When leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia gathered in the U.S. city of Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, war in Bosnia had been raging for almost four years. It exacerbated deep ethnic tensions, drove almost 2 million people from their homes and claimed about 100,000 lives.
A few months earlier, Serb forces had killed more than 8,000 Bosniak — Bosnian Muslim — men and boys in Srebrenica, an event later ruled genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
After numerous failed international attempts to stop the fighting, it was U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke who brokered the Dayton Peace Agreement. NATO, the guarantor for the peace, deployed 60,000 peacekeepers.
The agreement confirmed Bosnia's independence and established a state presidency, parliament and government. However, it also divided the country into two entities, a Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on one hand, and Republika Srpska, on the other, both with wide autonomies and complex political structures.
James Pardew was part of the U.S. negotiating team, led by Holbrooke. He said that the biggest challenge before Dayton was the complicated structure of the negotiating process, including a lot of travel through European capitals, cooperation with international organizations, such as NATO and the United Nations, and dealing with leaders who had very hard positions.
Pardew said, “We had to deal with [former Serbian President] Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, which was challenging and difficult. He was a very crafty person, and he created this fiction that somehow he wasn't involved in the war in Bosnia. That was all untrue. But each of the leaders, [former Bosnian President Alija] Izetbegovic with the Bosnian Muslims, [former President Franjo] Tudjman in Croatia, and others, each one of them had their own interests and their own agendas. And Holbrooke had to weave his way through those.”
The negotiating process culminated at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, where leaders of the former Yugoslav republics — Izetbegovic, Tudjman and Milosevic — agreed to end the war. The agreement was initialed on November 21 in Dayton, and finally ratified on December 14 in Paris.
Primary objective of agreement accomplished
Critics say that the Dayton Accords created a complex nation with far too many layers of government, focused more on protecting ethnic groups than on promoting the rights of individuals. Many war criminals were never sanctioned, while the same, nationalistic, political parties have mostly been in power since 1995.
Robert Gelbard was special representative of the U.S. president and secretary of state for implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords from April 1997 until August 1999. Before that appointment he also dealt with the former Yugoslav region, including cooperation on capturing war criminals.
“The resistance that we saw from some of the governments in the region, particularly from Serbia, was extraordinary,” Gelbard said.
Gelbard said he went to Bosnia for the first time just two weeks after the Dayton Accords, at Holbrooke's request. He adds that it is easy to criticize compromises like the peace agreement later, but it did achieve its main goal, stopping the killing.
“There are lots of problems with the Dayton Agreement, but I still think, 25 years later, it was a brilliant achievement by Richard Holbrooke and those who were working with him,” Gelbard said.
“The failure came afterwards,” he said, “in the unwillingness of the international community when things have calmed down to sit down and create the circumstances again through the necessary political will to revisit it, redo the constitution, and create an environment to provide a different kind of Bosnia-Herzegovina that would be a successful state.”
Pardew said that the priority was to stop the killing, but the problem was the political structure created by Dayton.
“Did we make mistakes? Of course, we did. There is no perfect negotiation,” Pardew said.
“But I would say the biggest one was giving the entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation, as much authority over the functioning of Bosnia as they had. I don't think we could have reached an agreement without the two entities, but I do think that we could have done a better job of limiting the power to disrupt the state by those entities.”
The U.S. played a key role in establishing the peace, but the long-term goal for Bosnia was always European integration. In the past two decades Bosnian politicians have unsuccessfully attempted to change the constitution, make significant reforms and fulfill conditions to join the European Union. The EU itself also has slowed down the accession process.
Despite all that, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Matthew Palmer, who has responsibility for the Western Balkans, said that the European dream for Bosnia has no alternative.
“The Dayton Peace Accords were successful in achieving their primary objective, which was to bring an end to the war, an end to the violence, an end to the suffering. To create a foundation upon which the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina could build a more stable future,” Palmer said. “There's still clearly a lot of work that needs to be done. The vision of Bosnia-Herzegovina integrated completely into the European family of nations has not yet been fulfilled,” he added.
Responsibility of local leaders
On the 10th anniversary of the accords, Holbrooke urged U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to increase its engagement in Bosnia, saying that Bosnia’s central government was weak, and corruption in the country was widespread. He added that without EU membership, Balkan countries will always be a mess.
Gelbard said that even today corruption, complicated bureaucracy, and an unfavorable investment environment remain key problems in Bosnia.
“I've tried to get companies to invest in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Very little interest,” he said.
Pardew also says the development of Bosnia after 1995 has been a disappointment. As reasons, he cites negative, destructive influences of neighboring countries, especially Serbia, Russian involvement, and the failure of local leaders to create a democratic and productive society that benefits everybody.
Both Pardew and Gelbard mentioned Milorad Dodik as an example. Dodik, currently a member of a tripartite Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was a pro-Western leader of Bosnian Serbs after the war, with strong international support. Since then, though, he has embraced a nationalistic narrative, threatening to separate Republika Srpska from Bosnia. In 2017, he was sanctioned by the U.S. for actively obstructing the Dayton Accords.
“Milorad Dodik was around in 1995 when all this was going on. I can't believe that he's still in power in Republika Srpska and unwilling to take any kind of compromise that would weaken the position of Republika Srpska in his mind. Even though those compromises might be in the best interest of the Serbs who live there,” Pardew said.
“I think of anybody in that country, he disappoints me the most,” Gelbard said.
“Watching Republika Srpska over the years and at first they hated Dayton, and now Dodik keeps saying — I love Dayton. And the reason he loves Dayton is because the structures, unfortunately, do not allow for true governance of a real state,” he added.
Gelbard said that the peace agreement provided a temporary framework for the governance of Bosnia Herzegovina, but the country is stagnating, and needs changes in its constitution and its structures. He adds that the process should be led by the EU, which has failed to show the political will to do so for decades.
“This would be a wonderful case for Europe to show responsibility and for the EU to take responsibility, with strong American support, for convening a group, an international conference, to redo the constitution of Bosnia and create an effective ability to govern Bosnia,” Gelbard said.
Pardew does not think that is likely to happen, saying, “There is not going to be a Dayton 2.”
He said that responsibility lies in the hands of Bosnian leaders who have chosen divisiveness rather than cooperation and development, even though Dayton Accords do not prevent them from making positive changes.
“Until we have leaders that are willing to work together and toward those kinds of goals, I think Bosnia is going to continue to be a failure. And what does that cause? It causes young people to leave, to seek opportunities elsewhere, and it creates a kind of a broken system under international support. And I think that's tragic. That is certainly not what we intended in 1995,” Pardew said.
Palmer, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, said that reforms are key for Bosnia and that the system needs to be more functional and capable of delivering goods and services to the citizens, and to holding the leadership accountable.
“Those who are in positions of power and responsibility need to be held to account and the system, the state, the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to work for everybody,” he said.