Peace after Ethnic Conflict: A Warning from Bosnia

 /  May 15, 2023, 9:26 p.m.

Bosnian War

In announcing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin stated that Ukrainian leaders have put policies in place specifically to “root out the Russian language and culture,” signaling a direct threat to Russia. In Ethiopia, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the government recently ended a war characterized by widespread massacres of the Tigray people, an ethnic minority. The Ethiopian government has also just begun peace talks with the Oromo Liberation Army, a group that represents another minority in Ethiopia and has been fighting the government intermittently for decades.

However, constructing peace agreements for ethnic conflict continues to be an almost impossible endeavor. Ethiopia’s agreement with the TPLF only covers humanitarian aid and disarmament and does not address the takeover of Tigray lands by government troops and members of the Amhara ethnic group. To date, the Ethiopian government has yet to officially implement a transitional justice program. A similar peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine would not only have to conclude the war itself but also ensure the protection of ethnic Russians while maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and the Dayton Accords that ended its 1990s ethnic conflict are a warning for Ukraine and Ethiopia. Lasting multiethnic peace cannot be based on a legal and political system that codifies ethnic divisions between the warring parties.   

BiH’s War: An Overview

The Bosnian War began after BiH seceded from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Yugoslavia) in February 1992, following the secessions of several other republics. These secessions incited a number of wars, with the Bosnian War being the most catastrophic. BiH was composed of significant numbers of each of Yugoslavia’s three main ethnic groups, who all speak a mutually intelligible language but have three different religions: Bosnian Muslims (Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox Christian), and Croats (Catholic). As a result, Slobodan Milošević, the communist party leader at the time (and Serb nationalist), could not let go of BiH and poured troops and money into the Bosnian Serb army, which attempted to gain control of the republic. 

The Bosnian Serb army, with Milošević’s support, committed massive atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims, while the Bosnian government fought the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat armies. Throughout the three years of the war, the international community, including the U.S., struggled to intervene substantively. That changed after the Srebrenica Genocide of July 1995, when the U.S. finally managed to push through a decisive response to the war, and then finalized the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War in November 1995.

Though BiH was officially independent once the war ended, it was not a stable state. Negotiators had created a constitution that defines only Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs (the warring ethnic groups) as constituent peoples, with the entire government of BiH revolving around these three constituent peoples. As a result, BiH is failing to develop both politically and economically.

The Rights of Minorities and Political Polarization

The most egregious consequence of the codification of the concept of three constituent peoples is the discriminatory policies of the BiH constitution. Only members of the three constituent peoples can run in parliamentary and presidential elections, a fundamental violation of civil and political rights. 

In 2009, Dervo Sejdić (a member of the Roma community) and Jakob Finci (of Jewish heritage) contested this discriminatory policy in the European Court of Human Rights. They argued that they were qualified for the presidency and the House of Peoples but could not run because of these requirements, violating their rights to non-discrimination. The court agreed with them, finding that BiH’s election requirements violated Article 14 (non-discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, despite this ruling, BiH has yet to substantively address this issue, even ten years after the decision. 

The recognition of only the three warring ethnic groups as constituent peoples in the BiH constitution has led to the exclusion of minorities from major political offices, resulting not only in a lack of representation for these minorities but also in the increasing polarization of BiH’s political environment along ethnic lines.

Government Structure and Economic Development

As a result of the three constituent peoples foundation of the constitution, BiH is split into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (mostly Bosnian Muslim and Croat) and Republika Srpska (mostly Serb), while both entities jointly manage the Brčko District (mixed). Both entities have a constitution, president, bureaucracy, and parliament, and the Federation is divided into cantons, each of which also has a constitution and parliament. It is no surprise, then, that starting a business in BiH requires an average of 81 days, and the U.S. has warned interested parties of the difficulty of investing in BiH firms. 

BiH’s complex government has also exacerbated the problem of corruption, which is so extreme that most residents of BiH believe they must have political connections to obtain a cleaning job at a university. Political parties are especially corrupt, with politicians being highly likely to engage in economic crimes like tax evasion. Consequently, brain drain is one of the greatest issues facing BiH today, with 27% of youth in a 2018 study expressing an interest in leaving. Such views are especially common among youth who believe that corruption is systemic in BiH. 

Thus, the implementation of BiH’s three constituent peoples doctrine has resulted in a highly complicated government structure that has stalled investment and pushed young people out of the country. 

Two Schools under One Roof and the Future of BiH

The most worrying consequence of the three constituent peoples doctrine is the system of “Two Schools under One Roof.” While the program itself is not part of the BiH constitution, the doctrine and BiH’s complex ethnic government have legitimized it. This system, which was instituted shortly after the end of the war by the BiH Ministry of Education, allows for children of each of the three main ethnic groups to attend school with only their ethnic compatriots. In practice, this system is typically used in mixed Croat and Muslim areas in the Federation, with each ethnic group having its own curriculum, particularly for history, geography, and language, as well as religion. 

This system has had major consequences for students and their perceptions of the other ethnic groups. In research interviews, Muslim students claim that Croat students are different from them and state that they would not marry outside their ethnic group. Croat students explain that they cannot identify a clear distinction between the two ethnic groups beyond religion but still emphasize that their homeland is not BiH, but Croatia. 

This kind of segregated environment is not conducive to democratic progress in BiH and only further solidifies ethnic divisions, heightening political tensions and increasing the probability of renewed warfare. 

Implications for Ethiopia and Ukraine

BiH’s three constituent peoples doctrine has increased the ethnic polarization of BiH politics, slowed economic development, and created a foundation of distrust among youth of different ethnic groups. It is clear from BiH’s experience that enshrining the ethnic divisions of warring parties in the foundation of a multiethnic state sets the state up for a gradual increase in ethnic tensions and economic decay. 

What should Ethiopia and Ukraine learn from BiH? Ethiopia is currently in a very similar situation to BiH. Though Ethiopia’s 1991 constitution does not codify specific ethnic groups into law, it divides Ethiopia into nine regional states based on nine of Ethiopia’s eighty ethnic groups. Since Ethiopia follows a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, in which the winner of the majority of the votes wins the election, minority ethnic groups have little political power, and political parties cater to majority ethnic groups in each state, resulting in increased polarization. As a result, Ethiopia should implement a mixed electoral system that combines FPTP and proportional representation, forcing political parties to cater to multiple ethnic groups to receive more seats in parliament, thereby improving cross-ethnic connections. 

Ukraine should follow a similar approach when reintegrating majority-Russian-speaking regions, particularly Crimea, into its political system. Voting systems are foundational for moderating ethnic tensions and ensuring political representation for minority groups. Rather than codifying Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers as unique groups and giving each seats in the legislature, Ukraine should continue its use of mixed proportional representation and FPTP to ensure the representation of Russian speakers in parliament while moderating the views of political parties by forcing them to appeal to diverse constituents. In this way, Ukraine could give a voice to Russian speakers while not incentivizing political parties to use nationalist rhetoric to mobilize the public, supporting the maintenance of Ukraine as a multilingual state.

BiH’s Dayton Accords stopped a war, but they did not create a stable and lasting multiethnic peace. Negotiators in Ukraine and Ethiopia must avoid the mistake of “three constituent peoples” to ensure the creation of a sustainable future for their people.

The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by anjči and can be found here.

Aida Krzalic


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