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Mark V. Vlasic Headshot

The End of Dayton? With Bosnia on Fire, What Comes Next

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A shot rang out in Sarajevo a hundred years ago, which left more than 10 million dead and 20 million wounded. The assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina resulted in the war that was to end all wars. History does not repeat itself, but it may march to the same tune. That's why there was a collective gasp when Bosnia, again, went up in fire.

Last week, violent clashes between anti-corruption protestors and the police in Tuzla inspired diverse groups to demonstrate against the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Bihac. With the protests ongoing this week, the sight of burning buildings was reminiscent of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, which the United States helped end by brokering the Dayton Peace Agreement.

While Dayton helped stop the "ethnic cleaning" and mass murder that drew global media attention, it also created a largely dysfunctional and struggling state.

Divided into two entities, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and predominantly Serb, Republika Srpska, in many ways, post-war Bosnia has been marred by systemic corruption and remains vastly underdeveloped.

According to reports, the informal economy is at a third of GDP, the biggest in Europe. With an average net wage of $577 and unemployment at 44 percent, life in Bosnia is increasingly unbearable. Tragically, the rift between rich and poor has become as vast as Bosnia's green valleys.

Last summer's peaceful protests -- dubbed the "Baby Revolution" -- were largely ignored by the government. This time around, young protesters set fire to the presidency in Sarajevo, as well as municipal buildings across the country, political party headquarters, police cars and train stations. While the upheaval is occurring largely in the Federation entity, protesting Bosnians belong to all ethnic groups, united by shared frustrations over economic hardships and an uncertain future.

Bosnia is on fire again, but this time it's not based on ethnicity. Bosnia in 2014 reflects some of the sentiments of Egypt's Tahrir Square, except in many ways, this is a country of multiple strongmen -- from three ethnic groups.

Sadly, the Dayton "honeymoon" is over.

The constitutional framework it provided (which was meant to be temporary) failed to deliver political and economic progress. Security remains a concern, as Bosnia is sandwiched between countries that fought wars against it, but which are now progressing toward the European Union, as Bosnia continues to fall behind.

Bosnia's protests are a wake-up call, and doing nothing would be a mistake. This is one of the lessons of 1992, and perhaps even 1914.

"We got no dog in this fight."

So said Secretary of State James Baker when evaluating whether America should intervene in Bosnia. But when fighting turned into Europe's worst conflict since World War II, U.S.-led NATO troops helped clean-up the bloody mess and the genocide following the 1995 fall of Srebrenica. We should not let history march to the same tune.

The U.S. should increase diplomatic efforts to help Bosnians bring about the change they desire. The country needs swift reforms to stabilize and substitute Dayton with a civil constitution, produced in a democratic process.

Why is it in the U.S. interest to get involved?

America cannot afford failure in modern-day Bosnia, which it helped create. Despite the tragic situations in Syria and Ukraine, and needed U.S. attention on multiple issues, America has invested too much in the Balkans to let Bosnia's crisis jeopardize hard-earned regional stability.

Twenty years later, in many ways, little can be done in Bosnia without Washington's help. The U.S. succeeded in reforming Bosnia's defense institutions post-Dayton, when other elements of the international community, particularly the EU, have disappointed. Under Brussels' auspices, nationalist politicians were permitted to stall reform required for Bosnia's European future. As the EU focuses on internal economic issues and upcoming parliament elections this year, Bosnia is unlikely to become a policy priority.

Change in Bosnia has already materialized. Last week, four regional governments, representing 68.77 percent of the Federation's population, were forced to resign. They were all part of the ruling coalition, which many protesters consider has lost its legitimacy.

The ruling parties have called for early elections, but this is unlikely to produce the desired change of government. First, preparations are already under way for all of Bosnia to vote in general elections in October. Also, no provisions for early elections exist in Bosnia's election law, meaning that change in legislation would require consent from Republika Srpska, which it will unlikely permit.

Disillusioned with current government and politics, many Bosnians are now demanding a transitional government of experts. This may be the only viable policy option, but implementation depends on the ruling government's willingness to resign and endorse technocracy. If endorsed, American leadership is vital to rally wide support for a transitional government.

The U.S. can still use its "good offices" with Bosnia's decision makers, mediating between the outgoing government and civil society. It can build consensus on the selection criteria for technocrats and guiding principles for their work, without which arbitrary appointments would likely hijack reforms.

Technocracy is also an opportunity for the EU to step back in, by sharing best practices from Italy's technocratic government under Prime Minister Monti. A non-partisan, expert government would help ensure that the preparations and conduct at the upcoming October elections are free and fair.

Technocracy would also empower Bosnia's judiciary to investigate allegations of systemic corruption. Protesters demand legal action against officials believed to have plundered Bosnia's riches. In the past, there was no political will for such action. Transparency International estimates that Bosnia's judicial system has the capacity to effectively fight corruption. Leaving time until October for this process to transpire could increase people's confidence in state institutions, which would likely increase voter turnout, and encourage Bosnians to vote for change.

Change is never easy, but in Bosnia, it often comes at a bloody cost. Let us hope that a hundred years after the start of WWI, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic step in, to ensure the fires of Bosnia spark reforms, not new confrontations.

Mark V. Vlasic, a senior fellow and adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University, served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution teams at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and as the first head of operations of the UN-World Bank's Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. A former White House Fellow/special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, he now leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group. Nadja Skaljic, a senior fellow for Europe at Carnegie Council for Ethnics in International Affairs, works on war and reconciliation for 'Ethics for a Connected World', a global project chaired by Michael Ignatieff. Skaljic studied international relations at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. She is currently a Weidenfeld Scholar at University of Oxford, Balliol College.