Bosnia: The Origins of the Conflict
Sumantra Bose

Introduction A decade has passed since violence erupted in Bosnia following the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The causes and the exact nature of the conflict remain shrouded by popular myths and confusion. Was it a conflict over territory, religion or race? How could communities which had apparently existed in peace clash so suddenly and with such ferocity? In this interview, Sumantra Bose casts light on the circumstances and ideologies which led to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Is it possible to explain the causes of the conflict in Bosnia and how it was ignited in 1992?

Sumantra Bose: The crisis that erupted in Bosnia in 1992 was a result of the failure of the Yugoslav multinational socialist federation. Yugoslavia under socialism was a very decentralised country, consisting of six republics and a number of constituent nations. The six republics from west to east, were Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. There were also six constituent nations: the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins and, from the late 1960s onwards, the Bosnian Muslims.

This incredibly diverse country was kept together by a very complex political balancing act. The six federating republics enjoyed very widespread autonomy within the socialist framework, and the six constituent nations were all technically sovereign and equal to one another, even though they varied widely in size. For example, there were over 8 million Serbs, but only 600,000 Montenegrins, and 2 million Slovenes. Despite such discrepancies, under the Yugoslav federal formula, the collectivities were all explicitly equal to one another. Each republic was entitled to sovereignty and self-determination.

This was fine as long as the Yugoslav framework worked and remained stable. Once things started to get uncomfortable because of a multi-dimensional crisis, a fatal discrepancy emerged. The republics were technically the bearers of sovereignty and the units entitled to exercise self-determination, but by and large the republics, minus Slovenia, were themselves multinational in composition. For example, there was a significant Serb minority in Croatia. There were Croats and Hungarians in northern Serbia. Bosnia-Herzegovina, of course, was the most mixed multinational republic of them all. It was roughly 45 percent Muslim, 35 percent Serb and 18 percent Croat. There was no easy way a republic like Bosnia-Herzegovina, with that sort of multinational composition, could exercise self-determination, because the wishes of the groups on the territory conflicted with one another.

Would you agree with the view held by some that the war in Bosnia was the inevitable consequence of ancient ethnic hatreds?

Bose: Not at all. The historical legacy of inter-community relations in Bosnia is mixed, but it doesn't lend itself to the easy conclusion that these groups were destined to fight each other in the way that they did. What happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 was, in social-scientific jargon, a contingent event. It was contingent on various other developments and, of course, the big development was the progressive unravelling of the Yugoslav multinational socialist federation and the complex balancing act that had sustained it.

In the past century there have been at least three episodes of serious communal conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The first was in 1875-76, when there was a peasant revolt in Herzegovina, which led to fairly heavy casualties among both the Orthodox community, that is the Serbs and the Muslims. The second episode was during the Second World War when Yugoslavia was invaded, occupied and dismembered by the Axis powers and their allies, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was incorporated into a Nazi sponsored, so-called independent state of Croatia, which then proceeded to commit genocide against Bosnia-Herzegovina's significant Serb population. And the third episode of serious inter-group violence was in the 1990s.

However, interspersed between these episodes of violence have been periods of relative calm, and most would agree that these were also periods of relative harmony between the different groups. There is a lot of evidence that these groups, given a favourable regional environment, are quite capable of getting along with each other. In fact, in the period after the Second World War, intermarriage rates in Bosnia and Herzegovina between Serbs, Muslims and Croats were quite high, and that is one indicator of not just the possibility, but the reality of harmonious coexistence.

Whereas the smaller towns and rural communities of Bosnia were more traditional and conservative in their political orientation, the larger cities, especially Sarajevo, became very cosmopolitan under state socialism. By the 1970s and 1980s, Sarajevo and other larger Bosnian towns were virtual melting pots of the different groups.

What exactly were the mythologies that circulated about the origins of the conflict and in whose interest were they?

Bose: At the beginning of the war there was a dangerous tendency for the demagogic leaders, purporting to represent the different communities in Bosnia, to exploit the historical evidence selectively. For example, a lot of the Belgrade-based Serb media, which was very influential among Bosnian Serbs, chose to concentrate only on the grisly record of the Ustashe and the Croatian fascist atrocities against the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia during the Second World War. These media also whipped up a kind of hysteria amongst the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, persuading them that genocide was imminent once again, or at the very least that the Serbs would be subordinated, once Yugoslavia fell apart, to unfriendly Croatian and Muslim governments in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina respectively.

This hysteria was not entirely unfounded, especially because Croat nationalism in its revitalised form in the 1990s was certainly virulently anti-Serb. However, there was a great deal of scare-mongering and a dangerously selective use of the historical evidence. This sort of crude propaganda would never have worked in a regional context of stability. But we must remember that in the early 1990s Yugoslavia was unravelling, not just in the political sense, but socially, economically and otherwise as well. This was a period of great uncertainty and immense confusion throughout Yugoslavia and amongst all the Yugoslav peoples.

What role in reality did ethnic rivalry play in the Bosnian conflict?

Bose: The first thing to remember is that the three peoples of Bosnia--Serbs, Muslim Slavs and Croats--are of virtually identical racial, ethnic and linguistic stock. They are not ethnically different. One can say that in Sri Lanka, the Tamils and the Sinhalese are of somewhat different racial and ethnic stock, though the difference may not be as great as nationalist ideologues on both sides claim. However, they do have their own distinct and very different cultures and despite some commonalities, they speak different languages. This was not the case in Bosnia. The three groups in Bosnia are overwhelmingly similar in their racial, ethnic and cultural characteristics. They speak the same language which was known until the collapse of Yugoslavia as Serbo-Croatian. This has now been divided, like everything else, into three different branches of the same language: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. Thus, it is not ethnic difference per se that created the conflict in Bosnia.

Nevertheless, historically the development of collective consciousness amongst these three peoples has been on communitarian lines. All three communities have a strong sense of Bosnian identity and attachment to their homeland. Simultaneously there are three distinctive ways of being Bosnian. Serbs retain a strong sense of Serb identity, shaped by their own historical experience, especially in the modern period; the same is true of Croats and the same is true of Muslims. The crucial difference is religion: the Serbs are Orthodox Christian and the Croats are Catholic. The communities have a very distinct sense of being separate from one another while to some degree sharing the same history and the same space (i.e. Bosnia-Herzegovina). You might well ask if the difference in religion proved a major factor in the recent conflict. I would be inclined not to think so, because religion had become largely depoliticised by the late twentieth century, thanks to, among other factors, the secularising influence of almost four-and-a-half decades of state socialism.

It was not any objective difference that led to conflict; it was various contingent developments, especially the unravelling and collapse of Yugoslavia. At the same time, one needs to keep in mind that, despite being so similar to one another, the three groups retained a discrete sense of identity. As long as Yugoslavia was together, these potentially disastrous conflicts of loyalty could be avoided . Once Yugoslavia started collapsing and fragmenting, Serbs began asking themselves, "Are we Serbs first or are we Bosnians first?". Most of them decided that they were Serbs first. The Croats came to pretty much the same conclusion. In this new context of post-Yugoslav fragmentation and the creation of nation states, their first allegiance and loyalty lay with the new successor state of Croatia rather than Bosnia-Herzegovina. That left the Bosnian Muslims as the sole standard-bearers of an independent, integral Bosnian state.

Could you describe the fortunes and the role of the Muslim population during the Bosnian war?

Bose: The Muslims were the single largest group in Bosnia-Herzegovina. They made up about 45 percent of the population. They were not a majority but a plurality of the population, and they continue to be the single largest group numerically. However, the Muslims of Bosnia suffered from one distinct disadvantage during the Bosnian war: they did not have a sponsor state. The Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina were heavily backed, militarily and otherwise, by "Belgrade", and their supposed parent state, Serbia. Similarly, the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Croats could look to neighbouring Croatia--itself an aggressively nationalist newly-independent state--for military, political, diplomatic and financial support. The Bosnian Muslims were orphans in this sense. As a result, despite being numerically the largest group in Bosnia, they were militarily the weakest of the three protagonists for much of the Bosnian war.

It is also important to bear in mind the strategic position of the Muslim population. Most of the Muslim population of Bosnia happened to be concentrated in an arc of territory in central Bosnia, a triangular area bounded by three towns: Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla. This is an unfavourable strategic location, as it is landlocked and surrounded for the most part by hostile Bosnian Serb or Bosnian Croat territory. Most of the others were in eastern Bosnia, close to the Serbia border, or in northwestern Bosnia, a Serb-majority area. In a sense, the Muslims of Bosnia were the disadvantaged party in this war, and they arguably suffered the most of the three sides.



This feature was taken from an interview with Sumantra Bose at the London School of Economics and Political Science on November 16, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.