We wrote these essays over a period of one year. The political, economic, and social context during that time was very dynamic. We went from a completely disinterested Office of the High Representative and the broader international community (IC), to renewed usage of Bonn powers, “emergency” visits by the mid-level US and EU officials, and warnings of “imminent war” by the new High Representative.
The ethno-nationalist elites both caused and benefited from these tense narratives. The aggressive strategies of the elites have resulted in a total blockade of the institutions, causing the IC to increase the alert level from “concerned” to “as worried as they can possibly get”. Institutions of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) have already been blocked since the last elections (2018), but as the new general elections are approaching in October 2022, the ethno-nationalist elites have decided to “turn up the volume” and expand the blockade to state institutions.
So now at the state level, the Council of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, and the Presidency are blocked by the Serb ethno-nationalists; at the level of entities, the FBiH is blocked by the Croat ethno-nationalists, and while the institutions of Republika Srpska are not blocked, they are run by one single man who, by using the ethno-nationalist matrix, keeps claiming exclusive power for himself (and his family and allies). While appearing willing to work within the state institutions, the Bosniak ethno-nationalists, self-proclaimed “pro-Bosnian forces” are only interested in discussions as long as they concern their power-positions and economic gains. The internalisation of colonialism is most present among this part of the ethno-nationalist elite. They continuously call on the IC to come up with solutions, refusing to take any responsibility for the country, despite being part of the ruling elite for more than 25 years.
While 25+ years have passed since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), BiH has by no means been freed from the shackles of its misconceived solutions.
In a way, it feels like during this past year Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has travelled back in time to the period we described in our first essay: geopolitics, international meddling, militarised language of ethno-nationalist elites, and once again, numerous poor solutions on the table. While 25+ years have passed since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), BiH has by no means been freed from the shackles of its misconceived solutions. As we have been finalising these essays, the full spectrum of consequences are flushed out. The current news in mainstream media is saturated with (re)traumatising discourses reminiscent of those from just before the war started—the perpetual narrative of a country that is “just about to fall apart”; the language of hate and bickering of ethno-nationalist elites who use both national and international platforms to demonstrate antagonism; the rattling of guns from the “good-old” neighbours and self-proclaimed guardians; and the perpetually worried and scheming IC, playing its geopolitical and economic games of “neutrality”.
During 2021 the negotiations between the ethno-nationalist elites and the IC on revising the Election Law and the Constitution of BiH have intensified, and with it also the ethno-nationalistic discourse of conflict. It is infuriating to see that the current negotiations are, in their form and substance, an exact replica of all the talks that have failed thus far. Though not in a military base in Dayton, they are still held behind closed doors—in privately owned restaurants, walled off from the everyday poverty, or behind well-secured buildings of the EU Delegation, embassies, and ambassadors’ residencies. Sometimes the ethno-national elites touristically travel to Brussels, to break away from hazardous air pollution and the monotony of the BiH grey reality. They also collect their frequent travel miles by travelling to Zagreb and Belgrade for opinions and directions. Tripadvisor offers go as far as Istanbul. In the end, once all these meetings and running around result in yet another damaging agreement, we might read about the dynamics of these talks in someone’s memoirs (we might even open bets on who is most likely to do this). The people of BiH, yet again, have been witnessing a deeply corrupt process, driven by the ethno-nationalist elites, regional self-proclaimed guardians, and the IC, enabled by the dysfunctional system we have been living in.
Since all these players benefited greatly from the recipe behind the DPA, they continue to look into the same solutions: the international elites with their geopolitical agendas are once again in the role of powerful mediators looking to appease warmongering ethno-nationalist elites.
Since all these players benefited greatly from the recipe behind the DPA, they continue to look into the same solutions: the international elites with their geopolitical agendas are once again in the role of powerful mediators looking to appease warmongering ethno-nationalist elites. Unlike in the ‘90s, we have a very active social media now. Facebook and Twitter are burning with “warnings”, analyses, and opinions from BiH diaspora, mid- and high level diplomats, various “experts,” EU parliamentarians, influencers, and so forth. Frankly, they do nothing but add to chaos and trauma.
The current negotiations about amendments of the Election Law and the Constitution are hastily and sloppily put together. They are happening against the backdrop of constant and deliberate misinterpretation of the current Constitution, which the ethno-nationalist elites interpret as they see fit. By putting forward demands catered to fit their personal interests but presenting them as “the interest of the ethnic group,” the ethno-nationalist elites (reminiscent of the DPA negotiations) are pushing the IC to support their demands. At the same time they are stubbornly insisting on making the existing BiH governance structures incapable of working, and thus creating a sense of chaos and imminent threat of war.
All these new negotiations have led to tensions running high. The ethno-nationalist elites have pulled out their little black books with war-mongering slogans, the international community is running back and forth eager to accuse us of threatening the security situation of the region and the continent once again, all while the people watch the charade in bewilderment and wonder if they will be able to pay the next electricity bill.
In the background of these tensions is not ethnic hatred but fierce competition for control over remaining natural and public resources. And while they negotiate for who will get the bigger piece of the cake, no one even considers asking the people of BiH whether they want to live in a country organised according to ethno-nationalist and neoliberal principles. Whether they care more about decent wages and pensions. No one asks them what their priorities are—maybe saving the public healthcare system that is falling apart, or saving our rivers and air from pollution, forests from being cut, hills from being exploited for sand, gravel, or grit? Whether they want public parks rather than private highrises, etc. For all those reasons people are already on the streets, protesting. The current negotiations do not take any of these issues into consideration.
The dysfunctionality of BiH is not an epiphany and the discussions about the changes of the Election Law and the Constitutions that reinvigorated tensions in 2021 did not fall from the sky. They are a consequence of everything that has been done thus far.
It has been evident for a while that the Constitution, as part of the DPA package, needs to change, as it has created a dysfunctional administrative and territorial division of the country. The same can be said for the Election Law, which, as a byproduct of the Constitution, follows the same flawed logic of ethno-national divisions. But the country has seen nothing but failed attempts to amend the Constitution and the Election Law.
Each time these so-called processes were mirroring the DPA negotiations. Each time the process entailed the IC trying more of the same: talks and negotiations with, and concessions to, the ethno-nationalist elites. The excuse? The people elected them, they say. According to that logic, they represent the people’s will. But claiming that people of BiH have been electing the ethno-nationalists for the last 25+ years is gaslighting! It is a corrupt discourse used to avoid accountability, as the Constitution and the Election Law have been drafted with such calculation and precision that the win by ethno-nationalists is always secured.
It never occurred to the IC that the failure to reform our political system also had to do with their methods.
The first failure to amend the Constitution came in April 2006, followed by more failures. The IC and the ethno-nationalists engaged in an endless series of meetings, trying to somehow find the solution that would satisfy all of them but at the same time appear as removing the discriminatory parts from the Constitution. It never occurred to the IC that the failure to reform our political system also had to do with their methods. Each time the talks were held with individuals, identified as leaders of this or that ethno-nationalist party. Each time the talks consisted of wining and dining with ethno-nationalist elites in various cities and fancy hotels and restaurants, in hope an agreement would be reached. Each time, the talks failed miserably. Looking at how it all wound up, it appears that the IC, despite the failures, still found most common interests and language with the ethno-nationalists, because they continued, over and over again, to see them as the only relevant interlocutors.
The active decision of the IC to talk only to ethno-nationalist elites (embodied in the ethno-nationalist party leaders) removes this key political discussion on the organisation of the state further and further away from the BiH institutions. In recent years this has become blatantly obvious. The three political ethno-nationalist leaders have not always held elected positions. But no matter what (irrelevant) position in the institutions they occupy, they have been the ones with whom the IC exclusively talks to. By doing this the IC treats the ethno-nationalist leaders as owners of the state, creating conditions for new, political crises. So, the failure of the talks is not only due to the ethno-nationalist elites’ not wanting to give up any of the powers provided to them by the DPA, but also due to the IC’s unwillingness to give up their own colonial powers.
Not even the judgments of the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR) helped (Sejdić and Finci, Zornić, Šlaku, Pilav, and Pudarić). The judgments were never looked at in their entirety, the focus was put only on their particular parts. They have been frequently and intentionally misinterpreted. Whatsmore, the Zornić case, which goes further than any of the others in challenging the ethno-nationalist rule, has been completely sidelined and ignored.
Of course, the opinions of the ruling elites of the neighboring countries have always been considered more important than the voices of the people living in BiH. The ethno-nationalist elites make sure to have official, and publicly proclaimed, backing of respective ruling elites in the neighboring countries. As per the business model established during the DPA negotiations, even the IC considers the neighboring countries as relevant actors to talk to about our lives. This approach ignores their meddling and its destabilising effect, the same way as their participation in the war and their consequent responsibility for reparations were ignored.
Every time ethno-nationalist elites have been accommodated in their demands, the situation has become a little bit worse. Each political concession has promoted and entrenched corruption as the basis for the functioning of governmental institutions.
The continuous political crisis in BiH cannot be resolved in such a way that it builds sustainable peace unless the colonial approach of the IC and feudal and autocratic behaviour of the ethno-nationalist elites is addressed. Sustainable peace cannot be built on structures that ensure eternal impunity of the corrupted elites. Every time ethno-nationalist elites have been accommodated in their demands, the situation has become a little bit worse. Each political concession has promoted and entrenched corruption as the basis for the functioning of governmental institutions. And everytime the IC has presented these accommodations as temporary, it has been impossible to reverse the damage created.
If this trajectory continues, not only will the mistakes from the past be repeated but an already alarming situation will be aggravated. The only way to start addressing and fixing this flawed process is to start seeing the people living in BiH as actors with political agency, instead of subjects of international, neoliberal, colonial interventions, and as collateral damage of the feudal ambitions of power-thirsty ethno-nationalist elites.
What needs to change?
To begin with, we must unlearn everything that was imposed on us through the flawed process of the implementation of the DPA.
A lot of things! To begin with, we must unlearn everything that was imposed on us through the flawed process of the implementation of the DPA. And there are no quick fixes. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: there is a need for radical change in approaches to peacebuilding in BiH. We need a full transformation and decolonisation of the current system. Thus, in order to create conditions for sustainable peace, inclusivity, contextual understanding, and solidarity need to be the guiding principles of the new approaches to building political, economic, and social organisation of BiH.
While it is clear that the current Constitution of BiH must change, it is also clear that this cannot occur through a set of reforms or amendments. There is no meaningful way to reform a constitution that is the result of war-gains and there are no amendments that can go to the bottom of the problem: an ethno-nationalist, misogynist and authoritarian system that promotes corruption and violence, and is upheld by reiteration of conflicts and divisions. The carefully developed ideas coming from the abolitionist movement about the necessity to abolish deeply dysfunctional systems rather than reforming them are applicable in the discussion on how we move forward in BiH. As our colleague and fellow peace activist from WILPF Ray Acheson wrote: ”Abolition is about rejecting the current structures as a source of, rather than a solution to, violence. And it is about building alternatives.”
An amended Constitution is not a source of solution for BiH. We need a new constitution.
And how we do it matters. The process of drafting and adopting the new constitution of BiH must be the total opposite of the drafting and imposition of the current Constitution. The new constitution has to be the result of a comprehensive, transparent, all-inclusive, informed and long-lasting social dialogue inside BiH. The mechanisms must be installed to prevent ethno-nationalist elites intervening in the process, as well as to prevent any other outside interventions.
The current ways of presenting inclusivity during key social and political discussions is a charade. The shameful appropriation of the grassroots ideas of direct democracy and plenums as recently done by the EU Delegation in BiH is one such example. The EU Delegation has pompously announced that it has appointed members of the so-called Citizens Assembly as “a unique opportunity for citizens in BiH to directly express their views on constitutional and electoral reform.” What is so unique about this top-down project-driven approach to democracy remains unclear, as this is yet another in a long line of unacceptable neocolonial interventions that lead to depoliticisation of people in BiH.
When talking about an inclusive process we are not talking about the ways how the current talks with civil society are being conducted. At the moment only a selected number of NGOs are given a voice: those that provide support to the ethno-nationalist elites’ narratives and/or are established by them. The second group of NGOs that are given space at so-called consultative meetings are either financed by the ethno-nationalist elites, donor states or the EU. They are usually invited to these consultations for the organiser to solicit support to already decided upon, top-down solutions.
This approach to dialogue with civil society has to change, as it has not worked thus far. Those dialogues are not reflective of intersectional lived experiences and realities, and there is no real space to analyse, critique, influence, and/or reject the neoliberal economic and political policies promoted by the ethno-nationalist elites, self-proclaimed regional guardians, or the IC.
Any serious, inclusive, and effective dialogue must be based on the broadest possible participation of the people living in BiH, and be led by grassroots activists and community organisers.
Any serious, inclusive, and effective dialogue must be based on the broadest possible participation of the people living in BiH, and be led by grassroots activists and community organisers. Furthermore, the widest-possible inclusion of people living in BiH in the process of drafting a new constitution and deciding about the future organisation of the society means inclusion of people from various segments of the society and in various walks of life, from all social, economic or political levels. This process must also be open to all of the identities people feel the most comfortable with, but far more important is to bring in the lived experiences of the structures of oppression and from within all social and economic stratifications.
We also need to underline the necessity for creating conducive circumstances for the BiH society to engage in this new process. It must be acknowledged that the process of the implementation of the DPA in fact depoliticised the people living in BiH. Thus, it must also be recognised that time is needed to reverse that process.
Ad hoc interim solutions should not be put in place, as they would further complicate the political situation, or make things worse. Rather, the focus must be on providing people with adequate political tools (e.g. political economy) and vocabulary to be able to engage in the process of imagining the society we want to live in.
We need a process of (re)politicisation of the society, through which the patriarchal, colonial, militarist, and capitalist system can be dismantled, a process that is complex and requires reflections.
We need a process of (re)politicisation of the society, through which the patriarchal, colonial, militarist, and capitalist system can be dismantled, a process that is complex and requires reflections. Only once the people are politicised anew can the drafting process for the new constitution begin. And it is the people living the everyday reality of BiH (from all walks of society and with various experiences of oppression) who need to lead it, not the IC nor ethno-nationalist elites.
The very fact that the Constitution of BiH was imposed on the people living in BiH, and is an integral part of the peace agreement, has unavoidably been pulling the process of amending the Constitution into a contentious discussion about renegotiating the peace agreement itself. This has created space for the ethno-nationalist elites to heighten the militarised rhetoric and threats of war.
Thus, any discussion and linking of the drafting of the new constitution to a “Dayton II” must be abandoned, and once the new constitution is adopted the DPA must become obsolete. Connecting the discussions on constitutional arrangements to the peace agreement creates space for the ethno-nationalist elites to further their narrative of the existence of conflicts and possibility of a new war.
Furthermore, the unsolicited interferences from Croatia and Serbia in the sovereignty and internal issues of BiH are incorrectly based in the DPA. To avoid their guardianship claims, when in fact intervening in internal matters of another state, the language of the DPA needs to be abandoned. In order to stabilise the country and work towards sustainable and just peace, the people of BiH must become the only legitimate political subjects.
International financial institutions and their usage of structural adjustment programmes and loan conditionalities as vehicles for imposition of neoliberal political economy needs to be pushed back against. The IC, inclusive of international financial institutions and bilateral donors, are as accountable for the 25+ years of violations of our economic, social and cultural rights as the ethno-nationalist elite is. This accountability must be acknowledged, addressed and redressed.
We started writing this essay series in order to tell a story of a country 25 years into its peacebuilding effort. We wanted to go beyond mainstream interpretations, narratives, and understandings of the DPA and its consequences for BiH. We wanted to claim space for a feminist perspective on the DPA and its impacts, which are otherwise drenched in predominantely male, “expert” analyses. These “experts” are international, regional, and national groups or individuals; they hold ethno-nationalist and/or liberal positions; they mildly or heavily support capitalist ideas and ideology; some of them are even socialist; they are of all ages and backgrounds; and they come from different political, governmental, and non-governmental affiliations. But what is common for all those perspectives is that they are deeply patriarchal and they all take up alot of space and time.
The main task of the DPA was not to build peace but to build neoliberal capitalism.
We also wanted to bring to light the full spectrum of consequences of a peace agreement negotiated by national and international self-interest groups, ignorant of the BiH people and their post-war realities. The main task of the DPA was not to build peace but to build neoliberal capitalism. The backdrop against which the misconceived peacebuilding in BiH has taken place has included neocolonial and feudal exploitation and commodification of our lives, labour, and (natural) resources; ethno-national appropriation of governance structures and expropriation of land and common goods; glorification of private and sovereign debt by international financial institutions; gradual but firm imposition of structural adjustment programmes; and normalisation and formalisation of corporate abuse of power and corruption. The DPA managed to end the war but continued to relentlessly facilitate violence, militarisation, neocolonialism, and patriarchy, all of them antithetical to the very essence of peace.
The DPA managed to end the war but continued to relentlessly facilitate violence, militarisation, neocolonialism, and patriarchy, all of them antithetical to the very essence of peace.
The dissatisfaction with imposed solutions among the people of BiH has been growing. People are demanding changes, as they are fed up waiting for peace and at least some resemblance of prosperity. The political status quo and the dismantling of social and economic rights, which has plunged the majority of people into poverty, is no longer acceptable. The appropriation of land and resources is threatening our very lives, causing pollution of air, water, and land. The renewed politicisation of the society and reclaiming of power has seen its inception with the actions to protect our natural resources and public spaces. As people’s voices are being politicised anew, we see an increase in voices questioning the current political and economic organisation of the state.
BiH’s story about peace is no longer only a question of dealing with the war in the 90’s. The issues have been compounded by the years of neglect and a deeply flawed peace agreement, and we now need to abolish the DPA structures that consolidate power in the hands of the few. Even though more than 25 years have past BiH still needs to build mechanisms for sustainable and just peace, and that requires a re-centering of the whole idea of where the power lies—not with the international community, not with the ethno-nationalist elites, and not with the institutions they’ve built to uphold their authoritarian rule. The power lies with the people.
The power lies with the people.
Illustrative. In the photo the word spelled out on the wall is peace. It is intentionally spelled out in supposedly three different languages (Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian) and two alphabets used in the country (latin and cyrilic).
Photo credit: WILPF