The Bosnian question

The Dayton deal (messy as it was) created conditions for ruling out certain options and managing the remaining options peacefully, thereby enabling other, slower processes to unfold. These, as it happens, probably favour the Bosniacs in the greater scheme of things.

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By Charles Crawford

It is wearying trying to have a serious exchange with Jasmin Mujanovic on the subject of Balkan identities and what if any political expression they might be accorded. He is unable in his latest overlong piece to grasp the simple points I am making, and ascribes to me positions that bear no relation to what I have written. Plus he claims to be an ‘academic’ yet is strikingly ready to jeer at anyone such as myself who spent years grappling with the international policy questions these issues produce, and many many long hours discussing privately with key personalities in government and the wider community what they in fact wanted.

His basic mistake is that he downplays the political and emotional significance of a core idea advanced by Alija Izetbegovic (a former political prisoner with no little moral authority among the Bosniac/Muslim community) as Yugoslavia started to decay openly. Namely that Bosnia and Herzegovina as a republic within Titoist Yugoslavia ‘belonged’ primarily to the Bosniac/Muslim community, as the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnia Croats already had ‘their’ republics (Serbia and Croatia respectively). This echoed the narod/narodnosti distinction embedded in republic and SFRY-level constitutions across former Yugoslavia, seen on all sides as a real confidence-building political guarantee (albeit in a repressive communist context) that the inter-communal mayhem seen in WW2 would not be repeated.

Drazen Pehar’s thoughtful response gives convincing evidence on this vital point:

More importantly, [Izetbegovic] started publicly expressing the view that the Moslem people of BiH are a guarantor of BiH, and that the other two constituent peoples of BiH (Croats and Serbs) are in possession of so-called ‘reserve countries,’ which for him conveniently implied that the BiH Moslems should enjoy a special, comparatively higher status in their only country (see his interview to M. Lučić, Borba daily, 13 Nov 1990). His view represented a flagrant violation of the BiH constitution that was then in force because, under the constitution, the three peoples were treated as equal in their status of the constituent peoples to BiH.

I was not in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s so I can not judge from first-hand experience why Izetbegovic took this course. Was he motivated by explicit Muslim (in an ethnic or religious sense) expansionary zeal? Or was he much more pragmatic and took this stance solely as the best form of ethnic self-defence should Yugoslavia disintegrate?

Izetbegovic’s problem was real enough. If the Serbs, Croats and Muslims/Bosniacs retained their equal status as ‘constitutive peoples’ of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that allowed the Serb and Croat leaders an effective veto against the Muslims/Bosniacs worked up in coordination with Belgrade and Zagreb. In other words, by piously insisting on ‘equality’ they could jam up the works and guarantee strategic inequality in their own favour in Bosnia. On the other hand, if he asserted (as he did) the argument that Bosnia was primarily ‘for’ the Muslims/Bosniacs, the republic’s Serbs and Croats necessarily would feel that they risked ending up as second-class citizens.

As Izetbegovic later put it to me himself, he represented two million Bosniacs hemmed in by 14 million Serbs and Croats. One false move and his community could be lost for ever. What room for manoeuvre did he have? I could see his point. He was in a Bosnian-style asymmetrical Mexican stand-off, in which the other two sides might well be bent on ganging up on him.

My own conclusion was that at root Izetbegovic was motivated much more by Islam than by ethnicity. He saw the Islamic community and tradition in that part of Europe as being threatened, and searched for the best way to defend it. Note that I am not saying that ipso facto this made Izetbegovic some sort of religious fundamentalist/extremist. He attended an OIC summit in Tehran in 1997 and (I gather) made a strong case for Islam learning from the West about tolerance and political pluralism – not a message that many senior OIC people then wanted to hear.

Nonetheless it is very difficult anywhere to fit an explicitly religious agenda into a conventional political framework. And back in crumbling Titoist Yugoslavia, given the heavily internalized ethnic identities and ethnic imbalances and bad memories of WW2 in former Yugoslavia, there were no easy answers in principle, let alone in practice. The policy not surprisingly chosen by most self-interested republic elites was to stay in power if possible. This meant sticking to the AVNOJ territorial demarcations as the basis for the dissolution of the federation. By ruling out territorial adjustments, they dragged into the new situation the old communist constitutional principles, including strict ethnic categorizations.

Mr Mujanovic has no doubt why the war in Bosnia started:

The simple fact of the matter is, Yugoslavia’s dissolution did not begin in 1991 or 1992, it began in 1987 at the very least, and its primary instigators were Slobodan Milošević and his Belgrade regime.

I’d go back a lot further, to the basically illegitimate and undemocratic basis upon which Yugoslavia was reconstituted after WW2. The way in which this was done left an ill-suppressed feeling in Serbia that Serbdom had been deliberately reduced: that much of what they regarded as ‘their’ historic territory had been put under very different ownership/control.

Whatever you may think about the justice or otherwise of this claim (and indeed of other complaints against the Titoist set-up), it is vital to understand that for decades it was impossible openly to talk about these questions without being denounced or persecuted as a rabid nationalist. This created pent-up frustrations across the whole country that bubbled up periodically (Croatia’s Maspok, then the Belgrade Spring, the Kosovo ‘disturbances’ in 1981, the astounding funeral of Aleksandar Rankovic in 1983). These episodes were largely ignored in the West. Yugoslavia was a Pillar of Stability in the Balkans:

As the Bosnia and Herzegovina crisis accelerated how many diplomats in the world understood the difference between Muslims and muslims? How many knew about WW2 in Prijedor? Or about Alija Izetbegovic and Vojislav Seselj as political prisoners?

Take Serbia. In 1983 Alexander Rankovic died. He had not been mentioned in the SFRY media for years. Politika published a tiny note of his death. Tens of thousands of people turned up at his funeral. That was not mentioned in your media. Most Embassies in Belgrade never heard about it. We clever Brits heard only two days later…

Rankovic, Goli Otok, Informburists, Dobrica Cosic’s ideas, Djilas and so on – all suppressed. There was no mechanism for investigating communist massacres after the war, or trying calmly to assess the Chetnik movement, or for talking about free elections.

The regime pulled a red cover over history, proclaimed Bratstvo and Jedinstvo and denounced people who wanted to open such issues as ‘anarcho-liberals’ or other enemies. This was successful. The world knew and rather liked Communist Yugoslavia. We did not understand the complexities beneath the red sheet.

This was the context within which Milosevic took control. Variations on these themes of betrayal and control have rumbled on down the generations in that part of Europe, as elsewhere. This is not a ‘racist’ or reductionist/essentialist/orientalist point. It is a fact.

People who knew Milosevic well in the early 1980s as he rose breezily through the LCJ hierarchy have told me that they can not explain why, seemingly almost overnight, his personality flipped to something much darker and finally dangerous. That would not have mattered too much had there not been a deep sense of resentment across millions of Serbs that in one way or the other they had been cheated, humiliated and downgraded by Titoism. Milosevic played on that, just as Izetbegovic and Tudjman and others in turn pressed their case for a good defined slice of the available ethno-territorial cake. Disaster.

Mr Mujanovic tries to be reasonable:

I should like nothing more than if every significant government post in the whole of BiH were occupied by a self-identifying Serb, provided they were actually qualified for the position and pursued responsible, responsive, and democratic policies, which reflected the interests of all the citizens of BiH

Fine. But what if a large bloc of responsible, responsive democratic self-identifying (sic) Serbs (or Croats, or Bosniacs, or Kosovars) conclude that they would rather the borders of the region’s republics were changed to allow them to run their own affairs, in much the same way that Switzerland’s different ethno-linguistic communities do within their cantons? Is that to be ruled out a priori, and if so on what moral basis?

The Dayton deal (messy as it was) created conditions for ruling out certain options and managing the remaining options peacefully, thereby enabling other, slower processes to unfold. These, as it happens, probably favour the Bosniacs in the greater scheme of things.

The smart short-term policy for the largest community in Bosnia (ie the Bosniacs) in such circumstances was to use generous international assistance to create a dynamic, transparent mini-tiger economy that Serbs and Croats clamoured to join. Not what happened. Instead we see stagnant political manoeuvres with an eye on longer-term demographic trends:

From the point of view of this Bosniak nationalist policy, it is not important that Bosnia will fall behind on the road to modernisation, because the harder life is in Bosnia the faster will the project of a two-thirds majority be realised, since Croats and Serbs will simply move to Croatia and Serbia.

In this historical perspective, twenty or thirty years signify little when it comes to the one thousand years of Bosnia’s history; and a degree of economic decline of the country is a worthwhile price to pay for the realisation of their supreme project – the creation of a national Bosniak state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That’s the nub of it – how to deal with mutually incompatible claims to territory as an insurance policy for existential security? Serbia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic in 2000 told me how an elderly Albanian in southern Serbia had put it to him straight: “Mr Covic, you have two children. I have six. I am prepared to sacrifice two of my children to the cause. How many of yours are you prepared to sacrifice?”

Not a question that academics in Canada or ex-diplomats in the UK can easily answer within the usual analytical categories?

Charles Crawford served at the British Embassy in Belgrade from 1981-84 and later as HM Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). He writes at and Tweets @CharlesCrawford

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