With their country locked out of EU accession talks, Bosnia’s frustrated ’Dayton generation’ is making its own way to Europe

With their country locked out of EU accession talks, Bosnia's frustrated 'Dayton generation' is making its own way to Europe

A young couple watch the Sarajevo skyline from the Yellow Fortress, one of the city’s most popular hang-out spots. Although there is no definitive source of information on the subject, according to the IOM’s 2020 World Migration Report, between 2009 and 2019 Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced the steepest population decline in Europe after Lithuania.

(Haris Čalkić)

It was a hot August day in 1995 when Amila Omanović, now 25, was born. At the time, the central Bosnian town of Visoko, where her family is from, didn’t have a maternity hospital, which is why her mother had to be taken to the city of Zenica, 40 kilometres away, to give birth. At the time, her father was a soldier, fighting on one of the fronts during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which is why he didn’t see his first-born child until she was a month old.

In November of the same year, the Dayton Peace Agreement (or the Dayton Accords) ended the three-and-a-half-year bloodshed, which resulted in about 100,000 deaths and 2.2 million displaced persons. Amila’s father returned home to his family. Some years later, Visoko got its own maternity hospital. Amila, in the meantime, has graduated as a linguist.

The then political representatives of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs signed a peace deal that brought an end to the war, but it also imposed a complex political system which has made life unbearable for many of its citizens, including Amila, who is planning to move to Italy. “Have I been fighting [in the war] so that you would leave the country?”, Amila says her father, a military veteran, sometimes asks her. Recalling his words, she adds: “But I feel as if he is asking me to make a sacrifice to that fight, instead of looking for better opportunities and a decent life for myself.”

The families of numerous young citizens of BiH born in 1995 – the so-called ‘Dayton generation’ – feel the same kind of despair. According to various studies, large numbers of young people have already left the country – or want to leave it.

Although the data often varies thanks to the different sources and statistical methodologies used, there are various clues about the direction of travel for young Bosnians. According to census information, in 1991 BiH had a population of nearly 4.4 million people; by 2013, this number had decreased to 3.5 million. The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) World Migration Report 2020 says that between 2009 and 2019 BiH experienced the steepest population decline in Europe after Lithuania. The German Institute for Employment Research estimates that BiH lost 43 per cent of its highly-educated population (aged 25 and older) between 1980 and 2010.

The reasons are multitudinous. The unemployment rate of young people (15 to 24 years old) was 33.8 per cent in 2019. According to the United Nations’ 2016 Voices of Youth report, 15 to 30 year olds in Bosnia spend an average of 20 months looking for a job after graduating from school or university. Only 13 per cent of those polled had attempted entrepreneurship, due to the bureaucratic complexities of starting a small- or medium-sized business in the country. The average net monthly salary amounts to 953 Bosnian marks (approximately €490), which is about a half of an average basket of household goods. In Germany, by comparison, the average monthly salary is five times higher. And a 2014 study conducted by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung stated that 49.2 per cent of young people wanted to leave the country, naming economic stagnation, widespread corruption and constant political turmoil as some of the reasons – most of which are underlined by thick lines of the Dayton Accords.

Living in ‘Dayton BiH’ is “complicated and frustrating”

The Dayton Peace Agreement was concluded on 21 November 1995 in the US city of Dayton in Ohio but formally signed in Paris on 14 December 1995. Annex 4 of the Agreement defined the constitution of the country. Many locals call the post-war system ‘Dayton BiH’ or ‘post-Dayton BiH’.

‘Dayton BiH’ is divided into two entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Bosniaks and Croats are in the majority, and the predominantly Serbian Republika Srpska – including the multi-ethnic Brčko District which serves as a self-governing unit. The Federation consists of 10 cantons, which each have their own constitutions, parliaments, governments and judicial powers. The Federation and the cantons share responsibility for healthcare, the environment, social welfare policies, infrastructure for communications, transport, tourism, regulations concerning citizenship and the use of natural resources. These areas often overlap.

The national constitution’s attempt to grant the three dominant ethnic groups the power to govern themselves has weakened the structure of central government. The management of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has once again shown how decentralised and complex the country is (healthcare and civil protection are governed by Republika Srpska and cantonal governments in the Federation of BiH, which have been adopting contradicting and often conflicting anti-Covid measures). Some media have called Bosnia’s power-sharing model “the world’s most complicated system of government”.

Due to the problems Amila had with her eyesight as a child, she often had to get treatment outside of her hometown. But to do so, she needed to collect a huge pile of documents from various healthcare institutions in her canton (Zenica Doboj) to be able to go to public clinics in the Sarajevo Canton, which were the only ones with the equipment to assist her. “It’s so complicated and frustrating,” Amila says.

Nermin Mameledžija, a 25-year-old graduate dentist from the central Bosnian town of Travnik, shares similar feelings. Nermin was born in Germany just before the war ended. His family moved back to BiH when he was three years old. Back in 1998, his father was optimistic about returning to his home country with his children, Nermin tells Equal Times.

But now, he looks at things very differently. “We young people have to move abroad to have decent lives. That’s why my father encourages me to leave even if it breaks his heart,” Nermin says.

As a high school student in Travnik, Nermin attended one of the so-called ‘two schools under one roof’, where students are divided into mono-ethnic classes and taught different curricula in different languages. Nermin’s part of the school (where the Bosnian curriculum was taught) was literally divided by a fence from the Croatian section. The official justification for the fence – as a means to keep students safe – is widely interpreted as a blatantly nationalistic tool to keep young Bosnians of different backgrounds apart.

There are 56 such schools in the Federation of BiH (other schools follow the curriculum of the dominant group). The OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Mission to BiH states that divisions in education can be partially attributed to the Dayton Agreement. “There was a significant amount of discretionary authority towards the transitional aspects of education, without minimum standards or measures to prevent education from becoming a divisive tool,” says its 2018 report on the subject. Education policies are often used “to shape or reinforce social divisions, intolerance, and inequality or to eliminate spaces for the development of a critical citizenship,” the OSCE report states.

Nermin and his peers from the ‘Croat part’ of the school might have been divided during class, but politics didn’t keep them apart during their free time. The local media occasionally reports feel-good stories about friendships and love stories blossoming across these forced divides, bolstering the argument that these separations only exist for political expediency. For example, in 2017, high school students organised protests against an attempt to establish another ‘two schools under one roof’ in the central Bosnian town of Jajce. Their actions were cheered on by local and international civil society.

An uncertain future at home, exploring brighter horizons abroad

Unfortunately, these bright spots don’t change the overall picture. “The uncertainty of our future makes many young people decide to leave. It’s not only about the inability to find work but it’s also about our inability to imagine a future with so many political tensions,” says Nermin. Fed up with nationalism-driven politics, he plans to look for a job in Germany, which has been extensively hiring healthcare workers from the Balkans since 2013.

The most attractive destination countries for BiH citizens are Germany, which takes more than half of Bosnia’s emigrants (54 per cent), Slovenia (26 per cent), Austria (9 per cent) and Sweden and the USA (1.9 per cent each), according to a 2020 Western Balkans Democracy Initiative report. The same report estimates that BiH loses up to €21,000 with every person that leaves the country.

“I will give Bosnia five years, I will give it a chance,” says 25-year-old Avdo Kurtović, a recent medical graduate from the north-eastern town of Gračanica. Avdo was born only a couple of days before the nearby town of Srebrenica was captured by Bosnian Serb forces on 11 July 1995, killing more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in a town that was a designated UN safe area. This genocide – the worst atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War – and NATO’s subsequent bombing of Bosnian Serb positions, acted as a catalyst for the peace negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Peace Agreement.

“I want to try my luck in my home country first to see if I can make it,” says Avdo, who plans to complete further training to become a cardiologist. But the idea of leaving Bosnia is not strange to him, as about one-third of his colleagues from university have already left or are planning to leave imminently. He estimates that another third would leave if things don’t work out for them. The other third of his informal poll have announced their intentions to stay in Bosnia, he says.

When it was reached, the Dayton Accords gave hope to citizens of BiH for a more prosperous future. But instead, the Dayton-framed constitution has put a handbrake on the country’s progress. Attempts at substantial constitutional reforms have failed in the past. Even international verdicts challenging the current system (such as the European Court of Human Rights judgement about the discriminatory nature of BiH’s electoral system) have been ignored by Bosnian governments.

Observers say the international community has failed to push hard enough for reform, leaving the country’s political elites to profit from the dysfunction while having access to power without any accountability.

At the same time, civil society demands for constitutional change has become muted, fatigued perhaps by the lack of success of their prior efforts. As a result, the discussion around trying to resolve BiH’s 25-year political impasse no longer predominates the national conversation.

As the political and economic crises rumble on, so too does the country’s brain drain. “What BiH can expect with the continuation of such trends is an even higher share of the elderly population in the total population, labour shortages, concentration of population in more developed cities with parallel ‘shutdown’ of rural communities and even of less developed municipalities,” says Bojana Vukojević, a sociologist at the University of Banja Luka.

Unless something changes, the future doesn’t look bright. “Even though violence has not yet erupted, the reality is that it could at any time, with the attendant dangers of malign actors (Russia and other foreign powers, radical Islamists, irredentist neighbours, etc.) supporting it, capitalizing upon it, or even instigating it for their own interests,” Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council wrote in 2018, arguing that Dayton’s “wobbly framework must be broken to be fixed”.

Bosnia and Herzegovina formally applied for EU membership in February 2016. Joining the EU could, amongst other things, stimulate the economy, help bring stability and allow the free movement of workers and goods. However, the country’s complex political system – with all of its deficiencies – has been the main obstacle to this ambition. As long as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s pathway to Europe remains blocked, paradoxically, evermore of its brightest young citizens will remain convinced that Europe is where their future lies.