Limbo: Bosnia twenty-five years after Dayton

The Neretva river flowing through the center of Mostar in Herzegovina (Eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina). Photo credit: Adam Pontius, December 2018.

NOTE: Written to complete a long-form literary journalism assignment for the course “Here and There: Writing on International Affairs”at the Bard Globalization and International Affairs program in December of 2020. All names have been changed.

We were driving north on our way to the Serbian city of Novi Sad when a Bosnian police officer standing in the middle of the M-18 highway waved our car to the side of the road an hour north of Sarajevo. I could tell from the look of dawning horror on our driver D’s face that he didn’t think this was routine. Once stopped, the officer strolled over to the car and motioned for D to roll down his window. They spoke rapidly in Serbo-Croat before the police officer returned to his car, which his partner had parked across the narrow highway in the driveway of an abandoned barn. D relayed to me that the officers were Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), and that he was pretty sure that he had been pulled over because his car had a Serbian license plate. While questioning D, the officer had noticed that my wife, who was sitting in the backseat, did not have her seatbelt on. As D explained, traffic tickets in Bosnia are not a simple matter. If the officers were interested in following the letter of the law then they would escort us back to the nearest town with a bank where we could pay the fine with a check at the local police station, a measure that was supposed to be a check on corruption. His tone suggested that this measure was not as reasonable, and perhaps more menacing, than it initially seemed to me.

“Tell them that you are American” D urged, suggesting that I see if I could pay the fine in cash instead. Alarmed by his concern, I scrambled to find the Bosnian marks that I tucked away in my backpack and my passport. I crossed the highway to the police car where the officers sat waiting with my passport in my hand. I knew no more Serbo-Croat than the officers knew English, but it soon became apparent to the officers from my passport that I was American. They waved me back across the road, and I got back into D’s car with the bribe money still deep in my pocket. After a short period of time one of the officers got out of their car and waved at D to drive on. D did not begin to relax until we noticed that the signs on the side of the road had changed from Latin script to Cyrillic, indicating that we had crossed into the autonomous region of Republika Srpska and safe territory for cars with Serbian license plates.

The Bosnian War ended twenty-five years ago. The legacy of the war however still hangs over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Americans and Europeans who follow international affairs understand the war and Bosnian politics as tragedy: an atrocity visited on Bosnians by Serbians but also an inevitable result of the bloody history of the Balkans. Bosnia’s relevance to us seemingly stopped with the signature of the Dayton Accords, which are held up to be an example par excellence of international diplomacy. The agreement is on the one hand a success, bringing an end to nearly a half decade of bloody conflict and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. On the other hand, it is hard to argue that the accords have created a lasting peace. Bosnia exists today in a type of legal limbo where it is not allowed to escape its past or move forward towards the future. This problem is not abstract. Day-to-day life for both citizens and travelers in Bosnia is affected by political dysfunction and corruption. Our expectation of the inevitability of conflict in the Balkans traps Bosnia. It prevents Bosnians from fully realizing a European identity and leaving the country open to predation that is less obvious than the Serbian aggression Americans and Europeans remember.

The root of Bosnia’s limbo is the structure of the Dayton Accords themselves. As Bosnian political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic has remarked, the Dayton Accords have created a “culture of permanent crisis” in Bosnian politics. The Dayton Accords set forth a constitutional arrangement for Bosnia that intended to guarantee collective security. The Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs were each granted a stake in government. Bosnian Serbs were granted an additional degree of autonomy in the discontiguous territories of Republika Srpska. This power sharing arrangement has resulted in a power vacuum. Bosnian politicians have few incentives to reform the state or combat corruption. Transparency International reports that 20% of Bosnians have had to pay a bribe for a public service in the past year, making my experience on M-18 highway all too common for Bosnians. Those same politicians who benefit from the corruption are the first to use fear of a second Bosnian War to squash efforts at reform.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiaries of this limbo state are Bosnia’s neighbors. Both Croatia and Serbia have engaged in ethno-political entrepreneurship within Bosnia in recent years. Serbia has tacitly supported Republika Srpska’s campaign for independence. As I learned from our driver D’s relief at having crossed the “border,” the Bosnian government has very little authority in Republika Srpska. Bosnian Serb secessionists use this autonomy to their advantage. Republika Srpska’s security forces have been stock-piling arms purchased from Serbia for several years now. During the last days of the Obama administration the United States sanctioned Milorad Dodik, the then-President of Republika Srpska for attempting to destabilize Bosnia. The Trump administration however has failed to maintain pressure, and its proposal for land swaps between Kosovo and Serbia has only further emboldened Republika Srpska’s conviction that the United States and Western Europe would be open to further territorial changes.

Croatia in recent years has also aggressively pushed its agenda in Bosnia. The city of Mostar in Herzegovina (Eastern Bosnia) epitomizes their complicated historic relationship. During the war Mostar saw significant fighting, as both Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks aligned against aggression from Bosnian Serbs. Several years later the Croats of Mostar — egged on by Zagreb and ignored by Washington — turned on their former Bosniak allies. They declared a Croatian Republic of Herzen-Bosnia in large swathes of Herzegovina, ethnically cleansing the non-Croat inhabitants. In Mostar, Croat forces destroyed the Stari Most, an iconic bridge over the Neretva river built by the Ottomans in the seventeenth century. Though it was of little strategic value, Croat forces launched more than 60 artillery shells at the centuries old bridge before it collapsed. The Croat’s offensive gained them little. By the time that the Dayton Accords were being negotiated in Ohio in late 1995, Croatia and the Bosnian Croats stood more with the Bosnian state than against it.

Stari Most in Mostar was rebuilt in 2004 in the same style as when it was originally completed in 1567. Pictured here in 2019. Photo credit: Adam Pontius, December 2018.

The Museum of War and Genocide Victims in Mostar several blocks away from the rebuilt Stari Most is emblematic of the leverage that Croatia wields over Bosnia, both less blatant and more profound than Serbia’s crude support of Republika Srpska. As I explored the museum, I found that a full floor and a half of exhibit space was devoted to Serbian atrocities extending back to the Second World War, but the crimes of Croat forces were confined to the bottom half of a small display at the front. Croatia wields too much influence in Bosnia for anyone to risk bringing too much attention to Zagreb’s part in the Bosnian War. For several years now Zagreb has waged a campaign to grant Croats in Bosnia an autonomous zone styled after Republika Srpska. As in the Bosnian War, neither the United States nor Western Europe has taken much notice of Croatia’s aggressive policy. Growing tensions between Zagreb and Sarajevo already impede the day-to-day life of both Bosnians and travelers. As I prepared for the Bosnian leg of our journey through the Western Balkans, I discovered that the country has no rail connections with the rest of Europe. Croatian authorities cut rail service between Zagreb and Sarajevo in 2016. For most travelers this is only an inconvenience. For Bosnians, however, the cost of travel is not trivial.

My introduction to the Balkans came through journalist Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. Having grown up in provincial Maine, I found Kaplan’s combination of historical exposition and travel writing to be a compelling glimpse of the wider world. As a literary travel companion, I have found Kaplan to be pleasant company. As a guide to politics and policy in Bosnia however his book is far more problematic. Published in 1993 at the height of the Bosnian war, the original edition of Balkan Ghosts said little about Bosnia and nothing about policy. Kaplan theorized that a history of “ancient hatreds” resulting from misrule by the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires defined Balkan politics. Kaplan’s thesis proved resonant and well-timed for observers in European capitals and Washington looking for reasons to avoid getting further entangled in the Bosnian War. If the wars released by the collapse of Yugoslavia were tragic fate, then the fate of Bosnia couldn’t possibly be anyone else’s responsibility. The views of politicians who argued for humanitarian intervention were only slightly less problematic, depending on civilization-ist perceptions of the Bosnian War that cast its aggressors as irredeemably backward and its victims as helplessly undeveloped and separate from Europe. As international relations scholar Lene Hanson concludes in Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War, most European and American policymakers interpreted Bosnia through a framework that was already premised on excluding Bosnia from Europe.

“Sarajevo roses” (pictured above) show where mortar shells and bombs exploded in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Photo credit: Adam Pontius, December 2018.

More than twenty-five years after these debates many Americans and Europeans in Washington and Brussels still continue to consider Bosnia an unlikely aspirant to a European identity and a victim of fate. The expansion of NATO and the European Union to former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe has been haphazard. Croatia has used its membership in the European Union and NATO to shield Zagreb’s intervention in Croatia. Little thought was given to the consequences of allowing Croatia into NATO and EU even as Bosnia has no path towards membership. Nor have the United States and Western Europe made any consistent effort to curb Serbia and Croatia’s interference in Bosnia. In a Twitter thread commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, Jasmin Mujanovic called for “civic-liberal constitutional reform … [and] a credible mechanism for Euro-Atlantic integration,”arguing that unless this course was taken soon Bosnia would erupt into low-grade conflict. That path is not open to Bosnians unless the United States, the European Commission, and European leaders commit to overhauling the Dayton Accords. None of the above parties appear to be moved towards taking these actions, apparently still believing that Bosnia’s “ancient hatreds” are inevitable and the Dayton Accords better than nothing. Unfortunately, time is running out, as Croatia and Republika Srpska grow bolder and push towards a dismemberment of the Bosnian state that can only end in violence.

One of several images that has remained with me from Bosnia is of N, our tour guide from Sarajevo. N was a policeman before and during the war, an observant Muslim who was also committed to the idea of a pluralist Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was either unable or unwilling to pay the bribe necessary to remain a policeman after the Dayton Accords brought the conflict to a halt. So N became a guide for the mix of tourists who made the unconventional decision to spend their holiday in Bosnia, ferrying them from echo to echo of the siege of Sarajevo. The pay that he earned as a guide was enough to support his family, as he explained to us, but did not compare to the pay that public servants received. The tour was somber. Historian Tony Judt wrote of the post-war Bosnians: “theirs is the saddest loss of all — and the destruction of Sarajevo a particular source of grief. On its restricted scale the Bosnian capital was a genuinely cosmopolitan city: perhaps the last of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, ecumenical urban centers that were once the glory of central Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. It will be rebuilt but it can never recover.” N might well have agreed with Judt’s assessment. As our tour ended and after he parked the van N twisted around in the driver’s seat and remarked to us unprompted, “If the troubles come again, I will stay, but I will send my sons away — maybe to Germany. There will be nothing left for them here…”

Writer on international politics. Occasional political consultant. Travel, history, and food. Misc and random pieces filed here. Twitter: @AdamMPontius