The Thieves of Bosnia

The Complicated Legacy of the Dayton Peace Accords

A protester stands in front of a government building set on fire in Tuzla, Bosnia on February 7, 2014. Courtesy Reuters

It is for good reason that Bosnians recently launched the fiercest political demonstrations since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995. The swelling of hatred toward the country’s privileged political elites is easy to understand: For two decades, these elites have presided over economic misery and abject government while living large off of state budgets. In a country where unemployment hovers at 45 percent, they have siphoned off money in myriad ways, including bloated salaries, inflated state contracts, corrupt privatization deals, and assets stripped from idle factories. 

The Dayton agreement has helped Bosnian political elites maintain this predatory arrangement. By setting up complicated institutions at many levels of government, overlaid with international supervision, the agreement ended the Bosnian war, but it also made it easy for Bosnian leaders to escape responsibility for governing badly. There is now a perverse mix of antagonism and collusion among the politicians representing Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups. During the war, Bosnian Serbs as well as Bosnian Croats launched a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), who also committed war crimes against Serbs and Croats, though on a far lesser scale. Today, politicians representing all three ethnic groups enjoy the institutional spoils of Dayton -- and cooperate fully in preserving the status quo that allows them to steal from the public. 

As a result, politics in Bosnia have been reduced to mono-ethnic campaign platforms for the cameras, and deals among party leaders in the backroom. Parties are run like authoritarian fiefdoms, serving the personal agendas of party leaders. Meanwhile, politicians on all sides cynically perpetuate and exploit war traumas to legitimize power struggles over state institutions and deflect attention from economic hardship and bad government. This is why the protests and the subsequent citizen plenums have eschewed ethnic appeals or demands, to the confusion of many international observers. Bosnia’s angry citizens are not siding with one ethno-nationalist political party against another; they are disgusted with all of them.

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