Bosnia and Herzegovina
“”The political environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina is still dominated by nationalist rhetoric that provides the perfect cover for corruption scandals, lack of accountability and opportunism.
|—Amila Karačić, Deputy Program Director at the International Republican Institute.|
Bosnia and Herzegovina, often shortened to just Bosnia, is a dysfunctional state in southeastern Europe; it was a constituent part of what used to be Yugoslavia, and carries on the legacy of Yugoslavia as an unstable multiethnic state in the Balkans. The state is home to three ethnic/religious groups who share a long and complicated history of conflict, accommodation and sometimes peaceful co-existence: the Muslim Bosniaks, the largely Catholic Croats, and the mostly Orthodox Serbs. Its shambles of a government is one of the legacies of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars between these ethnic groups. The country is partitioned between two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. The latter is inhabited by ethnic Serbs, who remain in control of large swathes of Bosnia including lands in which they used ethnic cleansing tactics to oust Bosnians. The Federation is shared between Bosnians and Croats. The two entities share an uneasy existence within the same state, being perpetually frozen in the aftermath of a horrific war by the 1995 Dayton Agreement. The troubled country's capital and largest city is Sarajevo (yes, that one).
Bosnia was originally a South Slavic nation that formed its own kingdom, but it was annexed by the Ottoman Empire in 1463. Turkish rule brought Islam to the region's population, causing Bosnian Muslim converts (Bosniaks) to become culturally and religiously distinct from other South Slavic groups. When Serbia broke away from the empire in the 19th century, the Serbs also claimed Bosnia as rightfully theirs due to the large Serbian population there. The Serbs were frustrated when Bosnia fell under Austria's domination in 1878, and they were enraged when Bosnia was fully annexed in 1908. Serbian fury resulted in the assassination of Austria's archduke in Sarajevo in 1914, kick-starting the colossal clusterfuck that we know as World War I.
To compensate Serbia for losing so many people in the war, the Entente agreed to help Serbia create Yugoslavia as a disjointed state occupying Bosnia as well as Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. Yugoslavia was one of the most brutal areas of World War II, and it emerged from the conflict as a communist regime under Josip Broz Tito, who held it together by force of personality and authoritarianism. He kept Yugoslavia out of the Eastern Bloc and thus propped the state up by courting foreign aid from both sides in the Cold War. After the Cold War's end and Tito's death, though, the good times ended. Nationalism resurfaced, and Yugoslavia tore itself apart in a series of civil wars. Bosnia attempted to leave Yugoslavia as well, prompting ethnic Serbs within Bosnia to rise up in another civil war. Cue a nice few years of genocide and ethnic cleansing, finally prompting a NATO intervention and a brokered peace deal called the Dayton Accords. The front lines in Bosnia have been frozen in place ever since.
Bosnia's government is a patchwork designed to ensure that nobody feels the need to launch another ethnic civil war. It has three presidents, each chosen from the three major ethnic groups. The central government has very little power, and the two autonomous entities do most of the actual governance. It remains to be seen if the current Bosnian experiment will survive or if it will explode again. Even the flag is ominous, showing a great big yellow wedge driving into it.
- 1 About the names...
- 2 History
- 3 Government
- 4 Gallery
- 5 See also
- 6 References
About the names...
One of the first things people notice about Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it has an annoyingly long double name. Herzegovina simply refers to a geographic region in Bosnia that takes its name from the German word Herzog, meaning "duke". Bosnia is the proper name of the region, which probably takes its name from the Bosna River, which was noted by the Roman Empire as a major feature.
Bosnia's modern population are Slavs who migrated into the region, mostly belonging to tribes labeled as "Serb" or "Croat." Those labels didn't get their modern ethnic meanings until much later. The first written mention of Bosnia was recorded during this period by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who used the term "Bosona" to describe a region of "baptized Serbs". From then on, Bosnia spent most of the Middle Ages under the rule of Serbians, Croats, or the Greek-ruled Byzantine Empire. Its population were gradually converted to Christianity thanks to the efforts of the Byzantines and of the Franks. The two opposing efforts at spreading the religion resulted in a diverse landscape divided between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions.
From 1180 CE, outside rule weakened, and Bosnia managed to emerge as a mostly-independent polity in its own right. Although Bosnia experienced brief periods of glory under kings like Ban Kulin (ruled c. 1180–1204), Ban Stjepan (Stephen) Kotromanić (ruled 1322–53), and King Tvrtko I (ruled 1353–91), its influence and power were limited by its perpetual landlocked status and its rugged landscape.
Bosnia's isolation and religious diversity also gave rise to its own brand of Christianity. The Bosnian Church blended traditions, became independent, and was promptly declared heresy by both Catholics and Orthodox. One of the relatively few clues as to this religion's nature is the Hval's Codex, a manuscript from 1404 that contains some major deviations from standard Christian theology. The Bosnian Church was eventually destroyed by a Crusade and then repeated purges conducted by Catholic inquisitions.
Ottoman rule and Islamization
Bosnia's period of independence abruptly ended in 1463 at the tail end of the Ottoman rampage through the Balkans. The Turkish conquest was surprisingly brutal. Some 30,000 young men were forced to be janissaries, many nobles were decapitated, and the Ottomans only reluctantly allowed their usual tradition of religious non-interference to take hold in Bosnia. The Ottomans also levied heavy taxation on non-Muslims.
Bosnia ended up with a fairly rigid caste-system in which converts to Islam enjoyed by far the most rights while everyone else stewed in resentment. Under the feudal system imposed by the Ottomans, only those who converted to Islam could acquire and inherit land and property, which accorded them political rights, a status usually denied to non-Muslims. Muslim converts could also hold government positions, thus getting a much nicer standard of living. Conversion thus tended to be much faster in urban areas where the Ottoman government was powerful and where merchants from the rest of the empire could further spread Turkish religious ideas.
The Turks also left their impact on the landscape and culture. Under Ottoman rule, Bosnians could serve as mystics, scholars, and celebrated poets while the Turks built new cities there like Sarajevo and Mostar which soon became government and trade hubs. And yes, we're sure you've heard of Sarajevo.
By 1699, though, the Ottoman Empire began to fail, and its fortunes also saw the downfall of Bosnia's fortunes. Rebellions got worse in response to deteriorating economic conditions, which were themselves brought on by constant wars from imperialist European powers.
Bosnian Muslims eventually began to be considered as distinct from other groups within Bosnia, eventually gaining the moniker "Bosniak". The prolonged Serbian Revolution against Ottoman rule began in 1804, drawing upon Serbian history and culture to call for a separate national identity and nation state. This event had a profound impact on neighboring Bosnia as well, as the still-significant numbers of Serbians also hoped to see independence from the Ottoman Empire. Their longstanding resentment towards the privleged Bosniak class convinced them to reject the Bosniaks as their kin. Just another example of how economic factors can make very similar groups of people start killing each other.
This led to the rise of nationalist politics within Bosnia. After Serbia's independence, Serbians there and Croats living in Austria's empire lobbied their respective governments in an attempt to spark a war of conquest aimed at "liberating" their brethren from Ottoman rule.
More Ottoman misrule and economic woes finally prompted the Herzegovina uprising in 1875, which coincided with a similar uprising in Bulgaria and a war with Serbia, plunging the entire Balkan region into bloody chaos. This spelled the end for Ottoman domination of the Balkans.
At the 1878 Congress of Berlin, the imperialist powers of Europe agreed that Bosnia would a quasi-independent territory under Austrian occupation. Bosniaks were vigorously opposed to the incoming Austrian troops, but they couldn't do much to resist the more modernized military force. Hapsburg Crown Prince Rudolf noted that the Bosniaks were fighting hard against Austrian rule and declared that the occupation resulted in the empire "putting one foot in the grave".
Still, in a roundabout way, Austrian rule ended up being almost beneficial to the Bosniaks. The Austrians strongly disputed the Serbian and Croat claims to Bosnia and encouraged the fostering of a separate Bosniak identity. Austria also introduced modern institutions and industries to the region.
Despite that, the Bosniaks weren't fond of being an imperial province of Austria, and they liked it even less when Austria annexed Bosnia officially in 1908. he annexation sparked immediate outrage in Serbia, as its government was dominated nationalists who wanted to reunite with the ethnic Serbs who lived in Bosnia. Russia, longtime ally of Serbia, also protested the move.
Things spiraled into a major diplomatic crisis as Austria threatened to invade Serbia if things didn't go their way, and Austria's ally the German Empire fully backed the threat. Russia ultimately backed down in the face of a war threat against two powers, but they were furious and humiliated and resolved to never, ever back down again. Basically, shit was about to go down.
World War I
The spark that lit the powder keg in Europe began in Sarajevo, Bosnia. Bosnian Serb radicals in a group called "Young Bosnia" resolved to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in retaliation for his plans to visit the city in 1914. They considered Ferdinand's visit to be an offense to the Serb population. Also involved in the plan was the Black Hand, a terrorist group run by Serbian nationalists that also sought unification of all ethnic Serbs.
After a few failed attempts to kill the Archduke, conspirator Gavrilo Princip managed to shoot him after the Austrian's convoy took a wrong turn. Princip failed to escape and was captured.
Immediately following the assassination, the pissed-off Austrian government encouraged a pogrom against ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo, resulting in two deaths and the destruction of much property. Austria blamed the Serbian government for the event, and after a month's worth of threats and posturing, finally declared war. This tipped all the dominoes into place, beginning World War I.
Although some 10% of the adult male population of Bosnia perished in the various armies fighting the war, Austria's quick attack on Serbia kept the front lines away from Bosnia proper and thus allowed that country to escape the horrific destruction that resulted across the rest of Europe. That was about the one lucky break Bosnia would ever get and even that was paid for with a shit ton of deaths.
Formation of the kingdom
Unification of the South Slavs had long been a nationalist goal of Serbia along with many Croats and Slovenes. Serbia and Croatia's territorial claims both overlapped in Bosnia, ensuring that Bosnia would have to be a part of that project too. The war and its political aftermath resulted in the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the rule of the Serbian monarchy. You'll note, though, that this burdensome name made no mention of the Bosniaks. In fact, rights of the Muslim minority were never enshrined in the state's law, although in practice some areas were allowed autonomy for Muslim traditional practices.
The Yugoslavia project was basically dead on arrival. Serbs wanted a centralized state while everyone else wanted a federal one, and the political disputes those differing interests caused turned Yugoslavia into a basket case. That it survived the interwar era was simply testament to the fact that the various ethnic groups felt they had no other option for their own security.
World War II
The Axis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, another consequence of Yugoslavia's divided government since it had joined the Axis and then abruptly left again under a new government. Once victorious, the Axis partitioned Yugoslavia, with Bosnia in its entirety being handed to the puppet regime of Croatia run by the genocidal Ustaše.
The Croatian regime became a major perpetrator of the Holocaust. They mostly targeted Serbs living in Bosnia for extermination while generally disregarding the Bosniaks. In total, they killed some between 320,000 and 340,000 ethnic Serbs and between 12,000 and 20,000 Jews through a series of massacres, razing of villages, and death camps. Bosnian Muslims were split during this time, with many realizing that they were next on the menu and fighting against the Axis while other shamefully chose to collaborate and even fight in volunteer armies.
The massacres and inter-ethnic violence in Bosnia during the war did much to establish the hatreds that would later explode in the Yugoslav Wars. Serbs hated the Bosniaks for collaborating the the fascist Croatians, as the Bosniaks had formed some 12% of the regime's manpower and civil service. Bosniaks hated the Chetniks (Serb partisans) for committing massacres in their villages even against those who hadn't collaborated. Some 30,000 Bosniaks were slaughtered by Serbian partisans, and 75,000 died in total.
You can probably see how all of this helped set the stage for some really bad shit.
Communist partisan forces under Josip Tito managed to take control of Yugoslavia after the war, transforming it into the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia also became a socialist republic, and Tito chose it to host much of Yugoslavia's developing armaments industry. Although one of the poorest constituent republics of Yugoslavia at the start, Bosnia quickly entered an age of prosperity.
Much of the success of socialist Yugoslavia is attributable to the Cold War. Tito had a falling-out with Joseph Stalin, and he thus turned Yugoslavia into a buffer state between the West and the Eastern Bloc and then courted foreign aid from both sides. Tito then used the cash and the constant Cold War tensions to keep ethnic tensions at a simmer rather than a boil.
In fact, many Bosniaks are now nostalgic for Tito's reign. Sure, he was a murderous dictator, but people who remember him fondly praise the era because everyone had free education, a job for life after leaving school, housing, decent salaries and pensions, plus a passport that allowed them to travel most parts of the world without a visa. Sarajevo even got to host the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Unfortunately, Tito's death marked the gradual dissolution of the Yugoslav government. In 1989, nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević came to power and quickly dispensed with any pretensions at maintaining the old Yugoslav order.
“”The siege of Sarajevo, as it came to be popularly known, was an episode of such notoriety in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that one must go back to World War II to find a parallel in European history. Not since then had a professional army conducted a campaign of unrelenting violence against the inhabitants of a European city so as to reduce them to a state of medieval deprivation in which they were in constant fear of death. In the period covered in this Indictment, there was nowhere safe for a Sarajevan, not at home, at school, in a hospital, from deliberate attack.
|—Prosecution Opening Statement, ICTY vs Stanislav Galić.|
Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, following the examples of Slovenia and Croatia. Bosnian Serbs wanted nothing to do with the referendum since they wanted to remain with the rest of the Serbian population who formed the backbone of Yugoslavia. Thus, Bosnian Serbs either boycotted the independence referendum or went even further and formed militias to intimidate people out of voting.
Upon independence, Bosnia went up in flames like a dry forest in California. The Serbian Democratic Party in Bosnia-Herzegovina organized itself into a rival government called the Republika Srpska led by Radovan Karadžić. Bosniaks and Croats living in Bosnia originally allied against the Serbs, but their relationship deteriorated and resulted in the "war within a war" that lasted until 1994.
The Republika Srpska controlled two nearly-separate areas in Bosnia, a situation Karadžić attempted to resolve by ordering policies of ethnic cleansing against Bosniaks stuck in between. They conducted a systematic attack on Bosnian Muslim towns and villages, massacring civilians and sending others to concentration camps. Detainees in the camps faced beatings, torture, and starvation.
War rape was also a horrific part of the conflict. Serbian militiamen raped thousands of women in the hopes of getting them pregnant with Serbian children. There were even nightmarish "rape camps" where rape was inflicted in "particularly sadistic ways to inflict maximum humiliation on victims, their families, and on the whole community". Women would be held there even after they became pregnant, specifically with the aim of making abortion of the fetuses impossible.
For the first time in its history, NATO launched a military intervention to enforce a no-fly zone over Bosnia. Operations expanded to include bombing raids against belligerent forces and ground protection for humanitarian aid convoys. The UN also dispatched forces who promptly came under attack from the Bosnian Serbs as well.
Sarajevo also spent most of the war under a dangerous siege by Bosnian Serb forces and the proper Serbian state in which the Serbs conducted themselves with shocking brutality in bombarding and massacring the city's inhabitants. The main street of Sarajevo was known as "Sniper Alley" because civilians constantly had to fear attack from hostile snipers who attacked anything that moved.
Ultimately, the war ended thanks to international cooperation and also due to the renewed alliance between Bosniak and Croatian forces. Significant ground advances from Croatia convinced Serbian forces to hit the negotiating table rather than risk any further losses.
The war had killed some 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995, 80% of whom were Bosniaks. The worst incident was the Srebrenica massacre, a genocidal event where the Republika Srpska forces murdered some 8,000 Bosniak men and children.
Dayton Accords and beyond
Negotiations finally resulted in the extraordinarily flawed Dayton Accords, which were negotiated in Ohio. Indeed, the aim was to bring the region to peace as quickly as possible. To do so, the Dayton Accords divided Bosnia into two irregular chunks, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. These two subnational polities would have most of the governmental authority in Bosnia, although a national government would also exist with limited influence.
The peace deal was successful in that it (rather surprisingly) stayed intact after its enactment, to the point where NATO forces confidently withdrew in 2006 having suffered no casualties in enforcing the peace. Other long-term programs also had success, like the raising of an integrated national army, a new national currency, judicial reform, and freedom of movement efforts.
Still, the legacies of war are hard to shake. The economy is stalled, with half of business activity generated by state-owned companies and unemployment hovering at 25%, and the Republika Srpska openly considers secession. DAESH and other groups tried to recruit terrorist fighters from disaffected Bosniaks. Frustration at the political freeze seems to be at a boiling point, expressed most clearly in a series of economy protests and riots in 2014. On the other hand, long-established nationalist political factions suffered major electoral defeats in Sarajevo and the biggest Serb-run town, Banja Luka, in 2020.
In short, let's hope it doesn't all blow up again.
Bosnia's peace accord government it noted for its mind-boggling complexity. It's barely even a country, instead having two subnational and largely autonomous polities jammed into it. The presidency is tripartite, with the three presidency members from the three constituent nations — one Bosniak, one Serb, one Croat. The Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina's lower chamber is directly elected via a system of proportional representation, with 28 members from Bosnia-Herzegovina and 14 from the Republika Srpska. The upper chamber is elected by the parliaments of each subnational entity. Like we said, it's complicated.
Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina
The larger of the two entities, the Federation has its capital in Sarajevo and represents Bosniaks and Croats. That latter bit is a problem. Disputes among and between Bosniak and Croat leaders and a dysfunctional administrative system have paralyzed decision-making, causing the entire region to screech to a halt and making more than half of Bosnia basically ungovernable. The government's failure to do basically anything has resulted in high levels of social unrest and economic problems, putting the future of the Bosnian experiment in jeopardy.
With its roots in a genocidal wartime regime, it's not too surprising that the Republika Srpska also threatens the stability of Bosnia. It is the smaller of the two Bosnian subnational entities, representing Bosnian Serbs and running its affairs from the city of Banja Luka. The Bosnian Serb leadership frequently attempts to undermine the national government and occasionally threatens to hold a referendum on secession. Secession would be a very bad thing to attempt since the rest of Bosnia would almost certainly fight to prevent it, thus beginning a new war.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite national presidency, has even endorsed the Republika Srpska's position on dissolving the Bosnian union, even going so far as to portray the Bosnian nation as illegitimate. He's a president who wants to break up his own country.
And then there's Mostar, a city in the Federation that went more than 12 years without holding a single municipal election. Although a relatively small matter, Mostar's example helps to show just how backwards Bosnian politics can get. As a result of ethnic cleansing during the war, western Mostar is Croat while eastern Mostar is Bosniak, creating a situation in which local government was dominated by two opposing ethnic parties. Elections couldn't happen in the city because neither party could decide on what districts should look like. While they bickered for years, infrastructure crumbled and the economy went down the toilet. The Bosniaks, who are the minority in Mostar, want safeguards to make sure they are not out-voted, while the Croats want the city unified.
The good news is that Mostar is set to hold elections in December 2020. The bad news is that it could end up right back at square one.
Another legacy of the Bosnian War, the High Representative is an international office that was hastily created by the Dayton Accords. It oversees the civilian government to ensure that the peace remains in place and that Bosnia remains a fair democracy. In that role, the High Representative has vast powers to influence legislation, remove corrupt officials, enact decisions unilaterally, and evaluate election candidates. High Representatives are always appointed from European Union states, but much of their immediate staff are from the United States.
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