Monday, May 10, 2010

Why Dayton needs more support in Bosnia

I come from a country that always has coalition governments. This gives me a different point of view than people from countries like the UK and the US with their two-party systems where one party nearly always gets the absolute majority. Germany and France have systems that are a bit less extreme but that still value big parties and absolute majorities.

There is a lot of discussion which system is better. People from absolute majority countries tend to boast of the decisiveness of their system. People from coalition countries point out that absolute majority countries usually tend to swing from one extreme to the other, while the governance of their countries shows much more continuity. And the need for compromises tends to create a climate of cooperation that pays off in times of crisis. Thatcher could only happen in an absolute majority country. Also there is the risk in absolute majority country that the ruling party may become captured by a small minority. The influence of the religious right and the Tea Party on the Republicans in the US is infamous in this respect. Such capture often prevents sound policies. It may be no coincidence that the UK and Greece, two of the countries where the economic incompetence of the government at the moment is most obvious, are both absolute majority countries.

This background may explain why people tend to look so different to the Dayton Agreement. Dayton is the perfect example of a coalition system. It is very similar to what other countries with a divided population have adopted. It is also rather close to how Bosnia was ruled in Yugoslav times.

Some people think that Dayton will perpetuate the divisions between the ethnic groups. I beg to differ. There are sharp divisions between the ethnic groups. It was the decision by the Muslim elite to go alone towards independence that triggered the civil war. Bosnia needs a system where such far reaching decisions can no longer be taken without the explicit agreement of al three groups.

Far from solidifying the divisions such a coalition system can strengthen the cooperation between the groups. The Netherlands where I live was once divided between protestants, catholics and social-democrats. Now that division is nearly totally gone - thanks to steady cooperation. Something similar could happen in Bosnia.

Bosnia's greatest problem is that many Western diplomats have been undermining Dayton. By maintaining the hope that it can be changed towards an absolute majority system they have prevented Bosnia's politicians from fully committing themselves to a system of cooperation. And so they have maintained the antagonism.

Accepting Dayton means accepting that for each of the three groups there is a part of Bosnia where the form a solid majority and where as a consequence they are the rulers. Accepting these facts clears the road for more attentions to human rights and treatment of minorities in the different territories.

Some people believe that accepting that Bosnia is divided in a Serbian, a Bosniak and a Croat part means accepting ethnic cleansing. I disagree. All plans before the war consisted of dividing Bosnia in autonomous regions where one ethnic group or the other had the majority. So this is a completely accepted principle. The only thing that was changed by the war where the borders between those territories.

Some other people believe that when you just do as if everyone is equal the result will be that everyone is treated as equal. Their point of reference are multi-ethnic cities like New York where nobody cares about your nationality. What they forget is that how you treat others is a matter of habit: once you are in a bad habit it is very difficult to give that up. The US with all its multi-ethnicity has not been able to give an equal treatment to its black community or its latino's - even now the black are hugely overrepresented in its prisons. The greatest step forward came when the US recognized in the 1960s that it was discriminating its blacks and it introduced policies of "positive discrimination" and quotas to repair this situation. Similarly Bosnia needs to recognize that there are in Bosnia many people who look to people of other ethnic groups with a mix of fear and contempt and to introduce policies that can contain this situation.

Will it lead to division of Bosnia? I think that the risk that Bosnia will fall apart will stay there for a long time. I don't think that a coalition system will change the chances that it will happen. But if it happens it will certainly help making it a more peaceful event.

Is Dayton perfect? No. There is the verdict of the European Court of Human Rights that forbids explicit defining the ethnicity of the presidents (my favorite solution would be that presidents can be appointed by specific areas: one by the RS, one by the Federation and one by the Croat majority municipalities). Dayton is also rather complex. But I expect that changes towards more efficiency will only come once all sides have come to recognize that the principles of Dayton are the right way to go.

Although the Dayton formula can lead to reconciliation one should not make the mistake to think that after some time a more centralized form of government will become possible. Extinguishing ethnic hatred takes generations. The war crimes and fights of World War II still had a profound effect on the interethnic trust in Bosnia 45 years later. There is no reason to suppose that this time will be different.

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