SpiritualityArtsLandPeopleHistoryProject Rastko - Banja Luka (e-library of culture and tradition of Bosnian Krajina

Dusan T. Batakovic


Paper delivered at the 29th National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Seattle, November 23, 1997.

The current ethnic strife in Bosnia & Herzegovina cannot be understood without taking into account a phenomenon which remained, it seems, until now unoticed. Within three major ethnic, religious and finally national groups, there was ussually double alliances of two groups against the third one. This phenomen shaped the political mentality of Bosnia & Herzegovina throughout the centuries, while during periods of turmoil and political crises, its outsbursts caused insurrections, massacres and civil wars. It is a typical case of "longue duree", applied on the dominant current in the political culture.

Since the Ottoman conquest, religiously-based coalitions emerged as major practice in local Bosnian politics. Both the Christian groups, Orthodox and Roman Catholic were engaged in a series of revolts against Ottoman authority, from the late sixteenth century, that is, from the period of the decline of Ottoman order in the Balkans. These primarly agrarian revolts of socially and politically discriminated Christian communities, faced with political disorder and heavy taxation, lasted from the late sixteenth to mid-nineteenth century, up to the Eastern Crisis of 1875-1878. Although these Christian coalitions were, due to constant rivalry on religious jurisdiction, very fragile, and limited only to short periods of revolts, the religiously based ethnic alliance, when directed against local Bosnian Muslim landlords, functioned in almost perfect solidarity.

The stable Christian coalition of Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats lasted until the first year of the Eastern Crisis. In 1876, the rebel Serbs considering themselves the sole "legitimate representative of the Serbian land of Bosnia, who after waiting so long without any aid and hope, now proclaim the break of all the ties with unchristen government in Constantinople and pledge themselves to a common future with Serbia whatever it might be." The insurgents in Herzegovina sent a delegation of domestic representatives to the court of Montenegro to ask Prince Nikola Petrovic-Njegos to accept the title of the sovereign of Herzegovina.

The occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria Hungary in 1878 completely changed the political landscape. The Croato-Slavonian diet (Sabor) in Zagreb raised the question of annexing Bosnia and Hercegovina to Croatia-Slavonia, but the Emperor silenced them by threatning to dissolve even this limited political body. The Roman Catholic population, led by Franciscan friars, welcomed the Habsburg army, while Bosnian Muslims and Orthodox Serbs tried, in vain, to form a provisional military coalition to resist the Austro-Hungarian troops. For the Muslims, the new Christian authority meant that they would loose their religious and feudal privileges, including the domination of the local government, while for the Orthodox Serbs, the occupation put an end to their war aims, proclaimed in 1876, of unification of Bosnia with Serbia and Herzegovina with Montenegro. The Roman Catholics as the Habsburgtreu population in the occupied provinces, backed by Zagreb, became the privileged layer of the local population, with growing political aspirations. Although Roman Catholic Croats were only 18,1 percent of the overall population, the teachers and bureaucrats became predominantly those of Croatian descent, while the Croat dialect was imposed in the school system. The French consul in Sarajevo stressed in 1883 that the "desire to dispose of Bosnia to advantage of the Croatian idea is not a new conception….We know of certain plans related to the forming of a new state (Bosnia & Heryegovina and Croatia-Slavonia under Habsburg sceptre) which would extend to the southeast…but the fact should not be ignored that so long as there is one Serb, the combination will not be realized."

Therefore, the first decades of Austro-Hungarian occupation were marked by Orthodox Serbian and Bosnian Muslim alliance which lasted until their common struggle for religious and school autonomy diverged in early twentieth century. The enormous energy that governor Benjamin fon Kallay invested to impose a common identity on all the ethnic/religious groups in an officialy proclaimed "Bosnian nation" and a separate "Bosnian language" failed : the Serbs obtained their religious and cultural autonomy in 1905 while the Muslims got their own in 1907.

The Serbian-Muslim alliance lasted until 1910, when due to the unresolved agrarian question followed by the revolt of the Serbian serfs, the government of now annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina formed a new Muslim-Croat alliance. The growing prestige of neighboring Serbia only temporarily cheked by the annexation crisis in 1908-1909, made this alliance viable. From the Sarajevo assasination in 1914 up to the end of the First World War, the Croat-Muslim alliance produced a series of massacres and persecution of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Serbs.

Within the newly established Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes in 1918, the Muslim political leaders, faced with a Croat separatist movement, opted for collaboration with Belgrade. In return, the leading Muslim landlords were exempted from agrarian refom. With the growing demands of the Croatian national movement, the Muslims made a stable coalition with the court and government in Belgrade, which lasted until 1939, when Banovina Hrvatska as a corpus separatum within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established. While the Bosnian Serbs opted for a common federal unit with Serbia, blaming the governement for leaving several Serbian areas in Bosnia under Croatian authority, the Bosnian Muslims for the first time raised the question of autonomy for Bosnia within its pre-1918 frontiers.

The Second World War provoked a reestablishemnt of the Croat-Muslim alliance against the Orthodox Serbs. In the Nazi-sponsored Independent State of Croatia which encompassed the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs faced a genocide perpetrated by Croat and Muslim Ustashas. In the final phase of the inter-ethnic war which also had a strong religious dimension, the Orthodox Serbs were victims of the special 13th SS Waffen Handjar Division made exclusivly of Bosnian Muslims. Serbian vengeance and retaliation, especially in eastern Bosnia, only made the spiraling violence worse. The Muslim autonomists proposed to the Fuhrer the formation of a separate Muslim Bosnia, without Croat and Serb dominated areas in the west and the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Facing possible extermination, the nationalist chetnik leaders of Eastern Bosnia made plans to annex the 17 districts of the Independent state of Croatia, including Srarajevo and Tuzla, to occupied Serbia under a German protectorate.

After the Red Army gave decisive support to the establishment of the communist regime in Yugoslavia, Bosnia & Herzegovina was, according to pre-war Comintern plans, adopted by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, became a federal unit within the communist federation. In order to escape responsibility for the Ustashas crimes, most of the Bosnian Muslims opted for alliance with the Serbs who emerged as the dominant element in the communist resistance. Therefore, the majority of the Muslim intelligetsia declared themselves Serbs, to bypass the war period and find a place within the new communist society. The imposition of "brotherhood and unity" made direct alliances impossible until the centralist period was over in 1966. The Bosnian Muslims were declared a separate nation in 1968, in order to promote a new concept of federalisation - the national communism invented by Edvard Kardelj. National communism, shaped by constitutuional amendments from 1968 to 1971, found its final expression in the 1974 Constitution. National communism made the republican nomenklatura of the majority national group the bearer of the national sovereignty in each of six republics. In ethnically mixed Bosnia & Herzegovina this model gave way to the creation of the Bosnian Muslims, allied again with the Croats against the Serbs, into a dominant national group, and the Bosnian Muslim nomenklatura into a bearer of the Bosnian sovereignty.

The leading communist theoretician of a separate Muslim Nation, Muhamed Filipovic, accused Serbian writers originating from Bosnia of national separatism. Already in 1967, Muhamed Filipovic wrote: "the literature that has developed in Bosnia over the past hundered years has diveded Bosnia more than all those armies marching across it… If (Serbian) literature emerged in the 1870s it reached its full height in the early 20th century in connection with the rising national movements which were inspired by such writers as (Petar) Kocic, (Svetozar) Corovic and so forth, culminating in the greatest representative (of Serbian literature) with Ivo Andric." This comment was a kind of beys approach towards their former serfs, now from the communist perspective.

National communism meant also the discrimination of minority national groups within the republics: in Bosnia the coalition of the Muslim-Croat ruling oligarchy first made Serbian literature dangereous and gradually made Serbs a discriminated minority in all fields of political and social life. That policy provoked Bosnian Serbs to move to Serbia, while Muslims from Sandjak started to settle in Bosnia, considered the "mother republic", or "mother state" of all the Slav Muslims in Yugoslavia. To a somewhat lesser extent, this process of establishing Bosnia as a Muslim "mother state" provoked migrations of Bosnian Croats towards Croatia.

The stable Muslim-Croat alliance in Bosnia, incarnated in the long dictatorship of the Mikulic and Pozderac families, survived the death of Tito in 1980, and was strengthened after the sudden rise to power of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia. The Kosovo problem made the precarious balance within the federation imposed by 1974 Constitution impossible, while Serbia opted for the establishement of national-communism in the whole of Serbia, including both provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina. The domino effect of ethnic moblization launched by the Kosovo Albanian revolt in 1981, proved the 1974 Constitution system non-viable without the iron authority of Josip Broz Tito. In Bosnia & Herzegovina the growing national mobilization made ethnic-religious divisions deeper.

The 1990 elections in Bosnia gave a sharp picture of furtrer division along national lines. Bosnia & Herzegovina was a Yugoslavia in miniature, and it could not survive the destruction of the multhiethnic Yugoslav federation. The Croato-Muslim alliance led directly to civil war, and it was considered by the Serbs as a repetition of two previous Muslim-Croat alliances during the world wars. The Bosnia & Herzegovina was revived by the Dayton agreement, which formally approved the partition according to ethnic-religious lines, accepting the Croat-Muslim alliance as the only stable factor in face of Serbian rejection of a common Bosnian-state. Formally favoring partition, the Dayton agreement stopped the war, but IFOR and SFOR forces are still facing problems inherited from the past. If there are two national groups against a third, Bosnia will not be a viable state, and the only hope to make this possible is a formal protectorate by the international community which will last at least several decades. If not, the Croat-Muslim alliance, although deeply divided and kept together by force, could join arms in an effort to cleanse Bosnia & Herzegovina of Serbs.



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