The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part twelve

TransConflict is pleased to present the twelfth part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

The strangest of the Badinter Commission’s decisions was its suggestion that Bosnia conduct a referendum on the question of independence. In 1990, while Bosnia was still part of Yugoslavia, it had held its first open election since the imposition of communism. A poll conducted by the newspaper Danas in May had 74 percent of the population supporting “the decision of the Bosnian leadership to forbid the formation of nationalist parties.”[85] But the main party that sought to continue Yugoslavia by means of a negotiated settlement was the renamed communist party. The overwhelming mood of the electorate was that after fifty years the communists had to go, no matter what the renovated party might advocate. During the campaign, the nationalist parties, which were in fact permitted, spoke of a harmonious relationship among the Bosnian people, but when these parties scored overwhelming regional victories in the winner take all election, purges fairly quickly left control of the Bosnian administration in the hands of three narrowly conceived parties. With no experience in democratic politics or statecraft, party leaders had neither the skills nor the will that would have been needed to implement a negotiated settlement. This was particularly true of Karadžić’s Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), which, with psychological and material help from Serbia, consistently opposed Serbian inclusion in an independent Bosnia. When the war in Croatia began in earnest in the late summer of 1991, Serbian enclaves in Bosnia began to declare themselves “autonomous” entities and called on the JNA to protect them. Milošević responded by increasingly turning over control of the JNA forces in Bosnia to Bosnian Serbs, so that by the time a ceasefire between Croatia and Serbia had been achieved in January 1992, the Serbian elements in Bosnia were well armed and in effective possession of large parts of the territory they would claim as theirs. The Bosnian state, on the other hand, had been deprived of its ability to use force to maintain its integrity.[86]

It was under these conditions that the Commission noted that the “Serbian people of Bosnia-Hercegovina” had moved from a position in November of simply staying in Yugoslavia, to a vote in December to form a separate Serbian Republic in Bosnia as part of a federal Yugoslav state, and finally, in January 1992, to proclaiming the full independence of a Serbian Republic. It concluded the obvious: it could not be established that all the people of Bosnia were united in their desire for an independent Bosnian state. The Commission went on to suggest that “This assessment could be reviewed if appropriate guarantees were provided, . . . possibly by means of a referendum of all the citizens.”[87] This was a curiously technical finding, given the situation on the ground in Bosnia. One wonders how the commissioners, who had just admitted the intransigence of the Serbs, thought a referendum might stabilize the situation. In fact, what the Commission had done was to agree that the Serbian population of Bosnia had the right to prevent the creation of a unified and independent Bosnia, a ruling consistent with the earlier ruling that a part of a federal state could delegitimize that state by not participating in its affairs. In essence, the Commission, albeit probably unintentionally, accepted the Serbian position that the Serbs should not become a minority in a united Bosnia.

Despite serious misgivings about holding a referendum, Izetbegović agreed to do so. The vote, taken on February 28 and March 1, 1992, achieved a high turnout of 63 percent of the eligible voters, of whom almost one hundred percent voted in favor of independence. That is, an absolute majority of the citizens of Bosnia voted for independence. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of those who had voted were Bosniaks and Croats, although some Croats may have voted for independence as a first step in eventually joining Croatia. As couldeasily have been predicted, most Serbs boycotted the elections.[88] Nevertheless, only two days later, Izetbegović declared the independence of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The international community, noting the intransigence of the Serbs, now backed away from its earlier belief that Bosnia could be a unified country. At a meeting held in Lisbon two weeks following the declaration of Bosnian independence, the EC brokered an agreement to divide the country into three constituent units. The Serbs and Croats accepted this idea, but Izetbegović eventually did not, fearing that the Bosnian Muslims would be left an easy prey to more powerful Serbian and Croatian neighbors. By early April the “cleansing” of the Drina Valley was under way, and within weeks Serb forces had occupied about 60 percent of the country.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.

Previous parts of the chapter ‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ are available through the following links:


85) V. P. Gagnon, The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 49.

86) For an excellent, detailed account of the formation of military forces in Bosnia, see Marko Attila Hoare, How Bosnia Armed (London: Saqi Books, in association with The Bosnian Institute, 2004).

87) Opinion No. 4, 11 January 1992, in Ramcharan, Official Papers, 1268

88) See, among others, Sabrina Petra Ramet, Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2002), 206.

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