Updated: May 18, 2022
Discursive Othering and Detrimental Nationalism: Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Slide Towards Ethnoreligious Conflict
Bosnia-Herzegovina is in shambles. The peace that the country has known since the end of the war in 1995 is under intense threat by the ongoing political crisis prompted by Serbian hypernationalist and separatist ambitions (Gadzo 2021b). This article places the recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina in their historical context and analyzes them through the lens of genocide theory so as to assess the prospect of a new ethnoreligious conflict.
The 1992-1995 Bosnian Genocide: Historical Background
During the Bosnian War which spanned the years 1992 to 1995, Serbian forces carried out a genocidal campaign against Bosnian Muslim civilians (Gadzo 2021c). Seeking to ethnically “cleanse” the country of non-Serbs, the Army of Republika Srpska led the killing of over 100,000 individuals and the assault, mass rape, and torture of countless more (Gadzo 2021c). In particular, the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, orchestrated by Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić, resulted in the death of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, even though the town had been declared a “safe area” by the United Nations (Gadzo 2021c). In November 1995, the United States and NATO brokered the Dayton Agreement, which signed the end of the war and established a single state made up of two autonomous entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (McGee 2021). Today, the country is headed by a three-member presidency – representing the Bosnian, Serb, and Croat nations – and a bicameral legislative body (McGee 2021). In addition, the Dayton Accords mandated the creation of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the European Union Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) – or ‘Operation Althea’ – to oversee the agreement’s civilian and military implementation (McGee 2021; Saric & Ruy 2021). In 2007, the International Court of Justice recognized the culpability of the Bosnian Serb army in executing a genocide against Bosnian Muslims (Gadzo 2021a). Yet, the notion of Bosnian genocide is still widely contested, with numerous nationalist Serb and international leaders engaging in genocide denial (Grebo 2020; Hadjari 2021). In the wake of the mounting ethnic tensions, the thought of a potential “return to the genocide of the 1990s” is a frightening prospect for the country’s two-million Muslim population (Harding 2021).
Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Current Political Crisis: Timeline of Events
Last July, High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina Valentin Inzko used his executive powers to pass a bill criminalizing the denial of the Bosnian genocide (Gadzo 2021; Hajdari 2021). Any individual participating in genocide contestation could be sentenced to prison for a duration ranging from six months to five years. This new legislation sparked a wave of condemnations and boycotting of state institutions by Bosnian Serb politicians (Kovacevic 2021; Niksic 2022), including Serb president Milorad Dodik who reiterated that “genocide did not happen in Srebrenica” following the announcement (Hadjari 2021). He added: “This is the final nail in the coffin of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Republika Srpska has no choice but to launch the process of dissolution” (Hadjari 2021). Since then, Dodik has embarked on a campaign to break away from the power-sharing arrangement and form a new Serb-led entity. The authority of the Office of the High Representative was rejected by Bosnian Serb leaders. In October, Dodik announced that Bosnian Serbs would withdraw from the national tax system and army and set up their own, a declaration which many interpreted as a move towards secession (Borger 2021; Latal 2021). He demanded that the Bosnian army leave Bosnian Serb territory, otherwise “friends” of the Bosnian Serb nation would have no choice but to take military action to remove them (Borger 2021). Later that month, Bosnian Serb security forces held ‘anti-terrorist’ drills in the ski resort at Mount Jahorina (Saric & Ruy 2021). The mountain is a site of collective memory for Bosnian Muslims – hundreds of civilians were shot down as they attempted to flee Serb violence during the 1992-1995 war (Borger 2021). Bosnian Serbs’ military exercises were thus perceived as a provocation (Rettman 2021). In December, Dodik commanded the Bosnian Serb parliament to launch the official pull-out of the Republika Srpska from the federal system of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Prothero 2022), a six-month long process which promises to engender a geopolitical upheaval in the Balkans. As a response, the United States imposed sanctions on Dodik for corruption (Niksic 2022) and use of “divisive ethno-nationalistic rhetoric” (Walker 2022). Dodik refuted the allegations and denounced the imperialist tendencies of Western countries. On January 9, several marches were organized by Bosnian Serbs throughout the country, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the declaration of independence of 1992 which had triggered the start of the Bosnian war and genocide (Gadzo 2022). Serb nationalists praised convicted war criminals in their songs and burned torches as they passed Bosnian Muslims’ homes (Gadzo 2022). With no regard for the outlawed status of this particular holiday, Dodik attended the festivities, accompanied notably by Russian ambassador Igor Kalabuhov, French right-wing European Parliament members Herve Juvin and Thierry Mariani, and war criminal Vinko Pandurevic (Prothero 2022). In the following week, demonstrations in support of Bosnian Muslims and in demand of a return to political stability took place in over fourteen countries (Gadzo 2022). In early February, the Republika Srpska approved a draft law proposing the formation of a new legal body which would be granted the authority to select judges and prosecutors (Sito-Sucic 2022). The unconstitutional creation of such an institution would effectively strip the current High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council from its judicial power, and in doing so, undermine Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens’ fundamental legal rights (Vutajovic 2022). Shortly after, the EU announced its intention to prevent the potential breakup of the country through an eventual imposition of sanctions, in the future (Cook 2022). On February 24, it increased the number of EUFOR peacekeepers in Bosnia from 600 to 1,100 “as a precautionary measure” (Latal 2022).
From Institutional Disintegration to Identity Polarization: The Prospect of a New Genocide
Moshman’s (2007) ladder of genocide provides a useful analytical tool to evaluate the political situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His model involves the existence of “four overlapping phases” leading up to genocide (Moshman 2007, 116): dichotomization, dehumanization, destruction, and denial. Dichotomization involves the differentiation and demarcation of an ingroup (‘us’) and an outgroup (‘them’). During this operation, the saliency of particular cultural markers is heightened – citizenship, ethnicity, language, ideology, and religion are among the features most often associated with national identity and belonging. Such a process is also referred to as ‘Othering,’ insofar as an existential ‘Other’ is constructed in opposition to the ‘Self’. The dichotomizing operation occurred decades ago in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their political imaginaries, the Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Muslim identities have been shaped in opposition to one another. In the 1990s, their respective national identifications were predicated upon ethnicity and religion. Today, an additional dimension has been supplemented – that of ideology. Indeed, Dodik is determined to fight an ideological war against the West in parallel of the ethnoreligious antagonism with Bosnian Muslims, resulting in the discursive and political conflation of the two disputes.
Dehumanization occurs when the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dichotomy is imbued with a power imbalance, insofar as members of the outgroup are categorized as lesser beings (Jensen 2011; Schwalbe 2000). In particular politically potent periods, “identities deemed inferior may be actively stigmatized or, in the extreme, dehumanized” (Moshman 2007, 121). The discursive, psychological, and institutional dehumanization of members of the outgroup provides the ingroup grounds for treating them less humanely (Todres 2009). In denying their personhood and subjectivity, the ingroup effectively excludes them from their realm of moral obligation, thereby legitimizing the use of violence against them – thereby giving way to the destruction and denial phases of the genocidal process. In the 1990s, the operationalization of dichotomies and the manipulation of an incendiary dehumanizing rhetoric eventually resulted in the systematic ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosnian Muslims. Serb extremists “labelled the Bosniaks as jihad fighters, mujahidins, janissaries, brothers in fez, whose final ambition was to turn Bosnia into a state modelled on the Qur’an, an Islamic fundamentalist state, or a Libya-style Jamahiriyah, in which non-Muslims would become slaves” (Velikonja 2003, 32). Bosnian Muslims were therefore constructed by Serbs as their fundamental Other – whose presence posed a threat to the very existence of the Serb culture and nation. As explained by Khan (1997), “by transgressing imagined national boundaries, European Muslims… embodied in their very being an existential problem which could only be solved through expulsion where practical, and extermination when not” (291-92). Importantly, the ethnoreligious Self/Other dichotomy still regulates today the social relations between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ever since the Dayton Agreement, a faction of hyper-nationalist Bosnian Serbs have been continuing to other Bosnian Muslims through symbolic and semantic acts. Recently, Dodik referred to Bosnian Muslims as “second-rate people” (Radovanovic, 2022), effectively categorizing them as inferior to Bosnian Serbs. The ongoing pull-out of the Republika Srpska from state structures marks the institutional actualization of the Self/Other dichotomy. The establishment of separate bodies indeed implies the production of a symbolic barrier between ‘us’ (Serbs) and ‘them’ (Bosniaks). Also, the expected formation of an exclusively Serb army would give Serb nationalists the military capacity to turn their presently symbolic violence against Bosnian Muslims into an armed confrontation. In addition, war criminals convicted for their participation in the genocide against Bosnian Muslims are still today praised in the Bosnian Serb collective memory and publicly celebrated. Despite the legal interdiction to glorify war criminals, separatist groups have on repeated occasions led marches (Prothero 2022) and organized the erection of commemorative plaques (Husaric & Dzaferagic 2022) in their honor. Furthermore, the recurrent denial of the 1992-1995 genocide by Serb politicians symbolically carries on the destruction of the Bosnian Muslim identity, by attempting to challenge their collective memory. Dodik has greatly participated in the dissemination of historicist interpretations of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s recent past, referring to the 1995 massacre as a “fabricated myth” (Niksic 2022) and arguing that the genocide “did not happen” (Hajdari 2021). Studied in isolation, these incidents seem arbitrary and inconsequential. But taken as a whole, they indicate the resurgence of an extreme (and potentially destructive) form of nationalism which threatens the social cohesion and political stability of the country, and might, in hindsight, constitute the first manifestations of a new genocidal move.
This is not to say that a genocide is in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s near future. It would be an over-simplification and an academic fault to label the current political crisis a genocide in the making. Rather, using a theoretical framework of genocide to examine the Bosnian Serb’s recent actions allows one to draw similarities between 1992-1995 and now, thus shedding light on the significance of the ongoing political crisis. The current events should be placed in a historical continuum of ethnic-based violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina that spans from issuing commemorating plaques for convicted genocide perpetrators to planning and orchestrating the deliberate extermination of the outgroup. In doing so, we can conceptualize the current politically divisive events as early signs of a potential reoccurrence of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The institutional disintegration of Bosnia-Herzegovina marks an unprecedented step toward a new civil war along ethnoreligious lines. The frightening prospect, however credible, of a new civil war and/or genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina should constitute motive enough for the EU to take preventive measures, especially considering their historical precedent of inaction. Undeniably, the breakup of Bosnia-Herzegovina would not only have far-reaching consequences for Bosnian citizens, but would also profoundly disturb the geopolitical order of the region.
Written by Céline Paré, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons
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