bosnia report
New Series No. 2 January - February 1998
Being Croat the Bosnian Way
by Ivan Lovrenovic

Asked in the autumn of 1994 if you believed in your return to Sarajevo, you answered that it was a difficult question. You did not give a clear answer then, but now you are back, to the great joy of all who those who wish this city and this country well.

At that time I was unable to give a straightforward answer, for the simple reason that I had nowhere to go back to: Grbavica was then a different world. But later it was quite natural for us to return home to the Grbavica flat from which we had fled for our lives in May 1992; and if I could also go back to Mrkonjic-Vracar [his childhood home, now in RS], I should really feel I had come home. As for the more general theme of leaving and returning, it is one I am reluctant to broach because it is open to such grave mystifications; so I prefer to limit myself to the 'practical' aspect of the matter.

In the first years of the war you wrote occasional columns in the Sarajevo press under the heading Ex Tenebris. How do you experience Sarajevo today?

I feel it is almost improper to compare Sarajevo then and Sarajevo now, simply because what happened between then and now has altered our world so fundamentally. We refuse to acknowledge this, because we harbour a deep, subconscious fear of coming to terms with the substance and extent of that change. In my view there is simply no comparison between the world we once knew, of which we were a part, and the one that is now in place. Paradoxically only we have re- mained the same, although even the word 'same' should perhaps be placed between inverted commas. We are the same in our physical appearance, we recognize each other's faces and speak a mutually comprehensible language; but every time we pause in our communication, we become aware of the deep chasm of this change yawning beneath it. I do not know how to define what has changed, but I know for certain that this world and that world are two quite different worlds. I do not even wish to ascribe them a value, to say that the old one was better than the new one or the other way round. I only know that they are two quite different worlds and that the life we now live is wholly different from the life we lived before.

The Zagreb Catholic journal Glas Koncila in March 1996 described our city as 'imprisoned in the darkness of human ruthlessness, hatred and greed', and other Croatian papers too constantly bring up its supposed 'dark vilayet' atmosphere.

I am simply unable to think in such terms. What you refer to is certainly the result of a wilfully unsympathetic and improvised value judgement. Those who qualify Bosnia and Sarajevo in this way demonstrate not only their ignorance but also their moral poverty. For the sake of my own dignity and that of my country, I refuse to engage in polemical disputes with people who indulge in such cheap abuse. And after allÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ , what does it signify anyway? Every genuine social, political and cultural ambience contains an element of 'darkness'. What country in the world is not 'dark'? So we Bosnians too must find a way of admitting that our country and even Sarajevo itself, at both their most glorious and their worst moments, have contained something which, when observed from outside and expressed in ideological language, may be described as darkness. We did not need the war to realize that Bosnia has its ugly and difficult side: we who were born and lived in Bosnia knew this well. If such an observation is to mean anything, at all events, it must be taken as a call to self-examination - to a determined and intelligent effort on our part to investigate this problem. After all it is we who have been living with Bosnia's difficulties and will continue to do so in the future. This is why I should not waste much time upon those who call us such names. I should much prefer us, as a marvellous story by Andric recommends, to take care of our own troubles, not by giving each other false compliments or getting at each other, but by learning to face the truth - our own and that of others - and to rationalize or objectify it, to the degree that is necessary to re-establish mutual trust: the kind of trust which has at times been demonized from outside but which we call coexistence or cohabitation, and which we know provides the indispensable foundation for living also the life defined by our narrower Croat, Serb, Bosniak, etc. identities. That is how Bosnia is. If that is darkness, then all I can say is that it is my own darkness and, oppressive though it may be, the truth is I could not live without it.

How do you grade identities in Bosnia? You have written about being no less a Croat because you are not simply a Croat, but a Bosnian as well.

In my whole experience, emotional and intellectual, the feeling of being a Croat and the feeling of being a Bosnian have never in any way been mutually exclusive or in conflict with each other. They were always mutually complementary, indeed synonymous with each other. To be a Bosnian Croat is to be pre-eminently a Bosnian. To put it somewhat pathetically, I do not allow anyone to be a greater Bosnian and Croat than I am myself. Such statements are, of course, ridiculous, but I wish to emphasize that only political manipulation can set these two identities against each other .

The Bosnian Croats, ethnically and traditionally, are the Bosnian ingredient par excellence, synonymous with Bosnia from its very beginnings. It is impossible to imagine Bosnia without them, nor can they imagine themselves outside of it. The private, inner sadness and suffering which the Bosnian Croats - now dislocated and widely dispersed - carry within themselves best testifies to what I am talking about. Politically uneducated, miserable and manipulated, they may think that Tudjman is their God; but their feelings - their tragic sorrow and yearning - for their Bosnian places is unbelievably strong.

But can you go to Kiseljak, which is only about thirty kilometers from Sarajevo, and tell a Croat there that he lives in Bosnia not in Croatia?

It is precisely because of such absurdities that I have been insisting so much on a precise delineation of responsibilities. The Kiseljak question should be addressed to the parties [HDZ and SDA] which to this day, in their unnatural marriage, maintain that situation - and not to us Croats. This is not a question for you or me to debate. We can discuss in some detail problems of culture and reach an understanding, but what you are speaking of here is something quite trivial, yet unfortunately very tenacious - a question of concrete individuals with very concrete interests.

We have many people in positions of power, especially in Republika Srpska, who insist that no 'multi-Bosnia' is possible, Indeed the prefix 'multi' has by constant use become trivialized and worn out. CÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ an you comment on this linguistic exhaustion?

You are right to point out how the famous prefix 'multi' has been devalued by constant repetition. But this is of little consequence. It is more important to re-examine the concepts in question. When we speak of Bosnian civilization in terms of its religions, then one can and must speak of pluralism, of Bosnia's multi-dimensional existence. Bosnia is a multi-confessional society.

However, the concept denoted by the prefix 'multi' is often used in a wrong and indeed damaging manner when dealing with Bosnia's cultural ambience and tradition. Speaking of multicultural Bosnia, we frequently in fact mechanically transpose the concept of multiculturalism used in the West. Bosnia both is, and is not, multicultural. If by culture one understands all the civilizational substrata carried here in the past on waves originating in different cultural and religious centres, then yes, Bosnia is multicultural. However, at the same time Bosnia is not multicultural, in the sense that it has a cultural formation which is unique to it. This unity of the Bosnian system of cultural references rests on quite concrete foundations, one of which, for example, is our language - the fact that we all speak the same language. No other former Yugoslav republic is so unified by language as Bosnia-Herzegovina. And then we speak of our cultural multi-composition as if it were a handicap! Even today, regardless of the results of this horrendous war, Bosnia has remained united in the sense of the existence of this single cultural system of reference, that acts as the medium for communication among its citizens.

What in your view is the position of the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina in relation to the country's future? There is a belief, rarely publicly stated, that Catholic Church leaders have verbally defended Bosnia's integrity while hoping that the violence and aggression would finish it off.

The behaviour of the Catholic Church can best be described as ambivalent. This ambivalence derives from its own historical and national-confessional determination. On the one hand it is a highly traditional and deeply rooted Bosnian structure. As the oldest of all B-H institutions, the Catholic Church can claim to have shared the fate of the country since its inception. This is one side, one pole of its ambivalence. On the other side it is an integral part of the Croat cultural and national whole. In all times during which these two sides were not in conflict, there was no ambivalence in the behaviour of the Church. However, the break-up of Yugoslavia and the start of the war - first in Croatia and then in Bosnia-Herzegovina - suddenly and in the most dramatic fashion brought into collision these two equally important and equally fundamental components of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Catholic Church, causing a crisis not only within the institution as such, but even and perhaps more importantly within each of its individual members. This has produced certain hesitations and oscillations between left and right. Now that the war is over and an equilibrium has been restored, one could give the following verdict: despite all its wanderings during the past war, in relation to all the possible concrete politically conflictual situations which the war produced, especially in the relationship between the Croatian and Bosnian states, the Catholic Church has succeeded in emerging from all these Scyllas and Charibdises as a truly Bosnian patriotic force. I myself belong to those who would have preferred its position to have been clearer - more positive and categorical - at certain moments. But since we are dealing with an ambivalently structured institution, with people whose being is equally strongly determined by both of the two poles I have described, I believe it is correct to pass a generally positive judgment on its record - and all the more so in view of the unprecedented historical circumstances, which are pÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ erhaps insufficiently understood. Whereas before the war the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina was organizationally an integral part of the Catholic Church of Croatia, it has emerged from the war identified with Bosnia-Herzegovina alone. The fact that the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become the Catholic Church of Bosnia-Herzegovina once and for all is, in my view, an outcome of the greatest importance.

You wrote recently in the Croatian weekly Tjednik that to call the Bosnian HDZ leaders 'the representatives of the Croat people in Bosnia-Herzegovina' is linguistic manipulation. What is your attitude towards the HDZ?

I am glad you have asked me this question, since there are few issues on which I take so clear and resolute a stand as towards the HDZ. From the moment the party was formed under the name of the Croatian Democratic Community of Bosnia- Herzegovina, I was against it - and I have not changed this negative view of it in the slightest. I knew already then that, for the people in whose name this party presumed to act, it was counterproductive and dangerous that its centre should lie outside the country, i.e. in Croatia. This submission to Zagreb has proved to be the essence of the problem. In saying this I do not wish to deny in any way the need for a normal relationship between the Croat people in Bosnia and in Croatia. By manipulating this relationship, however, the HDZ became the primary destructive force among all the other forces that have worked for the annihilation of the Bosnian Croat world. This must be said over and over again, and can easily be proved. To say this is not to be anti-Croat - on the contrary. My criticism of the HDZ is motivated above all by the interests of the Croat people, which that party has neither understood nor proved able to defend.

Alija Izetbegovic likes to say that Bosnia's fate depends on a weak Serbia and a democratic Croatia. Leaving Serbia aside, do you see a future Croatia as a democratic state?

I must first of all say that, unless we see Bosnia's future as derived from itself and secured in itself, then Bosnia has no future. Only when that is made clear can I agree that Bosnia's fate is influenced by what happens in its neighbourhood. The end of the present unbelievable, bloody and tragi-comic post-Communist structure in Croatia is guaranteed by the laws of biology and the general march of events in Europe and beyond: both of these provide support for Izetbegovic's confidence in a future democratic Croatia. If one can permit oneself this hope, then I would like to see - in Croatia as in Bosnia - a normal government concerned with a better life for its citizens rather than with national mythomania. In that event, one might easily discover that Croatia and Bosnia are a single world, not in the sense of political or state ties, but simply in the sense that this is how things are.

At a recent basket-ball match between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia here in Sarajevo, there was an eruption of hostility among the public against the Croatian players and their state's symbols. Can you comment on this hostility and what it means for the relationship between the two countries and peoples?

In my view this has little to do with the relationship between the two countries and peoples, despite appearances - which, of course, are not to be minimized either. We are dealing here with crowd psychology, which tends to function on a simple, or more precisely on a primitive and primordial, level. The question, however, is what kind of media and channels of communication act as suitable transmission-belts for such primitive moods. Living in the Sarajevo-Zagreb-Belgrade triangle, six years or even longer ago we became conditioned to express our mass frustrations by abusing each other, especially those nearest to us. At the Maximir stadium in Zagreb they swore at the Balije, while here at Skenderija they railed against the Ustashe. This is terrible,ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ it leads to no good - I repeat here the usual things - but as long as such political formulas express the views of the organized political elites, this will continue to happen. It is very hypocritical of the press, and even more of the politicians, to express disapproval of such behaviour when it is in fact being engendered at the highest levels of politics. It is the politicians whom one should denounce daily, openly, clearly and brutally, rather than the sport fans - who are, of course, guilty of shouting such stuff, but who are not responsible for it in reality. I really do hold this to be the great challenge, indeed a question of honour, for the media and all of us who work within the media, that for the sake of the people whom we claim to love best we should name those who are truly responsible for such occurrences.

Why cannot one hear authoritative voices speaking out more loudly above politics in its brutal form?

There are none. Can you point to any such authority anywhere in Bosnia or outside of it?

You, for example. Speaking of the fateful triangle, you have not been politically involved with any of the three ruling parties.

The position which you ascribe to me is very precisely defined by the view that it is impossible to identify what is needed with the political parties that dominate and determine our whole area, in terms either of their practice or of their programmes. What is needed, in my view, includes rehabilitation, reconciliation, and a new structuring of the political, social, cultural and indeed human ambience of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is, however, not a single relevant, strong and effective party which at this moment has even a minimal programme for the regeneration of life in Bosnia-Herzegovina. To be outside party political life thus amounts to a political statement. Your question, however, had a different content. It spoke of absence of authority. The tragedy of our present situation, in my view, lies in the destruction of all systems of values. All those elements of society which reproduce themselves and proclaim themselves as authorities are, in fact, false authorities. Their pronouncements have been reduced to repetition of empty formulae of religious, national and cultural identification - a perpetual repetition of phrases devoid of value. This is the crucial problem which explains the absence of any authority with which people can identify. To say this is not to express pessimism in regard to the possibility of re-establishing the necessary system of values. I only mean that in Bosnia today, despite the tragic extent of its destruction and fragmentation, there exist enormous and powerful human potentialities, human energies, that could be moved in the direction of social consolidation. That this is not being done is a great and terrible crime of the existing political elites.

That brings us to the familiar question: how can the politicians who have caused this terrible catastrophe succeed in re-establishing trust and coexistence?

Obviously they cannot. That is the nub of the problem. The Bosnian political elites of today have no need or desire to turn to this latent energy in order to rehabilitate our society. The first step would be a kind of reconciliation or rebuilding of mutual trust. That means we must all, figuratively speaking, turn to one another. It is evident that the existing political elites cannot do this, and that they transfer this dangerous defeatism - their lack of will and absence of courage - by a well-established mechanism to the so-called masses. It is a dead end.

When we speak of political elites in this way, are we not falling into the error of equalization? Are we not being unfair to, let us say it clearly, one of the sides? Is it not the case that we in Bosnia would not have had these problems, had it not been for the expansionist aspirations of Belgrade and Zagreb?

Obviously, linking the fate of Bosnia-ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ Herzegovina to the political will of Belgrade and Zagreb cannot bring any good. However, I do not think you are right to pose the issue of equalization in this way. No morally or rationally responsible person can equalize what are commonly referred to as the three sides. The history of the post-Yugoslav conflict is close at hand, so everyone can reconstruct for herself or himself the course of events. There should be no doubt on this score.

However, when we look at the problem from the point of view of Bosnia-Herzegovina, when we perform a concrete and impartial political analysis, a highly nuanced form of equalization simply imposes itself. It is true that the policy of Slobodan Milosevic, expressed initially in the SDS and Radovan Karadzic, and the HDZ's policy directed from Zagreb and from the inner core of the party headed by Tudjman - that their interest was to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the time has passed when we could voice our Bosnian feelings, uphold our Bosnian dignity and express our Bosnian quest for justice by merely proclaiming such evident political judgments. Bosnia must confront itself. This includes also an exact and merciless analysis of the internal Bosnian factor, which you can call the SDA, Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosniak element or whatever. The behaviour of this 'third factor' must be subjected to an exact and public analysis, in relation precisely to the issue of all issues: how do we view Bosnia, what kind of Bosnia do we want and is there a way to re-establish Bosnia. This job, so far as I can see, has not been tackled. Instead, people ritually re- peat the charges against Belgrade and Zagreb. When I say this, I find I too need to recall what I have done for the past five or six years; but I insist that this is no longer enough. When you embark on an exact, unbiased and non-sentimental analysis of the 'third factor', it is very easy to reach the conclusion that, in the political execution of this whole process, this 'third factor' did not have - nor does it today have - a functional projection of Bosnia-Herzegovina's future, in the sense we understand when speaking of our need for it or how it can be reintegrated in a new political form. Unfortunately that is the case. I am aware in saying this of the need to address this theme very precisely, thoroughly and with arguments.

What is your view of Chairman of the Presidency, Alija Izetbegovic?

My view is very complex and ambivalent. Probably because he is that kind of individual. I must admit that, at different times and in different ways, I have found myself highly impressed by him - he has never left me cold or indifferent. When one thinks of him in a contextual and comparative manner, he is the most interesting and in a way the most mysterious of all the leaders in the former Yugoslav republics. Unlike the others, who share a common ideological and political origin and behave accordingly, Izetbegovic has lived all his life as an ordinary, politically unorganized and unformed individual. One can say that he lived his life as an outsider, while all the others were insiders. During the war he experienced the most traumatic and terrible agony conceivable for a politician.

Would it be right to say that the Dayton division of Bosnia into two entities amounts to a discontinuity in the history and internal organization of Bosnian statehood?

That is a very pertinent question, which perhaps the historians are best qualified to answer. All I can say is that I share the fear contained in your question, that we are faced with a serious discontinuity despite the fact that historically speaking Bosnia has been a dynamic formation - sometimes larger sometimes smaller, sometimes one size and sometimes another. One of its fundamental divisions is contained in its name: Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was internally divided also in recent history: i.e. in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, when the intention was to break it up as a political unitÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ y. What Dayton has done is not unprecedented, though the manner in which it was done is something for all of us to worry about.

The first step in the reconstitution of Bosnian culture must be a relativization of political-national identity. If we in Bosnia think of ourselves only as Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs, then we have nothing to say to each other - it is no- body's fault, Bosnia is simply like that. If we want Bosnia, if we swear by Bosnia and by the project of its reintegration, then we must know that and accept it in advance - otherwise it means we do not want Bosnia and that is the end of the story. If you want Bosnia, you must be Bosnian: which means you cannot be only a Bosniak, a Croat or a Serb. I keep repeating: I am no less a Croat because I am not only a Croat. And if each Bosnian can admit that to himself, then we are on the way to rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina. But I must remind you that the cultural ambience of Bosnia today - of Sarajevo in particular and especially, if I may say so, of the Bosniaks - is far from that. I know what I am saying, I know that in a way it has to be like this, and I can even appreciate it, since I am well aware of the Bosniaks' political and historical suffering in the modern period of our history...

If it only depended on the Bosniaks alone...

No, no, I am speaking of a pattern of behaviour which leads nowhere but to a national autism, solipsism - a process which in Croatia, for example, has advanced to a terrifying extent. Unfortunately when we speak of these processes, regardless of all the differences and antagonisms between them, it seems that we are all behaving in the same way. That is the problem.

Ivan Lovrenovic returned recently to Sarajevo after serving during the war years as cultural attache in the B-H embassy in Zagreb, working (from its foundation in March 1997) as deputy editor of the weekly Tjednik, and acting from 1995 on as chief editor of the Ex Ponto imprint, devoted to Bosnian literature, within the publishing house Durieux. Before the war he had been director of the important Prosvjeta publishing house based in Sarajevo, and he is now again working in publishing for Bosanska Knjiga. One of the foremost Bosnian writers, his works include poetry, novels, critical essays, literary history, etc. His influential essay 'The Deconstruction of Bosnia' was translated in the April/June 1996 issue of Bosnia Report. The text above is a compilation from interviews published in Dani (22 December 1997) and Ljiljan (24-31 December 1997).


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