Bosnia Herzegovina is a polity divided. Its political system is characterized by a permanent constitutional crisis caused by ethnic isolation and political bickering. The U.S.-brokered 1995 Dayton Agreement reaffirms Bosnia’s sovereignty but it also grants ethnic groups extensive self-governance. Political elites abuse the system, undermining state powers while strengthening sub-state entities, the base of their political power. This has strained relationships among the Bosnian people—Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, Serbs and others. Once considered a model of coexistence, these groups are now rapidly growing apart. Separateness has led to renewed ethnic tension, threatening the nation’s future. If irresponsible politics—local and international—remain unchecked, Bosnia’s mounting frustrations may lead to the country’s break-up along ethnic lines.
The divisiveness that mars Bosnia is best illustrated in the country’s inability to agree on common public holidays. On March 1, the commemoration of Bosnia’s independence from Yugoslavia twenty-one years ago will be observed by only half of the country—the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina, a Bosniak-Croat entity. The other half, the predominantly Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska, will boycott the holiday. Instead, its government honors the ‘Day of Republika Srpska’ on January 9, which commemorates the 1992 Assembly of the Serb People in Bosnia proclamation which established a ‘Serb Republic’ as part of the already dissolving Yugoslavian state.
Also disputed is National Day, which commemorates November 25, 1943. On this day, the National Anti-Fascist Council of the People’s Liberation reaffirmed Bosnia’s statehood by declaring it an autonomous Yugoslav Republic; a community of Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and others who equitably share their Bosnian homeland. Paradoxically, this holiday, which marks their joint, heroic struggle against fascism in World War II, is no longer part of a common Bosnian narrative—rejected primarily by nationalist Serbs who see it as a symbol of state unity that undermines Republika Srpska
Everything in Bosnia is subject to divisiveness today. Land, school curricula, prominent novelists, and even public institutions are classified along ethnic lines. Tensions culminated in late 2012, when several Bosnian cultural institutions—including the 124-year old National Museum—closed their doors because politicians could not agree on who should finance them. This is because these institutions do not carry an ethnic label, but belong to all Bosnians, and therefore, administratively, to nobody.
Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb politicians operate within a contradiction. While denouncing Bosnian statehood, they exercise government powers, spend state funds and receive government salaries. The contradictions don’t end there. Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, is not silent about his loyalty for Serbia over the country he serves as an elected official, publicly stating that he could not bring himself “to support the Bosnia-Herzegovina soccer team, except when it plays against Turkey.” Dodik is also known for refusing to acknowledge as genocide the July 1995 massacre of eight thousand Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica.
In an effort to acknowledge Srebrenica’s legacy, the EU Parliament adopted a widely ratified resolution proclaiming July 11 as a day of remembrance of the genocide. But Bosnian Serbs are obstructing the resolution’s ratification in the federal Parliament, making Bosnia the only European country that failed to adopt it. Serbia itself ratified a redacted version of the resolution after omitting the word “genocide”—all this in exchange for accelerated EU integration. As of March last year, Serbia is an EU candidate country—a status war-torn Bosnia is unlikely to attain any time soon.
In 2013, Bosnia faces its most serious crisis yet: secessionist threats by Republika Srpska. Dodik called for a referendum that would decide whether Republika Srpska should reject the jurisdiction of the Bosnian State Court. Analysts believe that Dodik is testing the ground for a future referendum on independence—a political project the Bosnian Serb leadership nurtured for decades with Serbia’s support
Renewed American diplomatic efforts are necessary to break the current political deadlock if Bosnia should become Washington’s lasting foreign policy success. When Hillary Clinton visited Sarajevo last year, she expressed disappointment with the slow reform progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. However, demands for reform and the promise of EU and NATO membership will not move Bosnia forward. The international community must hold Bosnian politicians accountable, without appeasing ethnic pretentions, as it so often has done. It cannot reward individuals and governments who pay lip service to reform, but fail to take genuine steps towards reconciliation. The international community should confront those who deny historical facts and reject responsibility for mass atrocities—issues that are still met with uncomfortable silence. Without a shared understanding of the war’s place in history there can be no stability in the Balkans.
Bosnia’s youth are the country’s best hope. Unlike Dodik, they are warming up to the idea that a multi-ethnic Bosnia can work. They cheer for the national soccer team led by Bosniak Edin Dzeko, but equally composed of Croats and Serbs. When passing the ball, one does not distinguish ethnicity—what counts is winning. Bosnia’s future must be entrusted to a new generation of progressive leaders who wish to work together.