foundation for the Greater Serbia project.

Bosnian journalist Edin Subasic wrote in a column for Al Jazeera Balkans, that the memorandum launched the “right” for Belgrade to assert its influence on Serbs outside of Serbia, which ended in war crimes in former Yugoslavia.

“Serbian politics in the 1990s were based on manipulating the position of Serbs outside of Serbia and their parastatal organisation,” Subasic wrote.

“With the Dayton agreement, and ‘special [parallel] relations’, this influence by Serbia has even been institutionalised. On top of all that Belgrade now with its own defence strategy – like the Memorandum before it – is trying to legitimise its claims towards Bosnia,” Subasic wrote.

The Nesic family watch in their Belgrade home a live TV broadcast of then US President Bill Clinton as he announces a peace agreement has been reached on November 21, 1995 [File: Darko Vojinovic/AP]

Additionally, Serbia is not a guarantor of the Dayton agreement, as the strategy states, rather it signed the agreement as a participant in the international armed conflict and took on the responsibility of respecting Bosnia’s sovereignty.

Belgrade never gave up on its project of establishing a Greater Serbia in Bosnia, and pro-Bosnian leaders need to define an effective political strategy for Bosnia, Subasic wrote.

Daniel Serwer, who served as the US special envoy and coordinator for the Federation entity told Al Jazeera that 25 years since the war, there was no longer any need for entities or cantons in the Federation.

“It’s time to change the Dayton constitution. The two entities … are the problem,” he said.

“It’s time to get rid of them but in order to do that, you have to beef up the confidence people have in the rule of law and in the protection of their individual rights.”

A redistribution of power between municipalities and the central government is required as well as a strong, independent judiciary, he said.

“[In the municipal elections, Bosnians showed they] want to be equal citizens of a respectable, European country. But they have to organise themselves and demand what they want and they haven’t done that yet.”

Source: Al Jazeera