Connect to share and comment

Opinion: Bosnia’s tough choices

October elections could well decide the long-term viability of Bosnia as a unified state.

A convicted inmate takes a walk at Sarajevo's city prison, Aug. 13, 2008. Bosnia's failure to establish a coherent system of government more than a decade after its ethnic war has had some strange consequences — among them a dire lack of prison space for Sarajevo's small-time criminals. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. — Nearly 15 years have passed since the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war in Bosnia. In the aftermath of the war, the international community embarked on one of the most ambitious and expensive statebuilding enterprises in history. It committed thousands of troops and spent more than $15 billion to stabilize, reconstruct and develop the country’s political and economic infrastructure and institutions.

Yet, as Bosnia’s recent trajectory clearly shows, good intentions and even a lot of money only go so far. At some point, the local population must embrace and then embody change. Bosnia’s national elections, set for October, may well decide what will become of this international experiment in peace and statebuilding.

There is no doubt that the international community’s money and engagement produced tangible successes. Organized inter-ethnic violence stopped on a dime with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995; the bulk of the 2 million people displaced by the war were allowed to return home or were compensated; the economy grew on average somewhere above 10 percent per year; and much of the country’s three ethnic communities — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — returned to their daily routines.

However, many of these successes masked a more complex situation that is again resurfacing, exposing disturbing realities and the difficult choices that lay ahead.

The peace agreement included a series of compromises to stop the war: It created a weak decentralized state with most of the country’s power delegated to two entities — the Muslim and Croat-dominated Federation and the largely Serb-dominated Republika Srbska (RS). Presently, the Bosnian government has only limited constitutional authority and with so much power devolved to the entities, reconciliation has been slow and leaders of the two entities are increasingly at odds over the future of the country.

The dual-entity structure has led to a complex maze of competing and conflicting regulatory structures, tax codes, property rights and other basic rules of law. Unemployment hovers somewhere around 30 percent, privatization of the former socialist economy has lagged and the public sector continues to gobble up nearly 50 percent of GDP.

This contributes to excessive levels of corruption and ethnically based patronage networks that hinder Bosnia’s economic development. The political impasse has stalled critical constitutional reforms and the development of new laws to strengthen the private sector regulatory structure and expand commercial law.