Bosnia – between ethnic-nationalism and Europeanization

The process of ethnic-nationalization witnessed in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina is incompatible with the very norms, values and conditions of European membership.

By Bedrudin Brljavac

I have been thinking about the notion of perfect love as being without fear, and what that means for us in a world that’s becoming increasingly xenophobic, tortured by fundamentalism and nationalism

Bell Hooks

According to the European Commission’s Monitoring Report for 2011, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress in EU reforms lags behind that of other countries in the Western Balkans. Since the end of the war, the country’s ethnic politicians – returned in each election except 2000 – have paid insufficient attention to European integration reforms, focusing instead on securing short-term ethno-nationalist interests. In other words, for the ruling nationalist elites, the EU integration project imposes high adoption costs because it undermines their own power bases, which are entirely built on the predominance of ethnic identity. As Chivvis and Dogo point out, relations between the three ethnic groups are more polarised than at any time since the fighting ended. In short, Bosnia risks falling out of step with its neighbours and missing the train to Europe. A return to violence remains possible, but is not likely. The process of substantial ethnic-nationalization is, however, incompatible with the process of Europeanization.

Bosnia’s Europeanization process

Although the EU played an extremely passive role during the war, despite it being a close neighbour, it has since developed a more strategic approach towards the western Balkans. This integration shift emerged with the EU’s clear 1999 commitment towards the region’s EU membership, primarily through the Stabilization and Association Process. SAP has been a fundamental force for integration with EU member states. The main objective of the SAP is to strengthen democratic transition by implementing substantial political, legal, and economic reforms. Following successful and effective reforms in a variety of spheres (democracy, rule of law, education, economy, media, and administration), Bosnia signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in June 2008. The SAA is a pre-accession tool designed as a first step towards eventual EU membership (Vucheva, 2008). The previous EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn called it, “a milestone that marks a new stage in our relations” and “a gateway for [EU] candidacy.”

For more than a decade, Bosnia has been going through a deep and all-embracing modernization and transformation process, widely referred to as “Europeanization”. Even though it is not an easy task to make a proper definition of the term, ‘Europeanization’ is often used in studies and explanations of the influence and impact of the EU on the domestic political, legal and economic structures of aspiring members. Thus, Radaelli argues that, “Europeanization consists of processes of a) construction, b) diffusion and c) institutionalisation of formal and informal rules, procedures, policy paradigms, styles, ‘ways of doing things’ and shared beliefs and norms which are first defined and consolidated in the EU policy process and then incorporated in the logic of domestic (national and subnational) discourse, political structures and public policies”.

Bosnia is currently one of the potential candidate countries, with aspirations to join the political and economic structures of this supranational organization. While the country is supposed to be going through this deep transformation process, adopting EU legal norms or the acquis communautaire, it is instead much more intent on pursuing its massive ethno-nationalist projects and preserving short-term ethnic interests; which could ultimately revive some of the terrible inter-ethnic conflicts from the early nineties.


However, the Europeanization process the country has so far undergone has not amounted to a significant democratic transition, creating social cohesion and economic well-being. What’s more, there has been a rising chorus of opinion among the ethnic political elites and hard-liners which has turned towards the political and legal model based fundamentally on ethno-nationalistic divisions. These now constitute systemic attempts to make changes in political, legal, and economic governance based upon ethno-nationalist principles and norms of ethnic exclusion. As Asim Mujkic puts it:

“I call a community characterized by the political priority of the ethnic group(s) over the individual that is implemented through democratic self-legislation, and a community characterized by the political priority of the ethnic group’s right to self-determination over the citizen’s right to self-determination where the citizen’s membership in a political community is determined by her or his membership in ethnic community, Ethnopolis. And I call the political narrative and practice intended to justify this ethnically-based social construct, ethnopolitics.”

Thus, the public sphere in Bosnia is almost completely dominated by an ethno-nationalist dynamic of chauvinistic discrimination. Atajic further explains, “everything – from the greeting you use to the dialect you speak and the newspaper in your coat pocket – is judged, commented upon and categorized in terms of an omnipresent, mythicized ‘ethnicity’. Under such circumstances, defining oneself as a citizen of the BiH state is tantamount to a betrayal of one’s national identity” (2002:118).

The best example is the insistent attempts to establish a third federal unit or entity in the country, in which Bosnian Croats would constitute the majority. Despite the fact that some ethnic communities are discriminated against in certain parts of the country, it is hard to accept the proposal that one ethnic group should realize its democratic rights through attempts at ethnic apartheid. Keeping in mind the fact that each political project of territorial separation in the early nineties after the dissolution of Yugoslavia has resulted in massive ethnic cleansing, it is essential to search for a political and legal governance model which will be built on democratic principles of multi-ethnic coexistence and social inclusion. Any new effort in the direction of a partition of Bosnia would restart war, precipitate ethnic cleansing, and cause untold human suffering.

Ethno-nationalist segregation in Bosnia can only lead to the serious marginalisation of the universal values of tolerance, dialogue and trust, whilst increasing ethnic homogenization is swiftly dissolving the very idea of state citizenship itself. Public discourse in BiH is to a large extent marked by the domination of the so-called ‘constituent nations’, thereby openly discriminating against citizens of the so-called ‘Others’, who are minority groups in the country. The most stark example of this is the case of Jews and Roma, whose members are legally not allowed to exercise their legitimate rights and freedoms. Although Bosnia joined the Council of Europe on 24th April 2002, there has been increasing discrimination against minorities in the country. Citizens from minority communities – such as Roma, Turks or Jews – are granted only a limited degree of freedom and self-administration. The post-war political and social space has been largely dominated by three ethnic groups, leading to the institutional marginalization of minority groups and their members.

In post-Dayton Bosnia the majority of citizens are in a position of homo duplex, or a divided humanity, since they are in a struggle between being a genuine human being and a loyal ethnic being. In fact, political space has become limited and ever more unwelcome for groups such as those who see themselves as Yugoslav, Bosnian and so forth. As Touquet and Vermeersch point out:

“These people have now been excluded from mainstream accounts of the outcomes of the recent conflict: it is not possible to be a Yugoslav, a Bosnian or an Eskimo in a situation in which ethnic nationalism has transcended all else and in which there are intensely localized variations in identity and ‘national’ sentiments”.

What’s more, the paradigm of ethnic-nationalism in BiH completely predominates over the principle of citizenship, as the idea of nationalist collectivity has supremacy over a democratic model based upon individual rights and freedoms. Indeed, the social supremacy of collectivity over individual action is resulting in the steady, deep ghetto-isation of the three ethnic communities, paving the way for a regime in which members of different ethnic communities live side-by-side but still profoundly alienated from each other. Pasic argues that, “not only are there physical entity and cantonal borders, but ethnicity is also institutionalized in all aspects of political life in BiH. The ethnic segregation is evident when it comes to living areas, government, voting, education and even languages, and what is intelligible”. As a result, separated territories – or ethnically pure “ghettos” – have developed (Flottau and Kraske 2005), thereby seriously undermining the idea of unity in diversity.

It is important to note that widespread ethnic and religious polarization has been proven to increase the risk of civil war. From the signing of the Dayton accords, local politicians and the media have, from time-to-time, mentioned war as a possible option (Whitlock, 2009). Although such a terrible scenario currently seems unreal, fifteen years into the peace-building process, local hard-liners can and do invoke the military option when they feel it necessary. In fact, most wars in the world have started because of the short-sighted ideological and political interests of political elites. As we know too well, once the atmosphere of fear and mistrust has been created, it is not difficult to push ordinary people into war. This is why it is so important that local political elites dedicate their political will towards developing policies and legal structures which will ensure the same rights and obligations for all citizens of Bosnia.

Post-war Bosnia has largely been closer to a process of ‘Balkanization’, which is understood as contrary to what may be deemed ‘western’ norms and values. In fact, domestic factors have largely contributed to the EU’s failure in Bosnia. The consociational model established by the Dayton Agreement, with its multiple veto points and recalcitrant nationalist elites, has hindered EU-led reforms.

It is easy to understand that ethnic elites repeatedly use the card of inter-ethnic fear in order to win elections and continue their ‘nationalistic hegemony’. Most Bosnian political leaders are aware that Europeanisation will not bring them the votes of their respective ethnic groups. However, paradoxically, a majority of Bosnian citizens from each of the three ethnic communities strongly supports the country’s path towards the EU, whilst still preferring the ethnic-nationalist programmes of the political elites. As the ethnic-nationalist model of policy-making has not worked for the previous twenty years of democratic transition, it is obvious that Bosnia must look for an alternative model of governance.

The Integration of European countries

As a possible model for Bosnia’s ethnic groups, it is important to remember how six European countries decided to establish the European Community (from 1991, the EU) in the aftermath of the second world war, aimed at preventing further nationalistic projects across Europe. Following one of the most devastating wars in history, Europeans agreed to build an ‘Even Closer Union’ between European states. The transformation was to be developed through a process of ‘evolution by which formerly hostile nation states would be drawn together until they could become integrated in a single political, economic and social entity’. Although EU states have recently been confronted with a deep financial crisis, the idea of European integration is a good example of a form of organization which tends to create a stable and secure supra-national community through political, economic and legal integration. Due to its capacity to transform state sovereignty and its integrating potential, the EU is often perceived as the perfect example of cosmopolitanism in practice (Rifkin, 2004).

The present-day image of the EU, rather far from resembling the original idea of a federation, can neverthless be defined as a ‘political, economic, social and legal hybrid with a combination of federal, confederal, supranational and intergovernmental features’ (Winer, 2004: 40). Political integration among the EU states has deepened to such an extent that European leaders accepted, with the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, the idea of European citizenship.

The idea of European citizenship creates the right for citizens of EU member states to vote in whatever EU state they find themselves at the time of European Parliament elections. As Fligstein (2008: 139) argues, people will “come to see each other less as Italian and French, and thus foreign, and more and more as sharing common interests, a process that eventually will lead to seeing themselves more as Europeans and less as having merely a national identity”.

Although European the integration model has its shortcomings and deficiencies – such as the powerful role of its richer countries such as France and Germany – it is currently the best political model of a supranational character with the potential to reduce nationalist animosities and increase levels of solidarity. The core supranational bodies of the EU are just as necessary as ever.

It is now critical that political elites in Bosnia do as Schumann, Monnet and Adenauer did in the past, and bravely accelerate a European integration process that can make the country part of a democratic and free Europe. The choice is increasingly between a form of ethnic apartheid that is likely to result in a new ethnic conflicts or a European democracy which can guarantee long-term political stability and peaceful coexistence.

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.

This article is published as part of TransConflict’s new initiative, ‘Bosnia’s Future on the Future of Bosnia’, further information about which is available by clicking here.

To learn more about Bosnia and Herzegovina, please refer to TransConflict’s reading list series by clicking here.

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0 Response

  1. Bill Bernhard

    Mr. Bedrudin Brljavac, the end result you wish for will not produce what you desire, if indeed Bosnia and the other Balkan Nations become a part of the EU. The Western European nations have always viewed the Balkans as red headed step children and a buffer to Islamic advances from Turkey. The Russians have always viewed you as a tool against the West and a source for minerals, and Turkey as a land gateway to the West and an appendage of a nostalgic past. It is time for a Balkans EU. It is time for the Balkans to unite together for their own common interest. The potential that would be unleashed by this union would be awesome. I applaud you Mr Brljavac in your desire to see your nation prosper and unite but no matter how eloquent your words nor how long your treatise it does not change the fact that your conclusions are wrong. Joining the EU is not the answer unless you desire the back seat on the EU bus and the crumbs thrown to you by the Western Elites.

  2. Euroman

    Mr Bill Bernhard,

    Regarding your interpretation of BH joining the EU, you are so wrong. BH will only benefit from this union and whilst your Balkan Union idea has merit, it’s simply not going to happen anytime soon. The only union that Balkan countries would feel comfortable being a part of would only be one with such a wide-spread like the EU. It is simply too early for a Balkan Union.

    Far from being thrown crumbs from the Western Elites, countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina will benefit immensely from EU membership. There are so many positive ramifications that I possibly couldn’t mention them all in this post.

    And even if you were sitting on the back seat of the EU bus, you’d still be better off than standing out in the cold, or God forbid, as being known as yet another country with no backbone sucking up to the Americans.

    BH for the EU.

  3. AV

    Allot of bloody mess seems to prove that The Balkans look like a whole with reasons to unite only seen from far enough – some neighboring planet comes to mind. I wish there was a Balkan union. It sure wouldn’t need diluting itself into Europe.

    As things are, it see that nationalism is easier tolerated within the EU then in the Balkans. I am curious whether this is part of what makes Europe as attractive as polls show it to be in Serbia, and by this account in Bosnia… aside the stronger argument conflict made against itself, of course.

  4. Nada Fendi

    Bosnia-Herzegovina is in Europe, has always been part of Europe, has always been multi-ethnic and an open society. The conflict has arisen due to the artificial creation of a federation such Yugoslavia with one and only agenda of the creation of the ‘Greater Serbia’.

    People of BiH get along, we always have got along for centuries! We have a problem with the politicians who act on the orders from Serbia (primarily vis a vis Dodik and Co), Croatia. We, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina love our country, value our centuries long freedoms, diversity and tolerance. The EU is built on the same principles. We see our future with and in the EU.

  5. Realist

    It is possible to be a Yugoslav, a Bosnian or an Eskimo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but when election come people see themselves as Serbs, Muslims or Croats. If it was not like this, Bosnia would not be in the place where it is today. The harsh true.

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