Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Religion

BOSNIA: Not at Peace With Itself

Zoltán Dujisin

SARAJEVO, Jul 16 2009 (IPS) - Apart from sporadic civil society initiatives, Bosnia has attempted little by way of inter-ethnic reconciliation.

Bosnia is today a federation divided into an overwhelmingly Serbian Republika Srpska (RS) and a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose ten cantons are mostly divided along ethnic lines between Croats and Bosniaks.

The institutional set-up is the result of a civil war from 1992 to 1995, which involved Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, and claimed over 100,000 lives.

For decades living in harmony, politicians have now discovered the usefulness of ethnic difference as a way of attracting votes. Ethnic imperatives have dominated state activity since the end of the war.

A 2003 survey suggested that 37 percent of Bosnians never or rarely have contact with members of other ethnicities, whereas 75 percent did not trust members of other ethnic groups.

A majority of Bosnian citizens would not accept a family member marrying someone from another ethnic group.

Political parties are led by the same religious, political and intellectual elites that were involved in the war, and they strictly represent existing ethnic divisions with little cross-voting registered.

“It’s hard to live in a country with different histories, different truths. There is some mixing, but still we are a split society, much more than in the past,” Emir Kovacevic, coordinator for the Inter-religious Council in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an organisation which promotes discussions between local religious communities told IPS.

“Many people don’t see the need for reconciliation, and people react very emotionally to discussions,” he says.

Civil society initiatives remain unpopular, and civic actors, often fragmented along ethnic lines, respond more to international donors and their priorities than to local needs.

“Reconciliation will be a long process, but there is no serious effort already started; projects have no impact on society,” says Kovacevic. “The government should initiate the process and other sectors, including religious communities, should then participate.”

Ideas of religious tolerance, so real in the past, are seen as naïve and idealistic nowadays, and religious leaders often play a divisive role.

While constitutionally Bosnia and Herzegovina is a secular state, the Muslim, Christian Orthodox and Catholic religious communities still exert strong influence in politics, supporting candidates of their own communities.

“You see religious leaders advocating for some political parties,” says Kovacevic. “There is financial support to religious communities from political parties.”

A thorny issue persists, he says, over “war criminals, whom religious leaders sometimes do not clearly condemn and take distance from. In some celebrations posters of war criminals are exhibited; it is a great disappointment for the country and it is harming religious communities.”

While most parties only point to war crimes committed by others while concealing their own, there have been some encouraging steps. One came in 2004 with Dragan Cavic, former president of the RS, admitting to Serb war crimes in Srebrenica.

Ethnic divisions are felt from top to bottom in Bosnia: appointments in state institutions often follow ethnic considerations, and there are almost no inter- ethnic party coalitions.

The media, strictly divided along ethnic lines, often low in professional standards, and under control of political power, have also fuelled ethnic dissent.

Education also reflects ethnic divisions, with 14 different ministries dealing with an education system that continues to reproduce nationalist myths.

Exclusion comes through schools’ choice of textbooks, and affects above all the Roma, of whose children only 15 percent attend schools.

“We have a serious problem with schools, there is a strict division of children. If you have a classroom that represents society, that’s good education, but what we have is often two schools under one roof, each with its own language, history and culture,” says Kovacevic.

In the aftermath of the conflict most Serbs and Croats wanted to secede from Bosnia, but nowadays no ethnic group shares that aim.

Most Bosniaks would prefer a unitary state with a strong central government, whereas Serbs tend not to identify with the Bosnian state, and push for further self-governance.

Bosniaks tend to consider RS institutions illegitimate. Mustafa Ceric, head of the Islamic community, once went as far as calling for Bosnia to become a nation state of the Bosniak majority.

On the other hand, Kosovo’s independence from Serbia last year caused uproar in the RS, with its Prime Minister Milorad Dodik suggesting a referendum for independence of the region.

On the positive side, radical nationalist marches and attacks on returnees, churches or mosques have diminished, with inter-ethnic violence mostly finding expression in football matches.

There has been a substantial number of refugees returning, and the number of Bosnians who fear a renewed war in case of an international withdrawal came down from 40 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2006.

Practically all war refugees have seen their property restitution cases closed, although in many cases local authorities place obstacles to actual restitution.

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