Civil society in Bosnia – obstacle or opportunity?

The marginalization of civil society from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s process of transition can, in part, be explained by the dominant ethno-nationalist agenda that has meant that civil society itself has been ethnicized and divided along ethnic lines.

By Bedrudin Brljavac

‘‘I am not mandated by anyone…I do not belong to any political party. I only represent myself: an intellectual and a citizen.’’

Jean Amrouche, an Algerian poet and intellectual

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political leadership has failed to form a government since elections in October 2010, leaving the country facing the worst political and social crisis since the end of the war. Inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric has dominated public discourse almost throughout the post-Dayton era, with the leaders of the three main ethnic groups (Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats) blaming each other for the resulting paralysis. Under such conditions of zero-sum politics, it is extremely difficult to expect nationalist politicians with opposing interests to reach a stable compromise without external actors and mediators. One such actor which could provide a helping hand to Bosnia’s quarrelling politicians is civil society. As Paris points out, civil society organizations (CSOs) can “help to break down social barriers between formerly warring communities and provide grassroots support for political parties that support intergroup accommodation” (2004: 194).

However, civil society in Bosnia has generally been marginalized from decision-making processes. Due to socialist-communist regime in the former Yugoslavia, civil society was weak before the war (Fischer, 2006: 16). Nevertheless, during the war and in its aftermath, civil society started to flourish both in quantitative and qualitative terms, with a large number of international NGOs working on reconciliation and the transition to democracy. Sizeable financial and logistic means have been allocated, mainly from foreign donors, to domestic civil society groups.

Similarly, the European Union has ambitiously supported civil society’s development as one of the democratic preconditions for joining the EU. Still, as Žeravčić and Biščević state, “the ability of the civil sector to participate in the creation of public policies is almost negligible” (2009: 145). The puzzling question remains – why has civil society not been more deeply involved in resolving the country’s political deadlock?

The Role of Civil Society In Democracy

A developed, active and independent civil society is an indispensable factor in democratic and open countries. As Paffenholz points out, “civil society consists of a large and diverse set of voluntary organizations, and comprises non-state actors and associations which are not purely driven by private or economic interests, are autonomously organized, show civil virtue, and interact in public sphere” (2010, 60). In modern democracies, a well-developed civil society increases citizens’ freedoms, promotes the rule of law, reduces state corruption and establishes greater government effectiveness (Bostic, 2011: 95).

That is, without an independent and well-developed civil society, any democratic regime would follow uni-dimensional policy-making from the top-down; which is, in both content and ideology, closer to closed and autocratic regimes than to open societies. Strong and active civil society organizations (CSOs) should not, therefore, be perceived as a threat to a country’s political establishment.

In consolidated democracies, it is taken for granted that CSOs work in cooperation with state actors; having a role of equal partner and making a significant contribution to policy-making processes. Civil society as a voluntary element is distinct from state structures themselves, plus the commercial elements of the market; the three constituent parts of a democratic society. Civil society, therefore, is a corrective partner; articulating interests and provide an important check on state power (Bostic, 2011: 96).

Nonetheless, civil society cannot replace the state. Its role is not to act on behalf of public institutions, but rather to work together with them in a harmonious and transparent atmosphere. Furthermore, states with a strong civil society tend to be politically stable, not least because CSOs train citizens to be tolerant, cooperative and reciprocal (Tusalem, 2007: 379–80).

Explaining why CSOs are invisible in Bosnia

There are a variety of reasons behind the underdeveloped and marginalized civil society sector in Bosnia’s democratic transition. With Bosnia’s social discourse marked by a process of extensive ethno-nationalisation, it is almost natural to conclude that even civil society has been ethnicized and divided along ethnic lines. As such, Gajo Sekulic, a scholar at the University of Sarajevo, points out that cooperation or partnership, based on the principle of equality, between civil society and the public sector in Bosnia is impossible because of the latter’s dominant ethno-nationalist agenda (2002).

A rise in civil society’s activism and dynamism is immediately perceived as a reduction in goverment’s power. Granting civil society scope for action is therefore a risky business for nationalist elites, who fear that this will jeopardize their control over the economy, media and general public (Sejfija, 2006: 132). That is, the idea of ethnopolitics is opposed to the development of a strong and influential civil society.

In addition, civil society has practically become an isolated sector; detached from the real needs and interests of ordinary people. It often seems that the most important goal of many CSOs in Bosnia is to receive funding, regardless of the project’s usefulness and relevance for social and political challenges; leading many within the sector to talk about “projectomania”. The term denotes an uncritical attitude by CSOs whose entire programme of activities revolves around project funding, and whose priority is to develop projects that focus on compliance with the donor criteria, often without considering their practical relevance and viability (Sejfija, 2006: 134). These organisations, argues Gajo Sekulic, “are merely a surrogate civil society…the problem is that their projects lack any social legitimacy. What has emerged is a separate, isolated segment of civil sector which could jeopardise the development of an authentic civil society in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The participation of citizens – who should be the defining feature of a civil society – is called into question” (Grupa autora, 1998: 42).

Furthermore, the post-Dayton institutional framework has fostered greater ethnic homogenization, thereby preventing the evolution of a genuine civil society. Fifteen years after Dayton, Bosnia is still far from being the effective and democratic state that the accords had envisioned. Even the vast majority of CSOs have been largely divided and act mainly in their respective entities. Instead of being a significant integrative factor pushing multi-ethnic cooperation, civil society has further contributed to the ethno-nationalist project. For instance, although there are around 10,000 CSOs in Bosnia, only a small number have offices in both Entities, and most employ workers predominantly from one ethnic group. Since Dayton divided Bosnia into two entities along ethnic lines, genuine civic initiatives remain essentially blocked. As Nanić claims:

“the current constitution substantially restricts the development of civil society because of the deep divisions in the civil society itself on ethnic interests, and thus NGOs generally do not have sufficient capacity for activities at the state level” (2010).

Another factor contributing to a weak and undeveloped civil society is the political culture and social behaviour inherited from the pre-war communist regime; based mainly on a total reliance on state institutions and the communist party. Kamrava defines political culture as “a set of values and orientations which determine and influence the public’s perception of politics” (1996). Bosnia’s political culture has gone through a substantial transformation since the mid-nineties. However, it would be naïve to tell that this transition process has been successful.

As Halimović argues that, “BiH citizens generally don’t have a clear vision of what should be their priority and they are completely excluded from policy making. In fact, it seems that citizens are not sufficiently interested in anything except for their mere existence. The fact that BiH has been the slowest country in the liberalization of the visa regime, and that the citizens are again silent, tells us enough about the involvement of the citizens” (2010). Only when people actively participate in community can they contribute to bringing about social and political changes (Belloni, 2001: 173).


Bosnia and Herzegovina has been facing a deep and damaging political and social paralysis for most of the last decade. Although domestic political elites have on several occasions attempted to reach a compromise on constitutional reform, they have failed because of their diverse national interests and party positions. International mediation efforts – especially those of the EU and US – have failed to dilute ethnic differences. The marginalization of civil society from the transition process, however, remains an interesting and puzzling question. Although there are institutional and administrative obstacles to civil society playing a more decisive policy-making role, it is imperative that additional efforts are made to voice discontent about unaccountable and often corrupt politicians. Only by putting pressure on domestic politicians to work in the interests of citizens can Bosnia-Herzegovina’s democratic transition move forward.

Bedrudin Brljavac is a PhD candidate at the department of political science at the University of Sarajevo. His doctoral project is titled, “The European Union as a Global Civilian Power (GCP) – its Impact on the Transformation of Modus Operandi of International Relations”. He has regularly written columns for national and international magazines and daily newspapers, such as Dnevni Avaz, Novi Horizonti, Turkish Weekly and Open Democracy.

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  1. Belloni, Robert, (2001), “Civil Society and Peace Building in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 38, No. 2, 2001, pp. 163-180.
  2. Bostic, Anze Voh, (2011), “Analysing EU’s Civil Society Development in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, European Perspectives – Journal on European Perspectives of the Western Balkans, Vol. 3, No. 1 (4), pp 91-113, April 2011.
  3. Fischer, Martina, (2006), Introduction: Moving out of the Dayton Era into the Era of Brussels?, in Martina, Fischer (2006), Peace building and Civil Society in Bosnia- Herzegovina. Ten Years after Dayton, Münster: Lit Verlag 2006.
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  7. Nanic, Husein, (2010), “The Representative in the House of Representatives of the Parliament of the Federation of BiH”, Personal Interview, April, 2010.
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  9. Paris, Roland (2004): At War’s End: Building Peace after Civil Conflict, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
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  11. Sekulic, Gajo 2002. Interview in Dani. Sarajevo, 21 February 2002.
  12. Tusalem, Rollin F. (2007): “A Boon or a Bane? The Role of Civil Society in Third- and Fourth-Wave Democracies”, International Political Science Review 28 (3), pp. 361–386.
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Articles published by TransConflict do not necessarily reflect the views of the organization.



2 Responses

  1. Ranko

    It is a strange terminology: “Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats” living in Bosnia and Herzegovina (B-H). I would like to direct the author’s and audience’s attention to the fact that in B-H live also Herzegovinian Serbs, Herzegovinian Croats and Herzegovinian Muslims. Many Muslims call themselves Bosniaks and they are recognized under this name in official documents in B-H. All three ethnic groups are identified as “constitutive” in B-H official documents and there is no geographical adjective (Bosnian or Herzegovinian) since Croats and Serbs are the same people/ethnic group that live in Croatia and Serbia and elsewhere. Any ethnic group is different in specific geographical parts of any country (dialects, customs) but it does not make them a different ethnic group and they themselves do not perceive different. It should be simply said: Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. Geographical specifics are for ethnology, anthropology etc. but not for political analysis of B-H.

  2. Pingback : Bosnian Civil Society and NGO’s | bosnianglobalization

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