THE WAR IN Bosnia-Herzegovina raged for three and a half years. Then, in 1995, after three weeks of being virtually locked up in an American air-base in Dayton, Ohio, the warring leaders struck a deal to end it. Bosnia was devastated, half its population had fled or been ethnically cleansed, and more than 100,000 were dead. The country has been at peace ever since. But on November 21st, exactly a quarter of a century after the Dayton deal, not many Bosnians will be celebrating.

Most are miserable, and it is not hard to see why. Incomes are low, public services are poor and politicians argue about the same things they fought the war over. Bosnians are ageing and emigrating, cities are choked by smog and, says Adnan Cerimagic of the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank, “half of the country’s 14-year-olds are functionally illiterate.”

Before the war there were some 4.2m people in Bosnia. Today there are probably between 2.7m and 3.3m, though no one knows for sure. With such a small population, it is sometimes said that all the country needs is a mayor. Instead Dayton created a complex system designed to make sure that none of the country’s three main ethnic groups could dominate the others. Twenty-five years on it often defies logic, and seems to serve the interests only of nationalist politicians who have successfully resisted any attempts at reform.

The tiny country has a weak central government, three presidents, two “entities” and an autonomous town. The vast majority of Serbs live in the Republika Srpska (RS), while Bosniaks (a term used to refer to Bosnia’s Muslims, who make up around half of the country’s population) and Croats live mainly in the ten cantons of what is called the Federation. Most, though not all, main parties are ethnically based, and on the big questions of governance and international relations their leaders rarely agree. An international “High Representative” lingers in the country only so that he could use his far-reaching powers if peace were under threat.

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Milorad Dodik, who has long dominated the politics of the RS, derides Bosnia and talks of independence and integration with Serbia. Bosnian Croat leaders often call for their own “third entity”. Bosniaks celebrate November 25th as “statehood day” because that is when modern Bosnia was founded in 1943. In schools all three ethnic groups learn different histories. Before the war 13% of marriages were mixed and in Sarajevo a third were. In 2019 the number of mixed marriages was only 3%. A survey in 2018 found that 49% of young Bosnians want to leave.

Gloom is so all-pervasive that it is common for parents to press their children to go. Ivana Cook, from Tuzla, was born a few months before the end of the war. She says that of 25 students in her graduating class from school, 20 have gone. Ms Cook’s mother says that she regrets not leaving herself after the war. Ms Cook did not want to emigrate, but she is lucky. She has a job and a flat which she shares with her boyfriend. Some 80% of Bosnians her age still live with their parents, and youth unemployment is high.

In the early post-war years Bosnians did not mix much, and it is still the case that many young people from mono-ethnic towns or villages, or the divided city of Mostar, have never met someone of a different ethnicity. But it is less so than before, and Bosnian politics is far more nuanced than is often believed. On November 15th a Serb was elected as mayor of overwhelmingly Bosniak central Sarajevo. The vast majority of young Bosnians are not hostile to one another. They play sports together, civil-society activists work on causes together and many criss-cross the inter-entity border daily for work, to shop or just to have fun somewhere else.

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But that does necessarily mean that the first generation not to remember the war is going to change the country. Last week’s local elections saw Drasko Stanivukovic, a 27-year-old, elected as mayor of Banja Luka, the capital of the RS. He says that its leadership is corrupt and needs to be replaced. He is against independence for RS, but otherwise he holds many of the same Serbian nationalist positions as Mr Dodik.

Hana Curak, aged 26, a sociologist from Sarajevo, says a lack of opportunities is the bane of her generation. You need connections with people in power to find a job, said 87% of young people polled in 2018. Because a higher proportion of the educated and liberal young leave, Ms Curak says, more of those with less progressive and more nationalist values remain. She thinks that by legitimising a system in which ethnicity is paramount, Dayton has actually served to make many of her generation “even more conservative and nationalistic than their parents”.

“What scares me”, says Mr Cerimagic, is that “for years people have been saying it is up to the young people to save us from this misery, but then my impression is that they are not really different from the rest of us.” For those dedicated to creating a better Bosnia, “it is going to be a long struggle.”

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Dayton at 25”

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