How the voices of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are made irrelevant.
In the last month or so, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has, first hesitantly, and then more conspicuously, returned to the global media. Apparently, a new war is about to break out. At least that is what the headlines are saying: “Bosnia is on the brink of breaking up,” “A brewing crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” “If we falter the Balkans will explode again,” and on it goes.
But in this cacophony of voices evoking war, do you know who is not considering war as even a remote option? The people living in the country.
The people of BiH are wondering what those elites know that we don’t, or if this is part of the new trend of dubious truths created through fake news. We are not naive in saying this. We learned our lesson in the ’90s, when the war started despite our belief that it was impossible. But this time around there are simply no reasons that could motivate people to go to war.
Manufacturers of crisis
Corrupt ethno-nationalist elites in BiH have over the years proved that all they have ever been interested in is their own personal gain. Everyone knows this. It is difficult to imagine that there is anyone left in this country prepared to go to war for these people. If the conditions for war are created, it will not have been by the hands of the people of BiH.
The recent noise about possible war has a source.
Ethno-nationalist elites have created yet another crisis in a long line of crises and conflicts created since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) at the end of 1995. This time, maybe, it looks more serious than the previous times. But when a country is in a perpetual state of crisis then each new crisis that is manufactured needs to top the previous one. The one constant is that the elites maintain their modus operandi of destabilizing the situation as a route to claiming more power.
The dynamic where the ethno-nationalists manufacture a crisis and the international community concedes to their demands is as old as the DPA.
At the entity level (the DPA divides the country into two entities and one district), institutions of the Federation of BiH have been blocked since the last elections in 2018, but as new elections are approaching in October 2022, the ethno-nationalists have decided to turn up the volume and expand the blockade to state institutions. The institutions of Republika Srpska are not blocked because they are controlled by a single man: Milorad Dodik, once the West’s favorite politician in the country, today seen as the biggest problem.
At the moment, at the state level the Council of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly and the tripartite Presidency are blocked by Serb ethno-nationalists. The dynamic where ethno-nationalists manufacture a crisis and the international community concedes to their demands is as old as the DPA.
Under the framework of the DPA, post-war BiH was transformed into a site of neocolonial domination. In this dynamic, the international community inserted itself into every aspect of society and seized broad powers, yet responds to every whim of the ethno-nationalist elite by giving them just a little bit more space, a little bit more power to wield over us. In return the international community gets to play peacekeeper and do what it does best — impose neoliberal capitalism, gain access to yet another country’s market, appropriate yet another river or mine, commodify yet another life.
This has allowed not just certain political elites and corporations to benefit, but also for global geopolitical rivalry to take place within the country’s internal political, economic, social and cultural structures.
Like a well-rehearsed performance, the international community hurryingly responds to the crisis manufactured by the ethno-nationalists. This response only creates more tensions. In return, these tensions provide additional excuses for both the ethno-nationalist elites and the international community to remain in power indefinitely.
Even worse, the DPA utterly failed to equip BiH with possible solutions to dealing with the aggressive meddling of Serbia and Croatia in BiH’s internal affairs.
Being signatories to the peace agreement, but without any obligations to pay reparations or acknowledge their direct responsibility in the wartime attempt to dismember BiH, they have been emboldened to continue their expansionist agendas. Under the pretense of being guardians of the DPA, they feel entitled to meddle in the internal affairs of BiH. Their meddling each time means support to ethno-nationalist projects.
Claims are frequently made that only international actors can save us from ourselves.
All three sides that flirt with brinkmanship also benefit from the orientalist narrative the historian Maria Todorova called Balkanism. Part of the phenomenon of Balkanism is seeing violence and divisions as natural and deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Balkan population. Balkanism is regularly used as an excuse by international elites to keep their share of power, presenting themselves as facilitators between the supposedly uncivilized locals who are portrayed as violent, wild and in constant conflict with each other.
Claims are frequently made that only international actors can save us from ourselves. These claims have always, and only, understood the context of BiH in the framework of ethnic antagonism. And of course, different elements of Balkanism are used by ethno-nationalist elites and their ever-present mentors from neighboring countries. When they need to grab some more public or natural resources and power they diligently affirm this narrative.
With each crisis the international community and ethno-nationalist elites continue to enable each other, to act in coordination and insist on preserving political and economic structures created by the violence of the war. They only talk and negotiate with each other, preferably in the building of the EU Delegation or ambassadors’ residences, carefully avoiding even visiting the institutions of BiH.
They are even more careful not to ask the people of BiH what they think. Instead, they like to tell us what we think, want or need.
The art of ignoring
The esteemed members of the international community apparently know better than all of the people of BiH combined. Second-class diplomats, individual members of the EU parliament, various special representatives, other countries’ parliaments, current and old High Representatives and institutions created by the DPA, are all assuring us that a new war is just around the corner.
The voices of people living in BiH (again!) seem irrelevant.
Apparently, something must be done to stop the ever-troublesome BiH from plunging into yet more bloodshed. The proposals go from sanctions, amendments to the Constitution and the Election Law, to NATO intervention. Germans, Brits, Russians, Americans, Turks, EU parliamentarians, well, pretty much everyone has hurried to demonstrate their expertise and assure us that they mean us well.
But if you listen closely to what some of the people of BiH are saying, the few times they are given space to talk, you will hear they do not want to wage war, that Bosnians and Herzegovinians are not ever again willing to pick up a gun. But it is like the international community (along with their ethno-nationalist and regional counterparts) is deaf to what we are saying.
Instead, they keep repeating, almost chanting: war, war, war. It is deeply traumatizing. But more than that, it is deeply enraging.
The voices of people living in BiH (again!) seem irrelevant. We see the same disregard to our voices as during the DPA negotiations. We seem to be unable to make ourselves heard over the cacophony of the three elites, one ethno-national, the other international and the third one from the neighboring countries. In the same way they have helped create and uphold each other during the 1992–1995 war, in the post-war period they continue their games.
We cannot but wonder: are they trying to incite a war?
Because one thing is for sure. Unless BiH is used as a playground for the global geopolitical struggles between NATO/EU and Russia, US and China, there will not be a war in BiH. People in BiH do not want it.
What people want are decent lives, clean air and water, affordable food and housing. They want to plan their vacations. They want to leave the war years behind.
Gorana Mlinarević is an independent researcher. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the prosecution of wartime sexual violence and war and post-war issues and experiences affecting women. She often explores intersections and tensions between identity politics and economic and social realities of the post-war societies.
Nela Porobić Isaković is a feminist, activist, and a researcher who looks into the social, political and economic consequences of post-conflict reconstruction and recovery processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.