Bosnia and the Legacy of Dayton

I’d been meaning for ages to do a post about Bosnia, specifically, Sejdic-Finci. But recent events have rather obscured the immediate utility of doing so. What’s the point of talking about an ECJ ruling when buildings are getting lit on fire instead?

In case you haven’t been closely tracking developments in Bosnia for the past week (really though, what the hell else have you been doing with your time?), this from Balkanist, this from Tim Judah at The Economist (and here is the clip he references at the start of the article; it’s pretty great), this from Florian Bieber, and this from Harriet Salem at Foreign Policy are good places to start. The short version is that after roughly twenty years of feckless political mismanagement and rampant corruption, Bosnians have taken to the streets to voice their displeasure with their country’s catastrophic political and economic elites.

Common to a lot of the analysis of the protests in Bosnia is the suggestion that they are in some way born of the Dayton Agreement.

Here’s Balkanist to that effect:

Some believe the answer is built into the very foundation of the post-war state. The Dayton Peace Agreement, signed in Ohio in 1995, turned the country into a purgatory of two ethnically-segregated entities. Ever since, the international community’s guiding principle for building democracy in BiH has been “separate but equal”, with few positive results. Unfortunately, this has made it almost impossible for anyone to accept a supranational “Bosnian” identity.

Tim Judah:

Part of the problem is the legacy of the Dayton peace deal that ended Bosnia’s war in 1995. The country is divided into two “entities” (plus an autonomous district, Brcko). The Bosniak-Croat Federation is itself divided into ten cantons that compete with local governments. The result is a system that pays large salaries to politicians and civil servants in a country of just 3.8m which, some say, needs only a mayor.

Harriet Salem, quoting Jasmin Mujanovic:

“In the end, Dayton has entrenched exactly that which it was meant to call bad. It has cemented in place an unaccountable political oligarchy,” says Jasmin Mujanovic, a Balkans researcher at York University. “Much of the responsibility for this [situation] has to be on the shoulders of the European Union and international community.”

And Harriet Salem describing the argument herself:

Many blame these problems — or at least their foundations — on the Dayton Accords. By inscribing ethnic divisions into governing structures, the argument goes, Dayton has served to stifle political diversity, competition, and accountability. Voters perpetually cast their ballot along ethnic lines regardless of the results produced by their politicians. The complex and cumbersome administrative system established under Dayton has also provided a convenient mask for the ineffectiveness of corrupt and squabbling politicians.

To the extent that there is an argument to be made that Dayton is to blame for the state of affairs which has inspired the current protests, Salem’s description comes closest to making it. But I think she leaves out some important sections, the inclusion of which suggests a bit more skepticism is in order about the degree to which Dayton is actually at fault.*

By itself, “inscribing ethnic divisions into governing structures” need not do anything to “stifle political diversity, competition, and accountability”. The fact that each major ethnic grouping is guaranteed presidential representation does not erase the fact that each ethnic representative is still responsible to voters who presumably have interests which include things like a functional government, a growing economy, efficient and high-quality public services. Or take the cantonal system in the Federation. The cantons may have been designed to ensure ethnically homogeneous electorates, but unless you’re ready to make the claim that Croats and Bosniaks have voting preferences which, in isolation, don’t include things like less corruption or effective privatization of state industries, it’s hard to see how the cantons are to blame.

For ethnicity to become a feature of the political landscape to the extent that voters ignore the performance of their politicians in every other area, I think you have to posit a sort of game-theoretical voter who would love to choose effective, non-national/ethnic, technocrats, but feels compelled to continue to vote for ineffective nationalists because he/she knows that the institutional context favors that type of politician and he/she doesn’t trust voters of other ethnicities to also vote for non-nationalists.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think that’s an outrageous thing to posit. If you combine the historically poor performance of non-national parties with some of Paula Pickering‘s survey data (pg 578), you can kind of imagine an electorate that seemingly should vote along civic lines (that is to say, based on politicians’ actual performance in office) but instead defaults to national ones perhaps for the reasons described above.

But if you do accept that model of voting, Dayton is then maybe at best a third-order cause for things like this:

In a high-profile case of alleged corruption, in late April 2013, Zivko Budimir, the president of the Federation, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in organized crime, abuse of office, and accepting bribes for pardoning convicted criminals. But, after just one month in custody, Budimir was back in his post — released due to an apparent lack of evidence against him.

And in fact, according to work published in 2010 by JMU’s John Hulsey, “in Bosnia today the presence of ethnically homogenous electoral contexts is creating space for less nationalist parties.” One imagines the retort would be that if Dayton has possibly created space for less nationalist parties, it hasn’t done anything to avoid, in the words of Jasmin Mujanovic, “[cementing] in place an unaccountable political oligarchy” that may be entirely a-national. But accepting that line of reasoning still catapults you back to assuming that voters in ethnically homogeneous contexts weirdly don’t care about the quality of the governments they elect.

The real problem in Bosnia, and luckily the one that protesters seem to be focusing on, is that their politicians have driven the country into the ground. And this is a fairly non-Dayton-related phenomenon. As Bieber writes:

Many cities in Bosnia are badly governed, including Sarajevo, but Dayton has nothing to do with the functioning of the cities.

The reasons that the cities (and cantons) are mismanaged, is less their institutional set-up, but the political elite that governs them. Of course, the complex power-sharing system that governs Bosnia is co-contributing to this elite, but it is simply too easy to blame for all of it (as a counter factual, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region where there is no Dayton-like institutional system).

Terrible politicians seem to be a fairly universal phenomenon (hello, Bob McDonnell), and I’m not sure Dayton is really all that responsible for Bosnia’s current generation of corrupt political elites. But regardless of their genesis it is wonderful to see the Bosnian people finally taking them on.**

*For all I know some FP editor chopped everything I’m about to say from what became the published version
**Minus the building burning and police brutality