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‘After the War, People are Still Very “Us Versus Them”’

Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern report from Bosnia and Herzegovina on the recent General Election and how the country’s complicated past continues to shape present realities

Candidate posters on the streets before the 2022 General Election in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Armin Durgut/PIXSELL

‘After the War, People are Still Very “Us Versus Them”’

Lindsey Kennedy and Nathan Paul Southern report from Bosnia and Herzegovina on the recent General Election and how the country’s complicated past continues to shape present realities

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“I lost my youth to war,” says Drago, an ethnic Serb Bosnian citizen who works in hospitality in the Bosniak Muslim-majority capital. “I lost my father and half of my family. I thought it would get better. I waited for it to get better and it never did.”

Thirty years on from the outbreak of a war that ripped the country apart, creating more than a million refugees and killing 100,000 people, Drago – along with almost every other voter Byline Times spoke to in Bosnia and Herzegovina last election weekend – says he isn’t holding out much hope for change.

He used to have hope, he says, but not since 2006 – the year the Government narrowly voted against reforming controversial rules that shut ethnic minorities in every region out of the political system.

Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to operate under one of the most complicated systems of governance in the world.

Valery Perry, a Western Balkans expert at the Democratisation Policy Council, calls it “institutionalised segregation, plain and simple”. Worse, the fundamental purpose of the system – to stave off another genocide by preventing one ethnic group amassing too much power – appears to be faltering.

Despite some surprise shifts towards tolerance and reform, the country remains deeply divided along ethno-nationalist lines. One half of it – the self-declared Repubika Srpska (Serb Republic) – leans in hard to far-right, populist rhetoric, choosing pro-Putin, openly Islamophobic leaders who frequently deny the Bosnian genocide ever took place. 

“I’m quite a left-leaning person myself, so the priority for me is equality for all three constitutional peoples,” says Zerina Zambaković, an 18-year-old high school student and poll station staffer in Zenica, a majority-Bosniak industrial city 70 miles north of Sarajevo.

“I think that’s one of the biggest problems, because people still, after the war, are very ‘us versus them’.” She is hopeful for change but realistic. “You can’t be really disappointed when you don’t expect anything.”

The nation of 3.3 million people – which the Constitution divides into Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, as well as barely recognised ‘others’ – went to the polls on 2 October. But the exceptionally convoluted political set-up, combined with accusations of vote-rigging and irregularities – including at least one confirmed case of ballot box-stuffing – meant that it took almost a week for the final results to be recounted and confirmed. 

Bosnia’s Constitution dictates that the country must have three rotating presidents: one Croat, one Bosniak, and one Serb.

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This time around, the Croat electorate chose Zeljko Komsic of the Democratic Front as their leader – generally seen as a reformist and veteran social democrat.

For the Bosniak seat, Denis Becirovic won a surprise victory over the more hardline Bakir Izetbegovic, whose father became the first president of the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina back in 1992.

The new Serb member of the Bosnian presidency is the UK-sanctioned Zeljka Cvijanovic, a protégé of her deeply divisive predecessor, Milorad Dodik, who instead shifted his sights from the national presidency to the internal leadership of Republika Srpska – a role that frees him from the shackles of compromise with his Croat and Bosniak counterparts.

Dodik is a Putin loyalist who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has been sanctioned by the UK and under the US Magnitsky Act for corruption and his attempts to destabilise his own country. He notoriously pushes a revisionist agenda that denies a whole host of war crimes propagated by ethnic Serbs – including the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which Bosnian Serb forces rounded up and murdered more than 7,000 Bosniak civilians.

He is also agitating for Republika Srpska to secede entirely from Bosnia – a move that would likely put its remaining Bosniak and Croat residents at serious risk. Both Dodik and his rival Jelena Trivi proclaimed victory in the Republika Srpska presidential race, with Trivi accusing Dodik, who the central electoral commission says won by a landslide, of rigging the election. As a result, anti-Dodik protestors took to the streets in Banja Luka, the largest city in the Republika Srpska.

“Citizens are worried about Dodik’s separatism and his ideas about splitting the Republika Srpska entity,” says Admir Lisica, a political activist based in Sarajevo. Both Dodik and Cvijanović are “extremely radical and hostile” towards Islam, Bosniaks and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he adds – fearing that their relationship with Russia will turn Bosnia into the next Ukraine. “We expect Europe to finally, decisively say no to their radicalism,” Lisica adds. 

Perry, who has worked in the Western Balkans since the 1990s, believes that Dodik and Cvijanović will seek to weaken the country as much as possible, fostering closer ties with Russia and “increasingly illiberal” Serbia and Hungary, while pretending to support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s bid to join the European Union as a way of getting hold of international funding.

“This is a cynical but effective tactic that they have seen works,” she says. “Their agendas will further solidify patronage, corruption and oligarchy, all of which are incompatible with democracy.”

But, Zerina pointed out on election day, with resentments running so deep, taking power away from the ultra-nationalists could also be a threat to peace. 

“I’m not going to say I’m scared, but I think that if [Dodik] loses, it’s going to be hell,” she says. “And in this part of the country, I think it’s going to be hell if Bakir loses, so there’s that problem,” she said, referring to the Bosniak politician who lost his presidency to the more reformist candidate, Becirovic.

“Mostly because, from my perspective, his party is a bit more extreme than the other ones, and some people who I know who vote for him are really – I don’t want to say extremist – but they have the ‘us versus them’ mentality. So I think it’s going to be a big problem if he loses.” 

That’s one of the biggest problems, because people still, after the war, are very ‘us versus them’

Zerina Zambaković

A Complicated Past

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s unusual political structure is a product of its brutal civil war.

Until the 1990s, the country was part of the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, along with Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia. As the state began to crumble between 1991 and 1992, a series of conflicts developed, fuelled by ethnonationalist rhetoric that sowed divisions and led to extreme, often genocidal, violence.

This included the Siege of Sarajevo, during which the now capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina was subjected to 1,425 days of relentless military assault by Bosnian Serb nationalists, including indiscriminate targeting of civilians by sniper and artillery fire. It resulted in the deaths of more than 11,000 people.

But atrocities were committed on all sides of the conflict and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has convicted 89 people – including ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – for war crimes ranging from genocide to the use of sexual violence as torture.

The conflict finally drew to an end with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, between the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. But this imposed a problematic Constitution on the newly emerged independent state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Intended as a temporary truce, the Constitution mandates that the country is governed by a multitude of institutional structures – including three presidents, 13 prime ministers, more than 140 ministers and 700 Members of Parliament, all of whom have to be divided equally along strictly enforced ethnic quotas.

The country is divided into two parts – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic Srpska. But the three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) must be represented equally in the national Parliament, legislature and judiciary. To make things even more complicated, the Federation is organised into 10 “cantors” (voting regions), which must be represented in the Parliament by the dominant ethnic group in that cantor.

The idea behind all of this was to protect all three ethnic groups from future persecution. In reality, it creates a situation whereby Bosniaks cannot vote for anyone claiming to represent their interests unless they live in a majority Bosniak area, Croats in a majority Croat area, and Serbs in the Republika Srpska.

Rather than ensuring that all citizens are equal, it means that every cantor has a dominant group that holds all the cards – and the only way for Bosnians to become less vulnerable or exercise any political will is to move somewhere in which they are in the ethnic majority. 

The demographic impact of this policy is stark.

Given that more 2.2 million people were displaced by conflict and ethnic cleansing campaigns, it is no surprise that the country emerged from the war a far more racially segregated place. But, in the decades since, it has failed to reintegrate. 

Census data shows, that in 1991 – the year before war broke out – the population of the Una-Sana canton, for example, was 73% Bosniak Muslim, 20% Serb, and 3% Croat. At the last census in 2013, it was 90% Bosniak, 2% Serb, and 2% Croat. Similarly, back in 1991, the population of the now-Republika Srpska was 55% Serb, 28% Bosniak, and 9% Croat. By 2013, it was 81% Serb, 14% Bosniak and 2% Croat. 


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What’s more, the rigid political system makes anyone who doesn’t fall into the categories of Bosniak, Croat or Serb effectively a second-class citizen, without any real political representation.

People of other ethnic backgrounds (or who define themselves as a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, without a specific ethnic or religious allegiance) can run for one of 11 unassigned seats at lower levels of government, but they are automatically excluded from the presidency or state-level positions. Twelve years ago, two Bosnian citizens, Dervo Sejdic, who is Roma, and Jakob Finci, who is Jewish, took the government to court over these discriminatory electoral policies, and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in their favour. Despite their triumph, the Constitution remains unchanged.

“Human rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina are always an afterthought in a system which has as its sole organising principle one’s presumed ethno-national identity and, in turn, their required ethno-national political party affiliation,” says Perry, who describes the country’s political system as a “structural strait-jacket”.

While overt violence against minorities is less prevalent here than in other countries in the region, she says, hate crimes do occur. Anti-Roma racism, for instance, is an ongoing problem. “It is difficult to imagine Bosnia and Herzegovina ever meeting its human rights obligations in a structure that was built to preserve ethno-national power blocs, to the exclusion of all others,” she adds.

While some observers are heartened by the fact that ethno-nationalists have lost a little ground in this latest election, the security of the republic is far from assured.

The byzantine political system means any reform will be agonisingly slow, not helped by an announcement made on election day by Christian Schmitt of the Office of the High Representative – yet another body that wields legislative power over the country’s Constitution. He said he was increasing the number of delegates in the Federation’s House of Peoples from 58 to 80.

Meanwhile, in Repubika Srpska – where billboard after billboard displays posters of Dodik and Cvijanovic grinning side by side, small-town streets are named in honour of genocidal battalions, and murals of convicted war criminals emblazon walls – a smattering of election protests are unlikely to turn the tide against virulent pro-Serb nationalism.

Back in Sarajevo, around the corner from where members of an animation collective handed out flyers protesting corrupt politicians the day before the election, a 58-year-old museum curator sipping a coffee summed up the mood.

“I’m old enough to remember before the war,” she told Byline Times. “Everything was better then, but it’s always getting worse. Now all the young people that could change it are leaving. It all looks very beautiful on the outside but inside, everything is broken.”

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