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To save the country after 25 years, students call for changes to Bosnia’s peace agreement

By Jovan Kovacic

An unprecedented peace agreement was reached in Dayton, Ohio, 25 years ago, one that ended four years of bitter fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but left an undesired legacy of a barely functioning state, massive administration, ethnic barriers and a brain drain. Now, after more than a generation has passed, students from Bosnia have called for a major change.

“The time has come to correct the deficiencies of the Dayton political system and overcome all obstacles to our building a successful future”, reads a joint call by 112 students from all corners of multiethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).”

The students attended an advanced workshop named “Harnessing the Power of Cooperation”, which was held in the Bosnian town Jajce on November 20-22, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (DPA).  The beautiful hilltop town with a striking waterfall and emerald waters is a powerful regional symbol because it was there, on November 29, 1943, that Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito laid the foundations for what would, in 1945, become the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

This workshop, and the six before held in different cities across BiH over the past several months, was organized by the BiH branch of the Belgrade-based think tank East West Bridge International (EWB), whose 850-strong membership includes experts from 60 countries worldwide, with the support of the US Embassy in Sarajevo, focusing on the proposals how to improve the system of governance at different levels. The students were offered the opportunity to discuss constitutional law, negotiations and diplomacy with top experts.

“We advocate a firm commitment of BiH to respect European values and ideas, as well as to harmonize legal regulations with the European Union laws, and we encourage the strengthening of regional cooperation (support for the “Mini Schengen” initiative) and bilateral relations,” the students, which came from Bosniak, Croat and Serb towns, said in a declaration adopted by consensus.

“I am pleased that EWB and participants of this event have decided to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement by looking forward,” US Ambassador to BiH Eric Nelson told the students, some of whom who were not even born when the DPA was signed. “DPA has saved lives but as it is frequently noted, it also created a complex government structure abused by ethnonationalist leaders in a way that has stifled progress.”

“It is fitting you have chosen to discuss the necessary constitutional framework to bring progress and prosperity to BiH and move (it) forward on its path towards Euro-Atlantic integration.”

In order to satisfy all sides in the bloody war, the DPA vested more powers in the two entities comprising BiH: the Federation, consisting of Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) and the Republika Srpska, which is mainly Bosnian Serb, and a single autonomous district of Brcko –  than in the weak central government, which is led by a rotating tripartite presidency and a council of ministers that is also divided among the three “constituent peoples.”

Strangely for a country in Europe in this day and age,  the Jajce meeting was for many participants the first opportunity to meet and discuss such vital issues with their colleagues from the other entity, Robert Jovanovic, the main organizer of the event said. The students learn different curriculums from entity to entity and in ethnically mixed areas schools are in some cases segregated. “We strongly oppose the elements of segregation and discrimination in education systems,” the students said, urging the harmonization of the BiH education system with the best world standards.

“Decision-making structures are further complicated by an unwieldy welter of institutions. The parliamentary assembly is composed of two chambers with identical duties. There are five presidents, four vice presidents, 13 prime ministers, 14 parliaments, 147 ministers and 700 parliamentarians, all for a population less than that of the city of Berlin and about half that of metropolitan Washington, DC. These structures entrench an ethnocracy ripe with clientelism that inflames ill-will among the country’s citizens on a daily basis. Corruption is endemic and growing; it has degraded the country’s governance, undermined its democracy, reduced public trust in state institutions, distorted the economy, and attracted dubious financial flows that ripple through the rest of Europe. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not uniquely corrupt, but its constitution is being uniquely manipulated to enable corruption” reads a recent report by the Wilson Center.

This situation has served all the ethnic leaders well to pose as defenders of their people. The Serbs and Croats together account for less than half of the population and fear they would be always outvoted in a centralized state by the Bosniak votes. This is now the case after the Croat member of the tripartite Presidency of BiH,  was not voted in by the Croat population but instead by Bosniak votes, thanks to the fact that the Bosniaks have a sufficiently large pool of votes to usher in their own candidate and enough left over to outvote the Croats. This has prompted Croatia to lately join the increasingly loud chorus urging the revisiting of the DPA.

Another idiosyncrasy is that if one is of any other non-constituent ethnicity or religion like a Roma or a Jew, one cannot run for the presidency. Indeed, the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights has ruled in the case Sejdic-Finci that the Constitution must be amended to allow others to run for public office 11 years ago.

Despite the stern warning by the Council of Europe that BiH can forget any progress towards EU membership until the court’s ruling has been implemented., this has not happened yet for the fear of opening the Pandora’s Box. Both outstanding members of the BiH community, Dervo Sejdic is a Roma and Jakob Finci is a Jew, who also happens to be the President of EWB BiH.

“Recognizing the contribution of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in BiH in stopping the armed conflict and establishing a democratic order, we believe that the time has come to correct the shortcomings of the Annex IV, ie the Constitution of BiH, in implementing all relevant judgments of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the European Court of Human Rights. In this way, we affirm the constitutively of the people as a fundamental principle of the Constitution, but also enabling all BiH citizens, including the citizens of the Brcko District, to vote and be elected for all levels of government,” the student declaration reads said.

The students echoed some ideas in the West including changing or reducing the administration and making it more efficient, respecting the legitimate interests and fears of all constituent peoples. They particularly singled out massive corruption and called for comprehensive economic, tax and fiscal, environmental, judicial and election reforms.

“The problem with BiH is that there are too many proxy wars fought over it and too many interests clashing over that piece of real estate. Russia is fighting the US, Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE are clashing with Iran and Turkey, each and everyone has their own favorite they back and are pulling in their own direction, everyone has an iron in the fire. No wonder it’s dysfunctional and it’s a miracle the fire is not a lot bigger, but if we don’t do something now, it could easily flare up overnight into an uncontrollable blaze,” one veteran Western diplomat said.