Serbs in Bosnia

Introduction / Definiton: 

The Serb community in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the second largest (1991: 31.4%, 1,369,258) of the three dominant nations (Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats). Bosnian Serbs are also the largest Serb community outside of Serbia itself. The main dispute in Bosnia arose from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, when most Serbs did not support the country’s independence, but instead joined the Serbian war-effort to dismember Bosnia and attach Serb controlled areas to Serbia. While this plan was thwarted, the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war recognized the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska, RS) as one of the country’s two entities. Bosnian statehood does not enjoy strong support among Bosnia Serbs and many prefer RS becoming independent or joining Serbia. On the other hand, many Bosniaks and Croats oppose the existence of the RS, considering that it was established through ethnic cleansing and there was only a slim majority of Serbs living on its pre-war territory.

Currently the RS enjoys far-reaching autonomy as a weak federal state. Since its recognition in 1995 through the Dayton Accords, both the autonomy of the RS and its Serb dominance have been weakened by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international agency that oversees the peace process. In recent years, the RS leadership has sought to reverse the erosion of powers of the entity.

Relations between Serbs and other nations in Bosnia have been largely peaceful since the end of the war, but contacts remain limited as most Serbs live separately from Bosniaks and Croats within Bosnia.

Historical Evolution: 

Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a heterogeneous population, has been contested between Croat and Serb national movements since the late 19th century. Bosnia saw the conversion of a significant part of the Slavic population under Ottoman rule (until 1878) to Islam. Croat and Serb nationalist movements claimed the converts to be either Croats or Serbs, while historical evidence suggests that few inhabitants had any national identity before the late 19th century. Many Serbs felt disadvantaged in the Habsburg Monarchy which ruled Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1878 and 1918. The emerging Serbian nation state also laid claim to Bosnia. In this context Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb and member of a nationalist movement, assassinated Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914, triggering World War I. Following the war, Bosnia became part of Yugoslavia (until 1929 Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). In interwar Yugoslavia, a centralist monarchy under the Serb Karadjordjević dynasty dominated the country, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction among non-Serbs, whereas most Bosnian Serbs supported the state (Bataković 1996: 64-100). During World War II, Bosnia was annexed by fascist-led Croatia. The state engaged in genocide against the Jewish and the Serb populations. Many Serbs joined either the royalist and nationalist Četnik movement which sought to reestablish a Yugoslavia under Serb predominance or the Partisan movement, together with Croats and Muslims, which under leadership of the Communist Party strove to reconstitute a Federal Yugoslavia (Hoare 2006). As the Partisan movement won, Bosnia, which had ceased to exist as a distinct unit in 1919, became one of the six federal republics of Communist Yugoslavia. Communist Serbs held dominant positions in the republic, but a policy of promoting national equality sought to ensure the representation of all nations. While other republics had a dominant nation, Serbs, Muslims (following their recognition as a nation in the 1960s) and Croats had equal standing in the republic. This period saw a repression of nationalism expressed by all three nations in Bosnia, while at the same time an elaborate ‘ethnic key’ sought to ensure representation of members of all three nations through the republic (Andjelić 2003, 39-40).

During the first free elections in Bosnia in 1990, most Serbs, as well as Croats and Muslims, voted for nationalist parties. The Serb Democratic Party (SDS), the dominant party among Bosnian Serb voters, supported an extreme nationalist policy and opposed Bosnian independence from Yugoslavia. The overwhelming majority of Muslims (after 1993, Bosniaks) and Croats on the other hand supported Bosnian independence. This split was reflected in a referendum on independence which was boycotted by most Serbs and supported by most Croats and Muslims. Following Bosnia’s declaration of independence, the Bosnian Serb leadership of the SDS, headed by Radovan Karadžić, sought to carve out a Serb-dominated territory to join Serbia. (However, many Serbs remained loyal to the Bosnian government and did not support the partition of Bosnia advocated by the SDS and Serbia under leadership of Slobodan Milosevic.) This dispute triggered the 1992-95 war and led to the establishment of a Serb Republic. Non-Serbs were systematically ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the territory to which the new RS laid claim or mass murdered (Shoup/Berg 1999: 128-187). In total, more than 100,000 inhabitants of Bosnia died in the three and a half year war, approximately two-thirds were Bosniaks and a quarter were Serbs—most of the Bosniak victims were civilians, whereas most Serb victims were soldiers (IDC 2007, 33-35).

The war ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 which established a highly decentralized Bosnia with the Serb Republic as one of the country’s two entities. Whereas before the war Serbs had lived intermingled with the other groups throughout Bosnia, the war lead to a far-reaching homogenization of the territory. The state itself is governed by a complex power-sharing system, while Serbs enjoy political predominance in the unitary RS. After the war, the RS has maintained close ties with neighboring Serbia (and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until 2003), sanctioned by agreements on special relations that entities are entitled to conclude with neighboring countries. Cooperation at the state-level in Bosnia has been cumbersome and often only possible through imposition by external actors (Bose 2002).

Resolution / Status: 

The peace process has been overseen by a strong international presence in form of a military mission (first IFOR, then SFOR, and EUFOR) under NATO leadership and a civilian mission which oversees the political process (OHR). The OHR has been able to dismiss officials and enforce compliance with the peace agreement. Since 2003 the EU has taken a more prominent role, first by taking over the police mission, followed by the peacekeeping operation and through a Special Representative (EUSR) doubling as High Representative. Post-war developments have been shaped by ethnic autonomy, while the peace plan encouraged the return of refugees (around half of the four million inhabitants were displaced during the war). Nevertheless, over 160,000 Bosniak and Croat refugees have returned to the RS between 1996 and 2010. Still, the RS is estimated to have an approx. 80-90 percent Serb population, while according to some estimates, only 4 to 7 percent of the Federation population are of Serb background (Bieber 2006: 32, 64, 77).

The political system of Bosnia is complex and cumbersome, relying on international intervention to overcome deadlock. Most political parties, as most other institutions and society more broadly are divided along ethnic lines, rendering cooperation often difficult. In the RS, support for independence has been strong but oscillating, depending on the political salience of the issue. Since 2006, the RS has been dominated by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) led by Milorad Dodik, who adopted a strong nationalist platform and has sought to carve out maximum autonomy for the RS. Most Serb parties in Bosnia share the support for a strong and autonomous RS, but differ on the degree of confrontation with other nations and international actors they are willing to engage in. Some parties in the Federation seek to reach out to the entities’ Serbs, but parties rarely campaign in both entities and reach out beyond their core ethnic constituency (Bieber 2006: 103-107).

The key challenge has been the lack of consensus on the state and its political system and degree of decentralization. International intervention has substantially advanced governance and weakened the discriminatory polices in both entities, particularly in the RS toward other nations, but also created a dependence of the political system on further external assistance. The confrontation with the past, in particular with war crimes committed during the 1992-95 war remains driven largely by external actors. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has sentenced a number of leading Bosnian Serb commanders for war crimes and genocide in Srebrenica. Although the RS government recognized the mass murder of Muslims in Srebrenica following a detailed report commissioned by the government under international pressure, in political discourse war crimes are often down-played or denied and war criminals are glorified. This has been fueled by the perception that few non-Serbs have been sentenced for crimes against Serbs by the ICTY (Subotić 2009: 159-160).

Prospects / Analysis: 

The prospect of renewed conflict has decreased and levels of violence have been low in recent years. Key controversies revolve around amending the constitution (part of the Dayton Peace Accords) to render the political system more functional and to secure Bosnia’s ability to operate without international involvement. Whereas most Bosnian Serb parties support a loose federation with great autonomy for the RS, most Bosniak parties advocate more centralized institutions and the eventual abolition of the RS. The international military mission has been decreased to a symbolic minimum and the power and the strength of the OHR has decreased and is to be taken over by the European Union. In recent years, tensions between the RS and international actors have increased amidst suggestions by the RS leadership that the entity would have a right to self-determination and suggesting the possibility of a referendum on more autonomy or even independence. The declaration of independence of Kosovo in 2008 and the International Court of Justice decision in 2010 have been interpreted by the RS to facilitate the entities’ possibility of independence. International actors have decisively ruled out any break up of Bosnia and there appears to be no political support in either Croatia or Serbia for such a scenario.

References / Further Reading: 

Andjelic, Neven. 2003. Bosnia-Herzegovina. The End of a Legacy. Frank Cass, London.

Bataković, Dušan. 1996. The Serbs of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Dialogue, Paris.

Bieber, Florian. 2006. Post- War Bosnia. Ethnicity, Inequality and Public Sector Governance. Palgrave McMillan: Basingstoke.

Bose, Sumantra. 2002. Bosnia after Dayton. Nationalist Partition and International Intervention. Hurst & Company.

Burg, Steven L. and Paul S. Shoup. 1999. The War in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention. M.E.Sharpe: Amronk.

Hoare, Marko Attila. 2006. Genocide and Resistance in Hitler's Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943, Oxford University Press: London.

Istraživačko dokumentacioni centar (IDC). 2007. Human Losses in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 91-95.

Subotić, Jelena. 2009. Hijacked Jusice. Dealing with the Past in the Balkans. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Working papers

European Stability Initiative Bosnia Reports: http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=158

International Crisis Group, Bosnia Reports: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/europe/balkans/bosnia-herzegovina.aspx

Transparency Bosnia and Herzegovina Reports: http://www.ti-bih.org/Default.aspx

UNDP Early Warning Reports: http://www.undp.ba/index.aspx?PID=14