Bosnia and Herzegovina: Unaddressed Grievances, Fears and Nationalism

Bosnia-and-Herzegovina (hereby Bosnia) remains a major struggle for conflict transformation actors as ethnic tensions are rising anew. Ravaged by Europe’s bloodiest conflict after the Second World War, Bosnia then enjoyed over 20 years without violence with the signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995. Nonetheless, the rise of nationalist movements, such as the one led by Milorad Dodik, in the Republika Srpska, and the paralysis of its political system expose the country’s fragile confederation. As political leaders are unable to reach agreement on social, economic, and political matters, many fear that violence could resurface as a means to finish the ethnic cleansing war started in 1992.

Milorad Dodik, Banja Luka, May. 14, 2016. VOANEWS.

The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s were given utmost attention by the international community. Once the Balkans were liberated from the Cold War’s blockades, a natural predisposition to assist in aiding peace came about from the new range of capabilities. Undeniably, the unilateral neoliberal victory also meant their involvement made for specific priorities. The case of Bosnia now amounts essentially to a “what not to do list” for conflict resolution. A closer look on the peace-building initiatives undertaken in Bosnia, once the most preeminent conflict of the 90s, gets us a better understanding of the needs for conflict transformation.

History of the Balkans

The history of the Balkans has been marred by interethnic violence. While the 20th century’s European self-determination movements were endorsed and to some extent even encouraged, the Balkans had a different fate: ethnic groups had been made to live together until Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Although the Ottoman occupation, the bloody Balkans civil wars, the royalist military dictatorship of the Serbs of Yugoslavia as of 1929, and the Yugoslavian civil war from 1941-1945 were themselves highly traumatising events, what turned out to be fatal was the silence that followed the victims’ demands for accountability. Grievances, fears, and anger from years of collective injustice were not addressed, nor were reparations made by the Communists under Josip Tito’s leadership (who had achieved a unilateral victory against the Royalists Serbs and the Nazi-associated Croats). These sources of tension would remain repressed for about 30 years in a tightly controlled Yugoslavia; however, ethnic tensions were at a minimum, as Yugoslavia thrived throughout the Cold War thanks to its ability to maintain good economic relations with both blocs and as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Question of Identity

Unfortunately, these many ignored historical grievances are not erased so easily – they often remain entrenched in the collective mind, rendering the fears of the Other believable whenever the context is right. This was precisely the case in the 1980s  – a hard decade for Yugoslavia: not only did the great economic crisis affect it gravely, Tito’s death brought the question of the federation’s political future to the table. Moreover, as the political crisis heightened and dissolution loomed near, territorial interests begin to press in the balance – what belonged to whom? The question of identity, the fear of the Other, and the need to protect oneself returned as swiftly as it seemed to have left – not only were there leaders, eager to gain their fair share of what was considered Bosnia, but the population of each group readily accepted, and even fed discourses of hate, and the need to protect their ethnic peers from the other, rendering the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia justified by their duty to protect.

17 November 1993, Inauguration of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Audio Visual Library of International Law.

As casualties and number of displaced individuals escalated to appalling proportions, the timely end of violence in Bosnia became the international community’s highest priority – no matter the long-term costs. They would help design and endorse the peace signed at Dayton, in 1995 – while a perfect solution in the short-term, as it certainly pleased prominent players in the conflict and ended the hostilities, it reconstructed all of Bosnia’s political institutions through ethnic division and led to complete stagnation of the country, incapable of reaching decisions together. The international community’s fickle hope that the elite would strive, through peaceful means, to reconcile the population remained unfulfilled. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established to deal with war crimes and bring a sense of justice that would led the population forward in ways the political elite could not. While it was crucial to addressing the mass violations of human rights committed throughout the war, these institutions alone did not achieve reconciliation; moreover, the significant imbalance of trials have led to a process of victimisation on both sides – reinforcing victims’ identities as well as fostering a feeling of injustice on the Serbs’ side.

Uneasy Peace

The uneasy peace in today’s Bosnia perhaps best exemplifies how the end of violence cannot simply end the conflict at its very core. Root causes of violence were and are still present, and could lead to its renewal This is not only a consequence of, but a cause of the political stalemate of today’s Bosnia – the fears that justified the actions of the war have never been collectively tackled. Indeed, while the 1992-1995 war is more recent and easier to recall, the countless denials of collective justice in the region led to the escalation of violence over and over again, and certainly will in the future.

Ultimately, the case of Bosnia-and-Herzegovina’s deficient transitional justice system can be compared to a bandage on an bleeding wound: the bleeding cannot be staunched without attending to the wound itself. The denial of justice and reconciliation that has plagued its history have led its ethnic groups to further define themselves in opposition with others; and give us insight into what feeds populism and nationalism today. Unresolved grievances and sustained fears remain the greatest threats to peace, and dismantling them is paramount to prevent more violence. Criminal prosecution alone cannot bridge together diverse groups. Long-term initiatives, such as truth commissions, problem-solving workshops, and national dialogues could heal the wounds that have long been left open, and could help define what it means to live peacefully and progressing forward together, in Bosnia and elsewhere. Extending the framework of conflict transformation might be too big an investment for the international community, but it might be the only way to prevent perpetual interethnic violence.

Emilie Di Grazia recently finished her Bachelor of Social Sciences, with a specialisation in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at the University of Ottawa, and will attend the Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in Geneva in September. Her general research interest is ethnic conflict, human rights, transitional justice in the Balkans and Eastern Europe.