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Bosnia-Herzegovina still needs help, 25 years after Dayton Accords

Rudiger Rossig / DW Share:
Vitez massacre. Bodies of people killed in April 1993 around Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina. wikimedia/ICTY

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended a quarter century ago. Fixing the complicated state that emerged from that conflict requires outside investment, particularly from Europe.

On Thursday, December 14, 1995, the Dayton Accords were formally signed in Paris, ending the bloody war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. On that day, a US military officer entered the facilities of the TV station for the UN peacekeeping forces, UNTV, in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, where I was working at the time.

He said he had a question about his next deployment. Since 1992, the Blue Helmets had tried in vain to stop the war in neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Now, a NATO contingent to which this officer belonged was meant to keep the peace there.

“I have heard that there are proud Muslims, Croats and Serbs there. But who are the Bosnians?” he asked.

By this time, my UNTV colleagues and I had been reporting about the Bosnian war for 3 1/2 years. The republic, which had formed part of Yugoslavia until 1992, was in the news every day all over Europe. So we all laughed heartily at the American’s naive question.

Later, however, I realised that this US officer had put his finger on precisely the dilemma in which Bosnia-Herzegovina remains stuck to this day: Too many of its 3.5 million citizens are not just lacking pride in their state, they don’t even want to be Bosnians.

Legacy of the war

To this day, the word Bosnia brings to mind the time from April 1992 to December 1995, when armed forces from the country’s three biggest ethno-religious groups — Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs — fought each other in the small Balkan state, with the support of neighboring Croatia and Serbia. Some 100,000 people were killed and millions more displaced.

The Dayton Accords and the constitution that went with it preserved Bosnia as a state, but one that is a complicated construction of ethnically defined “entities” governed by nationalist parties that waged war against one another 25 years ago.

Miserable conditions

Because the Dayton Accords also call for unanimity on many decisions, politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina can only function to the satisfaction of its citizens if politicians show great willingness to compromise. But this willingness is exactly what is missing, as the ruling nationalists have established themselves firmly in the existing system.

And the conditions in Bosnia-Herzegovina can only be described as miserable: the country is largely deindustrialised, the official unemployment rate is 25% and some two-thirds of people under 25 are without a job. The standard of living has stagnated at around one-third of the EU average. Poverty, corruption and pollution are the order of the day.

Voting with their feet

Despite all the elections, these conditions have not changed since the end of the war. As a result, tens of thousands of Bosnians emigrate every year, particularly those who are young and well-educated.

That is bad for the country, but good for the nationalists. They are afraid, and with good reason, that the anger of the young at having their futures stolen from them could explode at any time. Emigration stabilises the power of the nationalists, who continue to control the few jobs there are in the country, distributing them among their loyal supporters. DW

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