Bosnia and Herzegovina, Negative Peace, and the Status Quo: The Dayton Accords and Entrenched Ethnic Nationalism


The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) ended nearly three decades ago. In that time, peace has been maintained and yet memories of the war and ethnic division still dominate the politics and the lives of the people living there. Because of this, it can be argued that BiH is experiencing what Galtung would describe as Negative Peace.

John Gault's theory about Positive and Negative peace has worked to describe several post-war regions of the world where there is an absence of war but not exactly an achievement of peace. The exact definition of positive peace is hard to pin down. Many factors play a role in positive peace, including justice, democracy, sympathy, cooperation, effectiveness, freedom, engagement, order, harmony and collaboration (Shields, 2017). However, the most important aspect of positive peace, and one that is ubiquitous to its many conceptualizations throughout literature is its long-term nature (Ibid). Positive peace is a peace built on institutions, ideals, and policies that ensure that the peace will last.

Negative peace, in this most simplistic of views, is the opposite. Negative peace implies a cessation of hostilities; it does not imply that the underlying tensions which led to war were solved, if they were even addressed in the first place. There are many examples of negative peace, and unfortunately far fewer examples of positive peace; the peace between North and South Korea is a negative peace, as is the peace between Israel and its many neighbors such as Syria and Lebanon. These two examples demonstrate an important aspect of negative peace. A negative peace can last for decades, or it may only last for a few days. Either way, despite the lack of active engagement in war, both sides may know that the causes of the conflict have not been solved and war can erupt again at any time.

In this paper, I will explore Bosnia and Herzergovina's negative peace. Through research of secondary literature and an interview with a local peacebuilder and expert who works to build community between youth from different ethnicities in BiH, we will explore how this negative peace has been entrenched into the Bosnian system and why, if not dealt with, the resumption of hostilities is all but assured. The only question is when.

History of the Yugoslav Dissolution and the Bosnian War

A full historical breakdown of the Balkans in the 1980's and 1990's and of the Yugoslav wars would be outside the scope of this essay. However, it is important to give a brief rundown of the events leading up to the Yugoslavian dissolution so as to situate the current BiH and the underlying tensions that still permeate throughout the nation.

It is easiest to point to the death Yugoslavian dictator Josip Tito as the beginning of the end for the multiethnic republic. Tito kept the republic together with both an iron fist and an undying loyalty to Yugoslavian nationalism, often stamping out ethno-nationalist rhetoric. He certainly played a major role in keeping Yugoslavia together, however, to claim his death as the cause of the conflict would be short-sighted. Tito was not the sole cause of the conflict; he was merely the catalyst. His death opened the door for tensions, which underlined the negative peace that existed in Yugoslavia since the end of the Second World War, to resurface.

A chief source of tension, other than the long-standing ethnic division, and one of the most important aspects of the history of the Yugoslavian dissolution for the purposes of this paper is the economic crisis which gripped the nation starting in the 1970's and continuing into the 1980's. This economic crisis would lead to a political crisis, in which the average citizen could no longer rely on, and could no longer trust, the Yugoslavian government.

To make a complicated issue easy to digest, by the 1980's Yugoslavia was broke. Following the 1973 oil crisis, Yugoslavia would see its ability to repay foreign debts incurred for infrastructural investment decrease and the price of industrialization increase. To give breadth to this problem, by 1979 many authors claimed the country was reaching a state of bankruptcy and by 1982 Yugoslavia could no longer afford to import industrial materials (Baker, 2015).

This forced Yugoslavia to borrow more, increasing its debt, all while unemployment rose, inflation rose, and the average consumer's purchasing power decreased (Baker 2015). This precarity, and the unequal effects of the crisis across different regions, would bring the barely hidden tensions to the surface. Most importantly, it destroyed whatever moderate Yugoslavian middle class may have been forming. This forced Yugoslavians to turn to personal networks, isolating different ethnic communities from each other. This lack of interaction, the increased economic precarity, and the unequal distribution of it would increase ethnic tensions and increase each group's suspicions of bias against them (Woodward 1995).

At the same time, the crisis would destroy the credibility of the Yugoslavian government (Baker 2015). This political credibility crisis is maybe the most important part of this story. Without national leadership all peoples could trust, the long-standing and never addressed ethnic tensions no longer had a counterweight. Yugoslavians quickly felt that they could only trust their kin groups. This allowed for the resurgence of nationalist leaders and eventually the dissolution of the federation.

Slovenia and Croatia were the first states to breakaway from Yugoslavia, doing so in 1991. Each would gain their independence and international recognition later that year. Slovenia's independence was a relatively peaceful affair and full-scale fighting in Croatia would end by January 1992, though two offensives in 1995 would retake all of its lost territory and result in the exodus of nearly 200,000 refugees, most of them Serbs.

A few months later, in April 1992, the war in BiH would begin. This conflict would rage until December 1995. In that time, a three-sided war would result in accusations of war crimes and ethnic cleansing on all sides, the most infamous of which being the Srebrenica genocide. Following the end of the war, there would be relative peace in the region until fighting would break out in Kosovo between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in 1999, eventually resulting in Kosovo declaring independence in 2008.

The Dayton Agreement and the Modern Politics of BiH

As those versed in the history of the Yugoslav dissolution know, the peace in BiH was achieved in December 1995 with the signing of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known as the Dayton Agreement. It is important now to conduct a deep dive into this agreement, as it is the framework for the modern state of Bosnia today.

The agreement served to create a consociational democracy, where each of the three main ethnic groups, Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks, were guaranteed political representation in the system. One example of this arrangement is the institution of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The presidency functions as a council with three members, one from each major ethnic group. Each member of the council serves a four-year term and within those four years, every eight months the position of chair of the presidency will rotate between the three incumbent

The Dayton Agreement also created within BiH a federation based on ethnicity similar to what existed under Yugoslavia. The state is split into two entities. The first, Republika Srpska, is predominately Serb as the name implies. They elect the Serbian incumbent to the presidency. The second entity is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is predominately Bosniak and Croat. The federation is further split into 10 cantons, each with its own ethnic makeup, some predominately Croat, some predominately Bosniak, and others more evenly split. These cantons elect both the Bosniak and Croat members of the presidency.

This is of course, not an in depth look into the current political makeup of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, what it does show is that much of the politics, by design, is based on ethnic lines. This has created a political body paralyzed by division. Parliamentary elections are dominated by ethnic political parties, who often fail if not just outright refuse to work together (Fazlić 2021). This has of course contributed to a long-standing economic crisis within BiH and it naturally causes an increase in ethnic mistrust and division. It is this political arrangement, conceived nearly three decades ago, that would result in the same tensions and issues that plagued Yugoslavia in the leadup to its dissolution: entrenched segregation and political crisis.

Entrenched Segregation

One could argue that the modern isolation of the different ethnic groups is worse today than it was prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. That is because it is not just cultural and a result of a worsening economic crisis, but institutionalized and entrenched by politicians, both foreign and domestic, who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo

This entrenched segregation is especially on display in smaller cities, which are often isolated from the rest of the country. Miralem Tursinovic, who works with the Youth Resource Centre (ORC) Tuzla, believes this isolation is a major issue. The organization, founded in 2004, works to combat this issue by bringing together youth from different ethnic groups, bridging divides, providing resources to underserved communities, and fighting hate speech and radicalism online (Turcinovic, 2023).

According to Tursinovic, when the organization first started working, 80% of Bosnian cities were isolated from the others and it was very difficult to travel between the two entities of BiH. Unfortunately, despite the past 20 years of work, this isolation is still a major issue, and Tursinovic is very clear when suggesting the cause of this may be the political parties within BiH and the international community. He states that the international community "realized it is good to work in Bosnia," implying that there are economic incentives in a continued status quo for them. He also states that, unfortunately, "most of the international organizations… are in favor of the nationalistic political parties" and offer support to them (Tursinovic, 2023). These are the same nationalist parties that have been in power since the war began thirty-one years ago. This is an entrenched political system, with no onus to change. The international community keeps making money, and the nationalists stay in power. As a result, nothing changes and the Bosnian government is paralyzed.

These politicians also seem to be openly willing to weaponize ethnic divisions to hide their own misdeeds. Tursinovic points out that a common tactic used by nationalist politicians when they are confronted with allegations of corruption, is to turn the issue into one of ethnicity, often claiming that the allegations are motivated to hurt one ethnic group and help another. In doing so, they ratchet up the hate speech and sew division, all to distract from their own purported corruption (Tursinovic, 2023).

I will end this section by sharing a story Tursinovic shared with me during his interview. One of the main goals of his organization, as stated earlier, is to connect youth with opportunities and with each other. A few years ago, the ORC organized a training event in Zvornik, near the Serbian border. This training event consisted of mostly Bosniak and Serb youth and at the end, these youth were asked what they wanted to see at the next training. One of the main answers they received was simple: they want to meet Croats (Tursinovic, 2023).

It is hard to believe that a state about the size of the American state of Maine could see different segments of its population so isolated, that they can go their whole lives without ever meeting the people they share a state with. However, this is the reality on the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A segmented and isolated population, fed nationalist and hateful rhetoric by those in power, is not a recipe for a positive peace. Instead, it maintains a status quo that perpetuates the same divisions that led to the war, miring BiH in a negative peace.

The Modern Political Crisis

Finally, it is important to talk about the modern political crisis. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, as previously discussed, the economic crisis destroyed the credibility of the government. What can be seen in BiH today is the same situation, though brought about by different causes.

It is well-known that BiH is experiencing what is often referred to as a brain drain. This means that youth often feel the need to emigrate from BiH and they are doing so in ever increasing numbers, at least up until the pandemic (Begović et al. 2020). The question is, what is causing these large emigration numbers. While BiH certainly has its economic issues, the main cause of this is not purely economic based. According to Begović, the main reasons the youth feel the need to emigrate is the rampant corruption seen throughout BiH and a dissatisfaction with public services (et al. 2020).

This highlights a major credibility issue for the Bosnian government. As was explored in the last section, the Bosnian political system is mired by disunity, corruption, and a general refusal of the different nationalist parties to work together. These ingredients breed the same kind of political crisis which occurred in the final years of Yugoslavia. Trust in the government decreases, and the same fear and ethnic tensions begin to rear their ugly heads. In fact, it is by establishing trust in institutions that trust between ethnicities can be fostered as reinforced by a study conducted on Bosnians in the early 21st century (Whitt, 2010).

Instead, distrust in institutions is on the rise. This combined with an entrenched and systematized segregation gives the exact same building blocks that led to war in the first place. Instead of solving these issues to create a positive peace, BiH has sunk into a negative peace which without change, will result in tragedy.

Conclusion: An Intractable Negative Peace?

Of course, all hope is not lost. As can be seen in Tursinovic's story, there are portions of Bosnian youth who want to see change, who want to fight ethnic hatred, and who want to build a stronger BiH together. However, what can they really do when the nationalist parties who have sewn these divisions are comfortably established in power. Naturally, many of these talented Bosnian youth make the decision to simply leave.

BiH is stuck in a negative peace. There is hope, there always is, but without major change the tensions that started the Yugoslavian dissolution will persist until once again they boil over. The modern-day BiH, created by the Dayton Agreement, should not be considered a long-term solution and yet it has been constructed to be one. The parallels between modern BiH and Yugoslavia in the 1970's and 80's are stark. Without change, we will only continue to see more parallels.

Author: Joshua Newman


Baker, Catherine. 2015. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Begović, Selena, Lejla Lazović-Pita, Velma Pijalović, and Bojan Baskot. 2020. "An Investigation of Determinants of Youth Propensity to Emigrate from Bosnia and Herzegovina." Economic Research-Ekonomska Istraživanja 33 (1): 2574–90.

Fazlić, Fatima. 2021. "Twenty Five Years of the Dayton Agreement: Peace Project or Difficult Journey towards a Functional State." SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe 23 (2): 165–86.

Shields, Patricia M. 2017. "Limits of Negative Peace, Faces of Positive Peace." Parameters, Autumn 2017, Vol. 47, No. 3, Pp. 5-14., September.

Tursinovic, Miralem. 2023. Interview A, Online Call.

Whitt, Sam. 2010. "Institutions and Ethnic Trust: Evidence from Bosnia." Europe-Asia Studies 62 (2): 271–92.

Woodward, Susan L. 1995. Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War. Brookings Institution Press.


Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development for Peace