Back in June a prominent Balkan analyst told me he was hearing more and more grumbling out of Berlin about the fate of Bosnia, with its perpetual political gridlock, abysmal economy, and pitched nationalist rhetoric, but that no one had anything close to an answer. “Nobody,” he said, “has a workable alternative to Dayton.”

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement gets a lot of credit for ending a horrific war few saw an end to, but it also created a state: the Bosnian constitution, for instance, is Annex 4 of the agreement. Today, many observers say the Dayton framework just isn’t working and that Bosnia needs constitutional reform. But, as the analyst suggested, no one is quite sure how to proceed.

Then again …

On Tuesday, B92 reported that the U.S. is leading a diplomatic effort to reform the constitution, with significant changes coming by next year. Details were few, but the report suggests that the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international body charged with implementing Dayton’s civilian aspects, confirmed that something was underway.

This morning, the OHR told me to contact the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo for background on the reported initiative, which I’ve done. The OHR added that any reform process should result in more efficient governance to better serve citizens.

Indeed. Bosnia went 14 straight months without a central government amid political infighting after the October 2010 elections. And the coalition that finally came together last December collapsed in May due to a murky dispute over the state budget between the two leading parties. All the bickering even had some talking about the possibility of renewed violence last year.

But what’s to be done? Various international and local actors have tried and failed at constitutional reform. How to get Bosnia back on track?

In July, the International Crisis Group (ICG) offered a few suggestions in the first of a two-part report. I get to it below. First, it’s important to grasp the roots of the portrait of dysfunction that is post-Dayton Bosnia. For a non-technical primer, you can’t do better than National Subjects, by the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon. But here are the broad strokes.

To end the 1992-95 conflict and promote lasting peace, Dayton erected a power-sharing framework between Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups: the Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Serbs. It created two semi-independent political entities within the country, the Bosniak and Croat Federation and the majority-Serb Republika Srpska (RS), each with its own governing bodies. Bosnia also has a central government, and presidential power is shared between representatives of each ethnicity, known as “constituent peoples” under the constitution. In hindsight, this convoluted structure is clearly a recipe for paralysis. And the Dayton framework has been nothing if not that. It so decentralized power that Bosnia is in perpetual political gridlock as the economy stagnates and nationalist rhetoric dominates public discourse, with leaders appealing to voters along ethnic lines in a deeply dysfunctional state.

On top of this, the constitution stipulates that the three presidential posts and the seats in the upper chamber of parliament, the House of Peoples, must be equally divided among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. But the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2009 that this violates the European Convention of Human Rights because it restricts minorities outside the “constituent peoples” from seeking office. The European Union says it will not accept Bosnia’s membership application until what some call its “racist constitution” is reformed in-line with the so-called “Sejdic-Finci” ruling.

Meaningful reform, then, should address both state building and human rights concerns. The last serious effort to tackle state building through constitutional changes came in 2006, with the U.S.-backed “April Package” to streamline Dayton by eliminating the House of Peoples and creating a strong premier. But it died on the parliament floor and, despite some attempts, was never resuscitated. Meanwhile, the ICG notes, Bosnian leaders have tried unsuccessfully for years to reform the constitution in-line with Sejdic-Finci for stunningly complicated reasons that I won’t get into here (the ICG does, though). Most recently, Sarajevo missed the EU’s 31 August deadline to implement the ruling.

Given these failures, the ICG wants Brussels to drop its Sejdic-Finci ultimatum and instead for the ECHR ruling to become “a platform” for a long-term reform process, done alongside EU talks, that would presumably address Bosnia’s structural problems while explicitly tackling the human rights concerns. One path toward the latter, the ICG says, is through an electoral college system allowing minority communities to choose representatives (again, the report gets into the details).

The ICG is an astute Balkan observer, and its incrementalist approach seems best in a country still unsteady – politically, economically, socially – amid the aftershocks of war. Its fear is legitimate, though, that international and local leaders will opt for a Sejdic-Finci Band Aid to right Bosnia’s EU track so Brussels can get in there, “tear the country apart,” and fix it, as one European official put it.

Assuming Tuesday’s reports are true, I’m guessing this is the direction the reform is headed, not toward a years-long overhaul requiring extensive negotiations. Bosnia’s leadership is paralyzed, and Brussels won’t want to look weak in the Balkans by dropping its ultimatum at a time when Belgrade is talking about “its own conditions” for EU integration.

I reached out to a few friends in the region last night and will pass along any updates or insights, as well as any forthcoming details from the embassy.

Picture of Sarajevo from Flickr

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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