One Country, Three Nations, On the Brink

By Hannah Kieschnick

A view of Sarajevo at sunset from the Martyrs Cemetery

To pass through Bosnia and Herzegovina is to pass through a bruised country on the brink. Traveling back from a three-day trip to Sarajevo during the Yale Summer Session in Dubrovnik, Croatia, we waited in a long string of buses and cars at the border patrol stop, passports in hand. At long last, a guard boarded our bus and worked his way down the aisle of drowsy students, checking our identifications. We were waved through. We were on our way back to our beachside oasis, the mortar shell damage barely visible in the Old City just fifteen years after the war.

Or so we thought. Ten minutes later, we came to a stop, joining another throng of cars waiting to pass through a border stop. We would go through these border stops many more times on our way back to Dubrovnik as we crossed the two political entities that divide Bosnia and Herzegovina—the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sometimes with just five minutes separating the borders.


Bosnia and Herzegovina was not always this divided. A state of three ethnic nations—the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Orthodox Serbs, and Bosnian Catholic Croats— these ethnicities lived somewhat harmoniously under the former Yugoslavia, in which communism forced an ideological bridge between the ethnic divisions that remained after World War II. However, with the death of Comrade Josip Broz Tito came a precipitous increase in extremist nationalism, leading to the splintering of those three integral nations and, combining with external pressure and military presence from Serbia and Croatia, the Bosnian War of 1992 to 1995. The country exploded into all-out violence in March of 1992, its social fabric ripped apart by these contending nationalistic ethnic factions. Although it has been over a decade since the Bosnian War ended, the country is still in a state of semi-disarray, broken and stagnant without hope for reconciliation perhaps save a concerted foreign influence.

Foreign intervention in the Balkans has been a mixed blessing, however. An arms embargo passed by the United Nations Security Council in 1991 gave an extreme advantage to the Serbian aggressors—from both Serbia and within Bosnia—and weakened the Bosniaks’ chances of obtaining adequate weapons with which to defend themselves and their towns. Bosniaks in Sarajevo were forced to buy arms on the black market, often from their Serbian attackers themselves. As Serbian shelling increased in Sarajevo, foreign presence increased and NATO sent more peacekeeping troops to the chaotic country. These forces did not arrive without controversy. Perhaps the most infamous massacre of the Bosnian War is the Srebenica Massacre in which 8000 Bosniak men and children were wiped out as Dutch NATO forces looked on, helplessly following their orders to stay removed from the fighting unless their personal safety was threatened.

The Dayton Peace Accords—the most significant foreign contribution to the Bosnian war effort—tried to erase the memories of massacres like Srebenica. Signed in the fall of 1995 in Ohio, the Accords officially ended the three-and-a-half year war characterized by a violence and ethnic hatred most thought had been left behind in the 1940s. Central to the Peace Accords was the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina into two political entities—Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—each with their own political and ethnic loyalties and motivations. Republika Srpska is majority Bosnian Serb and thus holds its greatest allegiances to Serbia.

On the other hand, the Federation is split between Croat and Bosniak control, though in many places, those who incited violence in the early ’90s against the Bosniaks remain in power today and continue to perpetuate ethnic divisions. It is difficult to estimate the exact ethnic makeup of Bosnia and Herzegovina as no official census has been taken since 1991 due to obvious complications of military action, refugee crises, and population relocations. Nevertheless, according to the United States State Department, Bosniaks make up 48.3% of the population, Serbs 34%, and Croats 15.4%.

The Accords are problematic and prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina from the healing that is necessary for the country to reconcile and move forward. Each governing entity is loyal to external governments—namely Serbia and Croatia—that have historically harbored ambitions of conquest in Bosnia. By dividing the country indefinitely, the Accords force Bosnia and Herzegovina to be forever fragile and weak, a partial nation without a unified identity. Most importantly, the Accords reinforce the ethnic divisions that characterized the Bosnian War in the first place, thus suggesting that they are merely postponing another ethnic conflict, having solved nothing. How can a nation heal itself emotionally and psychologically if physically and politically it remains in shambles?


The education system is perhaps most evocative of the ethnic divisions that remain in Bosnia. In Stolac—a little town in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—students of different ethnicities are taught from completely opposing curriculums and use separate textbooks. Bosnian Croats are taught that their state is not Bosnia and Herzegovina but rather Croatia and that their capital is Zagreb—the capital of Croatia—rather than Sarajevo. Many of these Bosnian Croats even hold Croatian passports and vote in Croatian elections. The seeds of hatred are planted early in the Bosnian education system, where the use of wartime nationalist rhetoric continues even though fourteen years have passed.

In fact, Bosniak children attend school in the afternoon and enter through a back door, whereas Bosnian Croats study in the morning and use the front door. By creating a physical divide at such a young age, those in power are guaranteeing ethnic conflict for generations to come. And unfortunately, it is advantageous for the politicians in power— many of whom are familiar faces from the early ’90s—to create an atmosphere of ethnic tension and fear and a sense of “us versus them.” With fear-mongering tactics, these politicians secure votes from fearful ethnicities who refuse to see their cohorts become a minority in the government.

In a state of perpetual separation, it is no wonder that ethnic tension remains a way of life for many Bosnians. Such a state of separation guarantees the extension of the extreme, nationalist rhetoric that led to ethnic violence in the ’90s. And by allowing such human rights violations to continue, both governments—the Federation and Republika—validate ethnic hatred and ensure that their respective ministates will remain as figureheads for Serbia and Croatia.


Some believe that inciting ethnic hatred is exactly what these governments aim to do. Milorad Dodik, the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, has consistently used nationalistic rhetoric and repeated his goal of independence for the Republic. Increasingly, the international community has become aware of these threats (that no longer seem so empty, given Dodik’s strong ties to both Russia and Serbia) and has characterized Bosnia as ‘‘on the brink.” Although this characterization is nebulous, if anything, Republika Srpska’s hypothetical secession could lead Bosnia into a resumption of armed conflict.

Given the prevalence of tension and separation, one might wonder whether constitutional independence for both entities would in fact be better for Bosnia. This is not the case. According to Ivo Banac, our professor in Yale Summer Session: “Fragile union is better than perpetual war.” While it is clear that the Dayton Peace Accords validated separation and gave legitimacy to ethnic tension, Republika Srpska’s breaking away would, as Banac said, “legitimate ethnic cleansing elsewhere” because previously, the land was majority Bosniak whereas that community was wiped out during the War.

Similarly problematic would be the hypothetical situation of Serbia absorbing Repulika Srpska and Croatia absorbing the Federation. Such annexations would gloss over the most important detail— the presence of the Bosniaks and their consistent persecution throughout the 20th century. They are the inheritors of that land, and thus Professor Banac is accurate in suggesting that any political move that would further diminish their rights as Bosnians would legitimize the ethnic cleansing of the ’90s. Merely separating the two political entities might assuage the complaints of both Bosnian Serbs and Croats but would silence the Bosniaks and their legitimate claim to the nation. Thus the Dayton Peace Accords need to be amended and gradually phased out, rather than shattered, in order to respect the integrity of all ethnicities involved.


The United States was a key figure in the negotiations of the Dayton Peace Accords. Some even suggest, such as Professor Banac and our other professor, Dean Jasmina Besirevic-Regan (who is from Banja Luka), that the United States inadvertently helped the Serbs by stopping the Bosnian-Croat offensive of August 1995 that would have retaken Banja Luka, a former majority-Muslim city but now the capital of Republika Srpska. Regardless of this specific blame, the United States does bear a particular burden in the calamity of the Dayton Peace Accords. U.S. air strikes against Bosnian Serbs, following a change in U.S. policy to intervene rather than just observe, led the various parties involved directly to the negotiating table in Ohio. And it was American diplomat Richard Holbrooke (who is now the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan) who designed the Accords and dealt directly with the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks.

The process of amending past errors has already begun. In late May of this year, Vice President Joe Biden visited Sarajevo, Banja Luca, and Stolac. In a speech delivered to Bosnian lawmakers, Biden was clear in his purpose. “The choice is yours,” he said in reference to the use of nationalist rhetoric that characterizes Bosnian politics, “If you make the right choice, we will stand with you.” Biden also stressed the importance of ethnic unity in order to improve the unstable Bosnian economy and make headway in the country’s efforts to join the European Union, a goal that is impeded by Bosnia’s status as a country fundamentally divided along ethnic lines.

In order to meet requirements for successful EU and NATO bids, Bosnia needs to enact a great deal of reforms, socially, politically, and economically. Although not yet a member, Bosnia is closely watched by the EU. The EU Office of the High Representative, currently held by Austrian Valentin Inzko, retains a great deal of power left over from the Dayton Accords. This unchecked authority has the power to dismiss local officials and set policy if he deems it necessary for the welfare and safety of the country. Although officially supposed to close on June 30, 2008, the life of the OHR was extended indefinitely as Bosnia has not made the progress deemed necessary to stand alone without the presence of the international viceroy.

The international community does not want to have an indefinite presence, however, and thus cannot be satisfied with merely maintaining the Bosnian status quo as is. Vice President Biden’s visit was the United States’ effort to underscore that Bosnia needs to take the steps to overcome internal divisions and become a contributing member of the international system. Biden’s message was clear: the United States is willing and able to help Bosnia if the country signals that it is also willing to move beyond the tension of the ’90s and unify politically.

But rhetoric is not enough. Just as words failed to stop the ethnic cleansing that occurred during the Bosnian War—former President Clinton publicly condemned the genocide for months before actually taking peace-keeping and then punitive action—words will not suffice now. And it is dangerous that the Balkans remain so low on the list of international priorities for so many countries. Just as was demonstrated in the ’90s, it is dangerous to push the Balkans out of sight and out of mind without first grappling with some of the deeply ingrained problems that plague the region. Bosnia may only be on “the brink” now but it could fall over the edge if the international community continues to neglect the Balkans. Although the United States has provided over $1 billion in aid, it can and should do much more.


On October 19, 2009 Radovan Karadzic, the former President of Republika Srpska, will go on trial for genocide committed in Srebenica and crimes committed in twenty-seven other municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet this is fourteen years after the fact. He has been living in a high-end prison cell in the Hague for the past year awaiting trial while his country wrestles with a staggering 47% unemployment rate. While he used the high speed internet in his holding cell and joked around with other Hague prisoners, children were segregated and taught to hate their peers and love another country. There have been questions as to whether Karadzic will even face trial, as he claims that Richard Holbrooke, the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords, promised him immunity from prosecution if he distanced himself from Bosnian politics.

While the Dayton Peace Accords might have been effective in bringing about the end of a bloody war, they cannot remain in place. As long as they stand, Bosnia and Herzegovina is stuck with an ineffective, bureaucratically bogged-down government that is a vivid and daily reminder of the ethnic tensions that started the war in the first place. The Accords were supposed to lay the foundation for a transition to a pluralistic democracy in which all three ethnic groups were represented fairly. Instead, they have merely solidified the harsh divisions and guaranteed that the scars of the Bosnian War will not fade any time soon. Bosnia and Herzegovina has a staggering fourteen governments, thirteen prime ministers, and two political entities.

It has a tripartite president that rotates between the ethnicities every year, for three years. There is an apparent lack in civil society because there is no centralized political livelihood or cohesion. Professor Banac provided a helpful hypothetical to understand the ineffectual nature of Dayton. He said: “This is as if some outside power froze the American situation of the 1860s in such a fashion as to insure a role for the Confederacy in the postwar settlement, along with the partition line that emerged after Gettysburg.” As preposterous as that situation sounds, it is a reality in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There is much work to be done in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet no one can deny that it has come a long way since the war. For the most part, Sarajevo has been rebuilt and has reemerged as a historical and cultural center with centuries-old mosques in the Old City contrasting contemporary rock and film festivals. But there remains a crippling unemployment rate, fractured ethnic relations, a split government, and the threat of Russian involvement in an already renegade political entity.

Without the prospect of US and European intervention and diplomatic pressure, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sections will never reunite. Without reconciliation, the country cannot move forward and the suppression of the Bosniaks will be forever legitimized, a dangerous precedent to set. It will remain stagnated and split, limping along as it has been for the past fourteen years, stuck between two countries that would be more than happy to absorb Bosnia into their borders. But Bosnia and Herzegovina can resist that dour fate if it looks inward—with the guiding hand of the United States—and remembers that it’s not just a state of three nations, but a single state.

And that it must live as one rather than two.

Hannah Kieschnick is a member of the class of 2011 in Morse College at Yale. A History major, she spent the summer of 2009 studying in Dubrovnik, Croatia, through Yale Summer Session Abroad.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *