In Splintered Bosnia-Herzegovina, Its Recent Elections Reveal Deep Divisions in the Balkans


Recent elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina have revealed a nation and a region that remain deeply divided.  The election results for Bosnia’s presidency express the bitter ethnic tensions between the three dominant ethnic groups—Bosnian Croats, Bosniaks, and Bosnian Serbs.  In elections for the three-person presidency, in which each of these ethnic groups is represented, ethnic nationalist parties dominated, thus further fracturing one of the most, if not the most, divided nations in Europe.  The pro-Russian Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the Bosniak Šefik Džaferović of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and the more moderate Željko Komšić of the Democratic Front (DF) emerged as the new Presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  The overwhelming victory of nationalist parties for both the presidency and lower house of parliament (House of Representatives) does not bode well for a nation and region still marred by the legacy of the 1990s and the 20th century as a whole.

The United States Department of State spokesperson Heather Nauert said that, “The United States shares concerns about the electoral process, as expressed by the OSCE election observer mission, international observation teams, and local NGOs.  These include concerns over accuracy of voter registration rolls, impartiality of election observers, equitable access to media, and misuse of public resources.”  A joint report by NATO, the European Union, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe stated that the elections “were genuinely competitive but characterized by continuing segmentation along ethnic lines.”  The report further said that “Contestants used polarising and negative rhetoric, personal attacks and fearmongering, at the expense of discussing political alternatives,” but that “No discriminatory rhetoric against national minorities was reported or observed.”

However, prior to the elections, Aleksandra Letić of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska noted that any discussion of the Bosnian War (1992-1995) is nonexistent.  “It is evident that not only are we not facing the past, but that facing it is not a topic of the elections, that the rights of victims of other ethnicities are not included in political programmes, but are being consciously trampled upon in election campaigns, buried even deeper, and what is going on is a competition about who will become the protector of national [ethnic] interests.”

In a region long scarred by conflict and characterised by resurfacing ethnic tensions, the political implications of these elections must be acknowledged.  As the presidency is shared by three politicians determined by ethnicity, it remains difficult to bridge the divide among the three ethnic communities.  Bosnia-Herzegovina, centrally-located in what was called the “powder keg of Europe,” remains a deeply divided society, and the election results—despite one moderate coming to the fore—will do nothing to heal the wounds of the 1990s.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country shaped by empires, ethnicities, and religions.  Originally part of a kingdom (Kingdom of Bosnia, 1377-1463) influenced by Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and which had its own national church—the Bosnian Church—the Kingdom of Bosnia ultimately fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1463.  During this time of Ottoman rule, many Southern Slavs converted to Islam, thus becoming known as Bosniaks.  Bosnia, and the region as a whole, was hotly contested between the Ottomans, Croatians, Hungarians, and later the Habsburg Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Russian Empire.

Fast forward to the 20th century and one finds the Balkans as the “powder keg of Europe.”  With the centuries-long domination of the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire over and the emergence of independent, largely ethnically-based nation-states, the region became a patchwork of divergent interests.  A weakened Ottoman Empire and expansionist Austria-Hungary and Russia laid the groundwork for World War I.  Bosnia-Herzegovina itself was absorbed into Austria-Hungary in 1878 with the Congress of Berlin.  Furthermore, the complex alliances that emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th century (Triple Entente, League of the Three Emperors, and later the Central Powers) that were aimed at maintaining the peace and stability of the Concert of Europe were not enough to prevent the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian heir Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, from sparking the outbreak of World War I.

With the collapse and breakup of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires at the end of the war, the Balkans was largely left to its own devices.  The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established, ruled by a Serbian royal house.  It uneasily bound together the complex tapestry of ethnic and religious groups of much of the Balkans.  However, with the rise of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the country was vulnerable to invasion and was occupied by the Axis powers by 1941.  Both nationalist (Serbian Chetniks and Croatian Ustashe) and communist factions fought against the Axis invaders or acted as willing collaborators with the Axis occupiers.  During the war in the Yugoslav theatre, there were several cases of ethnic cleansing.  Ultimately, with Allied support, the communist Partisans under Josip Broz Tito successfully fought against the Axis powers and their co-belligerents.

The end of World War II led to the establishment of a communist Yugoslavia, that during the Cold War identified itself as an independent, non-aligned socialist state made up of various “nations,” but with all citizens having the same nationality—Yugoslav.  The state’s guiding principle was “brotherhood and unity” and its 1974 constitution inscribed the equality of the constituent nations.

However, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of neighbouring communist states unglued the one commonality that bound the Yugoslavs together.  Like the Warsaw Pact to the north, nation after nation broke off, beginning with Slovenia in 1991.  The Yugoslav Army sought to preserve the unity of the nation and crush the secessionist movements.  It soon came under the influence of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević who pursued a Serbian nationalist policy.  These developments ultimately resulted in the decade-long conflict known as the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001).  The wars would be the most violent in Europe since World War II and be characterised by ethnic violence, such as the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  It was also characterised by the presence of United Nations peacekeepers and a NATO bombing campaign of such cities as Belgrade.

Concerning Bosnia-Herzegovina, the war (1992-1995) was brought to an end with the Dayton Accords.  The Accords divided Bosnia-Herzegovina into two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBIH), made up mostly of Croats and Bosniaks, and the Republika Srpska (RS), made up primarily of Serbs.  Furthermore, the government structure was established.

More than twenty years later, the pains and scars of the 1990s remain.  The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established in 1993 to prosecute war crimes, dissolved in 2017, but there undoubtedly remain unprosecuted cases.   This will be the responsibility of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, established in 2010.

The Balkans today remain divided as ever.  NATO, the European Union, and Russia seek to increase their influence in the region, most notably by the recent accession of Montenegro to NATO in 2017.  As these nations are placed in a tug-of-war between East and West, with Bosnia-Herzegovina in the centre, and ethnic nationalist political parties seek to gain power and shape the region’s political narrative, peace, stability, and reconciliation remain remote goals.  It is hoped that one hundred years after that fateful day in June 1914 that the Balkans does not once again become the “powder keg of Europe.”

Spencer A. Wong

Spencer is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying Security Policy Studies.He is interested in European domestic politics and international relations and the political dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region.

About Spencer A. Wong

Spencer is a graduate student at The George Washington University, studying Security Policy Studies. He is interested in European domestic politics and international relations and the political dynamics of the Asia-Pacific region.