What Ever Happened to Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Photo Credit: Agency for the Statistic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Popis: Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Dayton Accords, the agreement that ended the Bosnian War and instituted power-sharing between the state’s three constituent peoples, marked its 25th anniversary late last year. Two-and-a-half decades later, where is Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)? Since the war has not resumed, surely things must be working out. This, of course, is far from the truth. Rather than 25 years of progress and development, Bosnia’s political and economic systems remain stagnant. If BiH is to become a thriving state, and if it is ever to accede to the European Union (EU) or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it must amend its constitutional arrangement.

Power-sharing is at the heart of Dayton.

Power-sharing as a remedy to ethnic conflict was in vogue in the 1990s. Lebanon in 1990, BiH in 1995, Tajikistan in 1997, and Northern Ireland in 1998 all concluded with institutionalized forms of power-sharing. Dubbed “consociational democracy” by Arend Lijphart,[1] power-sharing typically involves grand coalition governments, cultural autonomy, proportional representation in politics and the bureaucracy, and minority vetoes.[2] It protects minority groups by institutionalizing their political participation. In BiH, this took the form of three self-governing entities with a state-level presidency whose chairmanship rotates between a Serb, Croat, and Bosniak. As in other cases of power-sharing, this kept ethnic conflict non-violent but paralyzed government function. When the major ethnic parties disagree and use veto powers liberally, Sarajevo accomplishes little. Further, with the country’s divisions into the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, the Bosniak-dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the small Brčko District, separatist sentiment reified and remains a perennial problem that needs addressing.

What does the citizenry think?

BiH’s governance arrangement is a structural problem. Most Bosnians agree that they must reform Dayton to move forward, prioritize constitutional reform over EU accession, and the international community should be involved in a long-term solution.[3] Bosnians view the need for reform to the constitution as a priority and recognize it as necessary for EU accession. At least in part because the Dayton Constitution was internationally instituted, most Bosnians want the international community to step in again. International negotiation will therefore have legitimacy within the country and public buy-in. While opinions vary between the constituent peoples, a clear majority wants reform.

What does this have to do with EU accession?

Reform is a necessary precondition for EU accession. The EU’s 2020 Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina identified public administration reform, judiciary reform, fighting organized crime and corruption, strengthening fundamental rights, better management of migration, and economic reform as the major areas of improvement necessary until full accession occurs.[4] This report added to the 14 key priorities necessary for BiH’s candidacy status in 2019.[5] There is no question that Sarajevo should address these issues, but how? Political instability, at its core worsened by the constitution, continues to hamper efforts for socio-economic reform.[6] By insisting that BiH institute all these reforms before accession negotiations can begin, the EU precluded the possibility for the near future. Since EU accession requires these reforms for candidacy status, and Sarajevo can only attain reforms by amending the constitution, the EU implicitly endorses constitutional reform.

Surely the EU should want potential member states to take care of themselves first?

A hands-off approach is not in the interests of the EU – or even NATO – because China and Russia continue to cultivate geopolitical influence in this crucial flank. China’s investments in Bosnian infrastructure accounts for about 15% of the country’s debts and it has facilitated interpersonal ties with political parties, universities, and media.[7] Russia, too, exercises its influence to prevent BiH’s EU and NATO accession by playing on its internal ethnic divisions.[8] If BiH fails to progress, these levers of influence will only expand and intensify. The threat of developing Chinese and Russian influences should prompt EU and NATO members to fast-track reform efforts. Otherwise, they will lose a rapidly closing window of opportunity.

What would reform look like?

There are two options: continuing to promote a common identity above ethnic ones or a breakup of the country. The international community has tried to advance the former with little success. The two major international reform efforts that tried to create a collegial political environment – the 2006 April Package and the 2009 Butmir Process – both failed. This is at least in part because constitutional reform in Bosnia requires support from the Parliamentary Assembly and 2/3 of the House of Peoples,[9] and it does not seem that enough Bosnians share that vision. When asked in what country would respondents most wish to live in, 53.3% of Serbs wanted to live in an independent Republika Srpska or as part of Serbia. Conversely, 81.7% of Bosniaks wanted to eliminate cantonal subdivisions and the federal entities (i.e., Republika Srpska, the Federation of BiH, and the Brčko District) but keep strong municipalities.[10] If constitutional reform is to succeed, it requires broad approval. If Sarajevo or the international community do not seriously consider these opinions, then successful reform is unlikely.

Since it is unlikely that a common identity above ethnic identities can unite BiH, it seems that the only other serious option is the breakup of the country. Most Serbs desire this, and the only way to give Bosniaks a more centralized state is to allow the Serbs to leave. The self-determination of peoples is a deeply held international norm, and its application can be fruitful in solving this problem. With vigorous EU and NATO support to maintain the peace and support free and fair referenda on independence, a kind of “velvet divorce” can happen in Bosnia. Not only would this make Bosnia a more stable state, but it would also resolve problems with its neighbor, Serbia. If Serbia and BiH become fruitful partners in the future, chiefly within the EU, then this dispute needs resolution anyways.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has been in a state of paralyzed peace for the last 25 years with no change in sight. The power-sharing arrangement instituted by the Dayton Accords has been the primary culprit for this paralysis and all parties involved recognize the need for constitutional reform. Rather than continuing efforts to promote a common identity and overcome ethnic identities, the international community must take a new approach: self-determination. The Serbs within BiH should leave if they desire. This is the only way for BiH to move forward and become a more centralized, effective state. BiH cannot tolerate another 25 years of stagnation, and neither can the EU or NATO.


[1] Arend Lijphart, “Constitutional Design for Divided Societies,” Journal of Democracy Vol. 15, No. 2, (April 2004).

[2] Arend Lijphart, Thinking About Democracy: Power Sharing and Majority Rule in Theory and Practice (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), 42.

[3] United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Resident Coordinator Office in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Prism Research, “Public Opinion Poll Results: Analytic Report,” Public Opinion Poll Results: Analytic Report, United Nations Development Programme, Mar. 2015, undp.org/content/dam/unct/bih/PDFs/Prism%20Research%20for%20UN%20RCO_Report.pdf, 60.

[4] “Key Findings on the 2020 Report on Bosnia and Herzegovina,” European Commission, October 6, 2020, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/country_20_1793.

[5] “Key Findings of the Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU Membership Application and Analytical Report,” European Commission, May 29, 2019, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/COUNTRY_19_2778.

[6] “November 2020 Monthly Forecast,” Security Council Report, October 30, 2020, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/monthly-forecast/2020-11/bosnia-and-herzegovina-4.php.

[7] Vladimir Shopov, “Decade of Patience: How China Became a Power in the Western Balkans.” European Council on Foreign Relations, February 2, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/publication/decade-of-patience-how-china-became-a-power-in-the-western-balkans/.

[8] Nikola Đorđević, “Just How Much Influence Does Russia Have in Bosnia and Herzegovina?” Emerging Europe, January 26, 2021. https://emerging-europe.com/news/just-how-much-influence-does-russia-have-in-bosnia-and-herzegovina/.

[9] Carl Bildt, “Bosnia to War, to Dayton, and to Its Slow Peace.” European Council of Foreign Relations, January 28, 2021. https://ecfr.eu/publication/bosnia-to-war-to-dayton-and-to-its-slow-peace/.

[10] United Nations Development Programme, 63.

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