What is a Bosnian?

John Fine

  • Bosnia: A Short History by Noel Malcolm
    Macmillan, 340 pp, £17.50, March 1994, ISBN 0 333 61677 4

The war in Bosnia has produced a number of historical myths, all of which have proved useful to those Serbs and Croats seeking to tear Bosnia apart, for they justify the inaction of the international community. These myths claim, basically, that Bosnia is an artificial entity, made up of three ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats and Muslims – who have been feuding with one another for centuries, so that the present conflict is simply the latest of these ethnic wars. This picture is false, as Noel Malcolm’s new history of Bosnia helps to show.

The Bosnians have been a distinct people since at least the tenth century. In the Middle Ages, theirs was a no-man’s-land between the eastern and western worlds of Constantinople and Rome. Because of its mountainous terrain, the nobility retained much regional independence, but came together to resist foreign conquerors. Independent from the 12th century, Bosnia became a kingdom in 1377, by which time its boundaries had been established, roughly coinciding with those of the modern republic. Its people, when not using a local name, called themselves Bosnians. The names Serb and Croat, though occasionally appearing in peripheral areas, were not used in Bosnia proper. Bosnians then belonged to one of three Christian denominations: Orthodox, Catholic or a local institution, the Bosnian Church; but religious affiliation was not strong and was easily shed. The Bosnians did not fight one another for religious or for ethnic reasons. When they fought – and they fought a lot – it was over territory or for regional hegemony.

Bosnia was conquered by the Ottomans in the 1460s. Since the Churches had had few priests to attach their flocks to the faith, most Bosnians were shaky Christians, and, not surprisingly, over the years many of them accepted Islam. These conversions were a long-drawn-out affair; probably not until the 17th century did Muslims outnumber Christians. Regardless of their faith, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, as well as Christians, spoke dialects of what we now call Serbo-Croat. The Ottomans categorised people by religious community, not by ethnicity or nationality, and under Ottoman rule the local communities did not fight among themselves. Thus the current claim that the war in Bosnia is an outgrowth of centuries of religious or ethnic hatred is a nefarious fabrication.

Eventually, in the 19th century, nationalism took root, accompanied by the idea that a nation’s territory should include all its nationals. This idea gradually spread among Bosnia’s neighbours, in Serbia (then establishing itself as an independent state), and in Croatia (then part of the Habsburg Empire), who exported their ethno-nationalist ideas to Bosnia – increasingly so during the Austrian occupation, which began in 1878. Bosnians now came to accept the idea that if you were Catholic, you were a Croat; and if you were Orthodox, you were a Serb – entirely new labels for Bosnia at the time. In the Middle Ages very little of Bosnia had ever formed part of the Serb or Croat states, except for Hum (roughly present-day Hercegovina), which was part of Serbia from the 1170s to 1326; so these neighbours had no historical claims to Bosnia at all. Some Serbs and Croats may now claim that Bosnia is an artificial entity, but the fact is that its core lands have been together consistently, and calling themselves Bosnia, since the 13th and 14th centuries: first as an independent state, next as a recognised unit in the Ottoman (1463-1878) and Austrian (1878-1918) empires, and then in the state of Yugoslavia (1918-1992). Bosnia’s borders have been more consistent than those of either Serbia or Croatia.

The Bosnian political parties founded under the Austrian occupation, and those which later grew out of them in Royal Yugoslavia, between the wars, were ethno-religious in their allegiance, a tendency that re-emerged after the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, in the years prior to the Second World War, there was a regular dialogue between parties and a willingness, particularly in the leading Muslim party, to form coalitions and seek accommodation among competing points of view, whether on a Bosnian or a national scale. The developing quarrel between the Croats of Croatia and the Serbs of Serbia, which only began after the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918, spilled over to infect Bosnian Serbs and Croats; generally, however, Bosnians were less agitated by ethnic issues than their neighbours across the Drina and the Sava.

Such ethnic hostility as did reveal itself in Bosnia between the wars was usually exported there by its excitable neighbours. In fact, whenever violence has broken out in Bosnia over ideological causes (as opposed to brigandage and local feuding), its source has lain beyond the borders. A notable instance was in World War Two, when Germany delivered Bosnia over to the mercies of the Croatian terrorist Ustashe, who, in their effort to exterminate the Serbs, set off a civil war that rapidly became an ethnic war. But even while the chauvinist armies of Serb Chetniks and Croatian Ustashe were perpetrating their atrocities in Bosnia, Tito was creating a coalition to restore Yugoslavia, in a form that would recognise the rights of all nationalities. His Partisans successfully fought the local gangs and Fascist occupiers, and after three years of warfare, much of which occurred in Bosnia, set up a Communist state.

Tito established six republics, one of which was Bosnia and Hercegovina with a high degree of local self-rule (by local Communists), and with all nationalities being well represented in the Communist Party and the central government. Soon afterwards, the Communists realised that the Soviet model did not apply to Yugoslav conditions, and set about establishing their own brand of socialism. In the Fifties, having rebuilt the economy and established for the first time schools and medical services accessible to everyone, Tito began to loosen social controls. By the mid-Sixties, Yugoslavia was a successful state. National differences seemed to have faded and Tito and his system enjoyed wide popularity. The country had achieved a greatly improved and, for the Balkans, a high standard of living – one in ten Yugoslavs had a car. In the Party central direction was increasingly replaced by decision-making at the republic level. Tito had the personal prestige and authority to keep the parties in the republics from undermining the social whole by their particularist strivings. Two decades of Communist rule had increasingly secularised attitudes, and in 1968 the Bosnian Muslims, most of whom had long rejected the names ‘Serb’ or ‘Croat’ because of their Christian connotations, declared their community to be an ethnic one, and called it ‘Muslim’.

In the late Sixties civil liberties were increasingly respected in Yugoslavia, and a fairly free press emerged. As the state decentralised, government subsidies to inefficient enterprises were reduced, and the country moved gradually towards a market economy. Richer areas such as Croatia and Slovenia benefited greatly, though they remained dissatisfied at paying taxes to support the poorer republics (which included Bosnia) – where enterprises began to fail, and unemployment to rise. In the press, complaints grew about the economic policies of neighbouring republics. Economic grievances thus became attributed to ethnic villains, and fuelled the rise of nationalism.

Tito never seriously promoted the idea of a Yugoslav identity. The use of the name ‘Yugoslav’ had been encouraged by King Alexander when he established his dictatorship in 1929, but it immediately became a cover for what remained a greater Serbia, thus acquiring a bad odour. Tito avoided it, promoting instead the concepts of brotherhood and unity among the different nationalities. This worked well for the wartime generation. They could identify with their nationality, which had become important to them in the struggle against the greater Serbia of the Twenties and Thirties; at the same time, because of their experience during the Second World War they had also become good Yugoslavs. But the post-war generations, not having lived through those harrowing years, or known first-hand the horrors that we/they-ism can cause in a pluralistic society, were ready wholeheartedly to adopt narrow and limiting ethnic identities as Serbs, Croats or whatever.

This ethnicity was reinforced by a lack of mobility between republics. Most Yugoslavs grew up and lived their whole lives in a single republic, and even if they went to a university attended one locally, rarely considering the possibility of studying in another republic. At graduation they would normally be recruited for a job in their own republic. So most people came to identify primarily with their native republic, and if that was one of a particular nationality, to identify with that nationality too. There was little to make provincials feel ‘Yugoslav’, in the sense of a strong loyalty to the state.

Yugoslavia was thus vulnerable to an ethnic crisis; and, in the Seventies, one began to take shape. Tito’s international debts fell due, and after the oil price rise, the balance of payments went hay-wire. After twenty-five years of remarkable economic progress, shortages began to occur, and because subsidies to inefficient enterprises were reduced, an increasing number of those in the poorer republics collapsed, leading to greater unemployment there. Economic debates became more rancorous, and it was increasingly apparent that what was good for Croatia was bad for Macedonia, or vice versa. Politicians and journalists used the more or less free press to blame other republics, identified ethnically as Serbs, Croats etc.

When Tito died in 1980, he left Yugoslavia in the hands of committees, of both Government and Party. The presidency ended up as an eight-person collective, with a representative from each republic and from each of the two autonomous regions (Kosovo and Vojvodina) – a body too unwieldy to make decisions. The Communist Party, too, had been decentralised and had come in each republic to represent local interests. National animosities found ever increasing expression, as the economic crisis worsened. No major reform plan could get a majority of votes, so the Eighties passed in gridlock. Yugoslavs became increasingly prone to blaming each other. Even so, the increase in nationalism upset many people. In the 1971 census, only 247,000 people had declared their ethnic category to be ‘Yugoslav’; in the 1981 census, that number had jumped to 1,217,000. In some cases this may reflect the mixed background of the respondents, but frequently it signified rejection of the frightening bickering involved in ethno-politics. Of the million-plus ‘Yugoslavs’ in 1981, 326,300 lived in Bosnia; another 88,600 Bosnians declared themselves ‘other’ – that is, other than ‘Yugoslav’ or any recognised ethnic group.

For the first time many now began to wonder if it made sense to try to keep Yugoslavia together. Needless to say, the two republics with the most diverse populations. Bosnia and Macedonia, worked the hardest to do so. But too many unscrupulous politicians in Croatia and Slovenia saw chances to advance themselves by playing the nationalist card. It was nationalism that propelled Slobodan Milosevic to the leadership of Serbia. He argued that the way to solve Yugoslavia’s economic problems lay in centralisation. But centralisation was precisely what other republics feared – because it would favour the largest ethnic group, the Serbs, and would also give extraordinary powers to Milosevic himself. With the institutions that existed. Milosevic had no way of achieving his centralising goals, but the mere thought frightened leaders in other republics.

Serbs in Croatia became, for good reason, increasingly alarmed at the sort of Croatian state they would be faced with, should Croatia separate, and Milosevic was happy to encourage these fears. In both Serbia and Croatia the press and television look up the local cause and began hate-mongering, directing their venom also at multi-ethnic Bosnia, fomenting Bosnian Serbs’ suspicions of Croats and Muslims, and local Croats’ suspicions of Serbs and Muslims. This media blitz had considerable effect on Bosnians, particularly the less educated villagers. People in the cities were less affected. Many, in Sarajevo especially, had little use for ethnicity, and in any case in the cities there was little to differentiate the so-called ethnic groups: all spoke the same dialect, employment was mixed and all shared the same secularised cultural interests. The only difference in fact was in their religious background, which I italicise, since after more than forty years of secularisation religion as such played little or no part in the lives of most urbanites, and was important to almost none of the present factional leaders.

Let me emphasise that the name ‘Bosnian’ is not a synonym for Muslim. A Bosnian is someone who supports the Bosnian Government: it is a label of citizenship. Though most Muslims support that Government and comprise the largest element in it and in the Bosnian Armed Forces, many Serbs and Croats from Bosnia also support the Government, which has consistently drawn its members from all three nationalities. It has throughout promised equal rights to all nationalities and religions, and has sought to preserve Bosnia as the multi-ethnic republic it had been within Yugoslavia. Thus the war is only partly an ethnic one, for it has pitted Bosnians of all ethnic-groups against two ethnic armies. An ethnic-war suggests civil war, but in Bosnia it has also been very much a foreign war, since Serbia and Croatia have both actively supported their surrogates. Yet because Bosnia proclaimed itself a multi-ethnic state, local Serbs and Croats had no grounds to fear suppression of their rights. Serbs in particular had no reason to rebel, other than to realise the ambitions of local politicians and irredentist elements in Serbia. The cases of Serbs in Croatia and in Bosnia are totally different: in Croatia they had and still have reason to fear for their future, but in Bosnia they did not and do not.

Noel Malcolm has squeezed the whole history of Bosnia from the Middle Ages to the summer of 1993 into 250 pages. He devotes considerable attention to the medieval and Ottoman periods, and, refreshingly, rejects the common legend that there were once heretical Bogomils in Bosnia whose mass conversion to Islam created the Muslim community. Rather, he concludes that the Bosnian Church was not Bogomil but schismatic, and that those who became Muslims were drawn from all three Christian denominations in a gradual process over several centuries. He describes well the religious communities in the medieval and Ottoman periods and the tolerant relations among them. He also acknowledges that the ‘Serb’ and ‘Croat’ identities of those Bosnians who assumed them are of recent origin.

Malcolm’s problems start in the chapters covering the period after 1918, when too much happened for it to be coherently covered as briefly as it is here. Particularly unfortunate is Malcolm’s failure to analyse sufficiently the course of World War Two in Yugoslavia, when for the first time ethnic fighting occurred in Bosnia, or the extraordinary achievements of Tito and his Partisans in liberating the country and afterwards setting up an ethnically fair society. Tito’s achievement in unifying Yugoslavia, after the ethnic horrors of the war, seems all the more astonishing now, when we see the complete inability of anyone to achieve anything remotely similar. It is now popular to bash, or ignore, Tito and his regime’s achievements. His successors – and particularly the nationalist leaders of the Eighties and Nineties – have their own agendas in doing so, but it is discouraging to see an able non-Yugoslav scholar like Malcolm taking the same line.

He is one-sided also when he examines the very real difficulties of the Eighties and the tragic break-up of Yugoslavia. Here he presents the Serbs as the arch-villains of the piece and ignores the equal villainy of the Croats. None of the killing would have happened had the Croats not seceded with unnecessary and irresponsible haste, leaving unresolved many questions vitally important to the rest of the Federation. The book ends with a moving final chapter on the tragic plight of the Bosnians, but here again Malcolm ignores the major Croat role in their plight. Indeed, at the very time he was writing this chapter the Croats, with the help of units from Croatia itself, were hacking out their own mini-state in Bosnia, practising ethnic cleansing against the Muslims, and reducing cities like Mostar to rubble.

The various recent ceasefires and the present Croat-Bosnian negotiations may lead to a just settlement, into which the Serbs may eventually be drawn. But one wonders whether the air-strikes on Serb positions around Gorazde will be a help or a hindrance in this context. Though on occasion direct threats have produced co-operation from the Serbs, they have always had a tendency to dig in their heels if they think they are being pushed around. Much will depend on the advice they receive from Moscow, but their receptivity to such advice is likely to be contingent on their sense of the degree of Russian support they are getting. We are justified in asking how significant that support really is. Did Yeltsin really not know that the Nato air-strikes were imminent? Were his objections to them real, or made in the interests of deflecting the criticism and posturing of the Russian Right? And how deep is this supposed historic friendship of Russians for Serbs? It was certainly not visible between the crisis of 1914 and the present war. Has it truly re-emerged, or is it merely a useful theme to be revived by a Russian government which is seeking to maintain Great Power status, and for nationalist politicians who are searching for issues that might embarrass Yeltsin? It is still far too early to predict the outcome. Unfortunately, in all the current discussions the idea of ‘ethnicity’ remains prominent so the probability is that the unending grievances it gives rise to will continue to cause problems. It is vitally important that throughout ex-Yugoslavia, the notion of ethnic rights (and ethnic supremacies in individual areas) be replaced by citizenship and individual rights. Urban Bosnia has consistently stood for these values in the past, and still does. I hope that the international negotiators will soon recognise this, will wake up, and will cease to advocate solutions that both stress ethnicity and reward the ethnic cleansing which is destroying the only society in ex-Yugoslavia that still has many citizens upholding the values of toleration for which the United Nations allegedly stands.