The Komšić affair, redux - plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The Komšić affair, redux – plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Balkan history is replete with examples of how disingenuous political tactics used to establish an ethnic hegemony lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, people who refuse to recognize history’s mistakes are prone to repeating them.

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By Gordon N. Bardos

Some six years ago, the present author did a mathematical analysis of Bosnia’s 2010 electoral results which showed that the ostensible Croat candidate for the Bosnian state presidency, Zeljko Komšić, had in fact received some 70-80 percent of his votes from Bosniac voters. Two months ago, in a replay of the 2006 and 2010 elections, Komšić again won election to the Bosnian presidency by effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of Croat voters, heralding what is likely to be yet another period of political instability in the country.

To anyone familiar with the history and fate of the two Yugoslavia’s in the 20th century, historical precedent suggests that Komšić’s election under these conditions should be of considerable concern. The disingenuous political manipulation involved in Komšić’s election is nothing new—and unfortunately we have considerable evidence of the consequences such tactics have had in the past. As this year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the first Yugoslav state, it is worth reviewing Komšić’s election from the perspective of how previous such attempts have fared.

Probably unavoidably, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929) that emerged in 1918 from the breakup of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires started out as an administrative extension of the independent pre-war Kingdom of Serbia. This pre-war Serbian kingdom had the moral authority of being on the victorious Allied side, and the organizational advantage of having a fully-developed governmental bureaucracy and military force. Unfortunately, what this pre-war Serbian bureaucracy lacked was the political experience needed to understand that governing a diverse, multiethnic and multi-religious population would be significantly different than governing a largely mono-ethnic and mono-religious Serbian national state.

Thus, almost by default, the post-World War I Yugoslav state simply tried to expand and impose Serbia’s pre-war unitary political system upon the whole of the new South Slavic state. Yet the problem with this strategy, as Ivo Banac noted in his study of the first Yugoslavia’s formation, was that

unitarism was plainly opposed to the reality of Serb, Croat, and Slovene national individuality  and moreover in contradiction to the empirically observable fact that these peoples were fully formed national entities of long standing…to ignore the fact that the South Slavs were not one nation, one culture, and one loyalty, or to insist that they could acquire these unitary characteristics in due course, only weakened the already fragile state and diminished the prospects for good-neighborliness based on the rejection of all forms of assimilationism and on respect of Yugoslavia’s multinational character, the only policy that could strengthen the Yugoslav polity…Cooperation was not the aim of political leaders, nor could it be as long as the centralist bloc refused to respect a principle of concurrent majority in each national community…A pretense was made that such parties as the Democratic Party were ‘multitribal,’ though in fact the Croat and Slovene Democrats had no stable support in their communities. Yugoslavia was indeed a highly diversified multinational state, but multinationalism could not promote consociationalism while the national ideologies of the principal group encouraged the notion that domination through assimilation was imminent.[1]

Given these ideological blinders, in the first Yugoslavia neither multi-party democracy nor royal dictatorship could develop a framework for a united state which at the same time satisfied the legitimate interests of Yugoslavia’s various ethnic groups to autonomy and self-governance. After some two decades of chronic instability, the outbreak of World War II provided the final nail in the first Yugoslavia’s coffin.

Tragically, during World War II these problems came back to haunt the South Slavs in the form of the fratricidal civil war which afflicted Yugoslavia from 1941-45. Josip Broz Tito’s communist movement emerged victorious from the bloodbath, due in no small part to the fact that it was perhaps alone in formulating a political platform able to attract at least a modicum of support from amongst Yugoslavia’s various peoples.

One of the most important pillars of this platform was the creation of an ethno-federal system, and an implicit acceptance of the political equality of Yugoslavia’s constituent peoples, regardless of size (the implicit acceptance would become more explicit as time went on). For many academic specialists of Tito’s Yugoslavia, this was in fact the key reason for the Partisan movement’s successes; Susan Woodward, for instance, has claimed that “the commitment to recognize the separate existence of Yugoslav nations and their sovereign rights was critical to the communist victory after 1943.”[2]

Nowhere was this more critical than in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), where the famous 1943 declaration of the Anti-Fascist Resistance Council of BiH (local acronym: ZAVNOBiH) claimed that Bosnia was “neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim…but Serbian and Muslim and Croatian,” thereby explicitly endorsing the concept that all three ethnic groups were equal constituent peoples in BiH.[3]

Yet even though the Yugoslav communists were more astute politically when it came to dealing with Yugoslavia’s national question, they too failed to find a formula to resolve it, just as the Habsburgs and the Royal Yugoslav government had failed before them. By the 1960s, for instance, Dennison Rusinow would claim that

The tendency to subsume all other questions and conflicts to the national one and to interpret and simplify every issue in national terms, reminiscent of old Yugoslavia and of the Habsburg monarchy before it, was again becoming nearly universal.[4]

Indeed, as time went on, the main Marxist theoretician in the Yugoslav communist leadership, Eduard Kardelj, became more and more pessimistic about resolving the problem. By the 1960s Kardelj would claim

We have up until now tried everything possible to maintain Yugoslavia; first it was a unitary state, then it became a federation, and now we are moving towards a confederation. If even that does not succeed , then it only remains for us to admit that the Comintern was right when it claimed that Yugoslavia was an artificial creation and that we—Yugoslav communists—had made a mistake. [5]

With Tito’s death in 1980, the terminal stage of Yugoslavia’s disintegration began. Although the country’s collapse was caused by multiple phenomenon (both domestic and international), one of these most certainly was Slobodan Milošević attempt in the latter half of the decade to impose his own designated leaders in Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina, all in an attempt to build an artificial majority coalition for his chosen vision of a more centralized, unitary Yugoslav future.

Predictably, the leaders of Yugoslavia’s other republics/ethnic groups objected. As Slovenian president Milan Kučan argued, “Can the imposition of majority decisionmaking in a multinational community by those who are the most numerous be anything else but the violation of the principle of the equality of nations, the negation of its sovereignty and therefore the right to autonomous decisionmaking…? “[6]The rest, as they say, is history.

Just as it had in the two Yugoslavia’s, disagreements over the principle of the equality of nations in a multi-ethnic state plagued Bosnia & Herzegovina from its beginnings as well. In 1991-1992 Bosnia’s Serbs justified their rebellion in part on the argument that their equal rights as a constituent nation in BiH were being violated by the outvoting of the Croat-Muslim coalition in Bosnia.

Resolving this issue would plague peace negotiators for the duration of the war; indeed, one of the prerequisites for ending the Bosnian war was for international negotiators to reconcile themselves to the necessity of applying federal and consociational principles to any post-war settlement. As the late Richard Holbrooke once noted,

Bosnia is a federal state. It has to be structured as a federal state. You cannot have a unitary government, because then the country would go back into fighting. And that’s the reason that the Dayton agreement has been probably the most successful peace agreement in the world in the last generation, because it recognized the reality.”[7]

Somewhere over the past few years, however, a new concept has crept into Bosnian politics, which Ivan Lovrenović has described as an “epochal precedent”:  a renunciation of the ZAVNOHBiH idea that Bosnia & Herzegovina was “Serbian and Muslim and Croatian, which excluded the idea the criteria of majority and minorities in governing, in claiming to have greater rights,” in favor of the notion that there is now a political majority and political minorities in BiH.[8] Entirely predictably, the unilateral abandonment of the ZAVNOHBiH principles has thrown Bosnian politics into chaos.

Numerous motivations are driving this policy. Islamist elements in the country have for decades wanted an unchallengeable unitarist order in the country. As Alija Izetbegović demanded some forty years ago

There exists one order, one dynamic, one well-being, one progress which can be built on this land and in this region, but that is not the order, progress and well-being of Europe and America…the Islamic movement can and must move towards taking power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough so that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic [order], but build a new Islamic power.[9]

While Bosnia’s secular unitarists have a different metaphysical inspiration, the end result is largely the same. Unfortunately, few international observers have been keen enough to recognize this. Among the rare few has been Sumantra Bose, who once correctly noted that many of “the strongest opponents of diffusion of political authority and sharing of power [manifested in the Dayton Peace Accords] are very often deeply illiberal elements—ethnic majoritarian nationalists . . . who sometimes try to obscure their real agenda, centralization and domination, by invoking the principle of equality of all citizens regardless of ethnicity or nationality.”[10] Bose would also note,

The shrill protests of many (not all) Bosnian and foreign integrationist revisionists against the Dayton settlement are inspired, in fact, not by a value-based commitment to a multi-national, civic, society but by a desire for a less decentralized, more unitary state which will put the disobedient and disloyal Bosnian Serbs (and to a lesser extent, the intransigent BiH Croats) in their place. The underlying motive is to settle accounts from the war, rather than build a forward-looking vision and strategy for the reconstruction of Bosnia & Herzegovina in the overall context of the Yugoslav region.[11]

Somewhat ironically, although the advocates of this policy claim to be civic non-nationalists who reject “constructed” ethnic categories, they either do not understand or do not care about the intellectual contradiction at the heart of their own argument—that dividing ethnic groups into permanent political majorities and minorities does not break down ethnic identities and allegiances, it reifies and reinforces them.

Moreover, given the realities of contemporary Bosnia, what the unitarists are actually trying to impose is not a civic, non-national state and society, but a form of internal colonialism in which one group of people in one part of the country is allowed to establish political domination over other groups of people in other parts of the country.

While Komšić claims he has the understanding of the American ambassador in Sarajevo and the High Representative,[12] most reasonable people agree that in a complex multiethnic country such policies are detrimental. As far back as September 2006, for instance, Haris Silajdzić explained the obvious to Komšić,

I believe that if we live in a system of ethnic representation and if the Bosniacs choose the Bosniac representative, and the Serbs the Serb representative, that it is not just towards the Croats that someone chooses their representative on their behalf. I believe that that is dangerous for BiH…and that will cause citizens of Croat nationality to feel revulsion towards BiH. And that could lead the Croats to ask for a third entity.[13]

Other prominent public figures in Bosnia have voiced similar concerns. Senad Hadzifejzović once noted that Sarajevo’s imposition of Komšić on the Croats was akin to the HDZ trying to impose the rebel leader Fikret Abdić on the Bosniac electorate, while Muhamed Filipović has said that if Komšić had any morals he never would have even presented himself as a candidate.[14] Meanwhile, scholars such as Mile Lasić and Šaćir Filandra have argued that the unitarist nationalism Komšić represents was as dangerous to Bosnia & Herzegovina as Croat and Serb separatist nationalism. [15]

Even individuals whose political opinions on most things are diametrically opposed have expressed similar views on this issue. On the eve of BiH’s October elections the leader of the Islamic Community of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Husein Kavazović, explicitly stated that “I do not consider it good that the members of one people choose the representatives of another people,”[16] while Milorad Dodik, for his part, warned that others should not make the same mistake the Serbs made in Yugoslavia.[17] The prominent Sarajevo commentator Nedžad Latić has perhaps been most dire of all, warning that the political games Komšić and his followers are playing were “leading Bosnia to hell.”[18]

To conclude, it is worth going back to the quote by Ivo Banac cited at the beginning of this piece. Banac’s description on the problems facing the first Yugoslavia was written in 1980s to describe what had taken place some six decades earlier. An interesting thought experiment, however, is to take what Banac wrote in the 1980s, and, by changing tenses and a few nouns and adjectives, see how his words apply today, some forty years later. What we get is the following:

…unitarism is plainly opposed to the reality of Bosniac, Croat, and Serb national individuality  and moreover in contradiction to the empirically observable fact that these peoples are fully formed national entities of long standing…To act as if this is not the case, to ignore the fact that the peoples of Bosnia & Herzegovina are not one nation, one culture, and one loyalty, or to insist that they can acquire these unitary characteristics in due course, only weakens the already fragile state and diminishes the prospects for good-neighborliness based on the rejection of all forms of assimilationism and on respect of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s multinational character, the only policy that can strengthen the Bosnian polity…Cooperation is not the aim of political leaders, nor can it be as long as the centralist bloc refuses to respect a principle of concurrent majority in each national community. Instead, the centralists seek to impose a patchwork majority, consisting of Bosniac parties and their tactical allies, onto the parties that represent most of the non-Bosniac groups. A pretense is made that such parties as the Democratic Front are “multitribal,” though in fact the Croat and Serb Democrats have no stable support in their communities. Bosnia & Herzegovina is indeed a highly diversified multinational state, but multinationalism cannot promote consociationalism while the national ideology of the principal group encourages the notion that domination through assimilation is imminent.”

As the French might put it, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Balkan history is replete with examples of how disingenuous political tactics used to establish an ethnic hegemony lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, people who refuse to recognize history’s mistakes are prone to repeating them.

Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a political risk and strategic consultancy specializing in Southeastern Europe.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


  1. See Ivo Banac, The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984), 407-414.
  2. See Woodward, Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1995), 30. Emphasis added.
  4. Dennison Rusinow, The Yugoslav Experiment: 1948-1974 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 272-73.
  5. See the description of Kardelj’s conversation with Dušan Bilandžić as quoted in Dejan Jović, Jugoslavija—država koja je odumrla: uspon, kriza i pad Kardeljeve Jugoslavije (1974-1990) (Zagreb: Prometej, 2003), 199.
  6. As quoted by Lenard J. Cohen, Broken Bonds: Yugoslavia’s Disintegration and Balkan Politics (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995), 62.
  7. See the interview with Holbrooke, entitled “Kosovo Independence Declaration Could Spark Crisis,” at: Emphasis added.
  8. See Ivan Lovrenović, “Emir Suljagić i Reuf Bajrović su demokratski ekstremistički talibani. Oni crtaju crte, Izetbegović ih povlači…”, 27 March 2018, at, accessed on 18 October 2018 at 12:59pm EST.
  9. See Izetbegović, Islamska Deklaracija (Sarajevo: Mala Muslimanska Biblioteka, 1990), 17, 43. Emphasis added.
  10. See Bose, “Contested Lands: Paths to Progress,” Open Democracy, 13 May 2007, at, accessed on 31 January 2018 at 6:20pm EST.
  11. Bose, Bosnia after Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 163, 199-200.
  12. See Komšić’s interview with Darko Hudelist in “’Dolazit ću i u Široki, i u Ljubški, i u Žepče, i gdje god su me proglasisli nepoželjnim. O, baš će mi zabraniti! Ne pada mi na pamet da to poštujem,” Novi Globus, 16 November 2018, at, accessed on 17 November 2018 at 10:19am EST.
  13. See Silajdzić’s comments during the Sarajevo program Politički Magazin, which aired in September 2006 on Federalna Televizija BiH, available at:
  14. See “Filipović: Bosanska država stvarni gubitnik nakon izbora, priželjkivao sam drugačiju državu,” Dnevni Avaz (Sarajevo), 5 November 2018, at, accessed on 6 November 2018 at 9:34am EST.
  15. See the interview with Mile Lasić and Šaćir Filandra on Omer Karabeg’s Most program, “BiH: Pogubne iluzije o Beogradu, Zagrebu, i Istanbulu,” Radio Most, Radio Slobodno Evropa, 18 March 2012, at, accessed on 14 March 2018 at 5:57pm EST.
  16. See Kavazović’s interview with Jozo Pavković, “Ne smatram dobrim da u BiH jedan narod bira zastupnike drugom,” Večernji list, 1 October 2018, at, accessed on 1 November 2018 at 9:58am EST.
  17. See “Dodikova poruka Bošnjacima: Nemojte praviti istu grešku kao Srbija u Jugoslaviji,” (Sarajevo), 12 November 2018, at, accessed on 15 November 2018 at 4:44pm EST.
  18. Latić made the comments during an interview on the program Dobar Loš Zao, Naša TV, which aired on 15 October 2018, available at

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1 Response

  1. Pierre Mirel

    Dear Gordon,

    I cannot agree more with you on BiH. When I was director for the Western Balkans at the EC, whenever we discussed reforms, I pleaded strongly for a decentralized/Federation type of state and not for a unitary one. Unfortunately, some forces have successfully managed to oppose that.
    I wrote about the WB at the Fondation Robert Schuman, Paris, see: ‘The WB: between stabilisation and integration in the EU’, January 2018 (in both French and English).
    Best wishes, pierre

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