Protests in a divided Bosnia

With much more serious violence happening in Ukraine and Thailand, it’s understandable that the anti-government protests in Bosnia & Herzegovina, which began about a fortnight ago, haven’t received a lot of media coverage. But they’re well worth another look, with a piece at Al Jazeera yesterday being a good place to start.

Edin Hajdarpasic, an academic specialising on Bosnia & Herzegovina, sees the protests in idealistic terms and argues that “The events in Bosnia are important precisely for raising difficult questions of freedom and democracy without conditions or prefigured answers.” But while many protest movements like to see themselves as unique, it strikes me that what makes these particularly interesting is not the goals or methods of the protesters but the context in which they’re acting.

Bosnia & Herzegovina is a rather unusual place. Despite its membership of the United Nations and the Council of Europe, it is not really an independent country. The most powerful official is not the president or the prime minister, but the high representative: a foreigner (currently Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat) accountable to the international community for enforcing the Dayton peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995.

National institutions and national identity in Bosnia & Herzegovina are weak; the country is divided almost in half between two ethnically-based autonomous sub-units, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (for the Muslims and Croats) and Republika Srpska (for the Serbs). The result is a more or less permanent state of political stalemate.

No doubt this sort of semi-partition was a necessary step to end the war, but it was hoped at the time that a genuinely federal solution would develop as wartime animosities subsided. Paddy Ashdown, a former high representative, told CNN last week that the Dayton agreement “was an ideal solution to bring about peace, but that it is the ‘wrong basis to build a sustainable state’.”

The trouble is, there is no sign that the current crop of politicians – especially on the Serb side – have the will or the ability to put the country on more solid foundations. And the international community certainly hasn’t helped. Slavoj Žižek, a thinker I don’t normally have much sympathy with, is quite right to point out that “the way the EU effectively governs Bosnia entrenches partitions: it deals with nationalist elites as their privileged partners, mediating within them.”

With elections scheduled for next October, the real question here is whether, or how much, the people of Bosnia & Herzegovina are willing to go beyond the ethnically-divided basis of their state. Granted that this month’s protests are a sign that they are losing patience with their politicians, and that their grievances transcend ethnic differences, does that mean that ethnic division is on the way out?

Žižek tries to sound hopeful about this:

In one of the photos from the protests, we see the demonstrators waving three flags side by side: Bosnian, Serb, Croat, expressing the will to ignore ethnic differences. In short, we are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites: the people of Bosnia have finally understood who their true enemy is: not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them from others.

But he goes on to say that “The next and most difficult step would have been to organise the protests into a new social movement that ignores ethnic divisions …” – clearly implying that this hasn’t been done and probably won’t be. And in fact most of the reports of the protests suggest that they have been largely confined to the Muslim/Croat areas.

I’m all in favor of multi-ethnic movements and communities and countries. But that’s not something that can be imposed from outside; it can’t be artificially created or recreated. So while the imposed state of semi-partition is clearly not working for Bosnia & Herzegovina, it’s not obvious that getting rid of it will be conducive to ethnic harmony. It may. But it may also lead to deeper division, and possibly violence.

Official European reactions have been focused, understandably enough, on this danger. But history suggests that trying to keep a country together at all costs is usually not the best course of action. In fact, obsessively avoiding any talk of partition may end up increasing the chance of violence, by closing off opportunities for it to happen peacefully. (This, on a larger scale, is the same moral as I drew last year from Kosovo.)

If the Serbs of Bosnia & Herzegovina want to join with their Muslim and Croat compatriots and build a genuinely multi-ethnic state, that’s wonderful. But if what they really want is to leave and join Serbia, I don’t see why any great effort should be expended to stop them.


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