The Bosnian war, 25 years later

Submitted by AWL on 9 September, 2020 - 11:56

Sarah Correia is a researcher into society and history in Bosnia. She talked with Martin Thomas from Solidarity.

Why did war erupt in Bosnia in 1992, between the Bosnian government on one side and Serb militias and the Serbian-dominated federal army on the other? We thought we should side with Bosnia against what we saw as Serbian imperialism, but much of the left refused to take sides in the Bosnian war of 1992-95, or backed the Serb forces.

It was a time of profound changes to the international system. And, from the 19th century onwards, shifts in the international system had been very much felt in the Balkans, because historically it has been the crossing-point of different empires and different geostrategic interests.

Yugoslavia had been organised as a federal state, but it was a one-party system, so in fact pluralism was quite limited.

Nationalism had always been a factor in Tito’s Yugoslavia, though then issues were channelled or accommodated within the ruling party. Now, fights which had been controllable when the system was stable, for example in the 1970s, led to the pragmatists and liberals within the regime being sidelined.

After Tito died in 1980, the regime entered a period of flux. It was also a time of economic crisis, external-debt difficulties, and growing discontent. Serb nationalism was the first dynamic to find expression, exploiting a feeling of resentment about the Serbs being the backbone of Yugoslavia but always having to sacrifice their own interests for those of the whole country.

Over the 1980s, there was a shift of ideas which made nationalism more accessible and accredited. Slobodan Milosevic understood well how things were shifting, and he was able to speak both the language of “communism” and the language of national identity.

Reactions grew, led initially by Slovenia and then supported by Croatia, within the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. The single-party system collapsed, not so much because there was popular pressure (as in other countries), but because the republics became unable to find a way forward together. Slovenia and then Croatia moved towards multi-party systems, and towards abandoning the federal state.

There was an attempt by Serbia to recentralise the system which failed and led to a collapse. The attempt to have a smaller Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia led to nationalisms being seen by a lot of the population as real options. The whole of the Eastern Bloc was collapsing.

Still, nationalist parties and leaders were not advocating for war. The country was led to war not by a wish by the population for violence or conflict, but, at a time of extreme certainty, the population saw the only real forces that were organised as the nationalist parties. They were the only people who could offer an alternative to the status quo which was anyway collapsing.

In Serbia, the media were very quickly controlled by the Milosevic regime. With Serbia being such a strong factor in the federation and Belgrade being the capital, that gave Milosevic great leverage, including in the Serb populations of the other republics.

Now there is a lot of Yugo-nostalgia and romanticisation of the old regime, but in those days the old rulers were seen as grey people, self-interested, opaque, covering themselves in coded language which had become meaningless.

In the appeal of the nationalisms there was an element of populism, as we call it nowadays. But the new leaderships were of poor quality. Either they were recycled from the LCY (“communists”), as for example Tudjman was in Croatia, or people with no proper experience in politics, like Izetbegović (president of Bosnia 1992-6).

Those who had a vision had a vicious one, of dividing people, and the others weren’t strong enough to see what was coming.

In the case of Slovenia and Croatia, it was a very credible way forward to become independent and go their own way. They did that. Then for the other republics of Yugoslavia, what was left?

Only a smaller, poorer, more Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Maybe with hindsight, now, we could even say that might have been a lesser evil. But that is not how it looked at the time to the leaderships in place.

Once a multi-party system was put into place in Bosnia, three strong nationalist parties emerged, Muslim, Croat, Serb. Ostensibly, at first, they were proposing to rule together with some form of power-sharing. That’s what people voted for.

The Bosnian government ended up moving for independence because the state that Bosnia had been part of came to be considered no longer to exist.

In the West, the conflict gave free rein to the prejudices about the Balkans. Maria Todorova has described this in her book Imagining the Balkans. The West looked at the Balkans as its “other”, when in fact it was more a caricature of the West. People on the left were lost, seeing the newly-emerging world order as just the dominance of the United States.

A lot of dogma, a lot of ignorance, and a lot of unwillingness to face facts, shaped attitudes on the left.

What is your assessment, in hindsight, of the February 2014 protests in Bosnia (strikes and street demonstrations against privatisation and against nationalism)

The protests caught everyone off guard. They created a certain level of hope that popular mobilisation could lead to meaningful change.

I was in the protests myself, in Sarajevo. There was an attempt at direct democracy, through “Plenum Assemblies”. The movement started with a reaction against police violence against factory workers who had been protesting for months. It started in Tuzla and spread through the country.

But much of it was improvisation, and much of it, I’m sad to say, quickly became wishful thinking.

People felt a need to talk, to share a common experience of oppression, and to reject the system in which they lived. But as the “Plenum Assemblies” began to push for new solutions, the established political parties began to regain leverage, and we found there wasn’t enough critical mass to go forward.

The people who tried to steer the movement are very decent and principled people, a few of them friends of mine, but quickly the momentum was lost.

Since then there has been a widespread feeling that there is no hope left in Bosnia. We had a moment of opportunity to transcend ethnic divisions and an unpopular political system, but failed to gather enough support and lost momentum.

Nowadays the only meaningful activism in Bosnia is environmental. Thanks to the European Union wanting more renewable energy, hundreds of small hydroelectric dams have been built on rivers in Bosnia to export electricity, and they are destroying the rivers and the environment. It’s usually Austrian companies linked with local contractors. Local populations are trying to resist, because villages end up with their water supply cut off.

And there are imports of waste, especially since China stopped importing plastic waste from the West. And there is extreme pollution. Bosnia is exporting hydroelectricity, and yet Sarajevo is being heated by dirty coal.

Meanwhile there is an exodus of the active population. Young people are leaving. Those who cannot get a visa or work permit are still going to work for periods of three months or so in Austria or Germany or Switzerland, as cleaners, in construction, as care workers, picking fruit, or whatever.

Most people have no sense of a future. Even nature, in Bosnia, is being destroyed at such a rate that people see leaving the country as the only option.

Bosnia has been a political unit in more or less similar borders since maybe the 12th century, though usually under an external overlord. Since the end of the war and the Dayton Agreement in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina has survived, but as a state held together by the external High Representative, and still with no clear road to independence. Few say explicitly that it would have been better for the war to take its course and end with separate Croat and Serb areas (annexed to Croatia and Serbia), and a rump majority-Muslim Bosnian state, all tidied up by population movements. What do you think?

Dayton was a hybrid that could not work. It put into the constitution the idea of an ethnic sharing of power, but also included many liberal, human-rights element.

The contradictions have been contained and sustained through the international presence, but also through the wish of the population to have a normal life, without war. Anything was better than a war: that is what has kept the country going.

I believe that Bosnia is still one country. The environmental problems are exactly the same both sides of the inter-entity dividing line [between the “Republika Srpska” and the (Muslim-Croat) “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina”], and there is considerable movement across the line.

Most of my research has been in Republika Srpska. In recent years there has been much less denial of a common Bosnian identity than there was ten years ago. The Bosnian flag is more present. Ten years ago, the TV weather reports in Republika Srpska showed only weather in Republika Srpska. Now they show the whole of the country.

Of course, Serbia re-emerging as a strong country, and the recent rise of ethnic nationalists in Montenegro, create new problems.


1180: First independent Bosnian state. The mountainous territory of Bosnia, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been a political unit ever since, though usually under an external overlord.

1463: Ottoman Empire takes Bosnia. Over centuries, a part of the population, especially in the cities, converts to Islam from Catholicism or Orthodoxy (Bosnia is on a dividing line between the two Christianities).

1878: Austro-Hungarian Empire takes Bosnia-Herzegovina.

1919: After Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapse, first Yugoslav state (Serb-dominated).

1944: Stalinists led by Josef Tito defeat the Nazis, their Croat fascist allies, and Serbian royalists, to win power in Yugoslavia.

From ~1966: Titoist Yugoslavia becomes more decentralised. B-H gets more autonomy as a republic within Yugoslavia; “Muslims” are recognised as “a nation” within Yugoslavia.

From late 1980s: As the old order crumbles in Eastern Europe, Milosevic launches a “Greater Serbia” policy, calling it “the anti-bureaucratic revolution”.

Summer 1991: Slovenia and Croatia declare independence, and retain it after short (Slovenia) or long (Croatia) wars against Milosevic.

March 1992: By now B-H is about 44% Muslim (still concentrated in the cities), 17% Croat, 31% Serb (and 8% defining themselves just as “Yugoslav”). B-H declares independence after Bosnian-Serb moves to separate Serb-majority areas and after a referendum. The “federal” Yugoslav army (controlled by Milosevic), Bosnian Serb militias, and volunteers from Serbia, quickly seize much of B-H’s land area, but most main cities stay in Bosnian hands. Sarajevo is under siege for 44 months. Big powers impose an arms embargo on Bosnian forces.

February 1994: Washington Agreement, brokered by US, between Bosnian government and Bosnian-Croat forces, for a common front against Serb nationalist forces.

July 1995: Srebrenica massacre, of some 8000 Muslim civilians by Serb forces, in an area supposedly a UN-protected “safe haven”. European governments, previously tilting towards Milosevic, start tilting pro-Bosnia.

September 1995: NATO bombs Serb military positions.

November 1995: War ended by US-brokered Dayton Agreement. B-H survives, but as a confederation of a Muslim-Croat unit and a Serb unit, ruled over by an external “High Representative”. Since Dayton, peace, but continued divisions and high emigration (population down from 4.4 million in 1991 to about 3.3 million now). The “High Representative” continues to rule.

March-June 1999: After escalating Serb repression and Kosovar resistance in Kosova, and finally a move by Milosevic to kill or drive out the majority of the Kosovar population, NATO goes to war against Milosevic, and forces Serbia to withdraw. Kosova survives under international control, and eventually wins independence in 2008.

February 2014: Wave of strikes and protests in Bosnia, against privatisation, for jobs and pensions, for workers’ control, against nationalism.


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