Photo credit: Original photos (The burning government building by Mikhail Evstafiev, WikiMedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5; Welcome to Hell by Northfoto, Shutterstock; Mass protests, no known copyrights; The signing of the peace agreement conference, screenshot from the clip uploaded on Wikipedia).

Interventions in the photos: Sanja Vrzić


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Essay 3:

Dividing territories and power, dividing minds

The Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), as shown in the previous essay, did not provide for the demilitarisation of the society. Furthermore, the negotiators failed to frame the DPA as a comprehensive mechanism for achieving sustainable peace. Instead, it seemed they focused on how to secure power for themselves: for ethno-nationalist elites, directly through securing ownership over territories; and for the international patrons, indirectly through (not so) concealed colonisation. To this end, they created and built into the DPA territorial and administrative divisions to confirm an ethno-national division of power created through war and violence. Along with it, they designed and installed mechanisms for the implementation of the DPA that have enabled these elites (all together) to remain in power all these years.

The masterplan from Dayton gave birth to two entities, ten cantons and a district. The territorial and administrative division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo credit: WILPF

The DPA reaffirmed BiH as a sovereign state. Nevertheless, parallel to this reaffirmation, both the peace agreement and its eleven annexes contain elements that diminish its sovereignty by reiterating the territorial divisions within the country. The understanding of the state was framed within the capitalist nation-state framework, but in the context of BiH the ethnic groups replaced nations. The functions of the nation-state were transferred to the administrative units (two entities, ten cantons, and a district). Mirroring other federal states, the state of BiH was constructed as an umbrella organisation to the administrative units. However, in the case of BiH the state was stripped of any real power and control over policies concerning everyday life! The principle of the territorial division established in the DPA, and the political powers accompanying it, have prevented proper functioning of the state, and sometimes even directly eroded it. These territorial divisions were not benign or logical outcomes of the peace negotiations but a result of various ethno-nationalist and international elites’ interests giving birth to multiple new challenges and problems. The people of BiH have been experiencing these problems in the most direct ways, on our bodies, for more than 25 years.

These territorial divisions were not benign or logical outcomes of the peace negotiations but a result of various ethno-nationalist and international elites’ interests giving birth to multiple new challenges and problems.

As a side note: we understand that this essay might be hard to follow and understand. But that is our reality to which we, as much as it is confusing and illogical, had to get used to and live with, even though we never asked for it.[xyz-ips snippet=”ini”]

3.1 Drawing maps, legitimising war crimes

Ethno-nationalist elites, who constituted themselves through war violence, desired to continue controlling at least some part of the BiH after the war. That was visible early on during the negotiations of the DPA. Also visible were the ambitions of their international patrons to secure power and influence. While the internationals used their interventions in peace negotiations to gain power and influence, the ethno-nationalist elites claimed their right to control specific territories based on the alleged superiority in numbers of a certain ethnic group on a given territory. The ethno-nationalist elites’ assertion was sustainable only as long as it was accepted by the international elites. Unfortunately for the people of BiH, the international elites wholeheartedly recognized these claims. Ignored was the fact that these territories never had an ethnic majority—the “majority” they were referring to was solely achieved through war crimes.

A magazine cover of the Croatia-based magazine Feral Tribune, notorious for its provocative and memorable covers calling out nationalists and their violent projects. The cover depicts, from the left, Croatia’s president Franjo Tuđman, Serbia’s president Slobodan Milošević, and BiH’s president Alija Izetbegović “in bed together” with the headline “Is this what we fought for?”. The manipulated picture and the headline allude to the intimate connections and shared interests of the three ethno-nationalist elite. Photo credit: Feral Tribune

The international confirmation of the ethno-nationalist elites’ claims was an announcement of a worrying trend of international actors enabling and affirming war gains made by war criminals who start and lead wars for their own benefits. As Zoran Pajić, a professor of international law and former head of the Legal Reform Unit in the Office of the High Representative for BiH pointed out, the DPA negotiations effectively sent “the wrong message to warlords worldwide by implicitly legitimizing the gains of sectarian violence, which often amounted to commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Ethno-nationalist elites in BiH have, over the 25 years of implementation of the DPA, cashed this in, in abundance, to solidify their political and economic power positions.  

3.1.1 The “design”

The DPA affirmed the territorial gains ethno-nationalist elites obtained through war crimes and violence by formalising the territorial divisions of BiH. In fact, while isolated in the Dayton military base, huddling over maps for numerous days and nights, ethno-nationalists and international political and military elites came up with the final “design” of the territorial divisions. The result of this design was territorial and administrative division of the country into two entities—the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH)—fully endorsing the ethno-nationalist elites’ false claims that an ethnic group has a particularly large presence in a certain territory. Consequently, the DPA provided for a space to interpret the RS as an entity in control of the Bosnian Serb ethno-nationalist political elites, because the defined territory was supposedly populated by the majority Bosnian Serb population (no matter that this was the result of ethnic cleansing). According to the same logic, the space was provided for the Bosnian Croat and Bosniak (i.e. Bosnian Muslims) ethno-nationalist political elites to claim control over the FBiH, supposedly because the defined territory was overwhelmingly populated by the Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks (again no matter that this was the result of forced displacement/deportations caused by war violence). 

The FBiH was further divided into cantons. The existence of FBiH, as well as the principle of its division into cantons, was already established in the 1994 Washington Agreement that preceded the DPA. The number of cantons and their territorial and administrative boundaries were subsequently defined in the Law on Federal Units (the Law) adopted in 1996. The cantons were, according to the Law, defined in line with “the principles of ethnicity, economy, geography and communications” (art.2). From the perspective of the 25+ years of implementation of this Law, and simply by looking at the map of BiH, it is  beyond comprehension how anyone could think that the principle of communications or geography, or even the economy, were applicable when creating the administrative lines of some of the cantons. For example, in Zenica-Doboj Canton (ZDC), people from the municipality of Olovo have to travel two hours to get to the cantonal hospital, all while passing through another canton where the hospital is much closer. This is just one of the examples of how the illogicity of the canton administrative divisions directly affects and makes more difficult the everyday lives of people living in BiH. Thus, contrary to what the Law states, the drawing of the maps for the ten cantons was another “masterpiece” of the ethno-nationalists and international elites and their imagination of the existence of “ethnically clean” territories. This is yet more proof that the ordinary lives of ordinary people were not on anyone’s mind during the negotiations of the DPA. It all amounted to geopolitics and personal gains.

3.1.2 No time to waste

Still, back in the Dayton military base, even for very map-focused men, drawing precise demarcation lines to their full satisfaction was difficult. This exercise was time consuming as well. However, the international negotiators were in a hurry to demonstrate success—in particular the lead negotiator Richard Holbroke. According to what he wrote in his memoirs, Hoolbroke was under pressure to produce a foreign policy success on behalf of his boss, the then-president of the USA, Bill Clinton, who was at the time of the DPA-negotiations starting to campaign for his re-election. “Progress” had to be made and there was no time to waste. Just enough international pressure was applied to finish the task. As a consequence, the DPA was reached with some unresolved issues with respect to territorial divisions. 

The most significant unresolved issue was on the city of Brčko. This was to be resolved by international arbitration at a later point. Subsequently, an Arbitral Tribunal decided in 1999 that the city of Brčko would become an additional administrative unit, a district. The Brčko District ended up being administratively detached from either of the entities, but remained attached to the ethno-nationalist politics and entity institutions, mirroring the divisions in the country.

In retrospect, the territorial division arising from the DPA prevented logical economic planning and delivery of human rights.

Of course, territorial divisions within a country can make sense, as they can facilitate easier communication, mobility, or economic development. However, the territorial division of BiH did not reflect any of that. Neither did it reflect the previous regions of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SRBiH), which were based on an economic development plan. Rather, as noted above, the territorial division agreed in the DPA reflected war crimes, war gains, and territorial trades. In retrospect, the territorial division arising from the DPA prevented logical economic planning and delivery of human rights. Furthermore, this division allowed the ethno-nationalist autocrats to exploit and extract people’s labour and resources in the territories over which they imposed their control.

3.2 The Constitution of BiH: Drafting the principles of ruling, legitimising discrimination

In order to ensure that the territorial divisions lasted for a long time, the negotiators (both the ethno-nationalist and the international elites) integrated the Constitution of BiH within the DPA, as its Annex 4. Having established a quota system for representation of certain ethnic groups, the negotiators made sure that even state-level institutions were filled from the ranks of ethno-nationalists (Articles IV-VIII of the Constitution). Reflecting on the dynamics of the discussions leading up to the DPA, James C. O’Brian, a US diplomat involved in drafting of the DPA, wrote: “It was clear from the start of negotiations that nationalists wanted to convert their wartime power into political authority. This was apparent in negotiations of the substance of the Constitution. For example, some positions asserted on the structure of the government reflected the aspirations of particular individuals for particular offices.” So it seems that some political offices and positions were even invented to serve the political aspirations of individual members of the ethno-nationalist elites.

3.2.1. Inventing the constituent peoples to ensure unquestionable power for the ethno-nationalist elites

By enshrining the Constitution within the DPA, the ethno-nationalist elites also ensured that the Constitution matched the division of territories with ethnic-nationalistic divisions of power, ensuring proportional representation, veto powers realised through the so-called “vital national interest”, and other political privileges to the three recognised majority ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. These ethnic groups were given a status of “constituent peoples,” which, in the context of BiH, has become a highly politicised construction, understood as awarding an exclusive and privileged status to Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. For example, under the current Constitution the three members of the Presidency of BiH can only come from one of the three ethnic groups; the members of the governing board of the Central Bank have to be one Croat, one Bosniak from the FBiH, and one member from RS (implying that they will be a Serb); and veto powers in the state-level Parliamentary Assembly are only awarded to representatives of the three ethnic groups through the institution of the House of Peoples consisting of three caucuses. 

However, there are other unspoken rules of ethnic-based power-sharing that do not come directly from the Constitution but are claimed to be derived from it. These are based on an internal consensus of the ethno-nationalist political elites (blessed by the international community). The prevailing opinion among them is that the balancing of ethnic representation in all public institutions, even when not warranted by the Constitution, is a right derived from the territorial and administrative divisions of the country and the status of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs as “constituent peoples”. Consequently, their status as constituent entitles three ethno-nationalist elites to equal share of power. A tragicomic curiosity is that this “right” extends to other spaces as well, e.g. cultural and sports events. An invisible hand makes sure that the winner of the Miss BiH beauty contest, or the BiH representative to the Eurovision Song Contest, or even the winner of the National Football League Competition (as if the team has an ethnic belonging!), often rotate between the three ethnic groups, or at least come from the territories assigned as “belonging” to an ethnic group.

3.2.2 Fourteen ways to rule us all

The territorial division and accompanying divisions of power translated into potentially one of the most complicated (and expensive) governance systems in the world. The ethno-nationalist elites exercise their power through administrative units, namely entities and cantons, which were given far-reaching responsibilities as compared to state level institutions.

The territorial division and accompanying divisions of power translated into potentially one of the most complicated (and expensive) governance systems in the world.

The country has 14 (!) layers of governance. The state makes up one of the levels and is governed by the Council of Ministers with very limited responsibilities. The state level also has three presidents, to match each of the three ethno-national identities recognised as majority groups, as well as a two-chamber parliament, each with veto powers. The veto power in one chamber is based on the administrative division and in the other chamber on the ethnic principle. 

The second level of governance is made up of the two entities, the FBiH and RS. These entities have far-reaching but asymmetrical powers. While RS functions as a centralised entity, the FBiH is decentralised along its ten cantons. Both entities have their own governments, parliamentary assemblies, presidents, prime ministers, constitutions, police forces, and responsibilities over the most important segments of the society: healthcare, education, labour rights, agriculture, transport, culture, and so forth. However, the government of the FBiH primarily holds the responsibility of coordination, while the real executive and decision-making powers lay within the ten cantons. The cantons also have their own governments, parliamentary assemblies, prime ministers, constitutions, police forces, and jurisdiction over healthcare, education, labour rights, culture, and so forth. 

These are already enough layers to make you dizzy for a lifetime! And enough layers to waste the already limited and constrained budgets on numerous politicians, their salaries, their advisers, their cars, their bodyguards, their offices, and their comfortable lives.

These divisions make BiH a country with 13 different constitutions! In addition to these 13 constitutions there is the Brčko District with its own power sharing mechanisms and legislative and executive powers. True, the Brčko District actually has a statue and not a constitution. Nevertheless, it has its own government with mandate over health, education, labour, and so on. In the end all those, usually 14 levels of power, have their own, very often different, understandings of standards of healthcare, education curricula, and so on, further entrenching the divisions and (re)creating differences. All of this for a little over 3.5 million people left in the country after the war. 

For someone versed in political science, the cantonal divisions might look as an attempt to decentralisation. But that is not the case here, as municipalities have jurisdiction over local public spaces and buildings, public goods and natural resources. True, even those lower levels of governance have been infiltrated by the ethno-nationalist parties, but the fact is that the cantonal governments, each on its own, act as a centralised government independent of both the FBiH and the state.

As for the state level, the Constitution of BiH awarded the state the responsibility over elements that would allow the state to function within international relations, such as foreign policy, foreign trade, customs, migration, defence, monetary policy, and not to forget, lucrative air traffic control (which is still not entirely implemented). The only segment concerning everyday life awarded to the state was human rights, but even that relates mainly to the framework of political and civil rights. The access to economic and social rights, which has proven to be of greater importance for everyday life and post-war recovery, is assigned to lower levels of governance. Their implementation has thus been dependent on the “generosity” of the ethno-nationalist political elites in their respective administrative units—the generosity being dependent on the quantity of the crumbs ethno-nationalist elites are willing to give up from their exploitation of the public and natural resources.

Of course, these different layers of power and governance are mostly populated by men. Participation of women in these various structures of power was not even considered by the DPA’s male negotiators. Naturally they just thought of themselves, so they could not see how the women fitted in the ethno-nationalistic rulling discourse. The rare women who have gotten a chance to exercise power got it only if they supported the ethno-nationalist, patriarchal discourse. 

Women’s chance at participating in political decision-making was left to the many donor-funded projects. Donors (e.g. UN, individual states) initiated projects on women’s participation in formal political bodies, focused on raising quotas for women’s representation, provided education and capacity building for women to vote and run for offices and so forth. These projects, aimed at increasing the number of women in formal political structures, have to date remained unsuccessful. The lack of their success is connected to the fact that those projects remain completely oblivious to the patriarchal character of the political institutions and the fact that these institutions are entirely captured by the ethno-nationalist elites and their logic of ruling, which is misogynist at its core.

3.2.3 The inherent violence of power divisions and negation of “others”

The principle of territorial and administrative divisions based on ethnicity, as demanded by the ethno-nationalist elites and accepted by the international negotiators, has been creating tensions since its insertion in the DPA. The drafters of the DPA and the Constitution of BiH were aware that until the ethnic reconfigurations achieved through ethnic cleansing and genocide during the war, the SRBiH was not divided in a way that one ethnic group was predominant, and in power, over the others. In fact, over the course of its history BiH has always been a multiconfessional and diverse country. The divisions introduced by the DPA and the Constitution of BiH effectively ignored, for example, the Jewish people who have been part of BiH’s political, economic, and cultural life since their arrival to the country, seeking refuge in the wake of the Spanish Inquisition. Ignored were also Roma people, who have lived in BiH for more than 600 years, along with many different national minorities as well as people who do not identify with any ethnic group. All of them together made the fabric of the BiH society, and all of them were violently negated during the peace negotiations and subsequent territorial and administrative divisions. 

The discriminatory aspects of the Constitution have ended up before the European Court for Human Rights (ECtHR). To date, the ECtHR adopted five judgments concerning discrimination in the electoral system of BiH: Sejdić and Finci, Zornić, Šlaku, Pilav, and Pudarić. The applications submitted to the ECtHR were formulated through the demands to stop electoral discrimination. In all of the aforementioned cases, the ECtHR found discrimination and violation of the right to vote arising out of the governance arrangements in the Constitution of BiH. The ECtHR decisions in fact clearly recognised that the current approach to the division of political power is discriminatory and in contravention with the European Convention for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). 

3.2.4 Women at the sharp end of ethno-national divisions

The international and the ethno-nationalist negotiators either did not consider the impact of the territorial divisions and administrative structures on gender relations or thought of it to be gender neutral. However, the way these divisions played out has very much affected the social, political, and economic agency of women and their ability to access social and economic rights, denying them their right to equal and full citizenship.

The division of human rights obligations between the administrative levels has disproportionately affected women.

The division of human rights obligations between the administrative levels has disproportionately affected women. For example, women have been more affected by discrimination based on place of residence as a direct result of delegating enjoyment of economic and social rights to the lower administrative levels. This can be seen in the example of the discriminatory distribution of payments during maternity leave, which has differed between the FBiH and RS. In one example that was brought before the Constitutional Court of BiH, women working in the same public institution, but with different places of residence (e.g. one lived in RS and one in the FBiH), were entitled to different remuneration during maternity leave. After the decision of the Constitutional Court of BiH was reached this discrimination was removed from within the institutions of BiH, but it has remained elsewhere, e.g. the amount of compensation received while on maternity leave varies depending on in which canton women live. 

Discrimination is also clearly visible in the access to rights by civilian victims of war, in particular women victims of wartime rape. Their ability to recover has greatly depended on accessing social and economic rights. The socio and economic rights are enjoyed at the level of entities and cantons and the fiscal space available for their implementation differs between different administrative units. What also differs is political “generosity” and willingness of the ethno-nationalist elites in power in each territory to ensure finances for implementation of economic, social, and cultural rights, which makes access to these rights directly dependent on the place of residence. The victims of wartime rape did not even have the same treatment before the law, as the legal recognition of the victims varied. While the FBiH recognised victims of rape as a special category within the category of civilian victims of war in 2006, Brčko District did so in 2012, and RS only in 2018. The discrimination of victims of wartime rape stretches from the difference in monthly amounts recieved in compensation for the violation suffered, to the difference in entitlement to, for example, priority in employment or housing or other social benefits. 

The disproportionate effect of territorial divisions is also visible with respect to addressing violence against women, which is approached differently by different administrative units. For example, certain forms of violence against women are criminalised in one entity, while not even recognised as minor offences in the other. Data gathering is not harmonised and is consequently unusable for evidence-based policy development. Furthermore, the pace of developing a legal framework relevant for fighting gender-based violence is not synchronised.

3.3 Invading and dividing the minds

Following, at that time, the globally dominant paradigm of the “end of history” (i.e. capitalism as the supreme political economy), the DPA negotiators strictly followed this and did not even try to deploy any form of political imagination around the fundamental principles of how to govern the society. Consequently, they actively wiped out any references to socialism from the systems and minds of the BiH people. Instead, they imposed an identitarian, neoliberal political and economic framework. Consequently, BiH ended up with a constitution that imposed ethnic identity as the only political determinant of access to power. Once ethnicity became the exclusive carrier of the identitarian political power, any potential for ideological discussions was blocked. This led to depoliticisation of the society, which has been ongoing for the last 25 years.

Identitarian politics were primarily secured by the infamous political construction of “constituent peoples” securing almost divine-like powers to the ethno-nationalist elites. The DPA negotiators and international community built this infamous construction by granting the warring parties a constitutional category with primacy over any other identity or political claims. Already immediately before and especially during the war, the warring parties co-opted ethno-religious belonging and entire ethnic groups. Consequently the “constituent people” category enshrined in the DPA and the Constitution of BiH has been a war medal awarded to the ethno-nationalist elites to pin on themselves in peace.

3.3.1 Constructing a deeply divided society

The power-sharing mechanisms in the DPA are grounded in the idea of consociationalism, which is advocated by its proponents as the solution for countries with low levels of consensus between mutually isolated groups. According to the theory of consociationalism, for these countries to function, the conflicting groups must be part of a grand coalition; there has to be a mechanism that guarantees the right to mutual veto; proportional representation; and a high degree of segmental autonomy. As described above, various elements of consociationalism are clearly identifiable in BiH. 

By introducing the concept of the “constituent peoples,” the ethno-nationalist political elites strengthened their claim that “mutually isolated groups with a low level of consensus between them” existed in BiH and needed to be protected. For a group to successfully compete over political and economic resources, it needs to be represented by someone. In the case of the three major ethnic groups, i.e. the constituent peoples, these someones are “naturally” the ethno-nationalist elites, who constantly occupy the representative role and leadership. On a daily basis, they assert the legitimacy and the inviolability of their right to represent “their” ethnic group and rule over their dream castles and feudal lands they have built for themselves through the DPA. 

Even though the foundation of these castles was war violence and the destruction left in its wake, the load-bearing walls of the castles were porous. Thus, once they built the “walls” around their dream castles, the ethno-nationalist elites in power had to fortify them. This fortification required the continuous creation of an illusion that the group under the supposed protection of the ethno-nationalist elites is under attack and that its rights are being endangered. The easiest way to maintain this illusion has been to keep reiterating identities created by the war and violence. Committing crimes during the war required the process of “othering” and the dehumanisation of the constructed “other”. This “otherness” was created by perpetrators adopting one ethnic identity to belong to and to “protect,” while at the same time assigning an ethnic belonging to the targeted victims. The identitarian dynamic of ethnic belonging and ethnic rivalry was easily transferred into the now formally divided society.

Any potential tensions and conflict along class or gender lines within the same ethnic group are ignored and suppressed, while inter-ethnic tensions are created all the time.

This way of dividing power attempts to erase any stratifications other than the ethnic, e.g class or gender. Ethnic groups are considered and treated as homogenous. Any potential tensions and conflict along class or gender lines within the same ethnic group are ignored and suppressed, while inter-ethnic tensions are created all the time. In this sense the only allowed claims for justice are those within the realm of the ethnic group, i.e. the ethnic group is the only allowed claimant for justice but the claim must be made in opposition to the claim of the other ethnic group. And this is only within the framework of  the three ethnic groups identified as constituent. Any individual claims or other-than-ethnic group claims are suppressed. A very vivid example of attempts to claim justice outside of the “allowed” parameters are the claims made by the initiatives Justice for David (right to life) and Women of Kruščica (right to clean water), both of which were met with violent repression. 

The interests of the ethno-nationalist elites, framed through the political ethnic grouping, are kept separate but yet together in a “grand coalition” through political institutions such as the parliamentary assemblies and state-level presidency. The pliable veto powers (the so-called vital national interest) that are enshrined in the Constitution and throughout the complex administrative divisions are widely used and abused. For example, the ethno-nationalist elites threaten to use them even in matters such as the international PISA competition. The ethno-nationalist elites have also demonstrated an incredible ability to constantly create and recreate alliances and enemies. 

3.3.2 The politics of forgetting: making ethnic identities exclusive political identities

The process of appropriating the concept of an ethnic belonging by ethno-nationalist elites’ started a few years prior to the war, continued throughout the war, but it gained momentum with the implementation of the DPA. In order for the ethnic identities to be dogmatically accepted as exclusive political identities, we have, for the last 25+ years, been exposed to the processes of reinvention of traditions and imagining of ethnic communities, to use historians Eric Hobsbawn and Benedict Anderson’s words. This “exhaustive” political work has been conducted by the ethno-nationalist elites, their ideological commissars, and religious leaders. The orientalist (balkanist) and neocolonial approach of the international actors in BiH, who understood their peacebuilding intervention as if on a mission to bring civilization to the uncivilized Balkan barbarians, has only upheld this work. 

This process could not work on its own to keep the ethno-nationalist elites in power. It had to be complemented by politics of forgetting and neoliberalism. The politics of forgetting were engaged, whether intentionally or unintentionally, immediately with the start of the implementation of the DPA. The post-war period became a paradigm of ground zero, and involved a complete devaluation of the previous political and economic system. This meant that the DPA, no matter that it recognised the continuity of BiH, was used as if establishing an entirely new state, ignoring the fact that BiH existed as a polity prior to the DPA. Progress towards peace was understood only from the perspective of the frameworks put in place by the DPA; past knowledge, ways of doing things, and value system(s) were actively dismissed.

The politics of forgetting proved to be useful for obscuring the drafters’ ambition to transit the country to a capitalist one and to hide the harms created by this new, imposed, political economy.

The politics of forgetting could be applied in the case of BiH for two reasons. One is that the international community that arrived on the wings of the DPA only knew how to reproduce its own (colonial) systems and ignored the experiences and knowledge of the BiH people. The second was the process of transitioning  the country from a socialist to a capitalist economic system (hidden within the peacebuilding process), and an underlining wish of the elites (both the ethno-nationalist and the international) to prevent people from objecting to this intentional shift in ideology. 

The politics of forgetting proved to be useful for obscuring the drafters’ ambition to transit the country to a capitalist one and to hide the harms created by this new, imposed, political economy. The way the Constitution assigns power and divides territories, coupled with the built-in mechanism of capitalist political economy bestows ethno-nationalist elites with power over people’s everyday lives and ensures the survival of the worst type of exploitative aspects of capitalism. The Constitution helps frame all contentious political and economic issues as exclusively ethno-nationalist and obscures class-based demands and opposition to oppression and exploitation.

The politics of forgetting were widely applied, reaching all the way down to the level of human relations and interactions. The ethno-nationalist machinery worked overtime to persuade us that everything we remember about our lives were false memories; that all our (social) relationships have always, and only, been based in ethnic identitarian framework; and that somehow all of us, consciously or unconsciously, had ethnic identities as the only and true identities. We were all supposedly victims of systemic oppression imposed by a regime that negated these identities. And now, the elites assure us, we have been “liberated” from this oppressive scheme. 

This process was made easier by the imposition of neoliberalism as an unquestionable global modus operandi. Obscuring the effects of political and economic structures on everyday life, neoliberalism has used the privileging of individual identity, understood as a form of belonging and culture, to persuade citizens that the oppressions they have been facing are not grounded in an ideology and structural inequalities but exclusively on identity. This does not leave space for an intersectional approach and recognition of different axes of oppression, especially within the ethno-nationalist heterosexual patriarchal framework. Within this logic, the only allowed justice claims are those exclusively based on individual claims, framed within belonging to a homogenous (i.e ethnic) group that is oppressed in a homogeneous manner. 

Justice claims framed in this way  are exactly what the ethno-nationalist elites in BiH have been reiterating in order to create the impression of divisions and oppressions among the ethnic groups. For example, people living in poverty in BiH are being persuaded that they are not poor because the ethno-nationalist political elites are shamelessly stealing public resources and common goods belonging to all of us but because they belong to an ethnic group whose rights and needs are supposedly subordinated to the other two ethnic groups. The logic of the claim is as follows: A Croat, or a Bosniak, or a Serb is poor because they are Croat, Serb, or Bosniak, not because, as an organised criminal group, the self-appointed representatives of those ethnic groups are blatantly stealing our common resources. True, certain identity-based justice claims are justified by historic oppression, e.g. Roma people,  women or LGBTIQ persons, but these particular claims are completely ignored by the ethno-nationalists. Furthermore, these claims are also not homogenous claims, as some of the neoliberal donor-funded interventions like to simplify and present.  

3.3.4 The gender dimensions of oppressive identitarian structures

The neoliberal identitarian politics upon which the entire system of BiH rests have added to the multiple layers of oppression of women. It is already well established that the ethno-nationalist projects of construction of identities are a heterosexual male constructs and in essence are highly gendered. They build on patriarchal and heterosexual hierarchies and norms. Women are only allowed to participate in the public life if they support nationalist projects and uphold the heterosexual, patriarchal order. The LGBTIQ persons are not allowed to participate in the public life at all. Those who do not accept the imposed ethnic identities are usually ostracised and expelled from the public space. They are forced to struggle both against these nationalist projects and the patriarchal system of oppression that is both inherent to the nationalist projects but also independent of them. 

Worth noting is the interesting gendered dimension of the aforementioned applications submitted before the ECtHR regarding electoral discrimination based on identity. All but one were submitted by men, who still identified within the ethnic political identity framework as established by the DPA. The one woman who submitted an application insisted that she is discriminated against exactly because she does not have an ethnic identity. In all the cases the ECtHR found violations of the ECHR. Unlike those decisions concerning men’s applications, which still rely on claims based on equality through ethnic belonging, the implication of the decision concerning the application submitted by the woman is that  ethnic identity cannot be the basis for political power sharing.

3.4. Stuck in the peace agreement

The very act of including a constitution as part of a peace agreement unavoidably pulls the process of amending the constitution into a contentious discussion about renegotiating the peace agreement itself.

The very act of including a constitution as part of a peace agreement unavoidably pulls the process of amending the constitution into a contentious discussion about renegotiating the peace agreement itself. The Constitution, which was part of the peace negotiations and consequently the result of concessions and compromises made to and with warring elites, could not be anything else but  militarised, male-centric, and ethno-nationalistic. Militarised as it was negotiated by warring parties who did not want to concede their power; male-centric as it was negotiated exclusively by male elites who did not see women as active participants if rebuilding of BiH; and ethno-nationalistic as it was negotiated exclusively by ethno-nationalist elites who understood that to remain in power they had to create ethno-nationalist political identity. 

Since the Constitution of BiH was made part of the peace negotiations, any attempt to amend it has been locked into a dynamic between the ethno-nationalist political elites, their veto powers, and the international community, ending up with militarised rhetoric and threats of war. This was most clearly visible in the attempts to amend the Constitution in 2006, and in the period 2011–2014 following the aforementioned decision(s) of the ECtHR establishing that the Constitution of BiH is discriminatory. The only amendment to the Constitution that ever passed was one confirming the status of Brčko District after the international Arbitral Tribunal  made its decision. This amendment process was foreseen by the DPA.

3.4.1 Imagining, constructing, and reinforcing the divisions ad infinitum

Once the mind games of imagining ethnic-communities and (re)inventing traditions were made operational and ethnic identity became sanctified as political identity, the consociation, as established in the DPA, became unquestionable and self asserting. Instead of holding the fabric of the BiH society together, the consociational elements have been tearing it apart by imagining, constructing, and then reinforcing the divisions ad infinitum.

The ethno-nationalist elites’ claims of exclusive and eternal representation of the ethnic groups have been normalised to the extent that elections, as an exercise in liberal democracy, have become only pro forma. The ethno-nationalist elites’ “right to represent” is understood by them as set in stone. This is clearly visible from the refusal to implement the decisions of the ECtHR regarding electoral discrimination. Even though the ECtHR has repeatedly confirmed its position, the ethno-nationalist elites have refused to amend the Constitution of BiH and the Election Law in accordance with the ECtHR instructions and have continued with the practice of discrimination and human rights violations. And the international community has happily been accommodating their wishes.  

3.4.2 The stringency and inflexibility of the Constitution

In its Article X the BiH Constitution provides for possibilities of amendments. But as demonstrated in the past 25 years, amending the Constitution has turned out to be almost impossible. Over the years the “Dayton Constitution,” due to the performative “blind trust” of the ethno-nationalist elites in the DPA, has been treated as untouchable, almost dogma.

The performance of ethno-nationalist elites in blindly trusting the letters of the DPA is aided by the fact that neither the DPA nor the Constitution were officially translated to the languages spoken in BiH. They were never even officially published or confirmed by any official procedures in BiH, for that matter. This means that the official language of our Constitution, and the peace agreements, is English. Apart from this fact being almost funny, this is also hugely problematic. It has allowed for various interpretations/translations of those documents, and claims from the ethno-nationalists that “their” understanding is the most accurate one, despit their somewhat lacking proficiency in English! Of course, to be added to this whole linguistic charade is the fact that the original DPA, with signatures, is nowhere to be found.

One would imagine that a document that sets the fundamental principles of how a country is to be governed should be drafted and agreed upon by the people it concerns.

To aggravate matters even more, the fact is that the Constitution of BiH never passed parliamentary procedure, nor was it ever put to popular vote. Rather, it was bestowed on the people, not as a matter of choice or discussion, but as a foregone conclusion. One would imagine that a document that sets the fundamental principles of how a country is to be governed should be drafted and agreed upon by the people it concerns. However, this possibility was taken away from the people of BiH when the Constitution of BiH was made part of the DPA negotiations. Immediately after the war, people living in BiH were tricked into accepting the constitutional arrangements from the DPA under the pretence of participating in the first post-war democratic exercise of election, which has only further complicated chances to challenge the imposed political and economic solutions. 

Going back to the DPA negotiations during which the Constitution was drafted, if we are to believe the leading US diplomat at the time, Richard Holbrooke, the discussions on the draft Constitution were limited. The predominant occupation of the negotiating elites were the maps and the territories. It is possible to imagine that once the negotiating elites agreed on the principles of division the actual task of writing the Constitution was assigned to mid-level diplomats in the State Department, and no weight was given to the practical implications the Constitution would have on our lives. Furthermore, the form of the Constitution of BiH is more reminiscent of the Constitution of the USA than of any previous constitutions BiH had. 

3.4.3 The performative function of “democratic” elections

One cannot build a democratic society only on “democratic” elections while everything else, including the imposition of the Constitution, is authoritarian.

The DPA in its Annex 3 (Agreement on the Elections) provided for holding elections immediately after the war “to lay the foundation for representative government and ensure the progressive achievement of democratic goals.” Using the liberal logic of peacebuilding, the elections were seen as an ultimate step for democratic functioning of the state, and were presented as a sort-of starting point of the “new” post-war and peaceful BiH. The elections (several of them in very short time span) were held in accordance with the power divisions created in the DPA and were misused to persuade people that by participating in the elections they had a say in the future of BiH—a gaslighting tactic, used jointly by ethno-nationalist and international elites, which has continued throughout these 25 years. However, we need to note here that, while the elections are indeed an important part of a functioning, democratic society, they cannot be an exclusive mechanism for practicing democracy. One cannot build a democratic society only on “democratic” elections while  everything else, including the imposition of the Constitution, is authoritarian.

As part of the operation Joint Endeavor, Brigadier General Will Cook, Implementation Forces, presents an election briefing to Representative John Murtha, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and a US Presidential delegation. Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives

The DPA tasked the international community to organise the first post-war elections, particularly the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The elections were planned for 1996 (six months after the signing of the agreement!), but the international community struggled with the overall political and security conditions in the country. Consequently the elections had to be postponed until 1997. 

When the elections took place, the citizens of BiH were asked to choose representatives for the governing bodies defined by the new Constitution. By participating in the elections, even though unaware of this, people were co-opted and pushed to silently agree on the constitutional arrangements without ever being asked what they thought of those “arrangements”. 

In the end, the ethno-nationalist elites’ efforts during the negotiations of the DPA proved to be successful. During the elections those already active in political life during the war, i.e. ethno-nationalists, were given the majority of the votes. They already had adequate political infrastructure, finances, and “legitimacy” arising from participation in negotiations of the DPA. Given that these same parties were parties to the peace agreement, there was really never a question whether or not they would be “elected” in “free and fair” elections. The way all of this played out demonstrates how important it is to be recognised as an actor in peace negotiations. Once recognised, there is no limit to how much economic and political power and resources you can secure for yourself.

3.5. Instead of conclusions: not a country but ethno-nationalist fiefdoms

It is worth repeating that the ethno-nationalist elites that established themselves as power-holders through war and destruction formalised their power positions through peace negotiations, under the auspices of the international community. The ethno-nationalists used the framework of the peace agreement to assert their “sovereign reign” over a group of people upon whom they imposed an ethnic identity as a political identity. 

To make the situation worse, the international community—in all its variations—continues patronising the people of BiH by pretending that they had nothing to do with the mess created in the Dayton military base. It has been crystal clear for many of us, for a long time now, that the peace agreement has been a bad deal for the vast majority of the people of BiH.

Due to the institutionalisation of ethnic identity as the only possible political identity, we are now even a more divided society than we were immediately after the war. Even though the territorial boundaries are not visible, the multiple divisions across political, economic, and now also increasingly social lines, are strong. Any political interventions, movements or projects trying to oppose this divisive framework has to date resulted either with co-optation, replicating and supporting this system, or with total failure. 

For example, a political party trying to affirm itself in political discourse as a non-ethnic party has ended up either redefining itself as a political party supporting ethno-nationalist discourse and agendas, or it has quickly and completely disappeared from the political stage. At the same time, none of the parties, whether openly claiming to be ethno-nationalist or denouncing it, have opposed the neoliberal and capitalist agenda. 

Furthermore, new generations of politicians who have been groomed in the “old” ethno-nationalist parties are leaving them, only to form their own political parties. For those who are ignorant of the situation in BiH (as the international community seems to be by default), this might seem like these, usually younger, politicians are rebelling against the old ways of the ethno-nationalists. However, in reality the “new” parties and politicians are usually bringing in a new “variant” of nationalism, one that is even more conservative and far-right. The “new” political options are still neoliberal and in agreement with the international politics of sovereign debt accumulation and austerity. 

This is a result of insisting that the conflict in BiH society is exclusively an identitarian one, while class relations in a capitalist state are entirely negated. It is not that there are no opposing ideological views, but they simply cannot exist at the level of the political parties, given how the electoral system is framed.

Illustrative. The ethno-nationalist elites have perfected the art of authoritarianism. Photo credit: Sharaf Maksumov/ Shutterstock

What’s more, the awarded segmental autonomy (territorial and administrative division), along with other traits of consociationalism, have helped strengthen the positions of ethno-nationalist elites. Twenty-five years later, they consider themselves “rightful owners” of this country (or at least the parts of the territory they claim “belongs” to the ethnic group they claim to represent, and consequently themselves). The ethno-nationalist elites in power act as if the administrative units over which they have political power are their private properties, their fiefdoms. They have carved up amongst themselves public property, infrastructure, and resources of the country. 

In order to continue to enjoy and reap the benefits of the profiteering and sovereign rule over their flock, the ethno-nationalist elites have reinvented traditions and reimagined communities. Supporting these power claims are the politics of forgetting deployed by the international community through their neoliberal interventions and by the ethno-nationalist elites’ manipulations of past endangerment of the ethnic groups they claim to represent. Individual self-proclaimed ethno-nationalist leaders have also frequently alleged oppression of entire groups because something did not go the way they, personally, wanted it to go. Somehow this has worked for the last 25+ years! 

The territorial and political divisions institutionalised by the DPA have created visible and invisible lines of separation, making it almost impossible to imagine anything different anymore. The result of the manipulations, the (re)imagining of the ethnic identities, and the imposed politics of forgetting is not just that those ethnic identities and divisions are normalised as political identities and exclusive “owners” of political, economic, and cultural spaces, but also that our minds are invaded by primordial and ahistorical understanding of ourselves. We have become nothing but a sum of our (imposed) ethnic identities and war violence, unable to imagine a society built on any other collective grounds but ethnic. The result is a highly depoliticised society under tight control of autocratic rulers and their heirs. 

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