April 12, 2001

A House Divided

Nine years and a week ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was recognized as an independent state – an event which triggered the escalation of violence and plunged that former Yugoslav republic into a spiral of civil war from which it has yet to recover.

During the 1,326 days of the war, Serbs fought Muslims and Croats; Muslims fought Serbs, Croats and other Muslims; while Croats first fought Serbs, then Muslims, then Serbs again. It was in November 1995 that the war officially ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement, negotiated – in the absence of a more accurate word – at the Wright-Patterson US Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.

Under the DPA, Bosnia was to have a weak central government joining the two "entities": the Serb Republic [Republika Srpska] and the Muslim-Croat Federation [Federacija], also known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just the terminology has caused much confusion since, as the Republic and the Federation were merely parts of the State, not states themselves – not to mention that the State was under military occupation of NATO and "oversight" of the UN High Representative. And now, five years and four months after the DPA was signed, something is rotten again in the State of Bosnia. Or more specifically, the Federation…


In the country-wide elections last November, the Social-Democratic Party of Bosnia (SDP) won the plurality of votes in the Federation. It then formed a coalition with several smaller parties and the Muslim-dominated Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SzBiH), which gave it a majority necessary to form a government. Under the new voting rules, that also gave the newly formed coalition the right to appoint candidates from its rolls to fill positions of power in the Federation – Croat, as well as Muslim. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the dominant Croat political party, had won most of the Croat popular vote, only to see its representatives disenfranchised by the SDP-SzBiH coalition. The reaction was swift.

On February 28 this year, HDZ’s representative in the three-man Presidency declared that the Federation was dead. "From today the federation is a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) national entity, but without Croats," said Ante Jelavic [Yelavich], quoted by Reuters. "These authorities in Bosnia are illegal, illegitimate." Three days later, the HDZ called a Bosnian Croat convention and declared the establishment of an "an inter-regional council as a form of Croatian autonomy."

The reaction was swift. Office of the High Representative (OHR) dismissed Jelavic’s statement as the "usual extremist nonsense." Jelavic and other Croat officials were sacked from office by the HR, Austria’s Wolfgang Petritsch, and banned from political life. Croat officials loyal to the SDP-SzBiH coalition immediately ordered Croat police and soldiers not to follow orders issued by HDZ officials prior to their sacking.

By early April, however, the Federation government acknowledged that Croat soldiers had deserted en masse, and that many police followed suit.


On April 6, the anniversary of Bosnia’s recognition and the beginning of the civil war, OHR’s auditors zeroed in on Hercegovacka Bank, a financial institution with close ties to the HDZ, and tried to seize control of its branches. For an entire day, soldiers of NATO-dominated SFOR (Stabilization Force) fended off attacks of angry Croats, who even took some auditors hostage at a branch in Grude, a major center of HDZ activity. Others were trapped in Mostar as well, but were subsequently extracted by SFOR armored vehicles. Over twenty people were injured, most of them SFOR soldiers.

HDZ called the action an "armed robbery." Jelavic himself blamed SFOR and OHR for initiating violence, and renewed his pledge to secure Croat rights. Some international officials blamed SFOR for the violence as well, describing the soldiers’ behavior in the bank seizure as a "disaster."

Within a day, SFOR had moved into barracks abandoned by Croat troops and seized their arms depots, attempting perhaps to prevent the crisis from escalating into a shooting war. The crisis threatened to deepen this past weekend, when war veterans in Croatia proper threatened to blockade SFOR’s resupply convoys. The attempt was foiled by Croatia’s pro-NATO government, which is extremely hostile to the HDZ.


There are no signs the crisis is ready to disappear, however. In the riots’ aftermath, the HDZ proceeded with grassroots organization of its autonomous region, while the OHR braced for further clashes and threatened new sanctions. Rejecting the HDZ’s offer of negotiations, Petritsch said he would "not hold any dialogue with extremists who use violence," continuing that neither he nor NATO would "tolerate mob rule." He was backed up by US Ambassador Thomas Miller, who said HDZ leaders "used their political power to cover [their] criminal activities," and that Jelavic’s insistence on autonomy was "all about money."


One can hardly blame the US Ambassador for making such a comment. He is certainly conditioned by the US policy to believe that all of Bosnia’s problems can be solved through money and force, when applied appropriately. Some of the facts support his theory as well: Bosnia’s rulers have consistently plundered state coffers over the past decade, siphoning off international aid, tax money and charitable donations and using them for personal gain. Izetbegovic’s regime alone was accused of embezzling $1 billion by the New York Times in August 1999.

Western Herzegovina, where the HDZ enjoys most support, is one of the richest regions of the country, though the poorest in resources. It sits on top of major trade routes into the Bosnian hinterland, and its almost entirely ethnically Croat population has grown rich on both legal and illegal trade. HDZ’s political influence certainly brought in its share of wealth. Even during the war, Croat merchants rarely allowed the fighting to interfere with business, often trading with both Muslims and Serbs right on the frontlines.

Given all that, it would be very tempting to dismiss Croat protests as discontent with losing a shady, but lucrative source of income. And yet, as it often is the case in Bosnia, things are a bit more complicated.


OHR’s sacking of their duly elected officials certainly provoked some justifiable ire among the Croats. The international governor’s growing powers have made Bosnia into a virtual colony of the UN and NATO, with OHR having the final say in all legislative, judicial and even administrative matters in the land. The current flag and national anthem were imposed by an OHR decree. Ditto the license plates on vehicles, designed to be the same across the country, so as not to point to ethnic identity of the vehicle’s owner. Many laws have been simply rammed through the State Parliament, which did not even get the chance to rubber-stamp them. OHR censors the media, and even the content of schoolbooks, in order to make them "inoffensive" and politically correct. Finally, many powers of the "entities" have been transferred to the central government, from issuing passports to customs control. With so much power in the hands of the foreigners, many Bosnian citizens can rightfully wonder what role their local authorities serve – merely to suck up money collected through obscenely high tax rates, perhaps?

Text-only printable version of this article

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, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


It could be that the international occupiers are aiming for just such a response. Because of its peculiar structure, Bosnia does have a mammoth bureaucracy, far larger than its near-nonexistent economy is able to support. Centralization would certainly make much sense from a purely economic point of view – that is, if Ambassador Miller were right and it really was just about the money.

But it isn't.

One could argue quite strongly that the fear of centralization was one of the driving forces behind Bosnia’s civil war. While a part of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was relatively stable. The slight numerical superiority of the Muslims was balanced by influences from Serbia and Croatia. Serbs and Croats both feared Muslim dominance in case Bosnia became independent.

This was especially acute given that the Muslim leader at the time, Alija Izetbegovic, had achieved notoriety by authoring the Islamic Declaration – a booklet claiming that Muslims ought to live in a religious state, incompatible with Western-style civic democracy. Izetbegovic and his SDA party championed the idea of a unified, centralized Bosnia. His government claimed to be the only legitimate authority in the country. They even changed their people’s name from "Muslims" [Muslimani] to "Bosniaks" [Bosnjaci] and elevated the dialect they spoke to a "Bosnian" language, all to better stake their claim to all of Bosnia as their nation-state. In line with this philosophy was Sarajevo’s ludicrous wartime claim that the conflict was not a civil war, but rather an invasion by Serbia.

The Serbs had been fighting against such a trend since 1992. Croats, reluctantly aiding Izetbegovic at first, decided to protect themselves from his integrationist ideas in 1993. That is when their self-proclaimed Herzeg-Bosnia [Herceg-Bosna] came into conflict with the Muslim authorities in Sarajevo, prompting Izetbegovic to accuse Croatia of "aggression" as well. The Croat-Muslim conflict of 1993 was especially vicious, marked by atrocities on both sides and widespread ethnic cleansing.


Croats and Muslims were eventually reconciled at gunpoint by the United States, in 1994, when their representatives signed the Washington Accords establishing the "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina". The Federation was initially envisioned as a step towards integration of Bosnia, and some politicians evens peculated that the Serbs would eventually be forced to join and surrender their claim to an independent republic. But the Federation never functioned smoothly, as Croats and Muslims never completely trusted each other. The Serbs refused to be assimilated, even after NATO and the Croatian army invaded Bosnia and intervened against them in late 1995. Eventually, the war ended through another shotgun marriage – in Dayton – leaving Bosnia semi-unified, semi-divided and quite unviable.


After Dayton, the occupation forces and the UN administration focused most of their pressure on the Serbs. In the spring of 1999, for example, Petritsch’s predecessor Carlos Westendorp had crippled possible Serb resistance to NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia by sacking the Serb Republic president Nikola Poplasen [Poplashen]. Many Muslims hailed this decision, considering Poplasen a Serb racist, while the Croats were ambivalent. But Jelavic’s sacking last month was most definitely based on the Poplasen precedent.

The Serbs, however, had one great advantage over the Croats: Dayton guarantees the Serb Republic’s existence, so even the OHR is unable to abolish it. Croats, on the other hand, have no republic of their own, and no protection from whatever measures the OHR can impose within the Federation that would benefit the Muslim plurality. Additionally, Croats are Bosnia’s smallest constituent people, with barely 17% of the total population (and that is based on the 1991 census). Croat birth rates are abysmally low compared to the Muslims. Even without HDZ’s political and economic motives, they would have every reason to defend practices and institutions protecting their rights as a constituent people, since as a minority they would have no political influence whatsoever.

Ironically, it was the Croat assistance that enabled Izetbegovic to brush aside Serb resistance to Bosnia’s secession, when the combined number of Muslims and Croats easily achieved a two-thirds majority at the March 1992 independence referendum. It was this flagrant disregard of their rights that made the Serbs resort to violence. Now, it seems, the Croats have fallen into the very trap they helped dig for the Serbs nine years ago.


Adding another twist to an already complex situation is the fact that, although the new Federation government defeated Izetbegovic’s SDA, much of its program recycles the slogans of 1992. The SDP wants a "citizen state," one blind to ethnicity, and echoes SDA’s talk of "Serb aggression." That alone is anathema enough to Serbs and Croats, since a "citizen state" had been merely a veil for Izetbegovic’s plans for Muslim domination. In order to form a government, though, the SDP had to ally itself with the SzBiH, led by former Izetbegovic aide and one of the most vocal integrationist politicians, Haris Silajdzic [Silaydzich]. SzBiH’s electoral slogan was "Bosnia without the entities," openly flouting the Dayton agreement. Silajdzic himself frequently called the Serb Republic a "genocidal creation." Finally, one of the high-ranking members in the new government is Izetbegovic’s former warlord, Sefer Halilovic [Halilovich], one of the founders of the Muslim militia that fought for a unitary Bosnia.


Bosnia, therefore, is much more complex than Ambassador Miller, or Wolfgang Petritsch, believe. It is a paradox in and of itself – a supposedly multi-ethnic state founded on the blood of a multiethnic Yugoslavia it had helped murder. Begat in crime, it was saved from early death by a blatantly illegal NATO intervention and wholesale, US-sanctioned ethnic cleansing – followed by an imposed peace agreement that resulted in more ethnic cleansing. Its foreign rulers have deliberately turned a blind eye to ethnic concerns, which lie at the very root of Bosnia’s inherent instability.

Forgetting the true words of Abraham Lincoln that "a house divided against itself cannot stand," the United States and NATO continue to hold Bosnia together by force, depriving its people of liberty to decide their own destiny. No amount of money can replace liberty, and no amount of force can eradicate ethnic identity, rooted much deeper into the minds of Bosnia’s three peoples than an artificial notion of that country’s citizenship. A multiethnic Bosnia might yet be possible, if its people decide to support it of their own free will. Since that well has already been amply poisoned by Izetbegovic’s abuses, NATO’s occupation and the persistent despotism of the OHR, chances for such a development grow slimmer by the day.

Bosnia has always been deeply misunderstood. During its days as an Ottoman province, it was known as the "dark vilayet" [province], as its Muslim landowners as well as Christian peasants frequently revolted against the Sultan. In modern times, the West tried to project an illusion of a multiethnic paradise onto a country deeply rotten with hatred and bloodshed. Today, after thousands of dead, hundreds of thousands exiled, five years of occupation, several elections, and billions of dollars spent, Bosnia is nowhere closer to coming to terms with itself than it had been in 1991.

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