Bosnia: a new version of an old crisis


Ethnicized, nationalist agendas and discourse have long dominated the politics of the nations of the former Yugoslavia. The nation states that emerged from the devastation of war were independent, but by no means homogenous: ethnic divisions did, and continue, to transcend the boundaries of nation states in the Balkan region. The process of state building, and the development of democratic infrastructure and institutions, has been troublesome and painstaking in a region of Europe that is incredibly diverse in terms of ethnic and national identity. The policies and interests of leaders of these states continues to strongly correspond to particular ethnic and national groups, whether the Bosnians, the Serbs, or the Croats, and so on. Succinctly, the ethnic complexities of the Balkans, and ideas of nation that these identities correspond to, have ensured ethnicized politics has proved an obdurate obstacle to the development of stable democratic institutions, as well as being a prominent feature in the societies of the nations of the Balkans. Ethnic and national differences, long contested, suppressed and subjugated, remain fiercely contested, and hold just as much political symbolism as they did when war gripped the former Yugoslavia. The assertion of independence and political sovereignty, and the processes of state-building and democratic development, put simply, have not removed the complex issues of ethnicity and nationality in the Balkans.

Nowhere is this more emphatic than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, known informally as Bosnia. The English term Bosnian denotes any inhabitant of the geographically defined boundaries of the Bosnian state, however, this territory encompasses three major ethnic and national identities: Bosniaks (Bosnians of the Islamic faith), Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats. Of course, the demographic complexion of the Bosnian state is not this clear cut, but, in this part of the Balkans, politics has long operated on ethnicized and nationalist lines that divide the Bosnian nation into distinct national groupings.

The prevalence of these three ethnic groupings manifested in the Dayton Accords of 1995. Quite rightly, this peace agreement is associated with the end of armed conflict in Bosnia by Bosnians and foreigners alike. Dayton corresponded to the abrupt ceasing of genocide, of siege, of rape, of murder. Bosnians could confidently expect to be defended by an agreement that protected their national rights, and the rights of the Serbian and Croat minorities within Bosnian territory. However, Bosnia was still a country in disarray, and even now in 2018, is still dogged by these issues. What emerged from the rubble after the end of war was a country with practically no remaining political infrastructure and rampant ethnic tension, hatred and mutual suspicion.

The Dayton Accords were a commitment to the lasting stability and peace of Bosnia, and an attempt by the international community to guide Bosnia through a process of state building, and the development of a stable political infrastructure. The Accords formed, and continue to form, the basis of the Bosnian constitution, and were implemented in a country that was not stable enough to govern itself, or to keep its numerous ethnic groupings from bloodshed. If the main aim of the agreement is to be taken as the prevention of conflict, then Dayton was ubiquitously a success. However, while the agreements have undoubtedly prevented further conflict and devastation based on ethnic and national lines up to now, many critics have argued that Dayton has ensured that ethnicized politics has consolidated its hold on Bosnian politics.

A constitution based on ethnic difference

The Dayton Accords, as the basis of the Bosnian constitution, changed the territorial organisation of Bosnia. With this new organisation, the Bosnian political entity is effectively based on national difference, dividing the country largely along ethnic lines. This division comprises the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (FiH, mostly Bosniaks and Croats), and the Republika Srpska (RS, containing mostly Serbs), both of which contain governments charged with overseeing internal function. Inter-entity borders are based on ethnic division; while there is no active land border, there is a clear separation, and even segregation, of ethnic groupings. Critics have argued that with this set up, the whole system is set up for failure and further confrontation. The two political entities are based largely on the territories held by the two warring sides of the 1990s (the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Serbs): instead of conciliation, different ethnic groupings, previously openly hostile to one another, are segregated. In this environment, nationalist sentiment can continue to thrive, with the prejudices that operated during war still lingering in the theatre of politics in Bosnia. As acclaimed philosopher Kant noted, although I am paraphrasing here, the political effectiveness of nationalist sentiment would be much impaired if nationalists had as fine a sensibility to the wrongs committed by their nation, as they have to those committed against it. This effectively shows how many of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia contain the same prejudices and nationalist beliefs that led to devastation just over twenty years ago.

What emerged from the rubble after the end of war was a country with practically no remaining political infrastructure and rampant ethnic tension, hatred and mutual suspicion.

The whole Bosnian political structure is set up within a framework of the ‘three peoples’, with the elites of the Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities representing their peoples on nationalist lines, all having a guaranteed share of power. The Chair of the Presidency rotates among three members, each elected as the Chair for an eight-month term within their four-year term as a member. The three members of the presidency are elected directly by the people, with the Federation voters deciding the Bosniak and the Croat representatives, and the Republika Srpska voters selecting the Serb to chair the presidency. This system prevents voters from breaking out of the vicious cycle of nationalist interests and sentiment. The system was generated to guarantee power share and prevent inequalities between the ‘three peoples’, but it serves to perpetuate and consolidate voting on nationalist and ethnic lines. Bosnian politics continues to be dogged by division and tension; Bosniaks vote for a Bosniak, Croats vote for a Croat, and Serbs vote for a Serb. In all the elections that have been held since the war of the mid 90s, the country’s different communities have almost invariably voted along ethnic lines, with nationalist parties usually claiming the ascendancy, a tendency which has inevitably reinforced the ingrained disunity of the state. Understandably, the horrors of warfare, of siege in Sarajevo, of Srebrenica, continue to plague the minds of Bosniaks, and Croats and Serbs too have their own grievances that have not been addressed since the end of war. The entities of the Bosnian state appear too close to being separate states in their own right: this arrangement reinforces separatism and nationalism at the expense of integration. This set-up also discriminates against the minority Roma and Jewish communities, which can be seen in the 2009 Sejdić-Finci case, where the ECHR declared that the Bosnian constitution alienated the minority groupings of the Bosnian state.

Bosnia remains unready for unguided ownership of its own future as ethnic nationalism remains dominant. Dayton brought an end to bloodshed, but it entrenched the results of ‘ethnic cleansing’, cementing the demographic divide that warfare provocatively brought into social consciousness. In addition to the entities, Bosnia has ten cantons that operate at a federal level. This complex administrative structure does not align well with a democracy that is brittle. At the base of democracy should lie a conviction to its principles – instead, in Bosnia, at the basis of a primitive, fragile democracy is a persistent faith in nationalist tendencies and ideas. Corruption remains endemic, and the complex, supposedly developed political order of Bosnia in theory does not correspond to that in practice: Bosnian politics is confusing, often bitter, and often carried out begrudgingly. The elaborate multi-tiered system of government, with cabinets and parliaments on state, entity and cantonal levels, means that Bosnia is now overburdened with politicians and civil servants, many of whom continue to receive salaries out of proportion with the country’s fragile, often impoverished condition.

The entities of the Bosnian state appear too close to being separate states in their own right: this arrangement reinforces separatism and nationalism at the expense of integration.

The Presidency of the state as a whole contains a Bosniak (Bakir Izetbegovic), a Croat (Dragan Covic), and a Serb (Mladen Ivanic). At national level there is a House of Peoples, a House of Representatives, and a Council of Ministers. In the divided entities, there is a President and a Prime Minister for both the FiH and the RS, and the FiH and RS also contain their own parliaments, assemblies and cantons. This entire system is perplexing, and far too confusing for a state with a limited democratic foundation in the first place. Bosnia’s political structure has been labelled a ‘hybrid regime’, where entirely free and fair elections remain a hope, more than an expectation. Truly free and fair elections will not be possible until Bosnian politics loses its ethnicized edge. The national lines and divides that led to a devastating three-and-a-half-year conflict are the same lines that have been used to draw a system with the aim of developing a stable, democratic system. This will not work in the long run.

Admittedly, it is only twenty-three years since war came to a halt. States take time to develop stable political institutions from scratch. However, as time has passed, it has become clear that Bosnia’s current constitution, based on the Dayton Accords, is ill-suited to the creation of a democratic base that will allow the Bosnian nation to function independently. It is also ill-suited to creating a state which can incorporate, without violence and uneasy compromise, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. As Bosnia recovers from the ravages of war, it is clearer now than ever before that a politics based on ethnic lines is not the way forward. To suggest Bosnia’s peace is unravelling may be too far, but, in the coming years, it is vital that the peace process remains on track. For this to occur, Bosnia needs to turn away from the dangerous path of nationalist politics, full of the same prejudices that led to war in the first place. It is not just Bosnia that suffers from this plight – the Croats and Serbs in their own nations are dominated by nationalist governments, too. For anything to change, political parties probably have to. As the past has shown, nationalist and ethnic politics in the Balkans can, and probably will if unchecked, lead to disaster. The old crisis of devastating warfare is hopefully firmly in the past, but a new crisis is unfolding: a crisis rooted firmly in the same nationalist prejudices and beliefs that the Dayton Accords were trying to eradicate. By developing a system based on difference and ethnic boundaries, the Dayton Accords, while successfully preventing war, have contributed to the continued segregation of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Ultimately, the accords have created a political system too complex for a democracy in its inchoate stages.


Sign up for the newsletter!

Want to contribute? Join our contributors’ group here or email us – click here for contact details