The Hijacked Narrative

During the past few weeks, people in Bosnia-Herzegovina are expressing a genuine concern and fear of a new war in their country. Nationalistic and aggressive rhetoric is filling the newspapers and air waves, including neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. How did it come to that after 20 years of peace?

The immediate catalyst for this fear is the political crisis surrounding a planned referendum by the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS). The RS is one of two entities making up Bosnia-Herzegovina as conceived in the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. The referendum, scheduled for September 25, one week before municipal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, aims to gather popular support for January 9 as the national holiday of the RS. The problem is that the Supreme Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina overruled a decision by RS institutions about the holiday in November 2015 and it found this referendum to be unconstitutional. The RS is determined to hold the referendum regardless of the Court’s decision and the majority opinion by the international community.

Another cause for higher tensions is a rather undiplomatic squabble between Serbia and Croatia raging for several months now. It has to do with the future, but also, more intensely with the past. Croatia blocked opening two new chapters in Serbia’s EU membership negotiations by demanding Serbia to drop its universal jurisdiction to prosecute war criminals, but the public exchange turned slowly to events from World War II. Needless to say, all three countries have more immediate concerns and issues to address, but fighting over the past is still a present-day political tool.

Historical shift

Amidst a multitude of very good analysis about the current events, it is worth a try examining the bigger picture and some rarely addressed roots and causes for this political crisis. First of all one should bear in mind that these countries are undergoing a significant historical shift – for the first time in centuries most of them are masters of their own faith, as one can be in the era of globalisation. Some of them are yet to determine their raison d’etre, their place in the world and a course for the future. The lack of this seemingly simple, but vital foundation is one of the causes for continued instability and uncertainty in the region. One of the manifestations is the attempt, especially in Croatia and Serbia, to erase the 45 years of Socialist Yugoslavia and any continuity from this period. Instead, the narrative is directed to fascist collaborators during World War II, if for no other reason than that they were exclusively Croatian or Serbian. The anti-fascist tradition of Yugoslavia with its indigenise armed resistance would in most European countries suffering Nazi occupation be a reason for pride.

Classroom battlegrounds

Another cause is the wars of the nineties and the way they were resolved. With individuals, political parties or interest groups from that time still in power or in control of the narrative about these conflicts, the societies in Croatia, more so in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are still locked in a war-time discourse and thus stuck in the recent past. Many analysts are of the opinion that the wars never ended, but continue to be fought out politically. What is fact, however, is that political elites use the past and their version of it to mask the dire economic situation instead of getting on with much needed reforms. This narrative is perpetuated in the media they control directly or indirectly, but it also found its way in the school history books. “The wars, their causes and developments, are presented literarily the same way as before their outbreak and course”, said Belgrade University professor Dubravka Stojanović. It is even worse in Bosnia-Herzegovina with no education system at the state level, but rather left to the entities. In effect, there are three ethnic curriculums. Although geography and algebra might not be in dispute, teaching history is another matter.

So, while people in their forties living in the Western Balkans may still have some perspective about the time before the last wars, everyone younger grew into maturity or is still going to school by being exposed to these narratives.

Vicious circle

Not everyone is taking this lying down, though. A group of students in the Bosnian town of Jajce protested for months not to be separated along ethnic lines, and since it is an election year, they won backed by public pressure – for now. Many international organizations and NGO’s have put a lot of effort during the past 20 years to change the nationalistic narrative, but it is a tough uphill battle, as it goes directly against the wishes of most of the political elites. For any significant shift it needs a top-down process, but it’s not easy to facilitate such a radical change. As time moves on, most politicians are caught in a vicious circle they helped to create. A lot of their political legitimacy is based on a nationalistic agenda. If some abandon it, their competition will exploit it as national treachery. Zdravko Krsmanović, a member of the Bosnian Serb coalition Alliance for Change, in opposition to the entity’s president Milorad Dodik, spoke openly regarding the above mentioned referendum: “We had to vote in favour of it, because they had already 44 votes ready in the Assembly. We would be portrayed as traitors taking orders from Sarajevo and it would ruin our chances in the election.”

Loosing its punch

This narrative has acquired a life of its own, because not only are politicians keeping it alive, it creates and keeps them alive as well. A progressive agenda can hardly be expected in the near future, since the old one seems to work so well for them. Yet, there is reason for hope, since this narrative is slowly losing its punch amidst economic hardship. It’s good enough to raise political tensions, but one can’t eat it. It will be up to a new generation of politicians to change course, but it will need a decade or two at least, as we know from other historic examples.

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