An unfortunate narrative has captured the discourse on the crisis in Ukraine, as political solutions to end the conflict and Russian incursion are sought. Many commentators have ruminated that a ‘Dayton-style solution’ or the ‘Bosnian model’ be implemented in Ukraine as a means to end the violence and embrace decentralized, regional based federalism where Kiev could not impose their will on the ethnic Russians in the east, while maintaining a still ostensibly unified Ukrainian state.
On paper, a Dayton-style agreement sounds quite reasonable, as Dayton did end the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Yet the institutional failures of the Dayton agreement are still felt in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. The fundamental problem with the Dayton agreement is its privileging of ethnic differences as intractable and as the most salient dimension of political life, and thus that institutions should always reflect these (and only these) ethnic differences to prevent “domination” of one ethnic group over another.
In practice, this leads to a consociational governmental system that stagnates and is not capable of responding to the evolving needs and perspectives of citizens, while making even moderate changes to the political system implausible. By locking a state into exclusionary ethno-territorial politics, the possibility for future change, growth, and responsive political institutions is largely lost. By implementing the Bosnian model in Ukraine, the Ukrainian people would be condemned to defining their political identity in the same exclusionary ethnic terms for the foreseeable future.
When the Dayton agreement was signed, many hailed it as a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough that ended the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina and set the country up for positive political and democratic development. However, over the nearly 20 years since the agreement, Bosnia-Herzegovina has largely stagnated as political institutions have failed to respond to the very public they were designed to empower. However, even as many close followers of Bosnian politics have noted the failure of the Dayton institutions, other commentators have continued to praise the agreement, and the diplomatic breakthrough Richard Holbrooke was able to achieve.
Yet, the ethnic dimensions of the Dayton agreement have set up a series of institutions that provide no incentives for elected elites to provide social goods for the citizens, or to engage in meaningful reforms, encouraging only their looting of public resources under the guise of ethno-nationalist rhetoric. The endemic corruption of the Bosnian political class, the disregard of political actors and institutions for binding international legal decisions and policy norms, the crippling unemployment and poverty rate, and the persistence of vile, provincial chauvinism in the dominant political discourse – all of this is the result of a constitutional order and international policy framework that froze Bosnia-Herzegovina in place as a virtual apartheid state, an illiberal democracy under the mandate of the European Union and United States.
The key assumption behind the Dayton agreement, which prevails in the current discourse about Ukraine, is that ethnic identity is constant, salient, totalising – and that individual ethnic groups cannot live together or live in political communities where their respective ethnic group does not have autonomy or supremacy.
However, the idea that ethnic groups are inherently opposed to each other, never mind that all individuals have a coherent sense of ethnicity, is a dubious claim at the best of times. Reading the work of Anderson, Gagnon, Campbell, Mazower, Donia & Fine, Kitromilides, Mylonas and other scholars, it is clear that individual identities are constructed as a mechanism to promote group solidarity, and that identity and ethnicity can change as individuals and social conditions change.
Moreover, ethnicity is not a consistent salient political identity, and only in certain contexts is it channelled into anything of the sort. Unfortunately, during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, ethnicity did become re-engineered as a dominant social category. But egregiously, the Dayton accords that followed created institutions that permanently enshrined this charged version of ethnicity as the only relevant political identity in society. Political institutions now benefit ethnic elites who have no interest in changing these ethnically based institutions, enshrining ethnicity as the sole category of Bosnian political life.
One might wonder, whether having an ethnically based political solution is still preferable to continued violence. While ending the violence is the ultimate goal, the institutions that a political solution creates will be difficult to change, so focusing on creating institutions that allow for positive post-war political development will be key. George Tsebelis has shown in his work that as you increase the number of individuals in institutions that have veto powers, moving from the status quo becomes more difficult.
By definition, creating a consociational system with ethnic divisions and vetoes will increase the number of veto players in the Ukrainian political system, making future change more difficult. And as elites begin benefiting from their positions, it will become even more difficult to move them away from this institutional framework. The EU has tried to use conditionality programs to move Bosnia-Herzegovina away from their current ethnic confederation, largely to no end.
Even more discouragingly, the institutional separation that ended bloodshed such as the introduction of the ‘vital national interest’ veto for the three ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not only continues to divide citizens but also neglects the rights of minorities and people who do not identify as one of the main ethnic groups, resulting in serious violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. Previously negligible sociocultural and linguistic divides that were encouraged and exploited by nationalists for the purpose of a territorial war in which over 100,000 people were killed, have found internationally recognised legitimacy in Dayton, at the expense of the country’s Council of Europe obligations.
This experience clearly signals that there must be a solution to Ukraine’s current crisis that avoids these pitfalls. A more desirable case study for consideration from the Western Balkans is that of Macedonia’s 2001 Ohrid Agreement, which aimed to address social inequality between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the ethnic Albanian minority with simple constitutional amendments, such as making Albanian an official language. Although Ohrid’s sustainability as a peace model remains questionable, the divergence of ethnic and linguistic identities in Macedonia is notably far more entrenched rather than politically contrived like in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Ukraine.
The emergence of narratives of exclusivist ethno-nationalism in Ukraine in recent months, including the discourse of Putin’s Russia that variously positions Russian-speakers in Ukraine as ethnically Russian, seeking re-union or a kin-state relationship with Russia, or belonging a historical territorial entity of ‘Novorossiya,’ should neither be taken at face value nor accepted as evidence of immutable, rigid and ‘authentic’ ethnic allegiances coming to the fore.
As the example of the break-up of Yugoslavia shows us, stirring up exclusivist ethnic identities and constructing rigid ethno-linguistic differences, in which citizens must identify primarily as either belonging to one ethnic group or another, is a power-play by the political elites to further their own territorial and political agendas. The worrying developments of reports of persecution of the Tatar community in Crimea since the peninsula was annexed earlier in 2014 also contain echoes of warning from the break-up of Yugoslavia: ethno-territorialism which refuses to accommodate multi-ethnic belonging begets xenophobia and the alarming discourse of territorial ‘cleansing.’
Potential political solutions the Ukrainians are available. What is required is a solution that provides for robust minority rights provisions, participatory and inclusive institutions, and concerted international attention and aid to embed Ukrainian society, especially youth, within a broader European framework by promoting extensive exchange programs, scholarships, workshops, and funds for the reconstruction of schools, hospitals and transportation networks. This would provide a starting point for a Ukrainian agreement that focuses on regional decentralization and sensible and appropriate recognition of ethnic differences, without ethnic based institutions that will destroy the political future of the state.
Ultimately, no previous agreement should be the basis for solutions in Ukraine. One of the biggest problems in global governance trends continues to be a short-sighted and poorly informed focus on past analogies, preventing those engaged in a crisis from finding the unique solutions necessary to resolve their current conflicts. In the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, a uniquely Ukrainian solution must be found, one not relying on the contradictory and, indeed, failed experiences of past agreements. In short, any settlement in Ukraine must encourage and enable the citizens to become the arbiters, guardians, and agents of the country’s future evolution.