President of Serbia Milosevic, President of Croatia Tudjman, President of Bosnia Izetbegovic signing the Dayton Agreement.
“All wars result from conflicts of one kind or another, but not all conflicts lead to war”
Renewed war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not something that Western policymakers may wish to consider, but it is a distinct possibility unless the international community acts to assist the country in addressing its problems. These problems are similar to those which were a major cause of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina that began in 1992. In short, the country’s post-Dayton constitution institutionalizes identity divisions among Bosnia-Herzegovina’s people, in much the same way that the Yugoslav constitution did.
Institutionalized identity divisions occur when states label people according to ethnic, religious, or other objective criteria, and then apportion benefits based upon these labels. In a state with institutionalized identity divisions, a shock or crisis can catalyze conflict among identity groups, since leaders will use these identities as potent and readily available means of mobilizing followers. This escalating conflict inside a state often invites intervention by other states, further escalating the conflict.
In 1992, the presence of institutionalized identity divisions, a dual economic and constitutional crisis, and intervention by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors—primarily Serbia—plunged the country into a bloody three-year civil war. Today, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitution perpetuates the institutionalization of identity divisions in the country, providing a structural basis for the escalation of ethnic conflict. Any number of conceivable events—a move by Republika Srpska toward independence, an ethnically or religiously motivated attack, or a prolonged economic crisis—could be a catalyst for conflict. Whether this conflict then escalates to civil war would then be determined by the role of external actors. While Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors are playing much more constructive roles than they did in the 1990s, Russia is playing an increasingly malevolent role by attempting to stoke ethnic tensions, especially among Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serb minority. In these conditions, efforts at stabilization by the international community, along with courage by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political leaders, may be critical to avoiding another bloody Balkan war.
Renewed War in the Balkans is not a Remote Prospect
In April 2016, I spent two weeks in the Balkans. My objective there was to research the causes of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but almost everyone I interviewed was more interested in talking about the next war there than the last one. The prospect of renewed war in the Balkans is not something Western policy-makers may wish to consider. After all, the West has enough problems to deal with at the moment from immigration, to terrorism, to a revanchist Russia, to the rise of right-wing populism. But renewed war in the Balkans— specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina—is not a remote prospect, and unless the West pays greater attention to the situation there, it could be surprised by the renewal of a conflict that most Europeans and Americans considered settled long ago.
My research on the conflicts in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia points to three main factors that contribute to the outbreak of violent separatism. The first of these are institutionalized divisions in identity within a state. By this, I mean state policies that label people according to ethnic, religious, or other objective criteria, and then apportion economic gains, territory, political power, or other benefits based upon these labels. In a state with institutionalized identity divisions, a shock or crisis can catalyze conflict among identity groups by suddenly putting the relationship of each group to power and other benefits up for renegotiation. In these conditions, leaders will reach for the most potent and readily available means of mobilizing followers, and state-sponsored identities often prove to be both potent and available. This mobilization of groups along lines of identity and escalation of conflict among them is the second factor necessary for the outbreak of a violent separatist movement. The third factor is external intervention – since even the most fractured and incoherent states usually have the capacity to defeat a separatist movement that receives no external support, such support is critical to the escalation of conflict.
One way to view these three factors is as fuel, spark, and accelerant for a fire. Institutionalized identity divisions provide the fuel; a shock or crisis provides the spark; and external intervention provides the accelerant. In Bosnia-Herzegovina today, ample fuel is present in the way the post-Dayton political system classifies groups and apportions power and other benefits among them. These institutionalized identity divisions among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are at least as stark as they were at the end of the Yugoslav period, prior to the outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992. This article reviews the causes of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the current situation and conflict potential there; it concludes by offering suggestions for stabilizing the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Origins of the 1992-1995 War in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Josip Broz Tito
The outbreak of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992 follows the pattern discussed above: institutionalized divisions in identity combined with a political crisis and external intervention to catalyze a large-scale separatist war. Although Yugoslavia formally attempted to construct a non-ethically and non-religiously-based Yugoslav identity, other state policies undermined that effort and reinforced the distinct Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim (or Bosniak) identities that had been formed by the different historical experiences of the groups. Construction of such a unifying identity was always going to be a daunting challenge since the Yugoslavia that emerged from the Second World War was the most diverse state in Europe, with five nations, four languages, four religions, and two alphabets all officially recognized within its borders. Nevertheless, Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito believed the construction of a unifying identity was both possible and essential to the success of the socialist state. And there are reasons to believe he was correct; after all, inter-communal violence between Serbs and Croats did not have deep historical roots. As Reneo Lukic and Allen Lynch observe, despite the violence during the Second World War, “there was no history of group violence between Serbs and Croats before the 1920s.”
After an early post-war effort at unification and homogenization around a common Yugoslav identity, changes to the federal constitution throughout the 1960s and 1970s amounted to a policy of acknowledging the primacy of older, national identities and institutionalizing these by devolving political and economic power from the federal center to the national republics. The failure to create a common Yugoslav identity meant that Tito’s personal legitimacy was a main factor holding the country together. Tito has been called the only true Yugoslav national symbol, so his death naturally dealt a blow to the ideal of a supra-national Yugoslav identity. To make matters worse, the period after his death was a period of continuous economic and political crisis in Yugoslavia. By 1987, foreign debt, only $4.7 billion just fifteen years earlier, ballooned to almost $22 billion; inflation stood at 167% annually, and the unemployment rate stood at over 16%. Added to the economic crises was a constitutional crisis, made even more destabilizing by the structure of the Yugoslav state. As Mark Beissinger and Ljubomir Hajda note, the constitutional changes that devolved power from the federal center to the national republics overlaid national divisions on top of center-periphery divisions, so that crises over distribution of power or economic resources inevitably became nationality crises as well.
The dual economic and constitutional crises in Yugoslavia paved the way for the emergence of radical nationalist leadership, personified—but certainly not represented exclusively—by Slobodan Milošević. Milošević consistently pursued two goals: the recentralization of power within the Serbian republic through revocation of the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina and the recentralization of Yugoslavia itself, with the ultimate goal of reversing the process of decentralization that had been underway for decades and restore the unitary Yugoslav state of the early post-war period. Resistance to Milosevic’s plans by the leadership of the other Yugoslav Republics, especially Slovenia and Croatia, set the conditions for escalation of conflict.
So by the early 1990s, Yugoslavia’s overlapping, institutionalized political, economic, and national identities combined with the dual economic and constitutional crises and the emergence of a nationalist Serbian leadership in Belgrade to provide ample fuel for a conflagration. At this point, only the spark and the accelerant were missing. Neither was long in coming. Declarations of sovereignty by Slovenia and Croatia in the summer of 1991 were followed by wars of secession in both. In the fall of 1991, the existence of Serbia’s Plan Ram (Frame) became public when its details were published in the Belgrade weekly Vreme.Ram, which envisioned a future in which “all Serbs with their territories would live together in the same state,” deeply alarmed the leadership of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In response, the national assembly declared Bosnia-Herzegovina a sovereign and independent state. In the spring of 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina moved to formalize its independence from Yugoslavia by holding a referendum. As expected, this referendum, held from 29 February-1 March, resulted in a majority vote for independence. Immediately after the referendum, Serb forces launched their attacks in an attempt to forestall international recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence by presenting the world with a military fait accompli.
The road to war in Bosnia-Herzegovina began with the institutionalization of identity divisions in the republic by the Yugoslav government; proceeded through the crisis period of the 1980s, which provided nationalist politicians both the motive and opportunity to mobilize followers along the lines of these identity divisions; and culminated in a violent separatist movement supported by Serbia and—for a time—Croatia. After a series of atrocities—perpetrated by all sides, but most visibly and egregiously by Serb forces—extensive diplomatic and limited military intervention by the broader international community brought an end to the war.
While the Dayton Agreement ended the war and set up a functioning set of state institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it did nothing to address the main cause of the war, which lay in the divided and institutionalized identities in the country. Indeed, the structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s state institutions imposed at Dayton may make renewed conflict more likely by closely binding access to political power and economic gains to ethnic identity in the same way the Yugoslav system did after the devolution of power from the center to the republics. This is not a criticism of the Dayton Accords themselves; the main purpose was to end the war and create short-term stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina to allow for the development of a more durable and resilient state. Instead, the dangerous situation is due to inattention by the international community and self-interested behavior by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political elites, which has allowed what was intended to be a temporary constitutional structure to become permanent. The result, as noted earlier, is that many Bosniak, Serb, and Croat scholars, policy-makers, and civil society leaders see renewed war as not only possible, but likely.
This largely held opinion comes from the current Bosnian constitutional structure, still largely unchanged since 1995, institutionalizes identity divisions at multiple levels in the government and society of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Based upon Article 4 of the Dayton Accords, the constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina locates sovereignty not in the state itself but in its “constituent peoples,” or the Serb, Croat, and Bosniak ethnic groups of the country. This tripartite division is reflected in the institutional structure of the state, as well. The bicameral legislature is composed of a House of Peoples, which “shall comprise 15 Delegates, two-thirds from the Federation (including five Croats and five Bosniaks) and one-third from the Republika Srpska (five Serbs);” and a House of Representatives, which “shall comprise 42 Members, two-thirds elected from the territory of the Federation, one-third from the territory of the Republika Srpska.” Even the presidency is a tripartite institution, consisting of “one Bosniak and one Croat, each directly elected from the territory of the Federation, and one Serb directly elected from the territory of the Republika Srpska.” Far from being a model for governance of a multi-ethnic state, this constitutional model almost guarantees conflict by institutionalizing ethnic identities and tying them to access to political power. As constitutional scholar Edin Šarcevic notes, whereas a citizen’s state is based on the constitutional premise of placing the “abstract man as the inviolable quantity within the political system.” the Bosnian constitution “has suspended this basic premise, and by placing ‘constituent nations’ at the foundations of the state community has established a contradictory system that cannot function without generating conflict.”
Even the study of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been ethnically institutionalized. There are separate Serb, Croat, and Bosniak documentation centers to study the war, with the Croatian center located in Mostar, the Serb center in Banja Luka, and the Bosniak center in Sarajevo. The potential for three separate histories of the war to be propagated among Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three major ethnic groups is exceptionally destabilizing because instead of a single, generally accepted set of historical facts and figures about the war, each center can (and does) publish and propagate its own set of “facts.” Among these that I heard while at the Croatian Documentation Center in Mostar is the following: in the 1992-1995 war, Bosniaks killed “ten times as many Croats as Croats killed Bosniaks,” but “they” (Bosniaks) present it as the opposite.
Interviews with scholars, policy-makers, and civil society leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina support the contention that the current situation is unstable. Perhaps the most troubling internal development is the increasing rift between Bosniaks and Croats, ostensible allies and federation partners under the constitution. In Mostar, local Bosnian-Croat politicians warn that a clash between the Euro-Christian and Islamic worlds is playing out in the Balkans, and that Bosniak President Bakir Izetbegovic is setting up an Islamic state, where Serbs and Croats will be relegated to “the status of the Algerians in France”. These same leaders are deeply suspicious of Turkish influence in the Balkans, arguing that the current Turkish government is pursuing a neo-Ottoman policy designed to re-establish hegemony over the Balkans. For proof of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman designs, they point to the 2001 book, Strategic Depth, by former Turkish Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, which they claim is a roadmap for the “reincarnation of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.” The wider Islamic world is also a source of great mistrust and concern for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croats, with much made of the “great interest” shown in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Iran and Malaysia, among others, and the cultural and alleged intelligence penetration of the country by these countries.
If relations between Croats and Bosniaks are worsening, then relations between Serbs and Bosniaks can only be described as grave. Evidence of this fact is readily available: on 25 September 2016, Republika Srpska held a referendum on establishing its own “national day,” which received 99.8% approval among those who voted. This referendum is widely regarded as a trial run for a referendum on independence, which Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik has promised to hold by 2018. The Economist began its article on the referendum with the following sentence: “The threat of a new war in Bosnia is so strong that ‘you can feel it in the air,’ warns Aleksandar Vucic, the prime minister of neighbouring Serbia. It would take only a spark, he thinks, to ignite it.”
Recent mayoral and local council elections confirm the fact that identities in Bosnia-Herzegovina are hardening along nationalist lines. In these elections, on held 3 October 2016, Bosniak, Croat, and Serb nationalist parties thoroughly dominated their non-nationalist rivals. In Republika Srpska, Dodic’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats won 30% more municipalities than in the last election, and in the Muslim-Croat Federation, “nationalists won convincingly, even though more than 100 political parties contested the elections.” In the capital of Sarajevo, the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action won every electoral district for the first time ever, and voters in the majority-Bosniak town of Velika Kladusa elected a convicted war criminal, Fikret Abdic, as mayor.
With identities in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina as divided and institutionalized as they are, a spark leading to a conflagration could take several forms. The independence referendum promised by Dodic would certainly be such a spark. Another might be a religiously motivated terrorist attack. Although the Islamization of Bosnia-Herzegovina is nowhere near as stark as is believed in some parts of Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Croat heartland of Herzegovina, the combination of ethno-religious tension in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the relative proximity of the country to the Middle East, and the existence of Islamic terrorist groups wishing to strike at Western symbols could portend danger. It is easy to imagine a religiously motivated mass killing of Croatian Catholics or Orthodox Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The consequences of such an attack in terms of the escalation of violence between the country’s Christian and Muslim groups, however, are almost unimaginable. Finally, a period of political and economic crisis, like that experienced by Yugoslavia in the 1980s, could gradually raise the heat level to the point that a conflagration becomes likely.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Source: kremlin.ru)
In these dangerous conditions, the role of external actors is critical. In the 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors—especially Serbia and Croatia—were key contributors to both the outbreak of war and to the high level of human rights abuses characterizing it. Today, the situation looks significantly different. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, whose pro-Europe government was re-elected to a new four-year term in April 2016, has largely played a constructive role in Bosnia-Herzegovina, by opposing the recent referendum in Republika Srpska, for example. A key reason for this change in policy is Vučić’s stated goal of bringing Serbia into the European Union during his tenure. Croatia—already a European Union and NATO member—has also played a benign role in Bosnia-Herzegovina to the chagrin of some local Bosnian Croat leaders, who complain that they receive little to no support from Zagreb in what they see as their fight against domination by Bosniaks. This situation has occurred, they say, because Croatia has been “chained” by the West, forcing it to accept Western positions on Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though these are detrimental to Bosnian Croats.
The role of Western states and international institutions is ambiguous. On the one hand, prospective or actual membership for Balkan countries in Western institutions is likely to incentivize them to peacefully resolve any differences they may have. Croatia is currently a member of both institutions; Bosnia-Herzegovina has been extended a Membership Action Plan (MAP) by NATO, and the EU recently voted to allow its membership application to proceed; and Serbia, though uninterested in NATO membership, is making significant progress toward joining the EU, as already noted. On the other hand, the UN’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina has not played as active a role as it might have, declining to block Republika Srpska’s recent referendum despite having the power to do so, for example.
Russia has played an especially malevolent role in the country, and one that seems bent on destabilizing it. In contrast to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors and Western countries, who opposed the recent Bosnian Serb national day referendum and have largely shunned the Serb nationalism of Republika Srpska’s President Dodic, “Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, egged on Mr. Dodi[c], receiving him in Moscow on September 22nd.” And Russia’s activities in the Balkans have not been confined to support for Dodic as Russia is also attempting to rewrite the recent history of the region. As Gordana Knezevic notes,
It was Russia that vetoed the resolution proposed by Great Britain on the Srebrenica genocide. Russian media are actively contributing to the revisionist project with efforts to rehabilitate Milosevic, who died in custody in The Hague in 2006. Contrary to the evidence gathered by The Hague tribunal in the course of the unfinished trial, Milosevic is now being painted as a peacemaker and as someone who wanted only to save Yugoslavia, rather than the man ultimately responsible for the worst atrocities on European soil since World War II.
What Can Be Done?
View of Grbavica, a neighborhood of Sarajevo, approximately 4 months after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord that officially ended the war in Bosnia.
The renewal of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then, is no distant prospect. Indeed, the post-Dayton political structure—never meant to be a permanent fixture—has further divided and institutionalized three separate identities among the county’s citizens; this structure has provided ample fuel for a violent separatist conflict. The spark could come from a number of sources: contested elections, ethnic or religiously motivated violence, or an economic crisis are but three of several imaginable possibilities. Once a separatist conflict begins, whether it escalates to all-out war depends in great part on the role played by external actors. Whereas Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors—at least in part due to their membership or prospective membership in Western institutions—have played a fairly positive role, the wider Euro-Atlantic community has largely neglected the country, while Russia is actively attempting to destabilize it.
What can be done to prevent the outbreak of another war in Bosnia-Herzegovina? The place to start is with the identities of the three major groups in the country and the institutions that regulate interactions among them. The objective, which is admittedly highly aspirational, should be to work over time to build a sense of shared national identity in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, the distinct Serb, Croat, and Bosniak identities are not fixed and primordial, but rather—like identities everywhere—are subject to construction and reinterpretation over time.
And, as many scholars have shown, the state and its policies can play a significant role in that process of identity construction. Although the Yugoslav state was unsuccessful in its attempt to build an overarching Yugoslav identity, many of its contemporaries succeeded in changing the self-identification of the people they governed. Among these was the Soviet Union, which trimmed its official list of recognized Soviet nationalities from 188 in 1926 to 95 in 1959. This trimming was done to demonstrate the “drawing together” and “merging” of national groups that Marxist theory predicted and that the Soviet government claimed was underway. As one scholar has noted, even though these classifications “did not follow locally-recognized distinctions, the act of delimitation made difference ‘official,’ and as such it had very real effects.” The United States also changed the ways its citizens self-identified. Although citizenship in the United States has no ethnic dimension, the U.S. government still classifies people according to ethnic criteria, and these classifications have been shown to affect how people self-identify. Scholarship on ethnic categories in the United States has shown that, for example, a 1977 directive from the Office of Management and Budget, which “mandated the categories to be used by all federal departments and agencies when collecting and disseminating data on race and ethnicity,” defined racial and ethnic categories that “now serve, in slightly revised form, as the official ethnic and racial categories for American society at large.”
So the state and its policies can significantly affect the self-identification of the people it governs. Despite assumptions to the contrary, identities in Bosnia-Herzegovina are not so adversarial that conflict among them is inevitable; as already noted, there was no history of conflict between Serbs and Croats anywhere in the Balkans before the 1920s. Despite its violent nature, inter-ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia is a phenomenon of the 20th century, not one with ancient and deep historical roots.
Finally, despite claims to the contrary by some, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not an artificial state. Indeed, it has existed as a political and administrative entity since the Middle Ages and was administered as a separate unit by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires as well as by Yugoslavia. The perception of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “artificiality” comes from the focus in the Balkans on an ethnic definition of citizenship, but other European and North American states have successfully built national identities based upon civic, not ethnic criteria.
The process of constructing an overarching national identity in Bosnia-Herzegovina will not be a short or simple process, and the Bosnian government in its current form may not be able to achieve this goal. Instead, the construction of a single, civic national identity in Bosnia-Herzegovina will require extensive and long-term engagement by Western states and international institutions. To begin this process, some have argued for a “Second Dayton.” One of the reasons the Dayton Accords were successful is that the negotiating teams were sequestered with little to no media coverage, and all sides committed—after strong pressure from the United States—to remain in the negotiations until a deal was reached. A second round of negotiations of this type is probably necessary to restructure the constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina: something that is essential to the continued coherence of the state, but which the country’s political elites have been unable to do themselves. Indeed, legal scholar Edin Šarcevic has argued for a “deliberate suspension of the domestic political actors as the subjects of constitutional power, and their replacement by the ‘foreign factor.’ Over the past thirteen years, this factor has been the true bearer of internal sovereignty, and is responsible for the minimal reforms that have enabled the state to function.”
The constitutional structure that emerges from such an effort must provide mechanisms and incentives for elites to cooperate and for people to develop other identities that cut across rather than reinforce the existing Serb, Croat, and Bosniak identities. One way to do this is to modify the territorial structure of the state since the current division of the state into two ethnically defined entities serves to perpetuate rather than erode these distinctions in identity. As Ambarkov has noted, there are historical models of autonomy that focus on the protection of religious and socio-cultural identities without tying these to territory, which have been shown to work in the Balkans. So a shift away from territorial autonomy and toward non-territorial religious and cultural autonomy is a model that might hold promise.
Along with working to break down the divisions in identity within Bosnia-Herzegovina, bringing long-term stability to the country will require the cooperation of external actors. As noted, the international community will need to be extensively involved in the constitutional reform process. Closer to home, continued non-interference by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s neighbors, especially Croatia and Serbia, is crucial. To this point, encouraged at least in part by the conditionality of their processes for EU (for both) and NATO (for Croatia) membership, Zagreb and Belgrade have played mostly constructive roles. Continued meddling and attempts at destabilization by Russia are to be expected, since they cost Russia very little and serve to sow instability within Europe, a key Russian foreign policy goal of the last several years at least. But in the absence of the fuel for conflict provided by divided and institutionalized identities, external attempts at fomenting conflict will face significantly longer odds. Ending Bosnia-Herzegovina’s decades of ethnic strife and setting the country on a path to stability and resiliency is admittedly a daunting task, especially at a time when Europe faces so many other, more immediate problems. But failing to deal with the root causes of this strife now may set the stage for much larger and deadlier problems in the future.
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
 Reneo Lukic and Allen Lynch, Europe From the Balkans to the Urals: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 174.
 “Razvoj Privrednih Djelatnosti U SFR Jugoslaviji” (The Development of Business Activity in the SFR of Yugoslavia), internet resource at: https://www.znaci.net/00001/120_5.pdf, accessed 10 Oct. 2016.
OECD Economic Surveys: Yugoslavia (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, Paris, 1988), p. 9.
 Susan L. Woodward, Socialist Unemployment: The Political Economy of Yugoslavia, 1945-1990 (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1995), p. 377.
 Nikola Ambarkov, “Ottoman Millet System And The Political System Of Both Yugoslavias As Pre-Consociational Experience For The Macedonian And The Bosnian Multicultural Society”, in Iustinianus Primus Law Review 6:1 (2014), pp. 1-13.