How is life in Bosnia today

Bosnia is still waiting for peace to this day

In November 1995 the peacemakers of the international Bosnia contact group apparently succeeded in bringing the interests and goals of the three Bosnian conflict parties, the two neighboring states Serbia and Croatia and the international community under one roof at the negotiating table. After three and a half years of war, they presented individual compromises and corrections - but no fundamental revision of the division of the country along ethnic lines.

In the Bosnian War, the Muslim Bosniaks (43.5 percent of the population) fought for a centrally governed state, while the Bosnian Serbs (31.2 percent) and Croats (17.4 percent) fought for a Serbian and Croatian sub-state within one Bosnian confederation - and possibly for a later connection to the respective mother nation, i.e. the neighboring states of Serbia and Croatia.

Between the spring of 1992 and the end of 1995, the conflicting parties had expelled hundreds of thousands from the claimed regions. The "ethnic cleansing" - that is, forcible displacement - fell primarily victim to the Bosniaks. But many Serbs and Croats were also systematically expelled.

The presidents of the states involved in the Bosnian war after the peace negotiations in Dayton / Ohio on November 21, 1995 (from left to right): Slobodan Milošević (Serbia), Alija Izetbegović (Bosnia) and Franjo Tudjman (Croatia)

The international mediators only superficially succeeded in squaring the circle in the negotiations at the US air force base in Dayton / Ohio from November 1st to November 21st, 1995. In the peace treaty, which was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina was retained as a state within its previous borders, but was divided into two entities: the Serbian-dominated "Republika Srpska" and the "Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina", in which Croatians and Bosniaks share power. The state as a whole stands above a thicket of local, regional and national governments, parliaments and administrations. The highest authority is the three-person state presidency, in which a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat are represented.

Who Owns Bosnia?

25 years after the end of the war, the complicated constitutional structure can hardly disguise the fact that there is still no will to cooperate in the political class - and that there is no common understanding of the state among the citizens. The demons of nationalism from the 19th century, which reawakened with the collapse of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia in 1991, still dominates Bosnian politics today. Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats continue to argue about "who owns Bosnia".

The entire Bosnian state was retained in 1995, but was broken down into two ethnically defined entities

The small province, in which there is no clear majority nation, had belonged to the Ottoman Empire since the 15th century, before it actually fell to the Habsburg monarchy in 1878. In Yugoslavia, the state of all southern Slavs, the conflict over Bosnia was neutralized. Before the founding of the South Slav Kingdom after the First World War, Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and other South Slavs lived scattered in different empires and administrative units. As a result, Yugoslavia was the first nation-state of all the South Slav peoples.

"Yugoslavia in miniature"

After the Second World War, the victorious communist partisans under Josip Broz Tito decreed "brotherhood and unity". Bosnia was declared a common state of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs as well as a number of minorities. This was thought as idealistic as it was acted pragmatically, because all three peoples speak closely related dialects. And not a single community in the country was ethnically homogeneous at the time.

The Bosnian capital Sarajevo on May 9, 2019: Supporters of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980, celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945

The question of who Bosnia belongs to did not become virulent again until Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991. Under German pressure, the then European Community decided at the end of 1991 to recognize the republics of Yugoslavia as independent states within their existing borders, if they so wished. To preserve Bosnia as "Yugoslavia in miniature" while the outer framework of the multi-ethnic state fell apart, however, turned out to be an illusion. Because suddenly the national unity of the Serbs and the Croats was on the agenda.

An unsatisfactory peace

This was particularly virulent for the Serbs, a third of whom lived outside the former Yugoslav republic of Serbia. But in Bosnia there were and still are many Croatians. Old demands to divide the multinational state according to ethnic criteria have been rekindled. Where the settlement conditions could not legitimize the political claims, they were made appropriate during the war. In contrast to the wars in Slovenia (1991) and Croatia (1991-95), Bosnia was not about redistributing territories - it was about the very existence of this state.

Wanted to destroy Bosnia as a state: Radovan Karadžić, 1992-96 President of the Bosnian "Republika Srpska", was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2019 by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague

The outcome of the war was unsatisfactory for all sides. The Bosniaks could see themselves as moral, but not political, winners of the Dayton Agreement. They were unable to achieve their war goal of establishing a Bosniak nation-state, even if they were recognized as the main victims of displacement and mass violence.

Srebrenica as an identity-creating narrative

Bosniak nationalists categorically rule out coexistence and power sharing with the Serbs to this day. The Srebrenica massacre serves them as a "chosen trauma", a narrative that creates community and national identity and focuses on the experience of victims. In this way, the legitimate and necessary commemoration of the victims is politically instrumentalized.

Srebrenica today: A Bosniak woman mourns between tombstones for relatives murdered by the Bosnian Serbs

On the other hand, the Bosnian Serbs who went to war for a Serbian state in Bosnia were able to achieve this goal through violence, displacement and genocide - even if they could not enforce all territorial demands in Dayton. However, as the main war criminals, they were in the pillory and were even officially excluded from the peace negotiations. In Dayton they were represented by the President of Serbia.

War criminals as heroes

Since then, the political leadership of the Bosnian Serbs has exercised the right to thwart the implementation of the peace treaty. She denies the genocide of more than 8,300 Bosniak boys and men in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, in 1995, and war criminals convicted by law are heroes. The longer it was back to Dayton, the more vocalized the polemicism against the unity of the state in Bosnia and the independence of the Republika Srpska.

At a nationalist Croatian event in Bosnia, a small Bosnian flag is on a table covered by a large Croatian flag

But the nationalist Croats also appear as the grave diggers of the Dayton Agreement. Because, on the one hand, they got away with the peace agreement, morally and politically. On the other hand, they find it unfair that, as one of three state-building peoples, they have not received an entity of their own. You are calling for a fundamental reorganization of the Bosnian state.

Dayton's great accomplishment was to end the killing in Bosnia. The serious failure, however, was to have created a framework that would allow the parties to the conflict to continue the war by non-military means. Despite tremendous external aid, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still ethnically, politically, institutionally and mentally deeply divided. The hot war ended in Dayton. Real peace was not made.

Marie-Janine Calic is professor for the history of Eastern and Southeastern Europe at the LMU in Munich. Among other things, she is the author of the books "Geschichte Yugoslaviens" (Munich 2019) and "Tito. The Eternal Partisan" (Munich 2020).