ANALYSIS – Peacefully dismantling Dayton: Cynical and delusional

Twenty-five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, Serbian and Croatian political classes still imagine Bosnia and Herzegovina as nothing more than an appendage of their respective Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia projects

Dr. Emir Suljagic   | 10.11.2020
ANALYSIS – Peacefully dismantling Dayton: Cynical and delusional

*The writer is the Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center. A part-time lecturer at the International Relations Department of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), Dr. Suljagić is also the author of two books: “Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia” and “Postcards from the Grave”


It was September 1995 when Richard Holbrooke, accompanied by Peter Galbraith, the US ambassador to Croatia at the time, met Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb. Holbrooke had just arrived from Belgrade with explicit instructions from the US Department of State to demand that Tudjman put an end to the joint offensive being carried out by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Croatian Army in Western Bosnia. The assumption was that without the Croatian Army artillery support, the Army of BiH --just twenty kilometers outside the rebel capital-- would not be able to enter Banja Luka. In a moment of unique candor for a diplomat, Galbraith explained his and Holbrooke’s considerations in an interview he gave years later [1]:

“I was a hawk, advocating military intervention, a military solution. But, at that moment I had two doubts: one was the refugee population from Western Bosnia and Krajina, as well as local population, since I’ve already seen Croats at work. True, the city was in the hands of the people I consider to be fascists, but there were normal people there, women and children, innocent people. I was concerned with the eventual consequences of a refugee wave of 400.000 people who would move (…) and the catastrophe it would cause. The other was that we would trade one problem for another. In other words, would Tudjman hand over Banja Luka if he took it? (…) We talked out about it and arrived to a conclusion that Tudjman needed to be told to stop. Holbrooke told him that. (...) It was a very difficult decision and if we had felt differently, it would have been different. Sometimes history is not made by big, carefully thought-out strategic decisions, but just like that.”

There was nothing inevitable in the Serb military rout in Western Bosnia in the autumn of 1995. In fact, the Bosnian Government, with both hands tied behind its back throughout the war, was heavily pressured to sacrifice the territorial integrity of the country by the Bill Clinton administration [2] in the weeks following the fall of Srebrenica, which was a UN Safe Area. In any case, the war ended just outside the towns of Banja Luka and Prijedor. Prijedor in particular was the site of a network of concentration camps that came to define the genocidal nature of the Serb project in Bosnia and Herzegovina that was masquerading as war.

There is also nothing inevitable about the peace in the former Yugoslavia today. There is a surge of revisionism in both Belgrade and Zagreb, with both states actively pursuing their war-time agendas in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through intelligence and diplomatic operations as well as cultural and educational policies, these actors endeavor to further co-opt the Serb and Croat ethnic populations in the country. The common denominator of their policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina (there is hardly anything else that Serbia and Croatia agree on) is that Bosnia and Herzegovina may only exist as a sum of the three ethnic communities -- if it is to exist at all. Twenty-five years after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, the inability of the Serbian and Croatian political classes to imagine Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent state, or anything more than an appendage of their respective Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia projects, continues to undermine the stability in the region. The nationalist political and intellectual forces in both Belgrade and Zagreb simply waited out the liberal order that undergirded the regional arrangement, only to set their sights on Bosnia and Herzegovina yet again.

However, as Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, recently pointed out, the project no longer revolves around “ethnic murder, mass expulsion, and territorial capture”. Rather, it has evolved into a surreptitious operation, based on the principles of “stealth, flexibility and patience”. [3] Croatia’s preferred tactics include further “tribalization” of the country, bypassing and isolating Bosnia and Herzegovina internationally, or infiltrating and openly undermining state institutions such as the judiciary, electoral bodies and intelligence services.

Serbia, on the other hand, is pursuing the policy of creeping occupation and co-optation of vital sectors of the Serb-majority parts of the country: energy, education and citizenship. Serbia and the Bosnian Serb entity in BiH recently celebrated the first joint ‘Serb Unity Day’ [4] by harmonizing elementary school curriculums in the core subjects of language, history, geography, and knowledge of nature and society. [5]

Both countries are also arming themselves at an alarming rate. There was some consternation in Bosnia and Herzegovina several weeks ago when a report announced that Serbia was seeking to buy the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UAV. [6] Croatia is also in the midst of modernizing its military, having recently purchased German howitzers, American Kiowa helicopters, and several hundred MRAPs, in addition to being in the market for a fleet of fighter jets.

There is little that can be done to assuage both Serbian and Croatian designs on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The “greater state” projects --Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin elaborated recently on the “Serb world”, [7] a foreign policy doctrine akin to “Russkiy Mir” (“Russian Peace”)-- and the underlying ideologies are part of the social and political mainstream in both countries and stem from their respective nation-building processes in the nineteenth century. Neither state can imagine itself without claims to Bosnian territory or peoples. The only effective way to prevent the realization of these designs is to ensure that the costs of adventure outweigh the benefits.

Franjo Tudjman did make a volte-face in early 1994, becoming (once again) a Bosnian (semi)ally. This was not the result of international pressure, but rather reflected the fact that the military and monetary losses incurred by his Bosnian adventure became unbearably high. Slobodan Milosevic did not strong-arm Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs into giving him the powers to negotiate on his behalf because he had made a promise to Holbrooke, but simply because the Army of BiH’s 5th Corps was on the outskirts of Banja Luka.

In other words, and in conclusion, the foremost lesson to be re-learned twenty-five years after the end of the war in former Yugoslavia is that the sustainability of peace is contingent upon the international, national, and local commitment to defend the existing regional arrangement. The idea that it is possible to peacefully dismantle the Dayton Peace Accords is both cynical and delusional. In Nagorno-Karabakh, we have pretty recently witnessed how frozen conflicts can thaw overnight. If it happens in the Balkans, however, no one will be able to say it was overnight.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

[7] Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.