Back to the Beginning

Bosnian Elections Redraw Old Battle Lines

Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina went to the polls this Sunday, in a general election for the country’s presidency and entity parliaments. Bosnian Serbs also voted for their republic’s president, while voters in the Muslim-Croat Federation elected cantonal parliaments. Preliminary results indicate a surprise development on the Bosnian political scene. The mainstream Imperial media, however, continues to filter the results through a Manichaean lens of "nationalists" and "moderates," meaningless political categories that are, furthermore, applied erroneously.


Here are the facts of the election. The Union of Independent Social-Democrats (SNSD) swept the elections in the Serb Republic (RS), easily winning the presidency and a comfortable parliamentary majority. This is almost unprecedented in the postwar political history of the Bosnian Serbs. Furthermore, SNSD’s candidate Nebojsa Radmanovic easily won the race for the state presidency.

In the Muslim-Croat Federation, the main Croat party (HDZ) suffered a major setback when its candidate for president lost by a wide margin to a Croat from the Social-Democratic Party (SDP). It retained, however, its regional dominance in Croat-majority cantonal parliaments.

The biggest winner on the Muslim side was Haris Silajdzic, leader of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SZBiH) and the soi-disant "Patriotic bloc," who trounced his rival Sulejman Tihic of the formerly ruling SDA. Even though Silajdzic’s party still came second to SDA in elections for the federal parliament and cantonal assemblies, there is much significance to his triumph over Tihic – not least that Tihic was the chosen successor to both the presidency and party leadership after the death of Alija Izetbegovic.

The Manichaean Lens

Most Western media, however, presented the election as a watershed between "Bosnians" who favored "unification and Europe" and the evil Serbs who "supported separation."

Take for example UPI, which declared that "Bosnia’s Serb and Croat nationalists were leading in president ballot-counting Tuesday, while Muslims were favoring a unionist." (UPI was led to believe that HDZ’s candidate for presidency was winning.)

BBC correspondent Nick Walton (writing as a private citizen for an online forum) claimed that "The election results suggest a certain retreat of nationalism among the Muslim and Croat communities."

Ian Traynor at the Guardian thought that "Muslim and Croat seats went to politicians keen to build a unified country based on civil rather than ethnic rights."

Aida Cerkez-Robinson of the AP wrote that "Muslim Bosniaks [sic] and Catholic Croats supported politicians who want to unify the Balkan nation … while Serbs backing a candidate whose party advocates ethnic division."

It was the AP’s "context" paragraph, following the old lie of "200,000 dead," that perhaps exemplified the fatally false assumption of the Western press and the Empire about Bosnia:

"Muslim Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group, generally back a united country, as do their Roman Catholic Croat allies. Their ultimate hope is that Bosnia … will join the EU when its political and economic reforms are completed. But many Serbs still cling to beliefs that sparked the war – namely, that their half of the country can secede and become independent."

Their "Nationalists" and Ours

AP, of course, has it exactly backwards. It wasn’t the Serb desire for secession, but the Muslim desire for a centralized country, that caused the war. The Bosnian Croat branch of Croatia’s ruling party supported the Muslims as a tactical ploy to weaken the Serbs in the then-unresolved conflict in Croatia proper. But for years now, Bosnian Croats have been feeling the pain of being a minority in a Muslim-dominated "citizen state."

Nebojsa Radmanovic is a social-democrat candidate of a party that doesn’t have "Serb" in its name. Its leader, Milorad Dodik, was the first Western-sponsored prime minister of the Bosnian Serb Republic, then praised as a "moderate" and a "reformer." SNSD has not allied itself with either the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) – once led by Radovan Karadzic – or the Radicals, both routinely described as "hard-line nationalists" by the Imperial press. In fact, Dodik’s guest of honor at the party convention was Boris Tadic, the pro-Imperial president of Serbia.

However, since Dodik and the SNSD are strong defenders of the Dayton constitution and the Bosnian Serb Republic, and staunch opponents of the Muslim-favored policy of centralization, they are labeled "nationalists."

On the other hand, Haris Silajdzic is supposedly a "moderate" because he calls for a "single Bosnian nation." While the idea of a political arrangement blind to ethnicity and religion, where one man or woman equals one vote and all have the same political and civil rights, sounds swell on paper, in practice it is the smokescreen for the late Izetbegovic’s ideology of Muslim dominance. As the largest ethnic group in Bosnia (though Serbs are a close second), Muslims would naturally come to dominate any system based on a simple majority.

Had Bosnia’s three ethnic communities merely quarreled over distribution of territory, the 1992-95 civil war would have been much shorter, or may not have happened at all; it was Izetbegovic’s insistence on ruling all of Bosnia that started the war in the first place, and kept it going for so long. That idea, unfortunately, survived the Dayton Accords and is animating Haris Silajdzic even now.

The "Last Unexposed Nationalist"

Silajdzic owes his political career to the war. During the conflict, he was the foreign minister of the Izetbegovic government, traveling the world with demands for help against "aggression" and "genocide" in Bosnia. The man who originated most of the outrageous propaganda one-liners of the war ("40,000 Muslim women raped," "200,000 Muslims killed," etc.), Silajdzic has used his unquestionable talent for demagoguery to articulate a Muslim nationalist position through simple language of hate.

In his narrative, the mythical multi-ethnic Bosnia and its "Bosniaks" were innocent victims of Greater Serbian aggression and genocide, from which they heroically defended themselves without any outside help. The West had a moral obligation to support their Just Cause, but failed to do so because of "sympathies for Serb aggressors," which resulted in the evil, imposed Dayton agreement (never mind that Silajdzic was one of the principal negotiators in Dayton, drawing the maps alongside Wesley Clark and Richard Holbrooke). Dayton, avers Silajdzic, was a pro-Serb treaty that robbed the "Bosniaks" of military and political victory supposedly within their reach, and "rewarded aggression and genocide" by establishing the Serb Republic.

To anyone who actually knows anything about the Bosnian war, this is not merely absurd, but downright insane. But while Serbs and Croats have questioned their leaders’ actions since the end of the war, the Muslims have remained in a state of self-righteous anger, a misguided belief that theirs was the sole just cause in the war, that they deserved a unified Bosnia as their own nation-state. Izetbegovic’s choice of "Bosnia" for the Muslims national identity, and "Bosnian" for their official language – which, in truth, differs only slightly from the politically purged Croatian developed by the nationalists in Zagreb – implies Muslim ownership of the country, in which Serbs and Croats should accept their proper positions of subservient minorities. Any similarity with the relationship of Islam toward other faiths (convert, submit, or die), is purely coincidental… or is it?

One Bosnian reporter described Silajdzic in February 2000 as the "last unexposed nationalist" in Bosnia:

"Silajdzic’s nationalism is very skillfully packaged in a story of tolerance and multiethnicity … he had introduced into the language of the Bosniac [sic] nationalistic politicians the same post-totalitarian, humanistic speech that has dominated Western political thought as far back as 1945 and was completely adopted upon the collapse of the Soviet Union."

Even though he split from Izetbegovic in 1996 to form his own party, Silajdzic always aspired to succeed "Grandpa" as the "First of Bosniaks." His party was the junior partner in every postwar government, whether allied with the SDA or with the SDP. Earlier this year, he was able to muster enough political strength to assemble a coalition of political "leftovers" and defeat the proposed amendments to the Bosnian constitution. A major factor in Silajdzic’s political comeback was certainly the complete lack of retribution from the embarrassed Americans – authors of the amendments – which did not go unnoticed by Muslim voters. Nor did he exactly suffer from an endorsement by the religious leader of Bosnia’s Muslims, reis-ul-lema Mustafa effendi-Ceric.

Though the SDA still has a slim lead in the parliament and in cantonal governments, Silajdzic’s victory in the presidential poll means he will now be a senior partner in any coalition with Izetbegovic’s chosen successors, reversing their previous relationship and making him, indeed, the new "First of Bosniaks."

As Nedim Dervisbegovic of Reuters observed, the election "set the scene for test of strength between Silajdzic and those who want a single Bosnian nation and Dodik, who insists a federation of two mini-states is the maximum that can be expected."

Farce in the Margins

One other thing this election did was demonstrate how completely marginal the Bosnian Croats have become. After all the votes were counted and it became clear that the incumbent Ivo Miro Jovic of HDZ was routed by Zeljko Komsic of the SDP, Jovic refused to recognize Komsic’s victory, claiming he was not a "true Croat" and was elected by Muslim votes.

Not going into who may have appointed Jovic to judge anyone’s "Croat-ness," it is entirely possible that Komsic won because Muslim votes for him overwhelmed the Croat ones. There is no way to tell. The Federation’s electoral system does allow for that possibility, but Jovic wasn’t bothered by it before the election.

Marginalized as they may be, it would be a horrible mistake to underestimate the Bosnian Croats. They are still capable of tipping the scales between the Muslim integrationists and Serb autonomists, and it may well be up to them to decide the victor in that political struggle.

It’s Still 1991

Outside observers are trying to present the situation in Bosnia as a conflict between "nationalists" who "live in the past" and "democrats" who seek the future of EU and NATO. But the true conflict in Bosnia is between different nationalists – Serbs and Croats on one side, seeking autonomy from the central government, and Muslims on the other, seeking a strong central government they would control. In a sense, despite the horrors and devastation of war, despite the nearly 11 years of peace, in Bosnia it is still 1991, and the struggle for defining the country into or out of existence is nowhere near over.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.