Bosnia’s Balancing Act

Navigating the Chasm between Collapse and Renewal 

By Emin Poljarevic

Nov/Dec 2023
 A view of Old City of Travnik in Central Bosnia  (c) Emin Poljarevic

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a Muslim-majority state in southeastern Europe that encapsulates the complexities of post-1992-1995-war politics and ethno-religious divisions. Its society is constituted primarily of three large ethnic groups divided along religious lines: Bosniaks (Muslims), Serbs (Orthodox Christians), Croats (Catholics) and other minorities. After Yugoslavia was dismembered during the 1990s, BiH was divided into two autonomous administrative entities with their own parliaments: the Republika Srpska RS (49%) and the Federation of BiH (51%), as dictated by the U.S-hosted Dayton Agreement peace plan. 

This peace agreement serves as the legal basis upon which this current state project is based. It outlines the country’s weak presidency, which is essentially a council of three representatives of the constitutive ethnic groups, that is in charge of the cross-entity security agencies, fiscal policies and border control. Other autonomous cantonal and municipal entities decide issues pertaining to healthcare, education and other policies. 

European Raj

The Dayton Agreement reserves the country’s most powerful political role for the European Union’s High Representative (EUHR). Briefly, this person is a modern-day European Raj, a guardian over the state’s political framework with exclusive wide-ranging powers that include the right to remove any publicly elected government officials and to appoint judges and justices.  

It is worthwhile remembering that the Dayton Accords of 1995, the precursor to the peace agreement, were hailed as a diplomatic triumph that ended the Croatian aggressions and Serbian forces’ three-year genocidal aggression against BiH, the newly — and now independent — former Yugoslav republic located in eastern BiH. At the same time, however, the peace agreement has also contributed to institutionalizing these ethnic and religious divisions.  

Almost three decades after the agreement was signed, the metamorphosed extremist Serbian and Croatian nationalist forces are calling for BiH’s disintegration. The EUHR is mostly sitting and observing what’s going on, taking no significant action to stop this process, and thereby enabling the Serbian and Croatian nationalists’ destructive campaign to continue. Such passivity also contradicts its institutionalized role — to support BiH’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. 

Added to this, the combination of the current political structure, endemic corruption and economic hardship, persistent Islamophobia and the Bosniaks’ internal political disunity has produced an unsustainable sociopolitical and volatile environment in the country.  

Milorad Dodik, the polarizing extremist nationalist Serb leader and president of Republika Srpska, currently under the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions, embodies the separatist ambitions threatening Bosnia’s territorial integrity. His controversial stances, ranging from secessionist policies to explicit denials of the Bosniak genocide, have made him not a cause, but rather a catalyst for instability. His recent political maneuvers, such as refusing to obey the Constitutional Court’s legislative decisions have both destabilized RS and had a ripple effect on the entire country. 

This situation further strains inter-ethnic relations and complicates the functioning of other legislative and diplomatic efforts. In the light of these factors and the geopolitical situation, the fragility of the country’s state institutions is not merely a local issue, but has broader implications for regional stability and international peace. If left unaddressed, these layers of complexity can cascade into instability across the Balkans, thereby leading to another bloody conflict that will inevitably lead to a range of humanitarian crises.  

What can be done? 

There are no easy answers to this question. What we do know is that any realistic answers depend on the ambition and awareness of those competent and informed individuals who can provide them. For example, the EU and its allies, primarily the U.S., would need to assert their commitment and resources to guarantee BiH’s territorial integrity. This will only happen if the EU member states and its political elite muster enough political will to do something constructive. Mustering such will in political environments dominated by increased levels of ethno-fascism and Islamophobia is even more difficult.  

We might also wonder why domestic political parties aren’t proposing any substantial improvements. The fact is that no major political party — especially those dominated by the Bosniaks — offers a coherent political vision in which a unified and stable BiH would be possible and where all citizens, regardless of their religious or ethnic belonging, could be safe and integrated.  

But regardless of any visions and concrete propositions coming from designated foreign or domestic political actors, any change requires a plan that reforms the entire constitutional framework and institutional structure. In a world dominated by hardwired nation-states, constitutions are operating systems. The desire to construct a constitution anchored in a widely accepted and publicly agreed upon document by the citizens, one that offers clearly defined institutional functions and balance of powers among the various branches and levels of government, is a distant dream in deeply divided BiH. 

As of now, incentives for radical and constructive change and for integrating the disunited BiH are few and far between. The existing political elites seem to be chronically paralyzed and unable to generate any new ideas and initiatives to resolve this deadlock. Both the EU and the U.S. seem to be uninterested and unable to aid and sustain any constructive solution(s). 

What Options Remain? 

If the goal is to generate a sustainable coexistence, spark political creativity and produce coherent visions, then this ambition must come from the people themselves. Consider the following: A significant number of Bosnian youth are largely disillusioned, highly educated, and cosmopolitan in their outlook on life. As such, they can be said to have the potential to generate, spark, and produce needed solutions. 

I would argue that they can be a constructive force in terms of creating a fertile ground for future reforms and conflict resolution so that BiH can survive as the Bosniak’s only homeland. I further believe that this potential, in combination with the domestic tradition of tolerance and coexistence in BiH, is an important part of the solution to a list of endemic internal problems. 

This domestic tradition of tolerance and coexistence is, anthropologically speaking, a deep-seated part of Bosniak culture that is rarely separated or distinct from everyday life. It is worthwhile to reflect on the slow and organic Islamization of the Bosnian vilajet, which became an Ottoman province during the 15th century. This historically analyzable process of toleration and coexistence developed in several of its urban centers, especially from the early 16th century onward. 

Bosnian Muslims from that era, as well as today, experienced Islam as a global phenomenon that cut across political, cultural and social divides. The existence of Orthodox Christian or Sephardic Jewish congregations (millets), Catholic institutions and cultural communities existed side by side with their Muslim neighbors under the auspices of Ottoman sultans, appointed viziers, pashas and other officials. The Sephardic community was composed primarily of refugees from the Catholic conquests of Iberia’s Emirate of Granada during the late 15th century.  

Despite short periods of intercommunal tension, the religious diversity allowed for a thriving coexistence in which toleration was the norm. This was also true when the Bosnian polity and its diverse populations came under the rule of the Habsburg Empire in the second half of the 19th century, even though the Bosniaks suddenly lost any privileges they might have enjoyed under the Ottomans. Despite difficulties, the historical records and subsequent analyses show that Bosnian Muslims were resilient and committed enough to maintain their intellectual and religious connections with the Muslim East, while at the same time being flexible enough to adapt to Western ideas and realities of the nation-state. 

Out of these collective experiences and subsequent traumas, this relatively small Muslim community developed the Bosniaks’ ethic of merhamet — goodness and compassion. This ethic was both praised and criticized internally during the 1992-95 aggression on BiH. A number of Bosnian intellectuals criticized it as too pacifist or rather naïve, especially during the period preceding the war. Others praised it because it discouraged the Bosniaks from taking revenge or destroying Orthodox and Catholic symbols and places of worship.  

This centuries-old resilience, based on the Bosnian Muslims’ collective experiences, shared ethic and heightened sense of toleration, represent important cultural resources that are sorely needed for generating coexistence, creativity, and visions of a brighter future. One can only hope that youth of other ethnic minorities will be able to overcome their respective ethno-chauvinistic political agendas. 

One potential answer to “What can be done?” is to construct positive ways through which today’s generation of hyperconnected and cosmopolitan Bosniak youth can engage with these cultural resources in order to at least start addressing the currently unsustainable and endemic problems of disunity, corruption, hatred and separatism. The first step in this engagement process must be education. After all, the first word of the Quranic revelation was iqra’ — Read! 

Emin Poljarevic is an associate professor of Islamic studies at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. 

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