Looking Backward: Method of Violence in the Bosnian War

The modern history of the Balkan Peninsula is riddled with flares of violence. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this violence was a result of the Balkans’ various religious blocks all trying to claim a national homeland. Naturally, the exceptionally-diverse Bosnia was a battleground for disputes.

In the 1990s, violence in Bosnia was an attempt to fix the country’s troublesome demographic map. The country’s constituent groups did not fall along neat boundaries. Serbia could not absorb Bosnian Serbs without also taking in a host of Croats and Bosniaks. The same was true for Croatia. Bosniaks could not take the country for themselves, because so many Bosnians claimed a Croat and Serb identity. Diversity was not only an instigator of violence in the Balkans, but also remains a roadblock to international prestige. Slovenia, the region’s most homogeneous country, is the only Balkan nation in the EU, having gained membership in 2004 (Boduszynski, 243). Slovenia and Croatia are the only former-Yugoslav countries with full NATO membership. Bosnia, on the other hand, still needs international assistance to govern the diverse district of Brcko (Farrand, 4). Although the Bosnian War was horrific, one cannot deny that homogeneity has proved valuable in the Balkans. As twisted as nationalist aims were, there was still wisdom in their goals.

Bosnia's demographic map was not conducive to partition in 1991.

Violence, in the form of “ethnic cleansing” tried to forcefully segregate Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs into regions that would be friendlier to partition. Debate continues over whether these forced migrations (most often carried out by Bosnian Serbs) ever amounted to genocide (Catic, 3). Although this debate boils down to semantic and anecdotes (what is genocide, specifically? and which sides version of the events is true?), the consequences are still important. Tying Bosnian Serbs with genocide would damage the community’s position internationally. In a country so influenced by UN oversight, international fallout is also domestic. Half the reason for the Republika Srpska to combat accusations of genocide is to preserve the entity’s power in the Dayton system (Catic, 15).

It is a mistake to dwell on past violence along, however. Twenty years after the Yugoslav Wars, the specter of violence remains.

Looking Forward – The Prospect of Violence in Bosnia Tomorrow

The attitudes that instigated ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War did not evaporate with the Dayton Accords. Hostility merely moved to a more “civil” sphere (Atlantic Initiative Democratization Policy Council, 4). Today, violence takes a more nuanced approach in the speeches of politicians and policies they put forward. Furthermore, Bosnia is only becoming more primed for renewed violence (AIDPC, 5). The global economic crisis, returning refugees, and the rise of Islamism all threaten to erode confidence in the delicate system devised at Dayton.

The heated election of October 2010 brought violent sentiments to the surface of political debate. Even the President of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, spoke of potential secession (AIDPC, 14). A united Bosnia, in his view, was “an experiment created by foreigners” that had already failed. During the 2010 election, the political landscape of Bosnia looked much like that of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Talk of secession, once restricted to whispers, dominated discourse. It is true that Dodik’s words do not amount to gunshot. However, the secession of the RS was the very action that originally launched the Bosnian War in 1992. Moreover, as politicians become more focused on rhetoric they become less focused on the policies that might keep Bosnia together (AIDPC, 24). Since 2010 the EU (of which Bosnia is not a member) has helped mediate political discourse and persuaded Dodik to back off on some of his plans (Centre for Eastern Studies 17(114), 5). Nonetheless, the persistence of claims like Dodik’s are not a good omen for Bosnia’s survival.

It would not take actual political action in the RS to bring violence back to Bosnia. The economic recession, in addition to weighing down on the weak central government, has brought troubles from below. Economic recession means higher youth unemployment: the key catalyst to that fatal cocktail of poverty, frustration, and leisure. Studies indicate that juvenile delinquency, through “football hooliganism”, has reignited hatred among Bosnia’s constituent groups. Football clubs in Bosnia are closely affiliated with the pseudo-racial group of their region. Football fan rivalries are notoriously violent in the sports world; Bosnia is not exception. Even worse, violence between fans has become a convenient vehicle for racial rivalries (AIDPC, 58). The connection may appear whimsical, but it is worth noting that sports rivalries served as proxies for ethnic hatred in the Yugoslavia on the eve of the Yugoslav Wars (AIDPC, 57).

The deterioration of Yugoslavia's powerful Olympic basketball team paralleled the fall of the country in the early 1990s.

During the Bosnia War 1.2 million of Bosnia’s 4.4 million person population sought refuge abroad. In recent years, these refugees have begun to return, albeit slowly (AIDPC, 61, International Organization for Migration, 13). The existing returning refugees are not as problematic as the trend they represent. If a million Bosnians return to their hometowns after twenty years, the carefully balanced Dayton system will be thrown haywire. The threat is especially powerful in the Republika Srpska. Much of the land currently under RS control was majority-Bosniak in the early 1990s (see above map). An influx of refugees would reverse the homogeneity Serbs achieved through ethnic cleansing (AIDPC, 61). This would have two negative effects on Bosnian unity. First, it would place a large population of Bosniaks in a territory where presidential and upper house representatives could only be Serbs. This would likely induce a renewed wave of dissatisfaction against the Dayton system. Second, Serbs currently enjoy a natural one-third representation in the quota-free House of Representatives due to the homogeneity in the RS. A new Bosniak presence would shatter this standard and push even more power in the hands of Bosniaks, who already dominate FBiH seats (Centre for Eastern Studies 12(109), 3). The threat of rising Bosniak dominance in the central government could not only lead to violence against returning Bosniak refugees, but also accelerate RS movements towards secession.

The Bosniaks are traditionally a Muslim people. Although it is far from radical Islam’s capital in Saudi Arabia, extremist theology has still reached Bosnia. Islamic radicalization poses the most immediate threat to Bosnian unity. Prior to the September 11th attacks, mujahideen in Bosnia were known to attack Croat leaders in Mostar and organized armed robberies against Croat businesses (AIDPC, 65). Government crackdowns in 2001 cleared out most of the mujahideen ranks. In the last decade, Salafi Islam groups have returned to Bosnia, but no leader has been able to capture the pre-2001 cohesion (AIDPC, 66). Still, religiously-founded racial violence is a threat to take seriously. Radicalization of Bosniaks will not only harm the Croat and Serb communities they attack, but also the reputation of the Bosniak politicians trying to keep their country together. Even just a couple racial attacks could give the Republika Srpska the political ammunition it needs to push for renewed secession. As stated before, precedent indicates that secession will likely lead to more violence.

Violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina – A Comparative Perspective

Ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda were perhaps the two most infamous humanitarian crises of the 1990s. Although it would be easy to grasp at parallels between the two events, the nature of violence in each country was very different.

The violence in Rwanda was a genocide by the cleanest definition. The aim of the Hutu killers was to exterminate their Tutsi countrymen. This was not the case in Bosnia. The aims of nationalist Bosnian leaders were geographic, not genetic. Genocide (if it indeed happened) was a means, not an end in itself. Proponents of the genocide interpretation of the Bosnian War do not claim that criminals killed for killing’s sake, but that killing was a tool to advance regional homogeneity (Catic, 22). History supports this claim. After all, the RS did not follow Croats into Croatia to kill them too. Ethnic cleansing was about cleansing the government’s territory, not cleansing the entire world.

Although France never practiced a policy like ethnic cleansing, modern racial violence in the country does bear similarity to the renewed violence in Bosnia. Both countries have dealt with the violent consequences of Islamic radicalization (Renfro, Violence). However, as a plurality-Muslim country, Bosnia has not taken the same steps against religious expression that France has. Likewise, the violence in Bosnia cannot be tossed to Muslims feeling outside of the Bosnian mainstream. After all, they enjoy a position of prominence in the FBiH. Religious extremism in Bosnia is more likely to be ideological than an expression against an oppressive mainstream culture.

Unlike the other countries on this website, Bosnia has potential for violence built into its political system. If a Second Bosnian War does happen, leaders like Dodik will remain relevant. The same subnational entities that form unified Bosnia will be the entities at war with each other if widespread violence breaks out. Such firmly-demarcated boundaries do not exist in the other countries. The racial lines upon which violence may erupt are already established political boundaries.

Some may point out a similarity between the Republika Srpska and the Confederate States of America in Civil War America. This analogy would still be incomplete, however. The CSA required the mass secession and reuniting of separate American states. The RS need not go through such steps: it is a ready-made secessionist entity.

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