Bosnia Today: Despair, Hope, and History

Bosnia Today: Despair, Hope, and History

Nearly two decades after the end of its brutal war, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia, for short) remains paralyzed by political corruption and ethnic mistrust. The country staggers from one constitutional crisis to another, the economy vegetates, many young people leave, and the rest of the world tunes out. Bosnia’s political dysfunction results in large measure from the Constitution imposed by the peace agreement signed at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. With its superfluity of local, regional, and national institutions, the Constitution perpetuates the ethnic divisions that, with other factors, were used to justify the war.

The country is now made up of two “entities.” The larger one is known confusingly as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is the designated turf of the Bošnjaks (Bosnians of Muslim heritage, though not necessarily belief) and the Bosnian Croats. The smaller one, the Republika Srpska belongs, as its name implies, to the Serbs. The Federation derives from the unstable wartime alliance brokered by the United States in 1994 between the Bosnian government and the Bosnian Croats, who had previously been fighting both the Bošnjaks and the Serbs. The Republika Srpska consists essentially of territory conquered during the war by Bosnian Serb nationalists, with the support of Serbia proper under Slobodan Milošević.

This structure, established at Dayton, ratifies the main territorial results of the war, especially the Serb and Croat insurrections against the central Bosnian state. Because most electoral constituencies are effectively mono-ethnic, the Dayton Constitution guarantees endless wrangling—along ethnic lines—over the spoils of office.

It didn’t have to be this way. Before the war, not all Bosnians identified themselves primarily as Bošnjaks, Serbs, or Croats—as least not primarily. Many saw themselves simply as Bosnians (or, before 1992, as Yugoslavs): in Bosnian (formerly Serbo-Croatian) the word for this non-ethnic, civic, urban identity is građanski. The West ignored these civic-minded Bosnians both during the war and in the negotiations at Dayton. It assumed that the only relevant actors were the Bošnjak, Serb, and Croat nationalists, whose followers were driven by “ancient ethnic hatreds.” Western policy makers thought they knew all about Bosnia’s history of communal slaughter; they certainly knew nothing whatever about the more prevalent tradition of komšiluk (neighborly tolerance and co-existence). Such građanski Bosnians were not a majority or even, perhaps, a plurality, but they were a significant force, particularly in the main cities of Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Mostar. In a census taken in 1991, some 17 percent of Sarajevans declared their ethnicity to be “Yugoslav,” rather than “Muslim,” “Serb,” or “Croat.” Nearly 5 percent identified themselves fancifully as “Eskimos,” “Hottentots,” “Citroens,” “...