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