If they had a chance to vote today, would Bosnia’s citizens support the controversial Dayton Peace Agreement? We asked. Many will be surprised by the answers.
A very brief history of the Bosnian war and the Dayton peace
After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, The war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995 was terrifyingly violent. That’s the war that gave us the term “ethnic cleansing,” as militaries representing three ethnic groups — the mainly Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, the mainly Catholic Bosnian Croats and the primarily Muslim Bosniacs — sought to purge areas of the “other” ethnicities. This violently forced displacement at times involved mass killings of civilians and prisoners of war. As the slaughter and bloodletting continued, the Bosnian Serb Army, Muslim-dominated Bosnian Army and Bosnian Croat Army were reinforced by military and paramilitary forces from Serbia and Croatia and volunteers mainly from Muslim countries. In 1995, NATO forces stepped in to try to end the war.
All parties committed horrendous war crimes. However, a post-war analysis by the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo found that about 82 percent of civilian victims were ethnic Bosniacs. Most notably, in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces slaughtered more than 8,000 Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys in Srebrenica. And in August 1995, Croatian forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Serb civilians from territories they suddenly captured in Bosnia and Croatia.
Finally, between August and September 1995, U.S. diplomats forced Croatia to stop its offensive. NATO forces bombarded Bosnian Serb positions, forcing their leadership to accept binding peace negotiations. Those negotiations produced the Dayton Peace Agreement signed in Paris on Dec. 14, 1995.
The Dayton Peace Agreement was a complex compromise
The agreement represented a compromise between the aspirations of different warring parties. Against the wishes of Serb and Croat ultra-nationalists, it reestablished Bosnia as a unified state and granted the right of return for victims of ethnic cleansing. Against the wishes of Bosniac ultra-nationalists, it adopted ethnic federal structures recognizing Republika Srpska (“Serb Republic”) as a political entity with self-governing rights within Bosnia. It also established a complex system of power-sharing and minority rights for the country’s three major ethnic groups (“constitutive peoples”), thereby preventing the Bosniac majority from out-voting the minorities on their issues of vital political concern.
Academic opinion is starkly divided on the Dayton agreement. Was it a brilliant breakthrough, whose framework should be used in other contemporary conflicts, especially in the Middle East? Or was it a useful but deeply flawed instrument, whose problems include minimal cooperation between its entities and an excessively devolved system of government partly responsible for undermining the rule of law?
The agreement aimed to end the country’s de facto partition. To do so it created a unified federal state in Bosnian and Herzegovina – not just to secure the end of violence but also to protect human rights and cooperation. But ethnic divisions and fragmentation prevented these goals. Two decades on, the Bosnian Serb leadership is seen as undermining Bosnia’s legitimacy at every turn, incessantly pushing for partition.
We measured Bosnian opinion of the Dayton agreement, 20 years on
Today, some in the international media use the Dayton accords as a synonym for inertia, neglect and despair. For these reasons, most experts would assume that Bosnians today would oppose the agreement.
It’s not so.
Using a 2013 Bosnian representative sample with 1,007 respondents, we tested the conflicting claims of scholars and policy-makers by asking the following question: ”If there had been a referendum today on the Dayton Peace Agreement, how would you vote?”
In every one of Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups — the Bosniacs, the Croats and the Serbs — more people would vote for Dayton than against it.
Bosnian Serbs originally opposed Dayton’s constitutional structures — but even they have come around to supporting it today. Across all ethnic groups a minority — only 28 percent — say they would have definitely or probably voted against Dayton in 2013. Bosnian Serbs are seven times more likely to say they would vote for the agreement than would oppose it.
This is surprising, considering the history. In post-WWII Yugoslavia, Serbs increasingly felt marginalized and deprived of their national rights. This sense of victimization contributed to the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia. In March 1992, Bosniacs and Croats overwhelming approved independence in a referendum boycotted by the Serbs. War followed. Out of the pre-war population of 4.37 million, about 110,000 former Yugoslavs were killed and another 2.2 million driven from their homes, often explicitly in the name of “ethnic cleansing.” During the war, Bosnian Serb leadership strongly opposed any peace agreement, preferring to secede entirely.
Interestingly, on Aug. 27-28, 1994, another Serb-only referendum asked Serbs to endorse or reject an international peace plan that would give their community 49 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina. A federation of Muslims and Croats would control the remaining 51 percent of the territory. Encouraged by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who rejected compromise, about 90 percent of voters opposed the plan, according to the official results.
That referendum gave advance warning about their strong reaction against the international peace plan that their leaders signed six months later.
In the years after Dayton, fighting broke out in once again in Kosovo. In 1999, NATO intervened to end violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs. Kosovo’s governance was transferred from Serbia to the United Nations. Ten years later, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, despite bitter opposition from Belgrade.
Kosovo’s gradual recognition by the international community could have encouraged Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska to turn against Dayton and follow a similar path to independence.
But that’s not what happened. As the table below shows, Bosnia’s Serbs tacitly endorse the Dayton accords: 42 percent of them would definitely vote for Dayton, and only 9 percent would vote against it.
Croatian respondents are less enthusiastic, but only 22 percent would either probably or definitely vote against the treaty. Members of this language group are most likely to say they are not sure if they support the treaty; 37 percent of Croat speakers give this response. A clear plurality of Bosnian speakers are in favor of the treaty, with 39 percent saying they would either definitely or probably vote for it. But even here we see some polarization: 26 percent would definitely or probably vote against it, and 25 percent are unsure.
Donald Horowitz, one of the leading experts in ethnic conflict studies, points out that it’s often true that the majority population is more discontented with ethnic power-sharing schemes than are minorities, at least in in Northern Ireland, Belgium and Bosnia. Not surprisingly, minorities appreciate the guarantees against majority rule formally enshrined in Dayton-style agreements.
Despite the strong historical legacies of Serbian nationalism, minority Serbs have come to see Dayton as guaranteeing their territorial autonomy. In other words, they associate Dayton with the continued existence of Republika Srpska.
Croats are less happy. Unlike the Serbs, they did not receive explicit ethno-territorial autonomy after the war. Instead, their war-time territory was merged with the Bosniac-controlled areas to form the Federation. Croat politicians complain of “majoritization” or being frequently out-voted by the Federation’s more numerous Bosniacs.
The guarantees offered by ethnic federalism might be a necessary precondition for getting minorities to endorse peace settlements. Contrary to many experts, Bosnia suggests that support for these compromises can emerge no matter how opposed are the original players.
Reasons to be worried
Bosnian Serbs don’t endorse Dayton unreservedly, however. About two out of three Serb respondents would support Republika Srpska’s full independence.
What’s more, the Bosnian Muslim community is polarized about whether or not Dayton’s broader compromise was and is a good thing. And Croats are relatively to the other two groups less supportive of the system. All that adds up to worry. If Serbs actually did try to take Republika Srpska into independence, that would violate the Dayton agreement — and would probably return Bosnia to violent conflict.
But the majority of Bosnian Serbs seem to realize that they will not secede anytime soon. About 61 percent of the Bosnian Serbs say that it is unlikely that their republic will become independent in the following 10 years.
Despite the caveats, however, Bosnia’s citizens appear to have accepted Dayton as the best compromise available. And despite the common narrative of “ancient ethnic hatreds,” perhaps Bosnia stands for the possibility that post-conflict societies needn’t always be hostages to their past.
Edward Morgan-Jones is a senior lecturer at the University of Kent, Neophytos Loizides is a reader at the University of Kent, and Djordje Stefanovic is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University. The survey was conducted by IPSOS in 2013. Research was externally funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canada, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy.