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Recapitulating Yugoslavia: Culture, Politics, and State-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Recapitulating Yugoslavia: Culture, Politics, and State-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Originally published in July 2009, this brief argues that it is time that the international community paid greater attention to reforming formal and informal institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it continues to seek to create a true liberal democracy.
Originally published in July 2009, this brief argues that it is time that the international community paid greater attention to reforming formal and informal institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it continues to seek to create a true liberal democracy.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Sep 27, 2010
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Wider Europe

July 31, 2009

Policy Brief
Recapitulating Yugoslavia: Culture, Politics, and State-Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina
by Douglas Davidson1
Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation. - Ernst Renan The history of politics in Yugoslavia between 1919 and 1941 can be under stood in terms of a succession of exclusions, withdrawals and attempts to redefine the terms of reference of political life, rather than constructive engagement with issues which were common to a community whose boundaries, interests and rules of political conduct were agreed. - John B. Allcock In December 1995, diplomats assembled in London for a Peace Implementation Conference to discuss the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There, they set this goal for themselves: The establishment of new political and constitutional arrangements for Bosnia and Herzegovina that would bring the country together within a framework of democracy and the rule of law. More than 13 years later, this goal remains elusive, if only because it requires the willing cooperation and collaboration of the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also requires proper democratic governance. Both still seem largely absent. In his book, Political Order in Changing Societies, the late Samuel Huntington perhaps explained why: “The most important political distinction

Summary: Ever since the war in the former Yugoslavia came to an end, the international community has sought to establish new political and constitutional arrangements for Bosnia and Herzegovina that would bring the country together within a framework of democracy and the rule of law. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina suffers, as it has throughout the postwar period, from a lack of consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, and stability in its political life. This deficiency is impeding its transition to liberal democracy. In many ways Bosnia and Herzegovina resembles a mini-Yugoslavia. “Ethnonationalism” dominates not just the country’s constitution but also its governance and its culture. Because of this it cannot truly become a liberal democracy until its governance and its political institutions begin to function properly and in the interests of all its citizens. Because democracy is more than just a set of formal institutions, it is time that the international community paid greater attention to reforming both kinds of institutions—formal and informal—in Bosnia and Herzegovina as it continues to seek to create a true liberal democracy in that troubled country. 1744 R Street NW Washington, DC 20009 T 1 202 745 3950 F 1 202 265 1662 E info@gmfus.org

among countries concerns not their form of government but their degree of government. The differences between democracy and dictatorship are less than the differences between those countries whose politics embody consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, stability, and those countries whose politics is deficient in those qualities.” Bosnia and Herzegovina’s politics is deficient in almost all those qualities. This deficiency is impeding its development as a liberal democracy, the creation of which is the larger purpose of the international presence that has now lasted nearly 14 years. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina has all the trappings of democracy—too many perhaps—but form and substance are not necessarily the same thing. As Christopher Coyne, in his book, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, explains: “… ‘democracy’ is often confused with ‘liberal democracy.’ Democracy deals with the method of selecting government officials, while liberal democracy deals with the goals of government: the protection of individual rights, the rule of law, and so on. In the absence of constitutional liberalism, democracy will not necessarily yield the desired results as defined by U.S. foreign policy objectives… Although politicians and policymakers often state the end goal of reconstruction efforts as ‘spreading democracy,’ what

Ambassador Douglas Davidson is a visiting distinguished fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of GMF.

Wider Europe

Policy Brief
they implicitly mean is the establishment of liberal democratic institutions along Western lines—if not in specific design then at least based upon Western principles. The difference is more than semantics. Compared to establishing a lasting liberal democracy, holding elections is relatively easy. During U.S.-led occupations, elections have been held in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. However, it remains far from clear that these countries would be classified as self-sustaining liberal democracies.” Why is Bosnia and Herzegovina not yet a self-sustaining liberal democracy? Surely it is not for lack of effort, time, and money. The United States alone has spent more than one billion dollars in development assistance there over the past 14 years. But it could be because, in its efforts to build a liberal democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the international community has not spent enough of its time, money, or efforts on some important elements of such a democracy. One of these is political institutions. Another is culture in its broadest sense. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a state divided, like Caesar’s Gaul, into partes tres. Its constitution recognizes three constituent peoples plus “others” and privileges, as literary critics and social scientists would say, the former over the latter. The leaders, if not the members, of these three groups exhibit varying degrees of commitment to their common state. The language many of these leaders employ in political and public debates has prompted constant demands from the international community that they eschew “nationalist and divisive rhetoric” as well as attempts to challenge the authority of the High Representative and the constitutional structures and procedures agreed at Dayton. Many of these calls seem to have fallen on deaf ears, for such rhetoric and such challenges continue to occur regularly. Americans believe by and large in “civic nationalism,” which holds that everyone who lives within the borders of a state is part of the nation, whatever their race, ethnicity, or religion. Americans also believe by and large that Bosnia and Herzegovina should adopt such a form of nationalism—a belief that is at the heart of the international intervention in the country. Too many Bosnian and Herzegovinians, by contrast, seem to prefer another variety of nationalism, “ethnonationalism,” instead. The basis of this kind of nationalism is the belief that to be a nation means to share a common language, faith, and ancestry. With this comes the conviction that each nation ought to have its own state—a belief that contributed to the break-up of Yugoslavia. Benedict Anderson, the author of the influential book, Imagined Communities, has argued that nationalism, like nationality itself, is a “cultural artifact.” Ernest Gellner, another influential author on the subject, has posited a specifically Eastern or Balkan nationalism, in which the rapid transformation of a peasant culture into a literate culture laid the foundation for “ethnonationalism.” Many contemporary authors on nationalism, of which there seems to be no lack, contend that nationalism itself arose in the 19th century—and in particular that it sprang from 19th century German romanticism. But it may be older than that. According to the British classicist Sir Maurice Bowra, the Greek historian Herodotus once defined the criteria for being a Greek as follows: “common descent, language, religion, and culture.” If you were to ask a Serb or a Croat or a Bosniac in Bosnia and Herzegovina today what makes one a Serb or a Croat or a Bosniac, you would probably get a similar response. It is arguable that three of the four factors Herodotus mentions— descent, language, culture—are to a great extent common to the three South Slavic constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina, though not many will admit this at the moment. But Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, a book that has perhaps proved more controversial than the work quoted above, makes this observation, which applies very well to Bosnia and Herzegovina today: “People define their identity by what they are not.” He goes on to say: “People do not live by reason alone… In times of rapid social change established identities dissolve, the self must be redefined, and new identities created. For people facing the need to determine Who am I? Where do I belong? religion provides compelling answers… In this process, people rediscover or create new historical identities.” As if to prove his point, villages and towns in those parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina with mixed ethnic populations have in recent years sprouted large crosses in order to prove that they are Croat areas. Similarly, in the eastern part of the country brand new Orthodox churches abound. Sarajevo today has more mosques than ever—perhaps more than a hundred in a city whose population is now mainly, if still in many cases nominally, Muslim. All these serve as markers of identity and boundary. Where it once had only one, today, the country also has three official languages— Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. That they remain mutually intelligible makes them no less distinct in the minds of those who argue that they are separate tongues spoken by distinctly different peoples. The three constitutive peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina are also rediscovering or creating new historical identities. Because schools, newspapers, and television broadcasters divide along ethnic lines, the means to create these new historical identities are readily at hand. This is not a new phenomenon, either. Before the war, political leaders in Yugoslavia, seeking to bolster their power and increase the territory under their control, used the mass media to spread fear and to call their people to arms. During the war, schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina began to split along national lines.


Wider Europe

Policy Brief
Schools and universities, arts and culture, and the mass media were the very institutions that Titoist Yugoslavia once used to create bratstvo i jedinstvo—brotherhood and unity—and a sense of Yugoslavian identity. Andrew Baruch Wachtel, in his book Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation, discusses the four ways that the partisans of Yugoslavia attempted to advance their idea of national unity: linguistic policy; the promulgation of a Yugoslav literary and artistic canon; educational policy, particularly relating to the teaching of literature and history; and the production of new literary and artistic works that incorporated a Yugoslav point of view. Nationalist communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, having clearly learned the lessons of the recent past, are now employing these same means to advance their particular and narrower concept of “national” unity. In this way, they are doing their own version of nation-building, which is working directly against the international community’s attempts to build a stable and cohesive state in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. Culture, in other words, counts. In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is, in effect, counting backwards, working against attempts to build a “liberal democracy.” As Christopher Coyne notes: “In his analysis of Central and Eastern Europe, the economist Svetozar Pejovich concluded that the transition from communism to capitalism is not merely a technical issue. In other words, the same expenditure of resources in different transition efforts will yield different outcomes. Similar reasoning applies to the case of reconstruction. Why is this the case? To borrow a phrase from Pejovich, ‘It’s the culture, stupid.’ ...From this viewpoint, a society’s culture is the existing array of values, customs, traditions, belief systems, and other mores passed from one generation to the next. By this definition, culture is an ‘informal institution,’ which means that it is not formally mandated but coexists with formal institutions such as constitutions and written laws… Culture constrains the actions of individuals and the various organizational forms that individuals can achieve within a given set of political institutions. In other words, the creation of a wide array of organizations— political groups (parties, councils, senates), economic bodies (families and firms), and social bodies (associations)—will be constrained by the existing endowment of culture… Culture is perhaps the greatest constraint on reconstruction efforts… In other words, controllable variables matter, but only up to a point. The same level of resources—monetary aid, troops, organization of elections, and so on—as was invested in West Germany and Japan in 1945 will generate a drastically different outcome in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2005. This is due to the fact that these countries have different endowments of culture—capital and knowledge that constrain the effectiveness of these resources.” Democracy is, as Coyne suggests, more than just a set of “formal institutions”—elections and parliaments and government ministries. It also consists of the culture that informs and guides these institutions. Bosnia and Herzegovina has unfortunately inherited from Yugoslavia the conviction, which is embedded in its constitution and its governing structures, that individual rights are a function of “national” rights. Bosnia and Herzegovina is thus still a constitutional republic composed of three constituent peoples or nations, where group rights take precedence over individual. Attempts to alter this through constitutional changes have not succeeded. The Dayton settlement, which reified if not ratified the notion of territory as contiguous with ethnicity, along with postwar population shifts, have only strengthened this notion. This was, ironically, more or less the goal of those who prompted the war in the first place. Nevertheless, the process of ethnic homogenization is not complete and may never be. Even if it is, within its internationally-recognized borders Bosnia and Herzegovina will still remain a multi-national and multi-confessional, though not really a “multicultural” state. The key to building a Bosnian-Herzegovinian state whose politics embody consensus, community, legitimacy, organization, effectiveness, and stability—a state, in other words, ready to join such bodies as the European Union and to strengthen regional security—lies in changing the way the people who inhabit the country think about the country they inhabit. The key, in other words, is to encourage a sense of “Bosnian” identity or at least a common commitment to making the country’s common institutions function in everyone’s interest. Today, this sense and this commitment is hard to find. Susan Woodward has claimed that, just before the war broke out: “All the evidence suggested that there was majority support for a Bosnian identity and survival, from public opinion polls on the constitutional debates up to 1990, the civic initiatives, editorial policy in leading mass media, intellectuals’ projects for a Bosnia based on individual citizenship and rights, and antiwar rallies in the fall of 1991 and March-April 1992…” But she also notes that “… in contrast to the other republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina had no political force to represent the republic as a whole against outsiders or its idea of multicultural identity and civilization, any more than Yugoslavia itself had.” Attempts to build such a political force, which normally go under the rubric of “civil


Wider Europe

Policy Brief
society,” have gone on ever since war’s end. The German Marshall Fund of the United States, through grants issued by its Balkans Trust for Democracy, is still attempting to do so, as are the United States Agency for International Development, the European Commission, and many others. Even the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has an entire department dedicated solely to “democratization,” has been trying its best to create some semblance of such a civil society since war’s end as well. Over time considerable sums of money have gone into these efforts. At the moment, it is difficult to argument that the benefits have justified the cost. This is not to say, as many do, that civil society does not exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It does, though perhaps not in the forms in which the organizations listed above and many others would like to see it. Victims groups of all kinds, for instance, are active and influential. The amount of the budget of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that goes to disabled war veterans, which seems now to be a fairly fluid concept, is considerable. Like politicians everywhere, those in Bosnia and Herzegovina listen to and respond to wellorganized interest groups. The money they appropriate follows. Unfortunately such groups do not encourage a more robust and cohesive democratic state. They contribute to its fragmentation instead. This suggests that it may be time for the international community to shift its focus in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even as development agencies and non-governmental organizations continue to try to build civil society, most international organizations and bilateral embassies continue to deal mainly with leading political figures, whose positions as heads of political parties, which tend to be contiguous with national groupings, often outweigh in importance their positions, if indeed they have any, in government. It may be time for these international political actors—or their development arms—to concentrate on the workings of political institutions with the same intensity. After all, formal institution-building is largely complete. Although the country still lacks a unified police force, it has a many institutions that Dayton did not create—ministries, a state court, even a single armed forces and defense ministry—and thus most of the necessary trappings of a modern liberal democratic state. But Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot progress without political institutions that function well. To achieve such a state will probably require outside players to devote more attention not just to building institutions but also to seeking to ensure that the ones they have built work as they are supposed to. Bosnia and Herzegovina does not need more governance, but it certainly needs what Huntington calls a greater degree of governance. Such a thing may also require greater attention to the building blocks of national culture—the way schools teach literature and history and religion and even geography as well as kind of news that even the publicly-funded broadcasters are disseminating. There is ample evidence that nationalism can be overcome and even reversed in this way. As Professor Wachtel notes: “It is certain… that no one at the turn of the nineteenth century would have identified him or herself as a Yugoslav, whereas studies in the 1960s showed that the majority of the country’s citizens held some form of Yugoslav national identity.” Clearly, the cultural means that Yugoslavia used create this national consciousness worked—for a while at least. Wachtel’s book traces the way in which the steady devolution of cultural and educational policy to the republics in the end diminished this sense of Yugoslavianness and thus fostered and even hastened the break-up of Yugoslavia. We should probably try to avoid repeating that experience another time in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Douglas Davidson, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, GMF
Douglas Davidson comes to GMF from four years as head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. A career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, his previous assignments include the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, the White House as an assistant press secretary for foreign affairs in the administration of President George H. W. Bush, and the State Department’s Senior Seminar, a year-long executive leadership and management training program. He has lately amassed extensive experience in the Balkans, which include several visits to war-time Sarajevo in 1994 and 1995; assignments to the American embassies in Zagreb and Belgrade; and service as the first director of the Department of Media Affairs of the newly established OSCE Mission in Kosovo, which formed part of the UN Interim Administrative Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and, concurrently, the province’s first Temporary Media Commissioner.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.


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