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'The whole country is on life support,' Bosnians on 20th anniversary of Peace Accord signing

Bosnians gathered near the Sebilj Fountain
File photo | Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Bosnians of all ages gathered near the Sebilj Fountain in south city during a march to remember the Srebrenica massacre.

Twenty years ago the Dayton Peace Accord put an end to the extreme violence and ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian War. But many St. Louis Bosnians feel the document left the country with no road to progress.

“The whole country is on life support, being supported by the international community,” said Elvir Ahmetovic, an elementary school teacher who emigrated to St. Louis over a decade ago.

The Peace Accord was reached on Nov. 21, 1995, and formally signed on Dec. 14 of that year. The formal signing put an end to years of fighting and ethnic cleansing. The region was broken up into two states: the Serb Republica Srpska and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Part of the agreement became the governing constitution for the new Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The agreement also established the General Framework Agreement for future governance of the country with a three-member Presidency made up of representatives from each of the major ethnic groups in the region. For Ahmetovic and his friend Akif Cogo, who runs the nonprofit St. Louis Bosnians, the accord did nothing to affect issues that keep the country dependent on outside powers: corruption, flourishing black markets, rampant unemployment and the inscription of ethnic differences into the political sphere.

“In essence there is no solid centralized frame for the country that is strong enough that it can withstand that partitioning within Bosnia,” said Cogo.


According to a United Nations report filed in 2011, corruption in Bosnia-Herzegovina often manifests as bribery between individuals and businesses, government officials or professionals like doctors. Approximately one-fifth of the adult population was exposed to bribery over the course of the study. The study indicated that the general public accepts bribery as an expected practice. The practice affects the distribution of public services and employment opportunities.

Black Markets

Professor of International Studies at Brown University Peter Andreas argues that the black marketeers established during the Bosnian War were actually invested in developing the peace process. The consequence is that many of black-market practices were etched into the economy of post-war Bosnia.

“Theft of reconstruction aid, questionable privatization deals and construction contracts, sex trafficking (with peacekeepers as a core clientele), migrant smuggling, the movement of contraband goods across minimally policed borders, and so on defined the clandestine political economy of post-war Bosnia,” said Andreas in one essay.


High rates of corruption and the proliferation of black market pursuits both result from and contribute to the Bosnian unemployment rate which has hovered around 43 percent in recent years.

The country also has thehighest rate of youth unemployment, which can be traced to an ethnically charged education system, the lack of economic growth in the country and a culture of hiring from political or personal networks.

Continued Ethnic Strife

According to some, the division of the region into states along ethnic lines and the establishment of a three-member presidency along those lines maintains a culture of difference between three cultural or religious groups.

“It really inscribes into the political system the ethnic differences by between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims,” said Ben Moore who runs the Bosnia Memory Project at Fontbonne University.

A Human Rights Watchreport filed in 2014 said continued ethnic tension leads to discrimination, media restrictions and political gridlock.

About 40,000 refugees moved to the St. Louis area in the 1990s and early 2000s, fleeing war and persecution after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The total St. Louis Bosnian population is thought to be approximately 70,000.

Here in St. Louis, Ahmetovic and Cogo say these difficulties result from the governmental use of the Dayton Peace Agreement as a constitution.

“It was meant to be amended, changed, revised, to fit the conditions, the political, ethnic, economic conditions of the country that we were living in,” said Cogo. “But unfortunately it did remain intact as it was created on that day when they signed it.”

The current state of the country affects many family and friends of Bosnian Immigrants now living in St. Louis. It compromises their quality of life and leaves some open to threat. Bosnians say drafting a real constitution would lay the foundation for better governance.