Abdulah Iljazovic studied to be an imam but instead became a drug dealer. Now 25, he has left drug dealing behind to begin a political career in Brcko, a self-governing district of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is a microcosm of the country itself. In December he became the youngest person to win a seat in Brcko’s local assembly, using his past to persuade voters of his honesty, telling them “with me, a gramme was always a gramme”.
Yet, Mr Iljazovic — just two weeks old when the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war was signed in December 1995 — fears for his country. The agreement contained a constitution based on ethnic power sharing between the three predominant groups, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs which has defined his life.
“In Bosnia, to be a successful politician, you have to be a nationalist [from one of the three groups],” he says in a café along one of Brcko’s pedestrian streets. “This has built a situation where everyone feels threatened.”
Bosnia had a lot of help putting itself back together in the years after the war but for more than a decade, it has been mired in a stagnation many attribute to the constitution contained in the Dayton deal, which is overseen by an international viceroy — the Office of the High Representative. Germany is pushing to replace Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat who has served in the position for 12 years, while Russia has regularly called for it to be closed down. Experts warn such a move could destabilise Bosnia, and potentially undermine the status of Brcko — and its population of 83,500 — as an independent district.
The international mediators and regional power brokers who convened in 1995 on an air base in Dayton, Ohio, essentially froze the front lines of the Bosnian war, creating two entities, Republika Srpska, which is politically dominated by Bosnian Serbs, and a Bosniak-Croat Federation which is further divided into 10 cantons.
There was one sliver of territory about which the Dayton negotiators could not agree. Brcko, a 99-square-kilometre territory, that straddles the Sava River, borders Croatia and sits less than 10 miles upriver from Serbia. Its strategic location — a node separating the two halves of Republika Srpska — means it is claimed by both entities. Republika Srpska wanted it so that its entire territory would be contiguous, which is precisely what the government in Sarajevo and the international community sought to avoid.
The situation in Brcko — pronounced Birch-Ko — a self-governing city since 1999, underscores one of the paradoxes of Bosnia’s peace which is regarded by many as one of the most successful international military interventions of the post-cold war era. Bosnia 25 years on is far from a success and there is still no final settlement of Brcko’s status.
“The status of Brcko is the key to Bosnia’s territorial integrity,” says Majda Ruge, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The constitution as a straitjacket
Brcko’s apricot and lemon striped city hall, built in neo-moorish style, recalls Bosnia’s past as a dominion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A stone’s throw away, three memorials compete for the public’s attention: one each for Brcko’s Croat, Bosniak and Serb defenders. Just 50m from the city hall is a border crossing with Croatia — a bridge from Brcko to the EU.
Croatia, which, like Bosnia, was part of Yugoslavia until it collapsed into war in 1991, has been an EU member since 2013. Yet, membership of the 27-member bloc feels like a distant prospect for Bosnia, which has struggled to meet EU requirements including those on fighting corruption and organised crime.
It has a population of 3.5m people and an annual gross domestic product per capita of €5,000. According to the IMF the country’s public sector accounts for 41 per cent of its annual GDP due to the cost of the vast bureaucracy to run 14 national and subnational governments, each with its own parliament, a total of five presidents and almost 150 ministries.
Many institutions do not function as they should. Two years after the 2018 general elections, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which comprises 51 per cent of the country’s territory, has yet to form a government. During 2019, Bosnia’s state-level parliament did not hold a single regular session, meaning no new laws were passed.
For many in Bosnia, the constitution that locks in power sharing is a straitjacket preventing the country from becoming a fully functioning democracy and market economy. In 25 years, the constitution has been amended just once — to enshrine Brcko’s status as a district in 2009.
“We need a Dayton 2,” says Mr Iljazovic, a member of the People and Justice party that split from the Party for Democratic Action, which has dominated postwar Bosniak — or Bosnian Muslim — politics. He says constitutional change could help the country emerge from state capture by elites that claim to care about their “group” but actually enrich themselves in a country where the official unemployment rate is almost 20 per cent.
“You can’t even get a job as a policeman, firefighter, or trash picker if you’re not in a political party,” says Mr Iljazovic, who estimates that 60 per cent of his high school class has already moved abroad.
A platform for nationalism
Bosniaks are among the loudest advocates of constitutional reform which they argue will allow the country to function properly, but others — Serbs and Croats — are pushing for a further devolution of powers. Bosnian Croat leaders are demanding electoral reform to cement the position of their community which makes up 15 per cent of the population according to the 2013 census. While many Serbs, most of whom live in Republika Srpska, which covers the other 49 per cent of the country’s territory, support either the status quo, or secession.
There are at least two contradictory interpretations of the meaning of the Dayton constitution and what reform should entail, says Ms Ruge. “For the nationalist parties, the desired reform entails further ethnic fragmentation of the system that would in practice, facilitate greater impunity and unchecked political power over their turfs. For the EU, it is ensuring the functionality of the central government and its ability to implement its obligations.”
Milorad Dodik, who has dominated ethnic Serb politics in Bosnia for more than a decade, is among those nationalist politicians threatening secession. He has sought to defang state-level institutions, refusing funding even for the country’s National Museum. He is frequently photographed with an ornate map of Republika Srpska, whose territory runs along the east and north-west borders of the country: the map includes Brcko inside the Serb dominated region of the country.
Mr Dodik, the most senior Bosnian Serb politician in the country, has been under US sanctions since 2017, for “actively obstructing implementation of the Dayton Accords”. He regularly assails the OHR, calling for it to be dismantled.
At a UN Security Council session on Bosnia in late November, Mr Dodik, who spoke on the invitation of Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, denounced Mr Inzko, the high representative since 2009, as a “monster who is trying to impose decisions on us that were not established in the Dayton Agreement.” He added: “He is a foreigner who will destroy Bosnia, he is taking revenge on Serbs and Croats.”
The OHR reports to the Peace Implementation Council, a heavily divided body made up of 55 countries and agencies ranging from Russia and Turkey to Germany, the EU and US that back the peace process. It has not used its powers to annul laws and fire politicians in Bosnia in over a decade.
“Nobody anticipated in 1995 that Dayton would be a framework for governance for the next 25 years,” says Clint Williamson, the US diplomat in charge of Brcko’s final arbitration tribunal, which monitors developments to ensure that the district’s sovereignty is not challenged, but rarely meets.
“As long as there is any concern that events in Brcko could trigger wider instability, there is the will of the international community and in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself to maintain some kind of safeguards,” he says.
The high cost of secession
In reality secession for Republika Srpska would be difficult. It relies on the Federation and the Bosnian central government for funding simply to pay its debts which have risen from 37 per cent of its GDP in 2018 to more than 50 per cent last year, according to economist Faruk Hadzic. In order for it to be even viable, Brcko would have to be part of Republika Srpska. Which is why, say critics, Mr Dodik has pushed for the international presence in the country to end, which could open the way to secession but also potentially conflict.
More than 70 international judges and prosecutors, mostly from western Europe and America, were appointed to the state court and prosecutor’s office after 2003 to adjudicate cases ranging from genocide to organised crime. But only three now remain on the constitutional court.
“If you needed a better argument for keeping the OHR open, [Mr Dodik and nationalist Croat leader Dragan Covic] made it clear how reactionary and adventurous they are at the UN hearing,” says Jasmin Mujanovic, author of Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.
“They would pull the trigger on the things that they’ve been extremely clear about,” he adds, “including secession.”
The OHR’s presence in some ways defines the paralysis in Bosnia, say some of those engaged with Bosnia for decades. The existing constitution helps entrenched nationalists, who don’t want to change a system that keeps them in power. But without progress on seven priorities set by the OHR, from fiscal sustainability to the rule of law and a final resolution on Brcko’s status, it must remain. But for how long?
“It seems to be a game of patience at this point,” says Raffi Gregorian, a former deputy high representative who oversaw Brcko from 2006 to 2010. “It does seem extraordinary that an institution like the OHR should still be necessary after 25 years in this south-eastern corner of Europe, whose neighbours have either joined Nato and the EU or are well on their way to doing so, while Bosnia is left in the dust.
“The purpose of the OHR has shifted from one of implementing Dayton to making sure it is preserved,” he adds.
In the years after these institutions were established, Brussels and Washington supported a transfer of power to “local ownership”. But many say the past decade has been marked by stagnation and even a deterioration in the country’s political and security climate.
In 2009 the European Court of Human Rights found that Bosnia’s rotating tripartite presidency — one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb — discriminated against other minority groups. Yet, attempts to bring the constitution into line with the verdict have failed.
Mostar, the country’s sixth-largest city, famed for its 15th century stone bridge rebuilt after the war, had not held elections for 12 years until December, due to squabbles over electoral rules. Irma Baralija, a Mostar resident and a member of Nasa Stranka, a party promoting a civic Bosnian identity over an ethnic one, sued her country at the ECHR, which in 2019 ordered the city to find a way to hold a vote.
Mr Mujanovic argues that the examples of Mostar and Brcko show that one common claim about Bosnia — that the country is unviable because the three nations do not want to get along — is false.
“Even with the same political parties on the ground being the deciding factors, Brcko is more ethnically mixed than Mostar, and far and away more functional. It puts the lie to the idea that the problem in Bosnia is multi-ethnicity.”
International co-operation falters
In some ways, the international intervention in Bosnia represents the pinnacle of co-operation between the US, EU and even Russia. But following an agreement a decade ago that the EU should take charge of operations in Bosnia, US neglect has led to stagnation, says Ms Ruge.
US president Donald Trump largely ignored the Balkans, until he tried to score a much-criticised quick deal between Kosovo and its former master Serbia last year. On the campaign trail, saying falsely in September that he had “stopped the killing”.
His successor, Joe Biden, who as a senator was an advocate of Nato intervention in the Balkans, has identified anti-corruption measures as among his foreign policy priorities, which could offer ground for a transatlantic approach to Bosnia, says Ms Ruge. But he also faces other pressing foreign policy challenges and will inherit a devastated economy and the coronavirus public health crisis when he takes office.
Foreign diplomats say Brcko could yet be a success story for Bosnia if it uses its special status and proximity to Croatia and Serbia to attract businesses, and investment to its port.
Mr Iljazovic is sceptical. On a tour of Brcko he points to the derelict football stadium, next door to a pool no one can swim in. “We have received a lot of money,” he says, “far more per resident than the capital [Sarajevo]. But what has been done with it?”
Mr Iljazovic became famous for his unorthodox route to political office. But he cemented his reputation by exposing a group of men who sought to sell him 200 votes ahead of November’s local elections. He says the police initially refused to investigate, until journalists filmed the men offering the votes with hidden cameras.
“Brcko was supposed to be a model for all of Bosnia of what was possible,” he says. “Instead, it became a place where politicians fight for their personal interests under the disguise of fighting for their ethnic group.”