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Don't forget
Mostar - Don't forget. Photo: Alan Grant

In the past decade Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the site of a remarkable project of political engineering. A complex mix of international and local actors have been attempting to transform a devastated, ethnically divided territory into a multi-ethnic, democratic and economically viable state.

Bosnia Herzegovina's current setup is a consequence of the divisions that led to the bitter war between 1992 and 1995, and the two peace agreements, which ended it.

The first splits within Bosnia and Herzegovina came when Serbs living in Bosnia declared a separate state, the Bosnian Serb Republic, Republika Srpska (RS) in 1991. Realising that Bosnia was about to follow Slovenia's and Croatia's path toward independence, they did not want to become a minority in an independent Bosnia. After a referendum in which virtually all Bosniaks and Croats (more than 60% of the population) voted for independence, war broke out on 6 April 1992 – the same day that the Government of Bosnia declared independence. (International recognition followed shortly.) The Bosnian Serbs encircled the capital Sarajevo, laying siege to it for three and a half years. The Bosnian Serbs, with Serbia's military support, soon controlled two-thirds of Bosnia. In response, the Bosnian Croats, the smallest of the three main ethnic groups, formed their own mini-state. During 1993 their army – backed by Croatia – took over Croat-majority areas in Bosnia, in bitter fighting with the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. They formally declared their own Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia (Herceg-Bosna) in August 1993.

There were several failed attempts by the international community to broker a peace deal. The first success came in bringing the Croat-Bosniak conflict to an end. Under German and U.S. pressure, the Croat-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was hurriedly set up under the Washington Agreement in March 1994. To satisfy the concerns of the Bosnian Croats, who had had to give up their aspirations for an independent republic, Cantons were created below the level of the Federation Government, each with its own government.

The renewed alliance had a direct impact on the course of the war. By September 1995, the Bosnian Serbs were close to defeat as Bosnian Croatian and Bosniak forces advanced. NATO also intervened to lift the siege of Sarajevo and bombed Bosnian Serb positions. The intervention had been prompted by outrage at the July 1995 massacre of thousands of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica.

With the Bosnian Serbs on the back-foot, US President Bill Clinton called a peace conference at the Wright Patterson Airbase in Dayton, Ohio. The President of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, represented the Bosnian Serbs (as the U.S. deliberately excluded the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, who had been indicted as war criminal by the ICTY). Croatian President Franjo Tudjman represented the Bosnian Croats. The only senior representative from Bosnia itself was its President, Alija Izetbegovic.

Signatories of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, 14 December 1995
Front row from left: Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic
In the back row stand, from left, Felipe Gonzalez (Spain), Bill Clinton (USA),
Jacques Chirac (France), Helmut Kohl (Germany), John Major (UK) and Viktor Chernomyrdin (Russia).

The agreement reached at Dayton, and signed in Paris on 14 December 1995, divided Bosnia in two highly autonomous regions, which were simply called "entities" to avoid disputes on their exact status. The Serbian entity, allowed to keep its wartime name of Republika Srpska, retained 49% of Bosnian territory – meaning that Serbian forces had to withdraw from large parts of the country. The rest of the territory (51%) was allocated to the Federation of Croats and Bosnians, which had been created in 1994, and now became the second “entity”. The Federation's existing structure of ten Cantons was also retained.

At the state (Bosnia and Herzegovina) level, a weak central structure was set up. It included a joint Presidency with three members directly elected by the three national groups and the Parliament, which elects the state-level government.

June 2008

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