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Whatever happened to Bosnia?

The Dayton political structure, the media, religious figures, and even civil society have been used to entrench divides that could still lead to the partitioning of BiH,Bosnia rather than membership in a united Europe. How can they overcome this impasse?

Although it has been more than fifteen years since the end of the war of 1992-95, political tensions among three ethnic communities within Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter BiH, Bosnia) -- Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks), Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs -- are still highly present in every part of both state and society. For instance, ordinary people from the three ethnic groups are still feeling high levels of inter-ethnic mistrust towards each other. Furthermore, more than three months after the October 3,2010 general elections, the winning parties have not yet formed a state-level government, due to their conflicting political views.  The political parties can’t reach a compromise solution since they have very opposing national aspirations. What’s more, if the ethnic groups do not resolve their differences the country is in danger of missing out on the opportunity to become a part of the democratic west. Although all the three ethnic groups aspire to becoming an EU member, they are massively polarized and segregated along ethnic lines.

Since the end of the 1990s through the newly initiated Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) the European Union has established more concrete political and economic links with the western Balkans region, including Bosnia. Additionally, in June 2000 in the Feira European Council it was decided that all the SAP countries, including Bosnia, are potential candidates for EU membership. Following a difficult reform process Bosnia signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) with the EU in June 2008, which was the first pre-accession tool towards its eventual EU membership. However, today the country is lagging behind other regional countries in terms of economic and political reform processes on its road to the European Union. Although there have been a number of difficult problems slowing down Bosnia's EU reform process, widespread ethnic polarisation in each part of its society has become the biggest challenge on the country's route to Brussels.  

The war in Bosnia ended in November,1995, with the Dayton Peace Agreement designed to stop the war and create a new democratic country, the unified state of Bosnia and Herzegovina comprised of two multi-ethnic entities. However, fifteen years after Dayton, Bosnia is still far from the effective and democratic state that the accord had envisioned. Today the country still consists of de facto three mono-ethnic territories, three education systems and a national government where the ethnic key is the rule of the game. Therefore, the three majority ethnic groups dominate the public discourse in every aspect of life, excluding minorities and non-nationalists. The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that Bosnia’s constitutional structure is inherently discriminatory. While most of Europe is going towards multi-national structures, Bosnia is still pushing ethno-nationalisation.

That is, the Bosnian constitution is treating non-ethnic members of its community as aliens or apostates. As stated in the Dayton Agreement, the Constitution of BiH prevents candidacy of “others”, which are minority groups, to the Presidency and the House of Peoples on the ground of their ethnic origins because these positions are guaranteed for the so-called ‘constituent’ peoples, i.e. Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Thus, Jakob Finci and Dervo Sejdić who are respectively Jewish and Roma by their ethnicity, contested these provisions before the ECHR since they were banned from running for office. On December 2009 the Court ruled that the exclusion of minority groups from Bosnia’s highest elected offices constituted unjustified discrimination. However, in the year since the court’s ruling the country's politicians have not yet removed discriminatory provisions from the constitution due to their different ethnic interests. As a result, Bosnia is still a profoundly undemocratic country.

Bearing in mind the fact that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, fought each other during the conflict in the beginning of 1990s, the central social cleavage in the post-war period has been nationalism. For instance, in the first post-war elections the three nationalist parties, Bosniaks` SDA, Bosnian Serbs` SDS, and Bosnian Croats` HDZ received the highest number of votes from their ethnic electorate respectively. Such a trend of preferring strictly ethnic political parties by the Bosnian electorate has been repeated in each election with the only exception of the 2000 elections when Social Democratic Party, (Socijdemokratska partija, SDP), a multi-national political party won. Even in last October's elections, Muslims supported parties favouring a centralized Bosnia, Serbs backed nationalists urging secession, and Croats voted for parties seeking their own entity within Bosnia. As a result, it is difficult to expect EU-related initiatives from such opposing political platforms.

In addition, even the economy of the country has been under the strong influence of ethnic politicians. In other words, the different political interests of ethnic groups are blocking the urgently needed creation of a single economic area (SEA) in the country. In fact, with the SAP, BiH assumed the obligation to establish a single economic space, its internal market which would be in line with the EU's Internal Market. However, so far, extremist ethnic leaders have rejected the idea of an SEA because they claim that this would mean that entities would stop existing. Thus, although an economy could be an area where all sides could gain, ethnically-based political divisions just impoverish the whole country. Still, in the logic of Dayton Bosnia, ethnic feelings are more important than pragmatic thinking.

Even education, as a platform where universal humanistic values and democratic norms of behaviour are taught, has been manipulated for political purposes. For instance, the educational system in the Federation of BiH, one of the two entities composing the state of BiH, is built on the model of “two schools under one roof” where children from two ethnic groups, Croats and Bosniaks, attend classes in the same building, but are physically separated from each other and taught separate curricula. Some ethnic politicians oppose integrated multi-ethnic schools free from political, religious and any other discrimination arguing that students would lose their ethnic identity mixing with others. How do they then expect to integrate into the EU with 27 different nations, cultures, languages, and so on?

The problem of the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to their pre-war homes is still, after fifteen years, another factor which is strongly exacerbating ethnic segregation in the country. In signing the Dayton agreement the peacemakers had hoped that such returns would reverse political, and national partition of the country. However, since the end of the war the nationalist parties have kept minority ethnic groups' returns to a minimum. In this way, they have almost achieved their war objectives of ethnic homogenization. As a result, today Bosnia is a physically highly divided state where ethnic groups cannot approach and talk to each other. What's more, some citizens are thus in a position of second-class citizens in their own homeland, hardly in line with the EU's principle of “unity in diversity”.

In one democratic society civil society should be an arena for self-organizing groups and individuals relatively autonomous from the state, building democracy upwards from the grass-roots level, eradicating discrimination, reconciling ethnic divisions and improving human and civil rights. However, in Bosnia, civil society has been mostly divided along ethnic lines. Thus, instead of being a significant integrative factor pushing for multi-ethnic cooperation, civil society groups have further contributed to ethnic polarization. For instance, although there are around 10,000 NGOs in the country only a small number of them have offices in both Entities, and most employ workers predominantly from one ethnic group. Since the Dayton Agreement divided the country into two entities along ethnic lines - genuine civic initiatives are almost blocked.

The media has the potential to play a crucial role in shaping a stable democracy and becoming a backbone of a long-term reconciliation process in these post-war societies. However, since the end of the war, the media too has remained deeply fragmented along the lines of ethnic interests. Apart from a few exceptions, most of the radio and television channels, newspapers and magazines follow ethno-political allegiances and communicate primarily to their own ethnic groups. That is, there is a significant level of direct political interference in the work of the media sector, primarily through economic means. Thus, the public space is divided into three parts in which ethnic media play a dominant role. Instead of playing a watchdog role on the state, government media are serving the interests of ethnic parties.

Religion can have a strong influence in bringing about reconciliation and peace-building in post-war societies. However, in Bosnia religious leaders from each ethnic community have openly interfered in politics, supporting candidates of their own communities. Simply put, religious leaders have supported ethnic interests over cosmopolitan values common to all humankind. Religious leaders openly demonstrate preference for one ethnic party over others. In the present situation it is almost impossible to believe that any party would ensure their electoral victory without their support. Thus, religious leaders try to motivate the constituencies to vote for nationalistic parties.

Widespread ethnic polarisation in both state and society is today the direct result of the Dayton Agreement dividing the country into two semi-autonomous entities. This legal and political regime has marginalised any citizen-oriented rhetoric and curtailed individual human rights. As a result, any serious and truly multi-ethnic democratic aspiration has been blocked. In fact, the post-war hegemony of an ethno-nationalist paradigm has been creating long-term economic and political paralysis. Fifteen years since the end of the war, ethno-nationalist leaders continue to pursue political agendas leading to the partitioning of Bosnia rather than membership of a united Europe.  And yet, without the prospect of the EU, it is hard to imagine how Bosnia could ever move on.

About the author

Bedrudin Brljavac received his B.A. in Political Science and Public Administration at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. He completed the Master Programme in European Affairs (MEA) at Lund University in Sweden as the scholarship holder of the Swedish Institute. He has regularly written columns for national and international magazines and daily newspapers such as Dnevni avaz, Novi horizonti, openDemocracy, Political Thought etc. Meanwhile he has worked on a number of national and international research projects. In addition, he has had several translations from English and Turkish into Bosnian. His research interests are Transnational Relations, Soft Power, Europeanization, EU Enlargement Policy, Democratization Theory, International Organizations, Turkish politics, and Western Balkans Politics. 


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