bosnia report
New Series No:49-50 December - March 2006
History and the rebirth of Bosnia
by Marko Attila Hoare

A mistaken understanding of history can contribute to bad policy-making. Such was the case with the disastrous Western policy toward Bosnia-Herzegovina in the period 1992-95, which was influenced in part by a poor understanding of Bosnian history. Almost everyone familiar with the subject knows about the theory of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’, according to which the Bosnian nationalities have ‘always’ been fighting each other, not for any real reason, but simply because they are culturally or genetically programmed to do so - an essentially racist theory that is universally rejected by scholars of the subject. Yet there is also a more subtle but equally false theory, according to which the Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats are three entirely separate, homogenous nationalities. To this is linked another misconception, that ‘Bosnia and the Muslims’ are two sides of the same coin, like ‘Croatia and the Croats’ or ‘Serbia and the Serbs’. Strangely, this notion is often shared by both friends and enemies of Bosnia-Herzegovina; the former frequently portray the Serbs and Croats as a negative, disruptive element in Bosnian history; while the latter portray Bosnia as an alien, illegitimate entity that unjustly imprisons the Serbs and Croats and obstructs their legitimate national aspirations. Challenging these misconceptions, and re-evaluating Bosnian history, have an important part to play in rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Historically, many proud Serb and Croat nationalists were also good Bosnians. For example, the nineteenth-century Bosnian Serb revolutionary Vaso Pelagić was a Serb nationalist, who believed all Bosnians were Serbs and wanted Bosnia’s unification with Serbia and Montenegro. But he was also a Bosnian patriot, who argued that even in a united Serb state, Bosnia should have its own parliament and autonomy. He was also a great admirer of the Islamic religion, and drew parallels between its egalitarianism and the principles of socialism. The early twentieth-century Bosnian Serb politician Nikola Stojanović, in opposing Austro-Hungarian rule in his country, demanded that Bosnia-Herzegovina should have the right to self-determination on the basis of one man, one vote, with all Bosnians voting collectively, regardless of religion or nationality - precisely what eventually took place in 1992. And the Bosnian Serb politicians who took Bosnia into Yugoslavia in 1918 rejected the idea that Bosnia should first unite with Serbia, fearing that such a step would be divisive both for Bosnia and for the South Slavs generally.

Educated Bosnian Catholics were pioneers of the Bosniak identity, before they became Croats, and long before the Muslims had begun commonly to identify themselves as ‘Bosniak’ by nationality. The nineteenth-century Bosnian Franciscan Ivan Franjo Jukić described the Bosnians regardless of religion as ‘Bosniaks’, and their language as ‘Bosnian’; also as comprising a single nation - a Bosniak branch of the larger Slavic tree. He championed the administrative reunification of Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Ottoman Empire, and the introduction of Bosnian as an official language of state. Immediately prior to the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Bosnia in 1878, the leading members of the Bosnian Franciscans called for an autonomous Bosnia-Herzegovina based on the principles of equality and religious freedom for all Bosnia-Herzegovina’s religious communities. In the 1920s, the Bosnian Croat parliamentarian Nikola Mandić championed Bosnian autonomy in opposition to the centralising Yugoslav kingdom.

Founding of the Bosnian state

Thus being a good Serb or a good Croat, and being a good Bosnian, are not mutually exclusive; on the contrary, historically they have often been mutually reinforcing parts of a single patriotic identity. Historically, Bosnians of all nationalities have made vital contributions to the emergence of Bosnia as a state. The Bosnian state was founded in the 1940s by the Bosnian Partisans under Communist leadership. The Bosnian section of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia grew out of the Bosnian labour movement, the emergence of which Bosnian Croats had pioneered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the foundation of the Bosnian state itself, Bosnian Serbs played the vanguard role. The Bosnian Partisan army that founded the Bosnian state had at all times a solid Serb majority. The Bosnian republic that emerged from World War II had a Serb president, a Serb prime minister and a Serb secretary of the Communist organisation.

Just as Serbs spearheaded the Bosnian liberation struggle of the 1940s, so Muslims, as is well known, spearheaded the Bosnian liberation struggle of the 1990s. But in the 1990s too there were prominent Bosnian Serbs and Croats who remained faithful to their traditional Bosnian patriotism: Bogić Bogićević, Ivo Komšić, Jovan Divjak, Stjepan Š iber and many others. Thus, the claim that the war of the 1990s was a war between Serbs, Muslims and Croats is false. Many Serbs and Croats, as well as Muslims, fought for their country.

This raises the question, however, of why the Bosnian war of independence essentially ended in failure. The principal blame, of course, lies with Serbia, and to a lesser extent with Croatia, as the aggressors that tried to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina and inflicted tremendous destruction upon it in their efforts to do so. Part of the blame lies too with Western politicians, who treated the war as a ‘civil war’ between Croats, Muslims and Serbs, in which all three sides were equivalent. The international community’s policy at all times involved rewarding the aggressors and dismantling the Bosnian state, culminating in the Dayton Accord of 1995 that abolished the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and awarded the Serb extremists 49% of the country. However, the Muslim leadership that increasingly dominated the Bosnian state from 1992 on likewise bears a share of the responsibility, for pursuing an increasingly narrow Muslim policy and for concentrating all state power in Muslim hands, so alienating the Bosnian Serbs and Croats. By the end of the war, the initially multinational Bosnian Army had become almost exclusively Muslim, and was therefore ineffective as a force for the liberation of all Bosnia-Herzegovina, the majority of whose population is non-Muslim.

Bankrupt and unworkable

Dayton Bosnia is not just morally bankrupt in origin but also unworkable, crippled as it is by division into entities and cantons, and suffocated by the weight of its bureaucracy. Any solution to the lingering Bosnian question requires both a change in attitude among the international community, and the emergence of a new political movement among Bosnians. The High Representative has taken important steps towards dismantling the institutions of the Serb Republic, but we now need to go further and abolish the separate Bosnian entities and cantons. There can be no place in Europe for entities based on genocide.

Ultimately, however, Bosnia’s unity and rebirth can be achieved only by the Bosnians themselves. Bosnian patriots must embrace a model of patriotism encompassing the Muslim, Croat and Serb patriotic traditions, in which Husein-kapetan Gradaščević, Vaso Pelagić and Ivan Franjo Jukić would all have their place. This would give the Muslims the united Bosnia that they want, but would also enable the Serbs and Croats to obtain what they want - union with Croatia and Serbia - on the basis of common membership of all three states in the EU. For a rejuvenated, functioning Bosnia would more quickly be accepted into the EU. Paradoxically, it is by rebuilding Bosnia that the country’s Croats and Serbs could accelerate their renewed post-Yugoslav union with their matrix states.

This is the edited text of the author’s contribution to a seminar marking the tenth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement, organized by The Bosnian Institute in London on 7 November 2005 at the University of Westminster


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