Following the signing of the 1995 Dayton Agreement that brought the Bosnian War of the 1990s to a screeching halt, the modern state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was split in two: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising primarily of ethnic Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, composed mainly of ethnic Serbs. Today, however, the Dayton Agreement may be causing more problems than it solves. The internal governmental divide caused by Dayton has led to major issues in BiH, such as government inefficiencies due to over-bureaucracy and ethnic segregation. Bosnia and Herzegovina has even been described as perhaps having “the world’s most complicated system of government.” 

The lingering tension between the nation’s ethnic groups also reflects how ex-Yugoslav divisions remain strong. Furthermore, the Russia-NATO struggle complicates matters in BiH, as the nation’s different ethnic groups have also embraced different sides of the global conflict. The seeming failure of BiH to repair the differences between its ethnically diverse citizens also reflects the continuing challenges of achieving European unity that the EU has been aiming for.

A Nation Divided in Two – Internal Issues

The over-bureaucratic nature of BiH’s governmental system is perhaps best reflected in the way the office of the Presidency is structured. The position is shared between three people at a time: one ethnic Bosniak, one ethnic Croat, and one ethnic Serb. This split originates from the Dayton Agreement and is meant to ensure equality in the central government in Sarajevo. However, an unintended side effect of this split is that the authority of the central government in Sarajevo is very weak, with local governing bodies wielding more power instead. This has resulted in segregation between the three main ethnic groups in BiH, largely due to the separate systems and particularly in schools, maintained by both sides. 

The segregated systems reflect not just the bureaucratic complications in BiH, but also the lingering hostility between the nation’s three main ethnic groups. Particularly, the leaders of the Bosnian Serb community are pursuing their own independent agenda, separate from the goal of territorial integrity of the other two constituent peoples. The Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, has threatened the secession of Republika Srpska from BiH for years, even going as far as saying that he “[does] not believe in the imagination called BiH.” Any potential separation of Republika Srpska from BiH would be contrary to the Dayton Agreement, and therefore international law. However, Dodik has more than once rebuked Dayton, making it unlikely that it would deter him. 

Solutions?

At first glance, it would seem that the Dayton Agreement is the cause of the internal issues in BiH. After all, BiH’s complicated political systems were created by Dayton. However, Dayton has also kept Bosnia out of full-on war for more than 25 years and successfully ended a war that saw the massacre of tens of thousands of ethnic Bosniaks. Furthermore, the treaty is a delicate balance of the interests of all sides, and it took a lot of diplomatic wrangling and compromise to achieve. For BiH to become a fully functioning nation, Dayton must be more strictly enforced to prevent Bosnian Serb efforts to undermine the agreement. While the Dayton Accords may have its flaws, it is better than the other option: ethnic violence and war.


External Issues – Disagreements on All Sides

Aside from disagreements on internal issues, BiH’s leadership also can’t seem to agree on which direction the nation should go in: East or West. The Bosnian Croat and Bosniak presidents support strengthening relations with the Western bloc. However, Dodik and the Bosnian Serbs he represents are vehemently pro-Russia. This split may be due to cultural connections as well as political advantages. Serbia and Russia have been allies for more than a century, with Tsarist Russia playing a large role in the Balkan peninsula to enforce its policy of Pan-Slavism on the ethnically and religiously similar nations in the area. Politically, being closer to Russia also gives Dodik another opportunity to oppose and undermine his co-presidents, and, by extension, the ethnic groups they represent. 

Russia is a signatory of the Dayton Agreement, which guarantees BiH’s territorial integrity. However, Moscow has had a history of violating international agreements if it advances Russian interests. For example, in 1994, Russia and the US signed a treaty with Ukraine, guaranteeing Ukrainian independence and territorial integrity in exchange for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons. A mere 20 years later, Russia annexed Crimea in a wave of aggression against the Ukrainian nation that continues to this day. Thus, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Moscow would support the independence of Republika Srpska if it meant furthering Russian interests. 

Even more worryingly, tensions in the Balkans are already running high, and further Russian meddling in the region may push things over the edge. Besides BiH, other sources of tension that Russia is involved in in the region include Serbia continuing to strengthen its armed forces with Russian and Chinese weapons, and disagreements over Kosovo’s status. The Western and Eastern blocs each support a side in both of these conflicts in an uncanny parallel to the Cold War-era proxy wars, which had devastating effects on local populations. Bosnia and Herzegovina may prove to be a fuse for a larger regional conflict, which the Balkans are unfortunately not unfamiliar with. 

Conclusion: What’s Next?

Nearly three decades after its deadly civil war, BiH still faces many internal and external problems that are inhibiting its recovery. The peace treaty that ended the civil war seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth but may be the only available solution. In addition, the nation’s ethnic groups have allied themselves with the Western and Eastern blocs, which threatens to escalate the internal conflict to a regional conflict. This goes counter to the theme of European unity that the EU had guaranteed to post-communist eastern European nations. The scars of the Yugoslav Wars still haunt the nations of the western Balkan region to this day – but history may repeat itself if even one wrong step is taken.

Jonathan Chan

Jonathan was born in Hong Kong and moved to Vancouver, Canada in 2016. He is a student of the University Transition Program, graduating in 2022. He is passionate about many subjects, including history,...