Bosnia between ethnic-nationalism and Europeanization

The Bosnian political elites who tend to safeguard domination of purely ethnic interests at all costs now must choose between maintenance of ethnic apartheid or integration into the European Union
Bedrudin Brljavac
30 November 2011

I have been thinking about the notion of perfect love as being without fear, and what that means for us in a world that's becoming increasingly xenophobic, tortured by fundamentalism and nationalism”  Bell Hooks 


More than a year since the General elections in October 2010 the political elites in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter Bosnia or BiH) have not agreed on the state government. Furthermore, according to the European Commission's Monitoring Report for 2011 which evaluates the country's progress in EU reforms, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been lagging behind other countries from the western Balkans, the region that today comprises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, as well as Kosovo. Since the end of the war in Bosnia 1992-1995 the country's ethnic politicians, returned in each election except in 2000, have not paid enough attention to the European integration reforms as they largely focused on achievement of short-term ethno-nationalist interests. In other words, for the ruling nationalist elites, the EU integration project imposes high adoption costs because it undermines their own power base, entirely built on the predominance of ethnic identity. Also, Chivvis and Dogo point out that relations between the three ethnic groups are more polarised than at any time since the fighting ended. In short, Bosnia risks falling out of step with its neighbours and missing the train to Europe. A return to violence remains possible. But it is not likely. Meanwhile, the process of substantial ethnic-nationalization is not compatible with the process of Europeanization.  

Bosnia's Europeanization process

Although the EU played a very passive role during the war in Bosnia, despite its being a close neighbour, in the aftermath of the war the EU states developed a more strategic approach towards the western Balkans countries, including Bosnia. This regional shift in terms of integration emerged with the EU’s clear commitment towards EU membership of the Western Balkans in 1999. Thus, in 1999 entering the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) the western Balkans countries, including Bosnia, started out on a more visible and long-term integration path with the EU. SAP has been a fundamental force for integration with the EU member states. The main objective of the SAP is to strengthen democratic transition in the countries of the region by implementing substantial political, legal, and economic reforms. Following successful and effective reforms in the sphere of democracy, rule of law, education, economy, media, and administration, the countries from the region signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU states. BiH signed the SAA in June 2008. The SAA is aimed at making the country more democratic and more functional. In other words, the so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement is a pre-accession tool designed as a first step for the Western Balkan and Bosnia as well, towards their eventual EU membership (Vucheva, 2008). The previous EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn called it, "a milestone that marks a new stage in our relations" and "a gateway for [EU] candidacy."

Overall, over more than a decade Bosnia has been going through that deep and all-embracing modernization and transformation process known in the literature of international relations as the Europeanization process. Even though it is not an easy task to make a proper definition of the term, 'Europeanization' is often used in studies and explanations of the influence and impact of the European Union on domestic political, legal, and economic structures of the countries aspiring for the EU membership. Thus, Radaelli argues that: “Europeanization consists of processes of a) construction, b) diffusion and c) institutionalisation of formal and informal rules, procedures, policy paradigms, styles, 'ways of doing things' and shared beliefs and norms which are first defined and consolidated in the EU policy process and then incorporated in the logic of domestic (national and subnational) discourse, political structures and public policies”. Currently Bosnia is one of the potential candidate countries with aspirations to join the political and economic structures of this supranational organization. While the country is supposed to be going through this deep transformation process, adopting EU legal norms or acquis communautaire, it is instead much more intent on pursuing its massive ethno-nationalist projects and preserving short-term ethnic interests. This, at the end of the day, could revive some of the terrible inter-ethnic conflicts from early 1990s. 


However, the Europeanization process the country has so far undergone, has not amounted to a significant democratic transition, creating social cohesion and economic well-being. What's more, there has been a rising chorus of opinion among the ethnic political elites and hard-liners which has turned towards the political and legal model based fundamentally on ethno-nationalistic divisions. These now constitute systemic attempts to make changes in political, legal, and economic governance based on ethno-nationalist principles and norms of ethnic exclusion. As Asim Mujkic puts it:

“I call a community characterized by the political priority of the ethnic group(s) over the individual that is implemented through democratic self-legislation, and a community characterized by the political priority of the ethnic group’s right to self-determination over the citizen’s right to self-determination where the citizen’s membership in a political community is determined by her or his membership in ethnic community, Ethnopolis. And I call the political narrative and practice intended to justify this ethnically-based social construct, ethnopolitics.”

Thus, the public sphere in Bosnia is almost completely dominated by an ethno-nationalist dynamic of chauvinistic discrimination. Atajic further explains, “Everything – from the greeting you use to the dialect you speak and the newspaper in your coat pocket – is judged, commented upon and categorized in terms of an omnipresent, mythicized ‘ethnicity’. Under such circumstances, defining oneself as a citizen of the BiH state is tantamount to a betrayal of one’s national identity” (2002:118). The best example are the insistent attempts to establish a third federal unit or entity in the country, in which Bosnian Croats would make up the majority of the population. Despite the fact that some ethnic communities are discriminated against in certain parts of the country, it is hard to swallow the proposal that one ethnic group should realize its democratic rights through attempts at ethnic apartheid. Keeping in mind the fact that each political project of territorial separation in the early 1990s after the dissolution of Yugoslavia has resulted in massive genocide and ethnic cleansing, it is essential to search for a political and legal governance model which will be built on democratic principles of multi-ethnic coexistence and social inclusion. In fact, any new effort in the direction of a partition of Bosnia would restart war, precipitate ethnic cleansing, and cause untold human suffering (Serwer, 2011), a view also held by Senad Pećanin, the analyst at TV1. (BH-News, 2011).

Ethnic-nationalist segregation in Bosnia can only lead to the serious marginalisation of universal and civilizational values of tolerance, dialogue, and trust. Also, increasing ethnic homogenization is swiftly dissolving the very idea of state citizenship. Furthermore, public discourse in BiH is to a large extent marked by domination of the so-called 'constituent nations' thus openly discriminating against citizens of the so-called 'Others' who are minority groups in the country. The most stark example of this is the case of Jews and Roma, whose members are legally not allowed to exercise their legitimate rights and freedoms. Although Bosnia joined the Council of Europe on 24 April 2002 there has been increasing discrimination against minorities in the country. The citizens from minority communities such as the Roma, Turks, or Jews, are granted only a limited degree of freedom and self-administration. The post-war political and social space has been largely dominated by three ethnic groups, leading to the institutional marginalization of minority groups and their members. In post-Dayton Bosnia the majority of citizens are in a position of homo duplex, or a divided humanity, since they are in a struggle between being a genuine human being and a loyal ethnic being. In fact, political space has become limited and ever more unwelcome for groups such as those who see themselves asYugoslav, Bosnian, and so forth. As Touquet and Vermeersch point out: 

“These people have now been excluded from mainstream accounts of the outcomes of the recent conflict: it is not possible to be a Yugoslav, a Bosnian or an Eskimo in a situation in which ethnic nationalism has transcended all else and in which there are intensely localized variations in identity and ‘national’ sentiments”.

What’s more, the paradigm of ethnic-nationalism in BiH completely dominates over the principle of citizenship as the idea of nationalist collectivity has supremacy over a democratic model based on individual rights and freedoms. Also, the social supremacy of collectivity over individual action is resulting in the steady, deep ghetto-isation of the three ethnic communities in the country. That is, this politics paves the way for a regime based on an extreme apartheid in which the members of different ethnic communities live side by side but still profoundly alienated from each other. Pasic argues that “Not only are there physical entity and cantonal borders, but ethnicity is also institutionalized in all aspects of political life in BiH. The ethnic segregation is evident when it comes to living areas, government, voting, education and even languages, and what is intelligible”. As a result, separated territories, or ethnically pure “ghettos” have developed (Flottau and Kraske 2005) that in Bosnia seriously undermine the idea of unity in diversity.

It is of crucial importance that both political elites and ordinary citizens understand that each attempt at the physical and psychological polarisation of three ethnic communities can lead us into a new war. In fact, widespread ethnic and religious polarization has been proven to increase the risk of civil war. 

For the first time since signing the Dayton accord local politicians and the media in the last decade have from time to time mentioned war as a possible option (Whitlock, 2009). Although such a terrible scenario currently seems unreal, fifteen years into the peace-building process, local hard-liners can and do invoke the military option when they feel it necessary. In fact, most wars in the world have started because of the short-sighted ideological and political interests of political elites. As we know too well, once the atmosphere of fear and mistrust has been created, it is not difficult to push ordinary people into war. This is why it is so important that local political elites dedicate their political will towards developing policies and legal structures which will ensure the same rights and obligations for all citizens of Bosnia. 

Post-war Bosnia has largely been closer to a process of 'Balkanization‘ that is understood as contrary to what may be deemed 'western‘ values and norms. In fact, domestic factors have largely contributed to the EU’s failure in Bosnia. The consociational model established by the Dayton Agreement signed in 1995 with its multiple veto points, as well as recalcitrant nationalist elites, hindered EU-led reforms in the country.

It is easy to understand that ethnic elites repeatedly use the card of inter-ethnic fear in order to win elections and continue their 'nationalistic hegemony'. Most Bosnian political leaders are aware that Europeanisation will not bring them the votes of their respective ethnic groups. However, paradoxically, a majority of Bosnian citizens from each of the three ethnic communities, strongly supports the country’s path toward the European Union, while still preferring the ethnic-nationalist programmes of the political elites. As the ethnic-nationalist model of policy-making has not worked for the previous twenty years of democratic transition, it is obvious that Bosnians must look for alternative model of governance.

Integration of European countries

As a possible model for Bosnian ethnic groups, it is important to remember how six European countries in the aftermath of the World War II decided to establish the European Community,( from 1991 the European Union), aimed at preventing further nationalistic projects across Europe. In the aftermath of one of the most devastating wars in human history Europeans agreed to build an ‘Even Closer Union’ between the European states. The transformation was to be developed through the process of ‘evolution by which formerly hostile nation states would be drawn together until they could become integrated in a single political, economic and social entity’. Although EU states have recently been confronted with deep financial crisis, the idea of European integration is a good example of a form of organization which tends to create stable and secure supra-national community through political, economic, and legal integration of the European countries. Due to its capacity to transform state sovereignty and its integrating potential the European Union is often perceived as the perfect example of cosmopolitanism in practice (Rifkin, 2004).

The present-day image of the EU, rather far from resembling the original idea of a federation, can meverthless be defined as a ‘political, economic, social and legal hybrid with a combination of federal, confederal, supranational and intergovernmental features’ (Winer, 2004: 40). Political integration among the EU states has deepened to such an extent that in 1991 in the Maastricht Treaty the European leaders accepted the idea of European citizenship.

The idea of European citizenship creates the right for the citizens of the EU member states to vote in whatever EU state in which they find thmselves at the time of elections to the European Parliament. As Fligstein (2008: 139) argues, people will “come to see each other less as Italian and French, and thus foreign, and more and more as sharing common interests, a process that eventually will lead to seeing themselves more as Europeans and less as having merely a national identity”. In addition, European citizenship means that EU citizens can use embassy or consular services in their embassies in EU states. Although European the integration model has its shortcomings and deficiencies, such as the powerful role of its richer countries such as France and Germany, it is currently the best political model of a supranational character with a potential to reduce nationalist animosities and increase the level of solidarity.The core supranational bodies of the EU are just as necessary as ever.

It is now critical that political elites in Bosnia, do as did Schumann, Monnet, and Adenauer in the past, and bravely accelerate a European integration process that can make the country part of a democratic and free Europe. In fact, we must make a choice between an ethnic apartheid that is likely to result in a new ethnic conflicts or a European democracy which can guarantee us long-term political stability and peaceful coexistence.

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