Sonja Karadzic can’t help her surname, but she can help her politics

Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic’s emergence as a political figure highlights the crucial juncture Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself in in 2014, as well as the complex, auxiliary role of female family members in post-Yugoslav ultranationalism

Heather McRobie
16 July 2014

Srebrenica memorial ceremony, 2014. Photo: Zulfikar Filandra. All rights reserved.The news that Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic, daughter of Radovan Karadzic, has been chosen as a Republika Srpska parliamentary candidate in the 2014 election comes as Bosnia and Herzegovina is at a crossroads, in a year that has seen significant popular protests quickly followed by devastating regional floods. In some sense, her advent at this moment feels ominous – a figure with a loaded name and symbolic position in the political landscape suddenly emerging out of the flux of recent months.  

Karadzic-Jovicevic cannot, of course, help who her parents are or what her surname is. Particularly in a post-war political and social landscape of consociational ‘compulsory ethnic identification’ – in which surnames can be ‘read’ as signifiers of ethno-religious belonging, and a new generation of children are raised partly in a segregated education system in which lineage is destiny – the need to resist reducing individuals to their surnames and heritages is even stronger than usual. 

And Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic isn’t the only descendant of the 1990s wars to have entered politics in the post-war period, in which ethnically-based political parties trade in large part on the identity fault-lines of the war – the son of Alija Itzetbegovic, the wartime Bosniak/ Bosnian Muslim leader of Bosnia, and Karadzic’s political nemesis, has also risen to political prominence in the post-war period.

This caveat acknowledged, however, the emergence of the daughter of Radovan Karadzic as a political figure is troubling for two main reasons – her own public statements on her father’s ‘innocence’ and ‘persecution’ by international justice, and the political geography of Bosnia and where, specifically, she has chosen to run as a candidate. A resident of Sarajevo recently said to me: “it’s better to treat it as a joke, laugh at how pathetic it is. Like history will repeat itself this time as farce.” But her decision to enter politics is significant both in terms of how the upcoming national elections in the country may play out, and how Bosnian society and politics in the larger sense may now be heading in the wake of the popular protests earlier this year.

Srebrenica memorial ceremony, 2014. Photo: Zulfikar Filandra. All rights reserved.During the war, Sonja Karadzic ran her father’s press office from the wartime Bosnian Serb capital of Pale, and is well remembered – rarely fondly – by journalists who covered the war. She has always maintained her father’s innocence and the ‘righteousness’ of his vision for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in reality entailed ethnic cleansing, genocide and the 44 month siege of Sarajevo. In an interview with the Russian government-sponsored television station Russia Today in 2009, she reiterated her belief in her father’s innocence and criticised the ICTY, saying “the Hague tribunal is not a court of justice, but just some kind of disciplinary commission for NATO.”

When Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic apologises for Radovan Karadzic, she is denying facts that have been established at the ICTY and the ICJ. In this context, there’s cause for alarm both in the recent statements of Karadzic-Jovicevic and her party on what she would stand for if elected, and the choice of Pale in particular as the place where she will stand as a candidate. She has been nominated by her father’s party, the Serb Democratic Party, on a campaign that aims to push for Serb solidarity, and according to news website Balkan Insight, encourage her voters to “think Serb.”

Moreover, she has chosen to stand as a candidate for the SDP in Pale, the wartime seat of her father. Today Pale is a lacklustre town, markedly different from the cafes and cinemas of Sarajevo just a fifteen minute drive away – although in his recent book Ed Vulliamy recalls how “during the war, the journey could take a whole day, from one world into another.” Karadzic-Jovicevic herself has said that it has been a special honour to be nominated in Pale as it is “where the foundations of Republika Srpska were laid.” 

Srebrenica memorial ceremony, 2014. Photo: Zulfikar Filandra. All rights reserved.In the nineteen years since the Dayton peace accords divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities (with the exception of the Brcko district), Pale has been in Republika Srpska, one of the two ‘entities’, while its previously Bosnian Muslim-majority part is now in Federacija, the other federal entity. This severing of the country along the fault-lines of the war is mirrored in the post-war political system and its power-sharing Presidency, in which political parties campaign primarily on ethnic lines.

For Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic to stand for election in Pale this year is an unambiguous assertion of a vision of ultranationalism that was violently enacted on the region in the 1990s – in her own words, a continuation of her father’s work – and at the site from which her father enacted his ultranationalist vision.

After all, Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic trades, in large part, on being ‘her father’s daughter’.  As such, her (re-)emergence in Bosnian politics also points to the auxiliary, ambivalent role of women in post-Yugoslav ultranationalisms, which weaves into its ideologies rigidly demarcated gender roles, and emphatically draws upon these nationalist-prescribed roles through its ethno-nationalist symbol.  The reverence in post-Tito Serbian nationalism for the male soldier and ‘warrior’ was accompanied by a fetishisation of ‘woman as mother’ who, focused on performing her primary function of reproducing, ‘gives birth’ to the new nation.  Yet despite drawing heavily on conceptions of the mythical ‘lost Eden’ of ancient Serbia and the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, this patriarchal vision played out in a complex manner in post-Tito modernity. 

It has often been noted that post-Tito ultranationalisms featured a number of quote-unquote ‘strong’ women at the forefront of Serbian and Bosnian Serb politics, such as Maja Gojkovic, Mirjana Markovic and Biljana Plavsic.  However, as feminist theorists looking at women in right-wing movements have noted, each came either from anti-communist, nationalist families, or (in the case of Markovic) came from a famous communist family and self-identified as such even whilst propagating an ultranationalist agenda and worldview.

Their rise to prominence came through ‘normative heterofamilial lines’, in which mothers and daughters of the political elite can nepotistically assume political positions in the absence of (preferable) sons while the structure of patriarchy and patrilineality remains unchallenged.  Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic – her surname itself awkwardly marking her a hybrid of her father and husband – draws upon this tradition and perpetuates it, just as she seeks, in her political position, to ‘continue’ her father’s vision.

Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic’s invisible twin is Ana Mladic, the daughter of the Bosnian Serb military leader now on trial for war crimes at the ICTY in The Hague.  At the height of the war in 1994, Ana Mladic committed suicide aged 23 by shooting herself with her father’s gun. Although the daughter of an elite figure can only ever awkwardly stand as shorthand for the experience of women outside of the elite, her death nonetheless soon became symbolic.  Like the stereotype of the teenage girl self-harming and starving herself, internalising the horrors of the external world, Mladic’s daughter’s suicide was seen as a response to her father’s crimes and, more broadly, the inability of women to function in an ultranationalist climate that rigidly polices gender identity on the one hand and rigidly demarcates ethnicity on the other.

The life of Ana Mladic has been drawn upon by feminist theorists and novelists using it, in various ways, as a prism for the experience of women under ultranationalism and in war: feminist Croatian writer and journalist Slavenka Drakulic wrote a haunting re-imagining of Ana Mladic’s final hours before her suicide, and the private hell of her home life, stifled behind closed doors as her father publicly concentrated on the war.  The figures of the two daughters mirror each other – if Ana was apparently so haunted by her father’s actions, why isn’t Sonja?

Academic Nastasja Vojvodic has written on how ultranationalism and patriarchy aligned in the control of female identity and the female body, as “while women were paradoxically liable for the life as well as the death of their respective nations through reproduction, the women belonging to the groups of the ethnic Other were subjugated in a corresponding respect.” In Zarana Papic’s analysis, a nationalist state instrumentalises its ‘own’ women into “birth machines” while its ethnic opponents become targets of destruction – destruction that plays out on gendered lines in the war from the mass killing of boys and men in Srebrenica to the mass rapes of Bosnian and Croatian women. 

The emergence of female political figures such as Karadzic-Jovicevic (and Gojkovic and Plavsic before her), is – when situated in this context – no feminist victory.  Whilst acknowledging their political agency and the choices they have made within the constraints that come of being born into political ultranationalist families (the strain of which is seen most obviously in the life of Ana Mladic) they primarily signal a failure of political process. 

Their ascendance, both in the post-Tito war period and today, doesn’t tell a story of female empowerment, only a story of nepotism and kleptocracy in which wives and daughters of the elite can occasionally play at honorary men while ultranationalist ideology enforces strict gender binaries on politics and society as a whole.

Yet Karadzic-Jovicevic’s ascendancy now is striking because it comes at a crucial moment for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and its upcoming national elections.  Last month, the eyes of the international media briefly returned to Sarajevo for the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but in 2014 Bosnia is in turmoil beyond the headlines. 

Earlier this year, the country nearly came to a standstill in February and March after popular protests in cities and towns across the country demanded an end to the corrupt, ethno-nationalist political framework established by the 1995 Dayton constitution.  In the direct-democracy ‘plenums’ that followed in many cities, citizens of all ethnicities expressed a number of core concerns, such as a desire for an end to government corruption, an end to the ‘compulsory ethnic identification’ in public life of the consociational Dayton period, and a desire for politicians to address the social needs of citizens, who face high unemployment, steeply rising costs of living and inadequate public services as their political elite focus on their own profits and stirring ethno-nationalist tensions for electoral gain.

The floods that devastated the western Balkans in May seem to have swept the nascent direct democracy of the plenums away with them, and the weekly meetings of direct democracy have petered out across the country.  And although some activists involved in organising the protests believe the experience of the plenums has initiated a fundamental shift in political mindset among the population, others argue that fractures were already emerging in the movement before the May floods, as the plenums attempted the difficult task of transitioning from what they were against to articulating what they were in favour of.

Nonetheless, their recent impact on Bosnian politics finds the country in election year torn between an attempt to forge new political narratives and the ghosts of the ethno-nationalist past clinging to power in the present. 

If the plenums represent the possibility of a step forward in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at least the possibility of life beyond the 19 year Dayton stalemate, the ascendancy of Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic as a political figure – and the past that she drags with her – represents an alarming step back.


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