Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia 30 years ago, on 5 April 1992. However, the referendum vote in favour of that decision was largely without the participation of the Bosnian Serb minority – around a quarter of Bosnia’s population.
Ominously, war had broken out between Croats and the Serb minority in neighbouring Croatia the previous year following the declaration of independence there. War followed too in Bosnia, and the concluding peace agreement formulated at Dayton in the US in 1995 didn’t overcome the nationalist and ethnic division – rather it was more entrenched than ever.
Today, with the war in Ukraine raging, there is speculation about its effect on the Balkans, and whether it will be a factor that will accelerate the break-up of Bosnia.
Judy Beishon looks at what happened in the Bosnia war and the lessons for today.
The war 30 years ago
The 1992-95 Bosnian war arose in connection with the collapse of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, which was controlled by a bureaucratic elite.
After initial progress on the basis of a Stalinist-type planned economy, the Yugoslav economy had descended into crisis by the 1970s, with workers suffering declining living standards. The introduction of elements of capitalism in an attempt to overcome the problems added to economic disruption.
The breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, in the absence of a socialist alternative to building a genuine workers’ democracy, opened the way to the restoration of capitalism.
Increasingly, to safeguard or develop their own status, wealth and privileges, the ruling bureaucrats were turning to promote nationalism as a way to secure themselves a social base and head off a revolt from below by fostering division. The leaders of most of the constituent republics saw a chance to break away from what was viewed as a Serb dominated Yugoslavia and also to follow the path of capitalist restoration seen in other eastern European Stalinist states.
Under the conditions of growing financial insecurity and poverty, the leaders, firstly in the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, and then in Croatia and Bosnia, gained an ear for their promises of improvement on the basis of breaking away from Yugoslavia.
However, the minority populations inside the six republics in the Yugoslav federation were thrown into fear of being discriminated against, or worse, of facing expulsion and violence.
The fear was justified. When Croatia moved towards independence, the Serb minority suffered discrimination rather than having its rights protected. That led to war. Then, when independence was declared in neighbouring Bosnia, which was a patchwork of Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim communities, war broke out there too.
The interventions of the world’s capitalist powers only worsened the polarisation, division and bloodshed. Whether they used diplomacy, sanctions, an arms embargo, the creation of so-called ‘safe havens’, or brutal bombardment of the Serb areas, none of it ended the war. The militias on the ground fought until their leaders viewed the potential for seizing more territory as mainly exhausted.
As well as a terrible death toll in the war, deliberate ‘ethnic cleansing’, together with people fleeing from the violence, created a capitalist Bosnia which, post-war, had a much greater separation between nationalities and ethnicities than before the war.
Serb, Croat and Muslim civilians had all been subjected to atrocities, but the Bosnian Muslims had suffered the highest death rate and were viewed by workers in many countries as the main victims. The name Srebrenica particularly sticks in people’s minds, due to the barbarity of Bosnian Serb forces killing around 8,000 Muslim men and boys just outside that town.
That, and other slaughters, led to calls internationally – including from many on the left – for the capitalist powers to send arms to the Bosnian Muslims. The imperialist powers had hypocritically imposed an arms embargo while, at the same time, Nato jets were sent to try to bomb the Bosnian Serbs into submission. The UN also intervened militarily under the guise of ‘peacekeeping’, with troops drawn from 42 countries.
It was certainly true that the Serb and Croat warlords were fighting to carve up Bosnia. While recognising that was the case, we in the Socialist Party also argued that the Bosnian Muslim elite was not fundamentally different in its aspirations. It was acting in its own interests by trying to extend its influence and profit-making opportunities, and not those of the Bosniak working class. The Bosnian Muslim elite also used nationalism in a divisive way, antagonising the Bosnian Serb and Croat minorities.
Arms sent into the hands of the pro-capitalist Muslim elite would inevitably be used in the class interests of that ruling layer, as it would have overall control of their use. So we didn’t call for the sending of arms to it, or for imperialist intervention in any other form, whether an embargo, sanctions or military action.
At the same time, we were not pacifists calling abstractly for ‘peace’. Those who did so were in reality calling for a deal between capitalist elites that would carve up Bosnia between them, as happened at Dayton. We called for the building of democratically run workers’ organisations that could both organise armed defence and make appeals against division at working-class level to the rank-and-file of the opposing militias. This was not being overly idealistic; today’s increasing tensions are precisely because such a movement hasn’t yet developed.
Had such organisations been present in Bosnia, we would have called for the sending of finance and weapons to them. Securing that objective would have required the intervention of workers’ movements internationally because the imperialist powers are only willing to send arms to regimes or forces that they believe will help serve their own interests – i.e. that will aid their exploitation of foreign markets, labour or natural resources.
They rightly fear that armed workers’ organisations might go beyond the objective of ending a war, to then pursue the task of removing the entire system of the capitalist warmongers and exploiters.
Dayton and since
The Dayton agreement rubber-stamped internal boundaries within Bosnia mostly corresponding with the territory that had been seized by each side. The country was declared to be intact and multi-ethnic but was effectively partitioned into two mainly self-governing parts: Republika Srpska (RS) and an unstable Muslim-Croat-led federation.
Those two entities were linked by a frail all-Bosnia government, with the highest political authority being an internationally imposed, foreign, High Representative with extensive powers. A Constitutional Court with nine judges was set up, three of them non-Bosnian and selected by an EU court, and two each for the Muslims, Serbs and Croats. One of the Serbs’ grievances is that the foreign judges, together with the Bosniak judges, can outvote any positions of the Serb judges, even when the Serb judges combine with the Croats.
Since Dayton, successive High Representatives have taken steps to increase the all-Bosnia state institutions based in Sarajevo at the expense of those in the two sub-entities – powers which RS is trying to reclaim.
Last year and this year, tensions have been mounting in Bosnia, with the background of one of the worst Covid-19 death rates in Europe relative to population size, and related economic turmoil. This follows years of anger in the population over poor living standards, inequality and corruption at the top of society.
The inability of capitalism in Bosnia to provide decent living standards for the overwhelming majority of people has continued to lay the ground for nationalist leaders to promote their own national or ethnic section of society over others. It serves to try to boost their standing, maintain their positions, and distract from the underlying cause of the mass discontent – the failings of the system that gives the ruling layer its profits and privileges.
Currently, right-wing nationalism is being whipped up by the Bosnian Serb regional government headed by Milorad Dodik. He has threatened to withdraw the Bosnian Serb entity RS from all-Bosnia institutions, such as the rudimentary army, judiciary and tax authority, to instead have separate Serb-run equivalents of them in RS. This would be in keeping with his stated threat to secede from Bosnia.
He stepped up that threat after a decision last July by the all-Bosnia High Commissioner to criminalise genocide denial, with genocide being defined by international and all-Bosnia authorities. This law was calculated to incriminate some of the RS leaders. Their response has included increasing military spending and marking the 30th anniversary of the RS in January 2022 with a paramilitary police parade in Banja Luka, the largest RS city.
The creep towards secession is still largely at the stage of preparation and propaganda and no doubt is linked to Dodik and Co trying to boost their popularity in the run-up to Bosnia’s October elections and also trying to avoid corruption investigations. However, the interferences of regional and international capitalist powers, and the actions of the various nationalist dominated authorities in Bosnia, are providing fuel for the RS to move further towards separation, and that is the trajectory.
Meanwhile, the whipping up of nationalism in RS has triggered ugly racist incidents by right-wing Serbs against Muslims, such as firing in the air near mosques when prayers are taking place.
At the same time, in Bosnia’s other component entity, the Muslim-Croat federation, the Croat leaders are in dispute with their Muslim (Bosniak) counterparts over the electoral system, arguments that are leading the Croat representatives in the same secessionist direction as the Serbs. October’s elections could become a further step on the road of centrifugal tendencies, as the Croats are threatening a boycott, which would trigger further turmoil.
In January 2022, following a call by the Netherlands-based campaign group Platform BiH, protest rallies against the Bosnian Serb secessionist threat took place in 13 European countries and in the US. Platform BiH was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying: “The secession of Republika Srpska would be a reward to the Serbs for ethnic cleansing and genocide against Bosniaks. Many fear the country is slipping back into divisions and conflicts.”
They argued that protesters “want the EU and the USA to act in time, preventively, not reactively like in the 1990s”, and even added: “Although the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia has the power to remove any politician who violates the constitution, current High Representative Christian Schmidt has so far avoided doing so even though Dodik has repeatedly broken the law.”
Along similar lines, the conflict analysis and advice organisation, International Crisis Group, has called on the EU to “seek to dissuade Serb separatists … by threatening to impose harsh sanctions on any leaders and businesses who take major steps in the direction of secession, such as re-establishing a Bosnian Serb army or rejecting the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court”.
These illusory ‘solutions’, though, would help push events towards the opposite of their intended outcome. They would also be counter-productive for the western capitalists’ interests by driving the Bosnian Serb leaders and population closer to the influence of Russia and China.
Socialists must have a very different, class-based standpoint. While the world’s imperialist powers – globally or regionally – often do try to head off conflicts, that doesn’t stem from humanitarianism, but rather is aimed at maintaining a level of stability to protect their own interests.
They express only muted concern over the Kurds’ suffering following Nato member Turkey’s invasion of Afrin in Syria, as they don’t view it as in their interests to take it up forcefully. Nor do their interests always lie in preventing countries from breaking apart, as the recognition of Kosovo by many governments showed.
Also, the imperialist powers themselves are often the underlying propelling force behind the conflicts in the first place, arising from them competing among themselves for influence and profit-making opportunities in smaller countries like those in the Balkans.
As capitalism is based on nation-states there is no international law or sanctions (which, by the way, the US applied on Dodik in January) that can stop capitalist elites from resorting to military action if they see it as in their interests to do so.
Another important point for socialists is that ‘unity’ within the boundaries of a capitalist state shouldn’t be imposed on any group or nationality. Instead, their right to self-determination must be recognised. Borders in the Balkans, as everywhere, have not been decided democratically, but by edicts of rulers.
As Lenin, a key leader of the 1917 Russian revolution explained, countering division between peoples cannot be done by advocating any coercion in relations between them. They should be free to democratically decide their own future and, on the basis of transforming society to socialism, can then choose to link up with other peoples in a voluntary federation.
Under present conditions, is a new Bosnian war approaching? The 1992-95 war arose from a particular set of conditions connected with the dissolution of Yugoslavia.
Today Bosnia Herzegovina has more territorial separation between the different ethnic, religious and national sections of society than it did then; it has no large-scale armed forces, and emigration has been used as an outlet for a substantial number of its people. The trajectory is towards break-up, but even that doesn’t inevitably mean outright war.
However, military conflict can erupt again in the future, especially as a result of interference from regional or international powers. The only way of surely preventing it is through the working-class building its own organisations and adopting a socialist programme for the removal of capitalism.
Last year, protests in Bosnia included a march in Sarajevo against the government’s abysmal and corrupt Covid pandemic response; a protest of hundreds of health workers in Mostar over pay; a stoppage and demonstration by thousands of coal miners against planned cuts to jobs and wages; and a protest of thousands in Banja Luka against the Bosnian Serb government. There have also been significant protest movements in other Balkan countries, including Slovenia and Albania.
When those protesters move to reject any trust in pro-capitalist leaders of any stripe and instead organise democratically in workers’ interests, the prospect of a new future will open up, one free from poverty, division and war.