The Bosnian Trap of Ethnicity

The use of ethnicity to define political life in the Balkans has gone from being a useful analytical vector to a means to discredit manifestations of political change since the wars of the 1990s. Recent municipal elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina have demonstrated this unit of analysis to be faulty.

Draško Stanivuković celebrates his victory at the Banja Luka municipal elections on November 17th 2020 (via direktno.rs)

The armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina marked the minds of Western audiences in many ways. If Yugoslavia seemed likely to disintegrate, a prolonged armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina seemed unlikely. Footage from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo showed a populace that seemed united, copiously displaying the fact that Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Catholic Croats lived together in harmony in spite of the wounds of history that have marred the region for centuries. In a time where most developed European states were struggling to foster the peaceful cohabitation of their autochthonous populations with immigrants of different faiths and creeds, Tito’s Yugoslavia had seemed to achieve the impossible.

As if ordained to do so by a higher power, the events that occurred from 1992 to 1995 seemed hell-bent to prove these observers’ assessments of multiculturalism in Yugoslavia wrong. The wartime leaderships of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three dominant ethnic groups ushered their peoples into an orgy of brutality and violence; there were no regards for clauses of the Geneva Convention nor for common decency. Bosnia received the questionable epithet of being the most bloody conflict on European soil since the Second World War and of being the place in which the weaponization of sexual violence in contemporary history is said to have originated according to many human rights scholars and analysts. As is the case anywhere on the globe, the wounds of history existed but it took an opportunistic caste of politicians that were ready to exacerbate these ancestral grievances and ignite the flames of conflict. To ensure their political longevity in a post-Cold War Europe, they pitted brothers against brothers, neighbours against neighbours, childhood friends against childhood friends. Bosnia and Herzegovina in the era of Socialist Yugoslavia was indeed a fairytale, it was too good to be true.

From being an example of multicultural vivre ensemble, Bosnia received the status of an unruly child under tutelage in the ensuing peace. Its nominal independence was undermined by the two political entities to which it is home (Republika Srpska for the Serbs and the Federation that is split between Croats and Muslims), a system of rotating heads of state, and the establishment of the post of an United Nations High Commissioner that had the power to eliminate from Bosnian political life any actor that could be a threat to the ethnic and religious cohabitation in Bosnia. Instead of leading to a more pacified country, this has been an incentive for the country’s political class to play the nationalist card for their own gain. As in the war, it would be the people that pay the price.

In an era that is seeing the resurgence of authoritarian leaders across Eastern Europe, all claiming to defend their own people in the face of a real or imagined threat, Bosnia and Herzegovina has the misfortune of having three strongmen. While the country’s political life in the post-war period cannot be summed up into the political career of these three men, they aptly represent the country’s democratic problems.

Bosnia’s strongmen: Milorad Dodik, Bakir Izetbegović, and Dragan Čović (via balkaneu.com)

Milorad Dodik is the longstanding ruler of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, and head of the Union of Independent Social-Democrats (SNSD). Amongst these three leaders, Dodik is probably the most controversial personality and his inflammatory statements on Bosnian statehood. He has repeatedly called for the independence of Republika Srpska and rejoices in butting heads with the UN High Commissioner and other Western dignitaries. Once known as the poster child of liberal internationalism in Bosnia, Dodik’s conversion to Serbian nationalism can only be explained by electoral aspirations. The Dodik model of governance is simply explained: the country’s economy is moribund and privatized companies enrich their own friends and families and so nationalism becomes a joker that Dodik plays often and willingly.

It is astounding to see the ways in which Dodik’s model has been emulated and accepted by Izetbegović, leader of Bosnian Muslims, and the country’s Croatian representative Dragan Čović. It is common knowledge that the hegemony exerted by the SNSD in Republika Srpska and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) in the Federation is upheld by a network of nepotism, corruption, and graft. These exert a stranglehold over Bosnia’s economic growth and so the only arena in which these parties can have a showdown is on the symbolic, ethnonationalistic front. In September of 2019, Dodik thus said that he would call for a referendum and secede Republika Srpska from Bosnia, Čović followed suit by asking for the creation of an entity for the Croats. Izetbegović responded to that by threatening war to any that would threaten the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Each party in this cynical and depraved ping pong game of national grievances even has their own global powers as advocates: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regularly intervenes in Bosnia’s political life to echo the SDA and Izetbegović’s treats of war and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov often pays visit to the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka.

As the three strongmen cynically play with the traumatic memories of the past war, there is a tendency to forget the depth of these scars and the human individuals upon which they have been inflicted. At the same time, the tendency to categorize the Balkans amongst those that cannot be brought to progress because of their antiquated beliefs, those that require constant tutelage and that cannot be trusted with democratic institutions has much responsibility in Bosnia’s current state. As in any state after a war, capitalizing upon nationalistic grievances promises a prosperous political future for politicians and the establishment parties of the country have certainly learned this lesson. What they do not speak to, however, are the conditions of life of the average Bosnian citizen. The moribund state in which their finances find themselves are symbiotically tied to the good fortunes of the country’s rulers and their inner circle: the former must fail and be poor for the latter to thrive.

As a consequence, a fifth of Bosnia’s population in unemployed and attempts to revive the country’s economy have time and again led to failure. When paired with a bureaucratic administration that is ill-equipped to face the challenges and fulfill the tasks expected of any modern state, political corruption has successfully crippled any hopes for a viable future in the country. Consequently, the number of people that have left Bosnia to seek better futures in the Scandinavian countries, Western Europe, and North America are rivalling the number of victims of the Bosnian War. Such are the very real human consequences of political parties and individuals treating a country as their own piggy bank.

Considering the power of the SNSD, it was very surprising to see its candidate in the mayoral race in Republika Srpska’s capital of Banja Luka lose to the smooth-faced young political newcomer Draško Stanivuković. The economics student had often butted heads with Dodik in the Republika Srpska parliament, he went as far as going on the sumptuous estate of the President’s son and highlight the stark difference between the entity’s ruling class and its population. Dodik delivered more than his fill of nationalist-fuelled bravado during the run-up campaign, but Stanivuković’s message opposing corruption seems to have struck more a chord among Banja Luka’s voting population.

Sarajevans cast their votes in the 2019 municipal elections (via balkaninsight.com)

Equally as surprising was the defeat of Izetbegović’s SDA at the hands of Bogić Bogićević in Sarajevo. Even more than Stanivuković, Bogićević’s rise to the Sarajevo mayoral office represents a slap in the face to that brand of politics marked by nationalistic divisions that have characterized Bosnia’s political life thus far. Back in the days of Yugoslavia’s collapse, he had opposed himself to the nationalistic doxa that was gaining traction at the time. The reasons for his elections were summed up quite well by journalist Dragan Bursać:

“Bogić Bogićević above all is a good man and only then a Serb. Sarajevo is electing him because he is a man, not because he is a Serb, Croat, Bosniak or an Alien!”

It would be a mistake to laud the personalities of these men, part of the issue with Bosnia is the perpetual desire for a strongman that is part and parcel of the Balkan political tradition. It is questionable whether change will come fast or if it will come at all, Dodik has already taken steps to ensure that Stanivuković’s prerogatives as mayor were reduced in an effort to prevent any reformist legislation from being adopted. It is telling that the population of these large cities seem to have recognized the chimera that nationalistic populist politics are. One can only hope that their triumphs transcend borders and further bolster the efforts of those activists fighting against similar governments in neighbouring countries. In an area of the world crippled by violent nationalism, one can dare to dream of a future grounded upon civic respect and reconciliation.

Undergraduate student in Political Science at the University of Ottawa. I write about Eastern European political issues and culture.