Bosniak nationalism – the end of exceptionalism?

By ignoring the manipulation of Bosniak identity, particularly by ex-president Haris Silajdzic, the international community has contributed to the destabilization of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s current framework.

By Emma Plant

It is widely acknowledged (1) that leaders such as Milosevic and Tudjman exploited the suffering, real or mythical, of their constituents to consolidate and mobilise them for their wartime aims. This corrosive manipulation of identity attests both to the power of the phenomenon and the fluidity of its nature. Nonetheless identity-transformation strategies: strategies which focus on changing the players, not just the rules of the game have been largely neglected by the post-war international presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Identity is intransigent but not immutable and the fact that international peacemakers are the only group neglecting to engage with it means the mutual antagonism of ethno-national identities there has been allowed to metastasize post-war.

Milorad Dodik and the Republika Srpska (RS) receive their fair share, and more than their share of unfair, commentary in post-war Bosnia. This distracts from the fact that, as far as calls for territorial revanchism are concerned, the Bosniaks are now giving punch for punch. Whether through war-spawned guilt or a conscious refusal to criticise one of the US-brokered Washington Agreement’s offspring, the Bosnian Muslim political elite are remarkably under-scrutinised; as is the irony that while the RS now staunchly defends the Dayton peace-agreement the Bosniaks have been lobbying to tear-it-up.

In an interesting divergence from Bosnian political elite standard operating procedure of either pandering to or inciting their constituents’ bigotry depending on what is most politically expedient, ex-President and Party for BiH (SBiH) leader Haris Silajdzic has tapped a slightly different, albeit no-means unique, wellspring of ideological justification for his actions in promoting a platform based upon victim-status. This may seem less harmful than the other types of categorical thinking at play in BiH, however it is equally destabilising.

Former-Knesset member Avraham Burg opined recently that his native Israel has become ‘a nation of victims, and our state religion the worship and tending of traumas…’ (2) In the Bosnian context Silajdzic’s worship of trauma has several consequences, all are negative. Established facts (3) support the validity of claims to victimhood, both individual and due to the nature of genocide, by Bosniaks as a group. However it has become difficult to determine in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina the extent to which truly justice-oriented claims are being confused with, perhaps even eclipsed by, the tactical adoption of the ‘political pose’ (4) of victimhood. Not only can genuine cries for justice be undermined by association with a political agenda but, with his reductionist focus upon one element of the Bosniak identity, Silajdzic not only denies their inherent complexity but freezes his constituents in their trauma. Deserved respect for individual suffering should not be equated with support of a political party whose record (5) indicates a massive divergence between their own and their constituents’ interests. Kada Hotic, vice-president of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association noted that nationalist politicians, despite claiming to protect their own people are usually fairly pleased if they can claim to have incurred the greatest ethnic body-count (6). In Haris Silajdzic’s case arguably his constituent’s continued suffering is in his best interests since it allows him to…‘exploit his injury to excuse his failures’ (7). Although it could be said that considering Silajdzic came to power largely based upon his opposition to the ‘April Package’ his implacable opposition to compromise has, uniquely amongst his cohort, actually fulfilled a campaign pledge.

In terms of post-war state-building progress is not just obstructed but entirely paralysed by the hostile dynamic inherent in the absolute categories of victim:perpetrator. For example, so ingrained in the political and identity narrative of Israel has its victimhood become that even contemporary political acts such as a moratorium on further settlements are interpreted through this prism and felt as a further Shoah-related injury (8). If identity is premised solely upon victimhood then not only will a reduction in perceived external threat jeopardise group-solidarity but the identity itself will be fundamentally ‘imperilled by reconciliation with the persecutor.’ (9) Such a stance therefore precludes the possibility of engagement with the allegedly still ‘sociocidal’ (10) Serbs on even unrelated issues.

This political pose of victimhood has clear political benefits vis-à-vis the silencing of opposition as Tihomir Loza observes: ‘…how exactly do you question someone promising to undo Srebrenica’s tragedy? You just don’t?’ (11). Silajdzic’s specific focus on Srebrenica is strategic and not only, or even primarily, directed at his domestic audience. Srebrenica was the site of horrific violence during the war but frankly so were many other towns around Bosnia and the Krajina. What makes Srebrenica useful for Silajdzic is its status as the shibboleth of all international failings in BiH. A deserved degree of guilt elicited by its name coupled with a tacit anti-RS prejudice stemming from the acts of the war has kept the international community silent during Silajdzic’s increasingly strident anti-entity pronouncements.

While forcefully denouncing Dodik for his talk of independence referendums the international community have been almost utterly silent not only about the anti-Dayton nature of almost every speech made by Silajdzic since before 2000 but also the fact that Dodik’s response has been just that: a response. Since its inception the attitude of its kin-state has dictated the RS’ political horizon: largest under the aegis of Milosevic’s Greater Serbia, since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement the formalised entity’s secession became fore-grounded; With the recent strengthening of pro-European current within Serbia, independence rather than union with its newly-moderate kin-state has been the dominant discourse. And despite doomed attempts at establishing equivalence the RS knows that, considering Serbia’s clear prioritisation of Kosovo over their Bosnian seljaci cousins, that continued autonomy within BiH will be as good as it gets from now on. Dodik won’t leave unless the international community continue to allow him to be pushed.

International uneven-handedness is unhelpful and unjustifiable in post-war Bosnia. It gives credibility to perceptions of ‘Serbophobia’ which perpetuate support for nationalist extremism and it is a cowardly way to atone for western wartime failings. The international community does not stand upon the moral high ground in Bosnia, we should not compound our mistakes by choosing half-hearted bias over considered action now. Acceptance of the RS does not ‘legalise genocide’ (12), a Greater Serbia was the Serbs’ wartime goal not a component part of BiH however autonomous. The RS was a necessary evil at Dayton and in the current context the emphasis should be on its necessity. It is not ideal but ideal was never an option. It is not worth through international bias or international silence over Silajdzic’s actions destabilising the current framework.

Silajdzic’s successor Bakir Izetbegovic has made recent moves towards reconciliation (13), and Dodik’s pragmatism as regards maintaining power can be relied upon to moderate his stance if deprived of an antagonist. Pragmatism will look a lot like magnanimity in the Bosnian context, something ‘the son’ has displayed much of recently, even post-election – although whether he will prove as true to his campaign promises over the long-term as his presidential predecessor remains to be seen.

Emma Plant is a Doctoral Candidate at the Deptartment of Politics and International Relations, Lancaster University.

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1. For detailed accounts of this phenomenon refer to (amongst many others): Bellamy, A. (2003) The Formation of Croatian National Identity: A Centuries Old Dream? Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, Duffy, G. & Lindstrom, N. (2002) ‘Conflicting Identities: Solidary Incentives in the Serbo-Croatian War’ Journal of Peace Research 39(1): 69-90, MacDonald, D. (2002) Balkan Holocausts? Serbian and Croatian Victim-Centered Propoganda and the War in Yugoslavia Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, Campbell, D. (1998) National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity and Justice in Bosnia Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

2. Berg, A. (2008) The Holocaust is Over: We must rise from its ashes New York: Palgrave McMillan p76

3. International Court of Justice Press Statement: Application of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro) by H.E. Judge Rosalyn Higgins 26 February 2007 available at & Cohen, R. ‘C.I.A. Report on Bosnia Blames Serbs for 90% of the War Crimes’ New York Times March 09, 1995 available at

4. Williams, G. (2008) ‘Dangerous victims: On some political dangers of vicarious claims to victimhood,’ Distinktion – Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 17pp77-95 p81

5. Aside from the enrichment of himself and his clique Silajdzic has what one British Ambassador summarised as ‘absolutely no record of achievement’ since coming to office. (Author interview with Matthew Rycroft, British Embassy, Sarajevo 29 April 2008) a fact attested to by popular paraphrases of his anti-entity campaign slogan ‘100% BiH’ such as Haris ‘100% …neceg’ Silajdzic at and ‘Haris 100% izdaja’ at

6. Private communication with author, Sarajevo Office of the Association of the Mothers of Srebrenica & Zepa 25 August 2010

7. Cole, A. (2007) The Cult of True Victimhood: From the war on welfare to the war on terror Stanford: Stanford University Press p5

8. Burg ibid. p23

9. Williams ibid. p14

10. ‘Bosnia’s Silajdzic Questions Serbia’s Intentions’ Balkan Insight, 13 April 2010 at, ‘Haris Silajdzic: comprehensive reform of the Dayton (2)’ Council of Europe Youtube Channel 03 October 2008 at, Statement by Haris Silajdžić to the 63rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the occasion of the General Debate, 23 September 2008 at & Statement by Haris Silajdzic, 27 January 2000, to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust at

11. Loza, T. (2007) ‘Playing With Srebrenica’ Transitions Online 20 March at

12. Haris Silajdzic interview with Al Jazeera 10/03/07

13. ‘Son of the State’s Founder and Winner of the Bosnian Elections’ Qantara 13.October 2010 & ‘Bosniak official apologizes for crimes’B92 10 November 2010



4 Responses

  1. Pingback : Tweets that mention Bosniak nationalism - the end of exceptionalism? | TransConflict | Transform, Transcend, Translate - TransConflict Serbia --

  2. Excellent, you say what has been for far too long “don’t-talk-about-it” in the West and its complicit media. The shameless exploitation for political purposes of the Srebrenica massacre ought to be put in the perspective you do – but how then could “they” do that who so blindly believed that Izetbegovic & Co was and remained innocent. He was after all the only leader who fought three wars, including one against his own people. But it was much easier to focus on the ‘bad’ Serbs and keep that perspective up for years because it also rotected the West from thinking of what ‘mistakes’ and cruel, counterproductive politicies it lead. Fortunately, the simplifying black-and-white image of the whole dissolution process is cracking by the day…Anyhow, many thanks for your analysis, I will post it now on TFFworldaffairs on Twitter now! Kindly, Jan Oberg

  3. Mladen

    Finally, some realism from the west. As Lord Oven Said once during the war “here are no innocent here”, Bosniaks became an element of unstability in Bosnia. Country is defacto divided, anc calls for unitarization are just incredably blind and scare of remaining Croats and Serbs willing to work for Bosnian unity.

  4. Miki

    Finally a reasonable, non-dogmatic approach to Bosnian future, if there is one… However, this is just one article, it seems that western countries are really committed to push Bosnian Muslims political agenda under the excuse that Serbs are genocidal maniacs. Never mind the fact that Muslims started the war, never mind that almost the same number of Serbs (equal with number of Muslim victims)died in that war, West is firm in its anti-Serb position. Unfortunately for western politicians, the only way for them to change Bosnian Serbs desire to secede is to kill them or deport them. Just as Serbia was bullied to “accept the reality” of Kosovos secession, it is time for the West to “accept the reality”: RS WANTS INDEPENDENCE (public opinion researchers estimate that more than 90% of its citizens share that view!). After all, even Henry Kissinger thinks that is the only viable option…

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