Ethnic Conflict in the Post-Soviet World: Case Studies and Analysis

By Leokadia Drobizheva; Rose Gottemoeller et al. | Go to book overview

THE BALKANS

2.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

SUSAN L. WOODWARD

From the perspective of ethnic conflict, the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a problematic case. As a political fact and cultural ideal, Bosnia-Herzegovina has no existence apart from its multiethnic, multinational character. Bosnians were, as Yugoslavs used to say admiringly, "masters of nuance," because their society for half a millennium had depended on managing the differences between and communicating across cultures, not preserving one culture against those they defined as "foreigners" or "barbarians." Simply labeling the war that began in March 1992 an "ethnic conflict" or "ethnic war" denies Bosnia-Herzegovina its very identity and its right to exist.

The survival of Bosnian culture and society has depended, however, on specific political conditions. They show that any discussion of ethnic harmony and ethnic conflict inevitably requires consideration of the principles of political association and membership, of state sovereignty, and of national, as well as ethnic, identity, that define a political order. In an era of nationally defined states and a region of competing nationalisms, the political identity of Bosnia and Bosnians has been contested by outsiders who claim its territory for one ethnic people. Its existence has only been secure within a larger political order that was also multiethnic, the most successful of which was a state that included its two predators, Croatia and Serbia. Once the international community accepted the outcome of political independence for two of that state's federal republics, Slovenia and Croatia, according to the "right of national self-determination," and Yugoslavia was dissolved, the fate of Bosnia‐ Herzegovina was no longer its own.

Bosnia-Herzegovina came to represent our worst nightmare of ethnic conflict, offering a choice between ethnically pure territories and mutual assured destruction. Its tragedy is symbolic as well as real. Alongside the unconscionable toll in the first half year of its many-years' war of more than 20,000 dead, a million and a half refugees or displaced persons out of a population of 4.4 million, and untold destruction of all the cities, towns, transportation networks, and lives of those who remain, there is a symbolic death: of an idea of multinational coexistence, ethnic tolerance, and multicultural civilization in the Balkans.

-15-

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