Bosnia: heal thyself

I did this interview yesterday for Edita Gorinjac of, who published it today in whatever you want to call the language of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

1) What is your general opinion on recent protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were the biggest since after the war?

A: I certainly understand why citizens in Bosnia are disappointed in the services they are getting from their many governments. Protesting seems to me a healthy reaction, so long as it remains nonviolent.

2) Parallel to the protests, during which citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly of BiH Federation, asked for government’s more responsible approach to solving of their issues, additional political questions arose, such as more serious approach to constitutional reforms, even territorial reorganization of the state. How realistic is it to expect such changes? And are Bosnia and Herzegovina and international community ready for this? What is, in your opinion, the best solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

A: The international community, if by that you mean principally the United States and the European Union, has been ready for constitutional reforms and reorganization of the state for at least 10 years. But it is up to Bosnians to decide what they should be. It is absolutely clear that Bosnia in its current configuration cannot become a member of the European Union. The Venice Commission long ago outlined the constitutional changes required, and the EU is now cutting funding to Bosnia because it doesn’t have the kind of coordination mechanism at the state level necessary to negotiate and implement the obligations of EU membership. The best solution is any solution the people of Bosnia want that meets EU requirements. That means no division of the state or third entity, but it leaves much to the imagination.

3) Is it realistic to expect (and can it be expected at all?) stronger engagement of United States of America in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitutional reforms?

A:  The US has tried before: the April package and the Butmir effort. Give the US some reason to believe a new effort would be successful and it might try again, though not with the level of government commitment it made on those occasions.

4) Recently, there was an open discussion in the Croatian Parliament about the establishment of third, Croatian, entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What do you think about it? Is this option realistic and will international community allow such third entity?

A:  Croatian Foreign Minister Pusic said in Washington this week that it isn’t going to happen. Why should it? The Bosnian Croats got an excellent deal at Dayton: half the Federation and one-third of the state. It seems to me the real interest of Bosnian Croats, though not of their nationalist political leadership, is to strengthen the Sarajevo government so that it can qualify for EU membership, while devolving as much authority as possible for other things to the municipal level.

5) Possible conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina are mentioned more and more. Is Bosnia and Herzegovina country in danger and from where do these sources of danger come?

A:  There are precious few people ready to fight in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but that didn’t stop things from getting out of control in the 1990s. Without Milosevic and Tudjman around to feed the flames, the fire could likely be put out quickly, but not without causing significant damage.

6) Talk about the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is all over the region. In your opinion, how realistic is this dissolution and will USA and international community allow it?

A:  It won’t happen. Not only because the US and EU won’t allow it, but also because there is no one to recognize the products of the dissolution. Serbia can’t recognize Republika Srpska as sovereign and independent without wrecking its chances for EU membership. Croatia can’t participate in the dismantling of Bosnia and Herzegovina because it is already an EU member. Neither Croatia nor Serbia would want to have as a neighbor one or more rump Islamic states in central Bosnia. Dodik is bluffing about independence. He knows RS has to stay a part of Bosnia, but he wants it to be as independent as possible within that framework.

7) Is international community tired of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its problems? How much did the international community contribute to constant crisis and political instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

A:  The international community is definitely tired of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is not a priority for either the US or the EU today. Bosnia’s problems are largely self-generated, but certainly the international community has contributed far too much money and far too little intellectual clarity to trying to fix them.

8) Elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina are scheduled for October. National parties are trying to use recent protests in order to strengthen positions inside their ethnical groups and unite until October. In reality, we are running in circles. Can elections bring changes, without serious reforms of, amongst other, constitution?

A:  Sure elections can bring changes, provided Bosnians vote differently. But if they continue to return the same tired nationalists, reform is unlikely. Democracy doesn’t guarantee change. It only provides the opportunity for it.

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7 thoughts on “Bosnia: heal thyself”

  1. i think the bosnian croats got half the federation and a quarter of the state with the other quarter going to bosnians and the other half to the bosnian serbs.

    who said anything of serbia recognizing the the rs?serbia and croatia would incorporate their entities within their respective countries after some territorial adjustments in favor of bosnia.

    As for a islamic rump state the EU will facilitate a speady ascesion process for the bosnians as to let them in faster and away from the wabbis.

  2. Dear Professor Serwer,

    I have just read your interview for Sarajevo’s portal I respect everyone’s opinion but still have to say that I am very disappointed with your vision of further processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. First reason is the fact that you call all of us living in BH “Bosnians citizens” because lot of us are not Bosnians. I am for example Herzegovinian, a Croat from Herzegovina. There are three official nations in BH (Bosniacs are one).
    In fact , You have failed to detect centralistic policies coming from Sarajevo, ie civil nationalism of the Bosniak lefty elites.

    As an intellectual, you are probably familiar with bourgeois democracy and their classical democratic parole “one man one vote” but the situation in BH is far from that and it will take a century to convert the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in to a classical bourgeois democracy.

    We are living in some kind of federal/confederal democracy with constantly growing nationalisms and ethnic fears.

    Ethnic communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not the same thing as ethnic communities in the USA . Loyalty to the ethnic communities and their identities in BH is far stronger than to the state. Every story and every initiative about civilian democracy and the principle of one man one vote again strengthens the new waves of nationalism among Serbs and Croats.

    At the same time this principle perfectly suites the most numerous nation, Bosniaks.

    Again, if you suggest to the Bosniacs elite to eliminate both the entities and cantons you will get a negative answer because in the main, state level, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they shall not have such power and political control of money, as they have now in the half of BIH called Federation BH .

    So when you said that Croats where smart in Dayton when they got 1/3 of land and chance to control half of political power in Federation BH it sounded like a good joke to me. I do not know what is your last information from Bosnia and Herzegovina but in the Federation of BH all government is controlled by the Bosniacs. They elect for us our president, our government and our diplomacy. We only have little autonomy through the cantons but most of the money is on the federal level, and trough tax laws Bosniacs are stilling drawing our money and transporting it to Sarajevo and through the federal government to the Bosniac cantons (Tax laws are centralistic) .

    My thesis is that all attempts for centralization of multiethnic European countries led to their breakup.(Yugoslavia, Austro-Hungarian monarchy, SSSR, and lot of countries before that). Only those countries that have federalized in time survived. (Switzerland, Spain, GB, Belgium).

    I do not understand, therefore, why the third entity is such an “evil” or a forbidden word . Or why is the attempt to reform the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Union of two huge Cantons , one with Bosniac majority and one with Croatian majority such a bad thing? We would have 2 cantons instead of 10.

    Why am I on the side of the ethnic federalization? Because I think it is a real precondition for development of true civil society. Once you form a ethnic federal units that would be fragmented into several parts, there is no reason after that for nationalistic discourse anymore, and other more important issues are come than to the agenda .

    Croats, Bosniacs and Serbs would no longer believe to their national elites when they speak about their fear from the other nation or ethnicity. They will then have to answer to the people on essential questions like the issues of living standards , economics , employment , LGBT rights , women’s rights , children, etc.

    Paroles about separatism after that federalisation are also unfounded. There are no more aggressive policies in Zagreb and Beograd, and there is no way how to separate any part of BH federal units. For example Croatian federal unit should be constituted by three parts, Bosniacs federal unit by two and Serbian federal unit by two also. If Croats or Serbs want to separate their federal unit they physically could not to do that anymore.

    Instead of simple federalisation on three ethnic units, there is idea of prefederalisation of Bosniac-Croat entity -FBIH on three cantons, one multiethnic and two of them predominantly Croat/Bosniac. In that case BIH should be organised again as a union of two entities, but I think that this solution is not so smart.

    I want one state, with one but not so important president, one strong state Government, and three federal units as a constitutive elements of the state. It is so natural, and so fair. Why do we have to patent new monstrums after Dayton?

    The other solution is to wait for the death of BH.

    I believe that You (in good faith, non willingly), did a big mistake and with that supported the endurance of chaos in Bosnia-Herzegovina . BH can be very successful EU country if it federalises and reduces its administration. However, if the criteria is not ethnic federalism than that will again be a strong input for new nationalism.

    It is very easy to understand Bosnia and Herzegovina and I do not understand why Americans stubbornly insisted on BIH model that does not lead anywhere except into new conflicts and further deterioration of the country.

  3. Dr Serwer, Thank you for your continuing efforts of behalf of the people in the region. Clearly one of the ways forward will require drastic cuts in the sizes and shape of governments in BiH.

  4. I’m not familiar with the gentleman who gave this interview, but pardon me when I say that this is utter BS. Saying that Croats got an excellent deal at Dayton is not only the most ignorant thing I’ve heard in a very long time, but also puts Mr. Serwer’s competency to speak on his issue in question. Yes, Croats did get half the Federation and one-third of the state in theory, but this idea has never come into fruition. The only two ethic groups that got a remotely good deal are Serbs and Bosniaks and I only say that because they have the legal framework to elect their own representatives. But the reality is that no ethnic group can thrive under the current configuration and therefore no one is in favor of the status quo. What is clear is that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs a serious reorganization that will maintain the country’s territorial integrity, but allow enough autonomy to all three of the major ethnic groups. This is the only way to secure lasting peace and that which should have happened over a decade ago – a shift from policies that deal with supposed “national interests” that have to be preserved to policies that pertain to creating new jobs, recovering the economy, strengthening institutions, etc. Personally, I do believe that three entities, each favoring one of the three ethic groups, is the optimal solution. Not only would it significantly reduce administrative costs and allow for more oversight and accountability — which means less corruption, among other things — but it would also give everyone (Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats) the opportunity to elect their own representatives who would then work together for the common interest of all ethic groups. Each one of then can thirve only if the other two groups thrive as well. Until we have provided the legal framework for this state of equality, we will not see a Bosnia and Herzegovina which is part of the European family and a viable state in the international system.

  5. A three-entity solution would also eradicate nationalist rhetoric to an extent where it could no longer be used as means of intimidation. This means that specific parties could no longer use the “crucial national interest” argument to justify their incompetence and policies that further no one’s but their own personal interests. These reckless policies would therefore be abandoned under the framework I argue for. Lastly, because entity governments would be middle level governments, this solution would allow for a strong national government and one president – two features every normal modern democracy has and should have. Needless to say, this would secure a unified position on matters of crucial importance for Bosnia and Herzegovina in the international system as well.

  6. The original fear was, I think, that the Serb entity would try to break away and join Serbia, but as Serbia makes progress toward joining the EU, this worry will probably diminish. On the other hand, after Russia has just provided an example of a country taking over part of another country using the excuse of protecting its “compatriots,” the idea of Serbia and RS teaming up to do the same thing is going to seem more possible (if still unlikely).

    BTW, is there an acceptable short term for “a citizen of Bosnia and Hercegovina”?

  7. Dear Dr. Serwer,

    As you are an American, I can understand your way of thinking. You think, if all three nations would just give no divisions a chance, to remember that they are citizens of BiH, and that they put their national identity on 2nd place and the country on the 1st place it would all work out. Same as it has worked out for US, where many nations build one country which they love and cherish. And that is a beautiful utopian idea.

    But forget all that. Forget all that you were taught as an American. That stuff, proven over and over in our history, doesn’t work on Balkans.

    Because Balkans are not America, Balkans are not the New World where you all start with a clean slate. Balkans are the blood soaked country, where each nation remembers what the other nation did to them several hundred years ago.

    And such memories cannot be eradicated. You think that by education, internet, and other info available in century people will let go of their nationalist identity and move toward citizen identity. And you mean to achieve this by free thought. Fat chance. These technologies will only spread the nationalist movement faster. Let’s take a look at what history of these areas says about that being possible.

    Ottoman empire was far the worst national eradication system of all. A life of a Christian would not be worth a penny. Their kids would be taken to Istanbul and converted to Islam, so called ”blood tribute”. They would be molested, their wives raped, and if they just hurt a Muslim, their entire family would receive decapitation and their heads would rot on the main square. All you had to do was convert to Islam, and you would be spared of all that, you would become equal citizen protected by law. Was this kind of system able to destroy Christianity on these areas? Nope.

    I’ll skip here Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kingdom of Yugoslavia and NDH not to overly prolong this comment, but I could name examples there as well.

    So I’ll skip to Yugoslavia. A country that lasted 45 years, and in that 45 years what it saw as the biggest threat to itself was nationalist movements. If you showed off any nationalist marks, even such as singing hundred year old nationalist songs, you were enemy of the state. You would get bugged, imprisoned or sent to Island of Goli otok for forced labor. If you were abroad and spreading these ideas, they would send hit men after you to eliminate you. The communist country propaganda was doing everything possible to eradicate republics separate nationalism, and bring sense of Yugoslav nationality. Those who engaged in ethnically mixed marriages and proclaimed Yugoslav nationality were given great jobs, free apartments, they had everything.

    Now I ask you. How did every and each of these countries that on area of today’s BiH end up? The outcome is always the same: war and destruction.

    Now lets move to today’s BiH. Herzeg-Bosnia was incorporated in Federation of BiH, to give peace a chance and to spark a mutual respect and cooperation between Croats and Bosniacs. This is what you are talking about also doing today, just you propose doing it more aggressively, with no cantons.

    In this past 20 something years, practice has shown that Bosniacs consider one of their vital national interests to suppress Croatian identity as much as they can while sucking up money from Croatian areas as much as they can. Cantons in this period have been last line of defense.

    If you consider my thesis to be wrong, how would you explain why Bosniacs do not allow such a minor thing for them, but a big thing for Croats, a national channel on Croatian language? How would you explain that they cannot see anything related with Croatian identity. Example of Herzeg-Bosnian Canton, where they don’t allow its name, so its called Canton 10.

    Another minor example, but illustrates what I’m saying. If you go to English or Croatian Wikipedia, you will find the name Herzeg-Bosnian Canton, while on BiH Wikipedia is Canton 10. Also, official flag of Herzeg-Bosnian Canton nad West Herzegovian Canton are shown in Eng and Cro Wiki, but if you go to BiH Wiki, the information will be that these cantons have no flag or coat of arms. Dough that flag is on all canton and municipality buildings in those two cantons.

    Economic example of explotation is that Sarajevo has factor 2 when dividing tax money among cantons.

    Have you heard that 1/3 of 17 is 5? This seems to be some new math invented by the OHR and Bosniacs. I’m sure this breakthrough in Math since Pitagora deserves a paper in the biggest Math journals.

    I hope that you understand that legal Croatian representative can’t be someone who wins 200 000 votes in area which has 5 000 Croats living in it, and gets 5000 votes in area which has 200 000 Croats living in it.

    So what will happen if BiH becomes unitarian country where national question is unsolved and citizen mentality is being pushed? Based on history, and facts I have mentioned before, the most likely scenario is this.

    By taking control of government, which will be easy, since Bosniacs are a majority, they will continue implementing erasing of Croatian national identity in areas which they were unable to due to cantons. The biggest one would be education. They will bring it slowly toward one program, and one language, the one of the major nation. They will deprive Croatian municipalities of money, even with bigger ease then they do cantons now, thus helping emigration.

    But their plans, identical to those of the countries before this one, will not succeed. Repressed national identity in Balkan nations only builds up over time, and then it explodes in a fireball of war, death and destruction. Balkans are not the melting pot like US is. Balkans are a high pressure pot. If you keep that valve shut, and suppress the steam of national identity, you are going to have one big explosion.

    This will not happen right away. It takes a minimum of 45 years between wars for this to happen. Until most of the generation who was in the last war dies out, and most of the population does not remember what war is. Then the high pressure pot explodes.

    The solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina is to eliminate any fuel that can fuel nationalist movements. That no ethnic group can say that its national identity is being suppressed and thus mobilize its population. To keep that valve open at all times, so that there is no nationalist pressure in that pot.

    And the solution for that is Federation of three entities. Where all national, cultural and language topics are in the hands of each entity, not state level. On state level should be economy planning, health care, police etc. Things that cannot be used as nationalist fuel.

    Also, this stupid yellow triangle on a flag should be thrown out, and a flag should consist of three coat of arms of its three nations. Such small thing would make people love more this country, because they would recognize themselves in the main symbol of the country. No one loves the yellow triangle. Bosnacs have their lilies, Croats have their chessboard, and Serbs have their two-headed eagle and 4S. These are the symbols of BiH nations, not a yellow triangle.

    Each entity could sponsor their even small minorities in other entities,such as education in their own language, festivals, and other cultural events. Which would be a celebration of BiH multiculturalism.

    There would be no national fears, we could talk about economy and progress in this country.

    To conclude. Empires and kingdoms have tried to erase the entity of Balkan nations. They have tried this with killing, taxes, fines, jails, beatings and rewards for those who subdue. Anything you can think of, and they have failed. That never succeeds in Balkans.

    If you truly wish to see BiH alive and vibrant, developing and prospering, solve the national issue. Otherwise, in 20+ years, BiH is condemned to another bloodbath.

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