Haunted by ethnic war – Bosnia’s long road to development

History is not easily forgotten. Gravestones at the Potočari genocide memorial near Srebrenica. Picture: Michael Büker, Wikimedia Commons

In post-conflict Bosnia (1995-today) the efficient implementation of the Dayton Accords have produced a lasting peace and several elections for parliament. Although this can, and should, be regarded as a major achievement, the real issues in Bosnia have yet to be dealt with. Ethnic divisions are still haunting this nation and hindering true democratic and economic progress. Elections were held on October 12, but with the outcome a victory for nationalistic forces, it looks like the result might only deepen the hostile relationship between the different groups. How is this division affecting Bosnian society?  

The tensions in Bosnia have created three different nationalistic federations within Bosnia: Repuiblika Srpska, dominated by Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnia-Hercegovina, dominated by Bosnian Croats and Muslims. Today approximately 90% of the population lives in ethnically homogeneous communities, which reflect the poisoned relationship between the entities who still suffer from psychological wounds. An example of the magnitude of the situation is the recent denial by Milorad Dodiks, ex-President of Repuiblika Srpska, that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was genocide, even though it has been verified by the ICC.

Map of Bosnia showing the different entities of the country

The elections in post-conflict Bosnia were enforced by external actors such as the US, UN and EU, in belief that democracy would foster ethnic harmony and peace. This assumption was in many ways wrong, since the elections rather lead to competition for power which deepened the polarization. Today, Bosnia is just as divided as before and in the recent 2014 election the nationalistic parties dominated the polls, likely because the people of different groups prefer to be represented ethnically rather than voting for improvement of the entire nation. Each group fears that the other group’s increased power would threaten their own autonomy and existence. This fear makes other issues, such as unemployment and poverty, take a backseat and therefore obstructs economic and political development as well as security and peace. The state of the economy in Bosnia is devastating and has been so for several years. The unemployment rate is 44% and youth unemployment was a staggering 59% in 2013. The government has struggled to pay the pensions of war veterans. Furthermore, it has been stated among analysts that foreign investment has been scared off due to Bosnia’s reputation as a country with widespread corruption and political insecurity.

Why is the economy in such a terrible state? A large part of the explanation is the ethic division; there is little economic cooperation between different groups. Most individuals prefer to employ others with the same ethnicity. The neo-liberal approach for a market economy, which has been imposed externally by the World Bank and the European Union, has not improved economic cooperation, but rather resulted in increased disintegration since the approach ignored the underlying ethnic tensions. As a result, there are now two separate politico-economic units within the country, which actively limits movement between areas and restricts the engagement of any formal economic cooperation.

Bosnian Serbian Nationalist Milorad Dodik, president of the the Serbian Republic of Bosnia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The way of the future for Bosnia is uncertain as leaders within the three-party-system advocate different goals for the country. Bosnian Serbian Nationalist Milorad Dodik wants the Serbian Republic of Bosnia to become more of its own state, while the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its party leader Tomislav Karamarko, wants to establish a Croatian entity with Bosnia-Herzegovina instead being part of a federation. According to the BBC, the only ones who aspire to unite Bosnia are the Bosnian Muslims as the Bosnian SDA-party and their leader Bakir Izetbegovic wants to pursue a line of a unified state.

Would EU membership help solve the situation? The opinions differ: it would bring money and force cooperation, but some claim that EU membership would simply be an obstacle. The country is too unstable because of its internal divisions, making it hard for the country’s political leaders to agree on a common policy for Bosnia, which is crucial if they are going to join the EU. Due to the country’s strong nationalism and strong ethnic divisions, the transfer of power to EU institutions would likely be opposed by many. But the question is also if cooperation is likely even without the pressure of EU membership? Considering the continued presence of nationalistic leaders and discord between groups, the future does not seem promising for a more reconciled and unified Bosnia. The underlying issue is evident: without letting the past be the past can they focus on the present and develop the country as a whole? There can be no real peace until a certain level of reconciliation has been reached, but the road there and the time it would take is unclear, considering how deep-rooted the situation is.

Staffan Fjellander and Felix Borrebaeck

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