A new narrative – why a ‘Bosnian Spring’ is Bosnia’s only hope

TransConflict is pleased to present a response to a recent article by Dusan Babic, entitled ‘The war of narratives’, which calls for a new narrative and mobilization that challenges the prevailing politics of division and fear.

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By Jasmin Mujanović

Dusan Babic’s recent article, ‘The war of narratives’, necessitates a comprehensive response which I hope will move the conversation about Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth, BiH) in a genuinely progressive, indeed, revolutionary direction.

Babic’s central argument concerns the manner in which the “victimization narrative” surrounding the Bosniak community has translated into a “collectivization of guilt” of the Serb community in BiH since the end of the war. As such, Babic argues that political leaders in the Bosniak community have been hesitant to admit to crimes committed against non-Bosniak populations (presumably, primarily Serbs). And, citing an op-ed by Nerzuk Curak, Babic rejects the former’s claim that as it concerns the broad contours of Serb national politics (in BiH and Serbia proper), “a culture of denial is still the leading paradigm of Serbian social cohesion.”

Insomuch as Babic’s argument highlights the politicization of Bosniak victims during the war by certain conservative elements within the Bosniak community – centered primarily on the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) et al – I am entirely in agreement. The ongoing wrangling surrounding upcoming local elections in Srebrenica is proof enough. Political parties, especially the SDA, which claim to represent the Bosniak community in BiH, knew from at least 2008 that the elections in 2012 would be contested under new parameters unless they reached some sort of new agreement. One can only conclude that their failure to either reach a new agreement with the authorities in the Republika Srpska (RS), or to offer a unified political platform for Srebrenica, stems from either utter incompetence or a belief in the benefit of political brinkmanship in BiH. In truth, both options seem equally valid and the answer is likely some combination of both.

Yet brinkmanship and incompetence are hardly isolated to the SDA or the Federation entity as a whole. Milorad Dodik has virtually made his entire political career on the back of genocide denial, threats of secession, endemic political corruption and cronyism and the concentrated dismantling of the socio-economic foundations of his entity (and I say his because, clearly, Dodik administers the RS as though it were a feudal landholding, and he its Lord). The political establishment in the post-Dayton period in Bosnia, as a whole, is defined by its entirely self-serving character.

The SDA do not represent the Bosniak community any more than Dodik represents the Serb community. He may finance the publication of all the laughable propagandist screeds that he wants but his actual policies are all the proof we need. For all the supposed mutual antagonism of Bosnia’s diversity of peoples, the very men who shot at each other but twenty years ago, have now found themselves joined in a collective movement against the very political establishment which claims to be preserving their respective “national interests.” It seems Mr. Dodik’s defense of the Serb nation extends only to himself and his inner circle.

Now, I strongly disagree with Babic in his contention that genocide in Bosnia was isolated to the case of Srebrenica – this is to me a preposterous position which can be rejected on a purely legal-rational-basis as it is completely at odds with the provisions of the UN “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” of 1948. Clearly, the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) et al did commit genocide in Srebrenica, but very much the same project was at play in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Visegrad, Bijeljina, Foca and many other Bosnian towns where these forces replicated the extermination and expulsion of non-Serb populations. This position is clearly established by all the relevant scholarly literature on the war in BiH.

As such, the “numbers game” which Babic seems to want to play is entirely beside the mark. Genocide is not a crime determined by body counts, it is a category established by the manner in which given victims died. As such, that the number of deaths in BiH, even within the context of just the Bosniak community, is nowhere near the number of deaths, for instance, of Jews during the course of the Holocaust is not proof of a lack of genocide in Bosnia. The question is one of intentand as it concerns intent, the absolutely massive body of evidence is clear – the intent of the Serb nationalist campaign in BiH was the extermination and expulsion of non-Serb populations, particularly the Bosniak and Muslim population. It was genocide.

Accordingly, no serious scholar or person of good conscience should have any issue whatsoever acknowledging the deaths of Serb civilians during the course of this same war. Nor should we have any problem with the recognition and prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against these Serb populations by members of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ARBiH) or the Croatian Defense Council (HVO). The crucial difference, however, and the one established clearly again by the existing body of evidence, is that these crimes show no evidence of organized and premeditated intent to commit actual genocide against these populations.

Moreover, this commitment to the destruction of BiH’s traditional multiethnic social fabric by the Karadzic regime was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the closing days of the war, when VRS militias forcibly expelled Serb civilians form suburbs around Sarajevo which were slated to be handed over to Federation authorities. What Babic does not seem to comprehend, which a number of preeminent Serbian intellectuals like Sonja Biserko have been stressing for years, is that the genocide which was orchestrated in BiH by the Milosevic and Karadzic cabal was as much an attack on the Serb people as it was on “the others.”

As Curak argues, this fact is spoken to most clearly by the continuing strength of reactionary political options in both BiH and Serbia (e.g. Dodik, Nikolic, Tadic’s two-faced foreign policy towards BiH etc). This is Nenad Dimitrijevic’s point as well, whom Curak cites favorably.

All of this finally brings us to the issue of narratives. I find it exceptionally tedious and disheartening that twenty years since the beginning of the war in BiH, and the dissolution of the Yugoslav state, that political dialogue surrounding the country’s future is still very much held hostage by elaborate campaigns of revisionism. I share Babic’s desire for reconciliation, but I reject his seemingly passionate embrace of a Spanish style “pact of oblivion.”

BiH is in desperate need of a cathartic break with the past that must be based on historical fact; this is only possible, however, though popular mobilization. The present constitutional structure in BiH has created essentially an apartheid state, that has institutionalized formerly mythologized “ancient ethnic hatreds” and made them a reality. We have segregated schools which serve only to reproduce xenophobia and chauvinism, and a political establishment that profits from the reactionary squabbling which these ethnic-fiefdoms, these modern-day Bantustans engender. The contemporary Bosnian state cannot even extend basic democratic rights to all of its citizens – only those belonging to the so-called “constitutive nations,” and even then only those living the appropriately homogenous locales, can really secure some semblance of supposed representation.

This political establishment has no substantive interest in meaningful reforms in BiH because they understand that a genuinely democratic and participatory society would effectively spell the end of their oligarchic reigns. In April of 1992, nearly 100,000 citizens of Sarajevo collectively and independently took to the streets, demanding a peaceful resolution to the developing crisis in the country which had already precipitated violence in Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and was now threatening BiH. Nenad Pejic writes that for “Bosnia’s political parties this was the greatest threat ever posed to them. An organic movement was spontaneously demanding their wholesale resignation.”

This is the narrative I want to establish in BiH today: one which recognizes the political and economic dispossession which characterizes our political system, and recognizes that only the people of BiH themselves can initiate meaningful change in response. Reconciliation between BiH’s communities will only be possible when the people themselves amputate the political classes which orchestrated and engineered the dissolution of Yugoslavia and whose heirs continue to profit from the politics of division and fear.

Across the globe, a new generation of youth, in particular, is becoming politicized in the era of austerity, increasing political authoritarianism and the revolt against these tendencies. Whatever we may think of the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement and its often contradictory tendencies, one thing is clear: the idea of the revolutionary mass has returned to the fore of political practice.

Across the Balkans, but perhaps nowhere more so than in BiH, the groundswell of discontent is palpable. A new social order which will ensure participation and protection for all peoples is the only option left to us because all other alternatives have been exhausted – especially those based in chauvinism and violence. As neither the local or international political establishment seem to have any meaningful intention of creating such a society, the task has fallen to ordinary Bosnians themselves. The time for a Bosnian, a Balkan Spring is long, long overdue.

In the words of Frenkie: “nemam više šta izgubit, idem ih rušit!” [“I have nothing left to lose, I’m going to go wreck them!”]

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD student in Political Science at York University, in Toronto, Canada, working on the topic of participatory democratic alternatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is a regular contributor to Politics, Re-Spun.

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