Bosnian Elections and Recurring Ethnonationalisms: The Ghost of the Nation State

By Sarajlic, Eldar | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, July 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bosnian Elections and Recurring Ethnonationalisms: The Ghost of the Nation State


Sarajlic, Eldar, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


To an impartial observer, any of the post-Dayton elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina might look like an exercise in conflict between forces of integration and disintegration. Structurally, this is not so different from other patterns of viewing and interpreting contemporary Bosnia, which are dominated by mutually exclusive categories similar to these. The appeal of a dyadic analysis stretches beyond the rhetoric of Bosnian policy makers and permeates other professional communities involved in Bosnian issues, from academics and journalists to European bureaucrats. Every few years, the eve of general and/or municipal elections witnesses a surge in rhetoric that tries to advance the cause of Bosnian representative democracy by pointing to the benefits of integration and the high costs of disintegration. Often, Bosnia's envisaged "European future" or, alternatively, return to a belligerent past are invoked to remind the country's population of the possible outcomes of their voting choices.1

Yet, if integration is something that is valued and promoted, why is there so much disintegration in the country? Why have almost all elections since Dayton produced a disintegrative outcome, in terms of widespread support for ethnonationalist parties and their programmes? Explanations of Bosnia's elections, both by scholars and policy analysts, offer a range of answers. Some point to an institutional framework that, by design, favours ethno-nationalist actors and undermines others,2 while others present less constructivist arguments based on path dependency and historical determinism3. Some of these answers are correct in their own right. It is true Bosnian political actors are significantly shaped by the institutional structures that frames their choices. It is also true that historical legacy plays an important role, providing a narrative that gives meaning to contemporary political agency. However, few accounts have tried to answer the question with reference to the way it was phrased in the first place: why is Bosnia and Herzegovina so often seen and interpreted through mutually exclusive categories of unity/fragmentation, integration/disintegration, civic/ethnic and similar?

This paper takes a different route. It criticizes the categorical structure of the question, and arrives at an alternative explanation. It argues that one of the causes of recurring ethnonationalisms in post-Dayton elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the underlying logic that also manifests itself at the level of analysis: the logic of the nation state. I will claim that this logic helps to explain not only the ethnic quality of Bosnian political outcomes and corresponding disintegrative tendencies, but also the failure to conceive of a viable normative alternative to the country's political malaise.

First, I will defend a preliminary view that the theses and arguments which seek to explain Bosnia and Herzegovina, and which revolve around the civic versus ethnic dichotomy, are analytically false. I will argue that they take the nation state as a crucial qualitative reference and thus yield no viable normative alternative for one simple reason: Bosnia and Herzegovina has never been a nation state and it is unlikely that it will become one in the near future, at least not in the current territorial or political capacity. Such arguments suggest that the integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina depends primarily on the relative strength, on the one hand, of forces willing and able to unite the country under a common ideological framework and, on the other, of those who aim to fragment and dissolve it. I will try to show that this explanatory device fails to answer the question of the causes of political disintegration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ultimately, I will argue that at both "extremes" of this explanation there is the same underlying logic of the nation state. The epistemic and political nature of this logic is, I believe, one of the main obstacles to the democratic transformation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. …

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