An Unlikely Peace

Eighteen years ago, "peace in Bosnia" seemed as elusive as peace in the Middle East. Every effort to negotiate an end to the bloody civil war had failed. But on November 21, 1995, after three weeks of drama in Ohio, the "General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina," also known as the "Dayton Accords," came into being. Miraculously, and against all odds, it still holds today.

The Stage

For three years, war had raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, laying waste to the former Yugoslav heartland. Hysterical propaganda about death camps, rape camps, hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees beamed into millions of homes across the world every night. The conflict began in March 1992, when Muslim and Croat communities declared independence, trampling the country’s laws and ignoring the wishes of the Serbs. A last-ditch European effort to prevent a war failed when Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic reneged on the agreement reached in Lisbon, reportedly at the urging of the American ambassador to Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman.

Izetbegovic’s intransigence led to a rebellion of Muslims in Western Bosnia, as well as a brutal falling-out with his former Croat allies. But in March 1994, Washington negotiated a Muslim-Croat armistice, and proposed its own peace plan via the so-called "Contact Group." After bitter but indecisive battles in the spring of 1995, Croatia violated a 1992 armistice and attacked the Serbs with U.S. backing. Following the Croatian blitzkrieg, NATO openly entered the war in late August 1995. Operation "Deliberate Force" was described by US envoy Richard Holbrooke as "bombs for peace."

On November 1, Holbrooke brought Izetbegovic, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Croatia’s president Franjo Tudjman to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio. The stage was set to unveil Pax Americana.

The Play

Holbrooke’s memoirs offer a fascinating insight into both the negotiations and the mindset of American diplomats. The location was deliberately chosen to intimidate Milosevic – who was outright coerced into negotiating on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs after their president and top general were accused of war crimes by a US-run Tribunal. Tudjman and Izetbegovic basically sat back while Holbrooke and his team did all the work for them, only to complain about the results.

Holbrooke’s colleague Robert Frasure – who perished when his vehicle hit a mine during a mission to Sarajevo in August – had previously described the Croats as America’s "junkyard dogs", enlisted as proxies against the Serbs. American propaganda had built up Izetbegovic and the Muslims ("Bosnians") as the noble victims in need of Washington’s white-knighting. Milosevic, meanwhile, was demonized as Beelzebub incarnate. Yet in Dayton, things didn’t quite go according to the script.

Milosevic had quickly seized the initiative, conceding territory and leading the Americans believe he would be a pushover – only to hold firm to the American principle of dividing Bosnia 49/51 between the Serbs and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Americans stayed up till the dead of night drawing maps with Muslims and Croats, at which point Izetbegovic rejected them!

Christopher Hill, whom Holbrooke described as "a man who had devoted years of his life to the search for ways to help create a Bosnian state," fumed that, "These people are impossible to help." Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s famous poise cracked in frustration, as he cursed out Izetbegovic to Holbrooke.

On November 21, the visibly unhappy Izetbegovic initialed the treaty. Tudjman was cheerful, Milosevic serious as usual. The official signature ceremony took place on December 14, in Paris. After 1326 days, the Bosnian War was officially over.

Triumphs and Betrayals

At the time, only Croats were genuinely satisfied with the peace. Not only did Milosevic not contest Tudjman’s mass ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Western Slavonia and Krajina, he agreed to "reintegrate" Eastern Slavonia (which the Croats were hesitant to attack, since it bordered with northern Serbia directly) over the next several years, and even cede a strategic peninsula dominating the Montenegrin coast. However, the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina soon found themselves dominated by Muslims and abandoned by Zagreb.

Milosevic returned to Belgrade in triumph, arguing he had successfully negotiated a peace not just with Tudjman and Izetbegovic, but with the West as well. The UN blockade of FR Yugoslavia was to be lifted, and peace would come to the Balkans. The price, however, was hundreds of thousands of Serbs – expelled from Croatia and Muslim-dominated territories – out in the cold. Furthermore, within two years, the West would make war on Serbia and Milosevic again, backing the Albanian insurrection in Kosovo.

Far from being grateful for the rescue, Izetbegovic and the Muslims felt betrayed. They rejected a settlement in 1992, as well as several other peace proposals later, believing they had American support. Then, just as NATO finally entered the war on their side, the settlement robbed them of "final victory", allowing the Serbs to keep their "occupied territory" and wrecking Izetbegovic’s dream of a united, Muslim-run Bosnia.

What Izetbegovic and his associates didn’t realize at the time was that, unlike the previous peace conferences, Washington actually wanted Dayton to succeed. The point was never to "save Bosnia", but to make America look powerful and virtuous – and avoid casualties while doing so.

Against All Odds

Izetbegovic’s acceptance of the peace was bought with a "train and equip" military aid program, similar to what Washington had given Tudjman a year earlier. NATO peacekeepers were supposed to go home after a year. According to some analysts, Izetbegovic’s plan was to resume the war at that point, from a more favorable position.

After almost four years of warfare, though, everyone was tired. Once established, the ceasefire miraculously held. In February 19996, NATO troops raided a terrorist training camp near Sarajevo, quite possibly derailed any plans to restart the war. Instead of leaving after a year, the peacekeepers lingered on; in fact, there is still a military mission in Bosnia, though less than 1000 strong and under EU command.

The civilian office of the "High Representative," charged with overseeing the agreement’s implementation, asserted ever greater powers, becoming a colonial viceroyalty. Usually European politicians past their prime, the autocratic viceroys often trampled all over Dayton’s letter in pursuit of the agreement’s purported "spirit" – which looked suspiciously like Izetbegovic’s vision. Yet not even a tyrant such as Paddy Ashdown could successfully compel obedience for long.

There have been numerous attempts to "surpass" Dayton and force Bosnia into a mold more to the liking of Brussels, Washington and Izetbegtovic’s heirs. All have failed. Meanwhile, little to no effort was made to rebuild the shattered trust between Bosnia’s communities, for which the framework agreed in Ohio at least offered an opportunity.

Alija Izetbegovic passed away in 2003, but his ideas continued to dominate Muslim politics. There has been no effort to address Bosnia’s problem; no attempt to build trust; no desire to compromise, work together, or build bridges – only resentment, lawfare and coercion. Croats have been increasingly marginalized, to the point where the Federation has stopped functioning altogether.

Empire’s political and social engineering efforts in the Serb Republic (RS) had initially succeeded in transferring a lot of powers to the joint government, but the Serb electorate consistently pushed back. One viceroy infamously sacked the entire elected leadership of the RS, in the run-up to NATO’s attack on Serbia in March 1999. But doing the Empire’s bidding was the kiss of death at the polls. In 2006, opposition leader Milorad Dodik convincingly won the general elections – and proceeded to defend the letter of Dayton, halt the imposed "reforms" and break the power of the viceroys. Rather embarrassingly for the Empire and Sarajevo, the Serb Republic has prospered under his leadership, at least in relation to the Federation.

Lessons Not Learned

Eighteen years after the war, Bosnia has not come of age. Though officially independent, it is still overseen by a viceroy, and as of recently an EU commissioner as well. The cost of maintaining the massive bureaucracy and public sinecures is sinking the Federation and frustrating the Serb Republic. Foreign aid has long since run out. Muslim and Croat politicians have proven unwilling and unable to reach any sort of arrangement with each other (let alone with the Serbs), even when the EU threatened to cut off subsidies, and then made good on the threat.

Bosnia today is plagued by the same problems that caused the war in the first place, and the same attitudes that threatened to scuttle the Dayton talks. The guns may have fallen silent 18 years ago, but the war has continued by other means. Now that an entire generation has grown up in hatred and mistrust, and the horrors of war fade from living memory, renewed violence becomes a distinct possibility.

Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The last time an empire tried to colonize Bosnia and force its inhabitants into a mold, blowback ignited a world war. Lessons of that tragedy were obviously not learned. One can only pray they will be, before it is too late.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.