The Dayton accords, formally signed in December 1995, have reached their twentieth anniversary. Dayton is commonly portrayed as a “peace agreement” for war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and an outstanding achievement of Bill Clinton’s administration. The accords were an achievement; the war ended. Yet close scrutiny reveals a shabby aftermath.
The Dayton negotiations halted combat between Bosnian Muslims (many of whom prefer to be identified as Bosniaks rather than by religion), Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. The war began in the spring of 1992 and was mainly fought between Serb aggressors and Bosniak defenders, with the Croats ambivalent allies of the Bosniaks.
The country’s people were victims of Serbia’s effort to establish a “Serb Republic” within Bosnia-Herzegovina, after the latter was recognized as independent by the United Nations. At the time, census figures showed Bosniaks made up a plurality of the population, 43.5 percent, while Serbs accounted for 31.2 percent, and Croats 17.4 percent. The Serbian forces chose to correct demographic realities unfavorable to them by “ethnic cleansing,” meaning mass murder, expulsion, and cultural vandalism. Numerous mosques, Catholic churches, libraries, and other historic structures were destroyed by Serbian troops.
The Bosniaks held out almost four years, with significant disadvantages, particularly in heavy weaponry. At least 60,000 Bosniak and Croat soldiers and civilians were killed, with losses of some 25,000 on the Serbian side. The military imbalance was aggravated by a weapons embargo imposed by the United Nations on the poorly equipped Bosniaks and Croatians and the well-armed Serbs. The number of refugees and internally displaced people rose to 2.6 million—out of a prewar population of 4 million Bosnians.
The Serbian assault was planned outside Bosnia-Herzegovina, by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, with the assent of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. This continued even as Serbia waged war against Croatia beginning early in 1991. Slovenia and Croatia had by then departed the Yugoslav state, which had begun to disintegrate with the unraveling of communism in Europe. Serbia struck Slovenia first, but the fighting lasted only 10 days and took fewer than a hundred lives. Since Slovenia had no common border with Serbia, it is questionable whether Belgrade was ever serious about holding onto it.
The Croatian war was different—longer, crueler, and more destructive. Croatians inside and outside Bosnia were divided. Many supported an opportunistic deal with Serbia to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina, while others mounted a Bosniak-Croat common defense against Milosevic and his Bosnian agents.
In the global media, a “peace conference” was viewed as urgent after the massacre of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by Serbs at Srebrenica in occupied eastern Bosnia in July 1995. The Bosniaks had been promised protection by the United Nations, but Dutch troops handed them over to the Serbs. A flurry of diplomacy led by U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke led to the Dayton accords, signed by Milosevic, Tudjman, and Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic—underlining the fact that the Bosnian war was a product of foreign interference rather than internal struggle. Instead of peace, Dayton imposed a truce—or, in the phrase that has come into vogue since last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine, a “frozen conflict.”
Dayton came about just as combined Croat and Bosniak forces were beginning to rout the Serbian occupiers from northern Bosnia. Nevertheless, the accords rewarded the Serbs for their onslaught on Bosnia-Herzegovina—and richly so. Less than a third of Bosnia’s inhabitants, the Serbs were granted 49 percent of its territory. This corresponded roughly to the areas the Serbs had seized, ethnically purged, and reorganized as a “Republic of Serbs” (RS.)
Under Dayton, Bosnia-Herzegovina consists of two distinct entities—the RS and a “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina” (FBIH). This federation groups areas where Bosniaks and Croats successfully defended their communities against the Serb raiders, an informal Croatian “third entity” that existed before Dayton, and the “neutral” district of Brcko, in northeast Bosnia, which borders and is jointly administered by both the RS and Croatia.
Dayton thus produced a patchwork rather than restoring Bosnia’s unit within borders that were essentially stable from the 18th century till 1992. Bosnia today has three flags, three educational curricula, three police forces, and two systems of postage and customs. The Bosnian presidency comprises rotating Bosniak, Serbian, and Croatian members.