In the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the ongoing conflict over the continued existence of the state is escalating. The political leadership of the Serbian part of the country wants more independence and is seeking unification with neighbouring Serbia. The High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, German politician Christian Schmidt of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is trying to prevent this from happening.
Media and politicians in the region are calling up images from the war of the 1990s, warning of ethnic conflict, and demanding action from the international community. In this conversation, Boris Kanzleiter and Krunoslav Stojaković criticize institutionalized ethno-nationalism and explore the possibility of left-wing perspectives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 27 years after the end of the Yugoslav wars.
Boris Kanzleiter directs the Centre for International Dialogue and Cooperation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Berlin. He directed the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation office in Belgrade from 2009 to 2016.
Krunoslav Stojaković has worked in the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung office in Belgrade since 2011, and became the director in 2017.
Translated by Samuel Langer and Bradley Schmidt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.
BK: I keep experiencing déjà vu when I look at Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are heavily armed police special forces parading through Banja Luka in red berets, reminiscent of the uniforms worn by Serbian paramilitaries in the 1990s. Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative in the state presidency and Republika Srpska strongman, repeatedly announced that the Serb part of the country would seek to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On the other hand, the US government imposed sanctions on Dodik in early January, and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has also announced sanctions. There is even speculation in the media about the possibility of another war. How do you see the current situation? Is the protracted conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina threatening to escalate?
Entrenching the Ethnic Principle
KS: If by escalation you mean a military conflict, I think such a development is unlikely. But in Bosnia-Herzegovina we are dealing with an explosive constellation of conflicts.
Essentially what we are seeing is a dispute over the state structure as codified by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement. Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided into two entities, based on ethnic principles and endowed with far-reaching powers of self-government: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, which together form Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The political superstructure of this construct is a weak central state whose constitution and institutions are actively being obstructed by important political representatives. Not only are large parts of the political elite of Republika Srpska agitating against the central state, but also leading Croatian politicians such as Dragan Čović, chairman of the most influential Croatian party, Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ). Even the Bosniak political elite, generally considered to have the greatest interest in stabilizing the central state, is undermining the latter’s institutions.
The parade you mentioned in Banja Luka on 9 January symbolizes the supposed founding act of Republika Srpska, its embedding in the tradition of the Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina proclaimed on 9 January 1992, presided over by Hague War Crimes Tribunal convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina ruled this holiday unconstitutional because it discriminated against the non-Serb population. The Venice Commission, an institution of the Council of Europe, reached a similar verdict. Nevertheless, 9 January has been officially celebrated as the day of the Republika Srpska for 30 years, which says a lot about the authority of central state institutions.
In my opinion, however, we should not be talking so much about this or that unilateral action or this or that provocation by nationalist politicians. Instead, we should be talking about the profound, structural problems with the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina: its internal makeup, including the fundamental principles of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which alongside the de facto neo-colonial institution of the High Representative also enshrined the ethnic principle, the country’s disastrous social and economic situation, and its relations with neighbouring states, but also with Russia, the EU, and NATO. The extremely high emigration rates from both sub-entities also pose an immense problem.
The Theatrical Thunder of Competing Elites
BK: Yes, this is a second aspect of the déjà vu effect. Instead of looking at societal interrelationships and power structures, the dominant discourses reduce the problems, as in the 1990s, to “ethnic conflicts” between “Serbs, Croats, and Muslims”, where one side is labelled as “evil” and the other “good”.
On the other hand, there is a complete lack of any analysis of the miserable record of socio-economic development over the past 27 years. But it is the case that the construct of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement has failed to initiate positive economic and social development. On the contrary, the industrial infrastructure that existed before the war has not been rebuilt. There is a high level of unemployment, a lack of prospects, and young people in particular are leaving the country en masse.
At the same time, a small elite of the super-rich and profiteers from privatization has established itself, largely identical with the war profiteers of the 1990s. These elites also control the media and the patronage-based ethnic parties. They have mastered techniques of manipulation at all levels. What is represented to the outside world as an “ethnic conflict” is actually the theatrical thunder of competing elites, legitimizing themselves through nationalist rhetoric, but in reality only using it to maintain their positions of power.
KS: Breaking into the media mainstream with left-wing analyses and commentaries is not an easy task. As a result, socio-political developments that contradict the common narrative of national tensions remain for the most part unknown.
The most significant example in this context was the social protests in 2014, which had a clear socioeconomic background, and were also resolutely directed against the nationalist narrative. Moreover, they were very innovative in their form and their political perspective on the question of organization, and exerted influence beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina on progressive forces in Croatia and Serbia.
The protests began in the industrial city of Tuzla, where the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation maintains an office. Workers at a local chemical company that had been almost completely ruined in several waves of privatization had been trying for years to save their workplace from bankruptcy by taking production into their own hands. In order to draw attention to their extremely difficult situation, they organized a demonstration in front of the building of the Tuzla cantonal government in at the beginning of 2014, which was soon joined by students, activists, as well as many workers from other factories and the unemployed.
Several thousand people took part in these protests, which subsequently spread to many cities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and grew into a veritable social movement. The demands were consistently socioeconomic in nature, and the nationalist narrative was explicitly rejected. As a result, so-called “citizens’ plenums” were formed throughout the country, at which thousands of citizens were to decide on demands and strategies.
Unfortunately, this movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina remained almost exclusively limited to the Muslim-Croat federation. In Banja Luka, Milorad Dodik and the political elite gathered around him managed to portray the protests as an attack on the integrity of Republika Srpska. Despite sympathies for the protest movement among the population, it consequently got bogged down at this point. However, just how tense the situation in Republika Srpska itself was, and still is, was demonstrated by the protests against the murder of a young man in Banja Luka, which also developed into a movement with thousands of supporters at the end of 2018.
Demographic studies show that the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina could shrink to 1.5 million within the next 50 years — in 1991 the country still had 4.5 million inhabitants! One of the main causes is labour migration, especially to Germany. This is where a left-wing position would be important, aiming at a socio-political and economic reconstruction of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
A recent large-scale study showed that the majority of the population blames the nationalist elites, the religious leaders, and their special interests for this misery. There is absolutely the desire for a common future for all ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina; what is missing is a political subject able to formulate such an alternative. And this brings us back to the ethnically based construction of the state as laid down in the Dayton Peace Treaty.
The Need to Overcome Institutionalized Ethno-Nationalism
BK: Yes, in addition to addressing the catastrophic socio-economic situation, in my view this is a second important point on which to take a stand. From a left perspective, there can be no question of supporting any of the three nationalist or national-religious actors, all of whom define themselves as explicitly anti-communist and right-wing. Instead, overcoming institutionalized ethno-nationalism would need to be central, with the aim of achieving equal rights for all, in a united, secular, and democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this sense, Dayton would have to be overcome.
Regrettably, however, the ethno-nationalist discourse is tending to intensify. You already mentioned the demands of the Croatian nationalist HDZ for a separate entity, defined along ethno-national lines, around Mostar. But I find it much more serious that among conservative and right-wing forces in the EU and the US there even seems to be support for new border demarcations based on ethno-nationalist organizing principles.
Last year a “non-paper” attributed to circles around Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Slovenian head of government Janez Janša proposed the creation of a Greater Croatia including parts of Bosnia, a Greater Serbia including Republika Srpska, and a Greater Albania including most of Kosovo and parts of northern Macedonia. This paper apparently circulated in the highest circles of the EU Commission and the European Parliament. I think it is therefore a mistake to place too much hope in the European Union. Unfortunately, nationalist forces who think very similarly to those in Bosnia and Herzegovina now have very strong voices there. For example, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, is a close confidant of Viktor Orbán. Incidentally, Hungary also recently granted Dodik a substantial loan.
The High Representative: A Flawed Construct
Equally problematic would be to take a positive view of the institution of the High Representative, likewise enthroned by the Dayton Agreement, and who is supposed to represent the “international community” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The post has been held by various Western diplomats since 1995. The current incumbent is Christian Schmidt, a politician from the German centre-right CSU. The High Representative can dismiss democratically elected officials and pass laws. In essence, the office can be described as “neo-colonial”.
In order to legitimize the office, it has often been stressed that it is indeed an anachronism, but that it is necessary in order to secure peace. In fact, it seems to me that the existence of the High Representative creates more problems than it solves. Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim forces, as well as many international non-governmental organizations, keep calling on the High Representative to finally take effective action against Milorad Dodik and the Serb nationalists, who for their part do not recognize Schmidt. In fact, however, Dodik benefits from this, because against this backdrop he can present himself as a protector of the Serbian people, who must remain in power in order to guarantee its security.
The High Representative is also problematic when seen in the historical context of the intervention by the Great Powers in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After centuries of Ottoman rule, Bosnia and Herzegovina was placed under Austro-Hungarian administration at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Prior to World War I, Habsburg rule was experienced by many people as extremely repressive. During World War II, the German Army occupied the country and fought the anti-fascist partisans.
Considering these facts it is a historical aberration that four of the eight High Representatives, Wolfgang Petritsch, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, Valentin Inzko, and now Christian Schmidt, have been Austrian or German. This benefits the Serbian ethno-nationalists, who see Austria and Germany as their historical enemies.
Left-Wing Perspectives in Bosnia and Herzegovina
KS: Even the constellations during the war in the 1990s were determined by direct interventions of Bosnia and Herzegovina's neighbour states. It is an open secret that, had he not died, Croatian President Franjo Tuđman would have found himself in the dock at The Hague along with Slobodan Milošević, with whom he had agreed to divide the country between Serbia and Croatia. Against this backdrop, it is less surprising that Milorad Dodik is currently emerging as a proponent of a third, Croatian entity, which is being called for by Croatian-secessionist forces around Dragan Čović. In this sense, nationalist forces from Croatia and Serbia are collaborating.
Overall, the interference of these two neighbour states has had a very negative effect on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s already complicated domestic affairs. Political backing from Serbia is just as crucial for Milorad Dodik as it is from Croatia for Dragan Čović. This also means, however, that if Belgrade and Zagreb eventually give the thumbs down to these two politicians, they are most likely to be consigned to the past.
In addition to the interventions from these regional players there is the role of the international powers, above all the EU, NATO, the United States, Russia, and Turkey. While the latter acts as a lobby for Bosnian Muslims and supports the Bosniak establishment around Bakir Izetbegović — Erdogan personally attended the wedding of Izetbegović’s daughter last year — significant parts of the Bosniak-Croat elite aspire to NATO membership. Željko Komšić, the Croatian representative in the three-member presidency, never tires of claiming that NATO membership is an absolute priority.
The Serbian representatives, on the other hand, reject it outright, and know that they have Russian support in this. The Russians also back Dodik in the matter of refusing to recognize the High Representative, Christian Schmidt. The harsher the tone in the dispute between NATO, the EU, and Russia in the context of the Ukraine crisis, the harsher the disputes between the ethno-national confederations in Bosnia and Herzegovina will become.
This context already clearly indicates the complexity of the structures we are dealing with in Bosnia and Herzegovina. An important starting point for the political left could be to critically reassess, and demand the overcoming of, those elements of the Dayton Peace Agreement that assign the ethnic factor a primary role in the construction of the state. In the first place, the ethnically defined partial entities should be superseded in favour of a concept of citizenship that does not define its citizens merely as members of one of three constitutive ethnic groups, but as subjects who are actively responsible for shaping political life in the country.
The ongoing dominance of nationalist parties in public life is, after all, a direct result of the role assigned to them by Dayton. In the political science discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina, this circumstance is described by the term “ethno-determinism”. The argument that changing the status quo is not possible because abolishing the partial entities or the office of High Representative would inevitably lead to new armed conflicts fails to recognize that the prevalence of the ethnic principle is a direct consequence of Dayton — only moving beyond that agreement and in the direction of a civic constitution would create the conditions for dismantling the forces that are driving the threat of war.
Finally, I would also like to point out that the emergence of a political left in Bosnia and Herzegovina only represents a possibility if the division of the country into partial entities and along ethnic lines is overcome. At present, for example, it is hardly possible for trade unions to work together across the country’s internal borders — joint labour struggles are an illusion. Economic power is in the hands of national elites, as is the power to dispose over resources in the public sector. Those who oppose these elites and question their exclusive legitimacy run the risk of losing not only their own means of subsistence, but quite possibly having those of other members of their families taken away as well.