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

Dusan T. Batakovic

The Serbs of Bosnia & Herzegovina

History and Politics



To the western public, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become both symbol and reality of the wanton brutality and savagery connected with inter-ethnic and religious warfare. These two remote provinces in the central Balkans, shaped by long centuries of Ottoman domination, were hardly known to a wider public until recently. The only salient features about Bosnia-Herzegovina's past that appeared in the historical literature were mostly brief accounts of the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and, above all, the assassination of the Austrian archduke and archduchess in 1914 which triggered the First World War. Incorporated into the two Yugoslavia's of the 20th century - the first at Versailles, the second at the end of World War Two - Bosnia and Herzegovina, became, for all intents and purposes, forgotten regions. If at all, they were known primarily for their cultural interest, that is, for their admixture of religions and traditions that have coexisted - albeit at times very uneasily or not at all - for many centuries, or their amalgam of ethnic populations which have, each in their own way, identified themselves with both eastern and western civilization.

Historians and political commentators, however, insofar as they concerned themselves with Bosnia-Herzegovina's past at all, have focused mainly on the specific Islamic legacy which, forged in more than four centuries of Ottoman rule, has become part and parcel of the country's traditions and institutions. The other major cultural-religious and political influence, as exerted by the Serbs who have lived in the region since the very early Middle Ages, has thus largely fallen by the wayside. But since the (mostly Orthodox) Serbs, in fact, have always constituted the majority population group in Bosnia-Herzegovina, contributing in major ways throughout the past centuries to the enduring cultural-political values and institutions of the region, it is essential that their historical-political and cultural-institutional presence neither be ignored nor denied. The following survey is an account as well as an assessment of the role Bosnian Serbs played in the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina specifically and of their relationship to the Yugo-Slav peoples in the Balkans generally. One of the major arguments of this book is that without a historical perspective on Bosnia-Herzegovina, encompassing as completely as possible the political, cultural, and economic forces that have become important in the development of the country, it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain a understanding of the current state of affairs. By stressing the Serbian dimension of Bosnian-Herzegovinian history, until now sorely neglected by the historical literature, this study not only hopes to contribute to a better understanding of the conflicting socio-political, ethnic, and international developments that frequently troubled this region in the past, but also aims at shedding light on the recent situation that has been filled with internecine struggle and devastating war.

Before the Ottoman occupation, briefly, Bosnia-Herzegovina was not a well-defined political entity. In the early Middle Ages, both regions were inhabited mostly by Serbs who had immigrated from eastern and northern Europe . Between the 10th and the 12th century, large portions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly known as Hum) became an integral part of the two Serbian states, the Kingdom of Dioclea and the Principality of Rascia. Developing into distinct political units, the Principality (later Kingdom) of Bosnia and the Principality of Herzegovina maintained strong political - at times also territorial - ties with Serbia, which in the 13th, 14th, and 15th century was known, respectively, as the Kingdom, Empire, and Despotate of Serbia. Irrespective of such close relations with the Serbia proper, the region suffered considerable political instability throughout the Middle Ages, which was brought on to a large extent by invasions from Hungary and the periodic domination by Hungarian overlords.

The medieval period in Bosnia and Herzegovina is of key importance in understanding the beginnings of the specific mixture of ethnic groups, together with their religious affiliations and cultural diversity. Contrary to the oft repeated themes in the historical literature, the dominant political culture in medieval times was that of the Serbs who, as amply documented in contemporary Byzantine sources, also constituted the primary ethnic group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their political and religious culture was inspired by Byzantium.

But Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced neither religious stability nor the formation of a distinct religious-cultural identity, even after the schism between Rome and Byzantium was finally formalized in 11th century. Two factors accounted for this. One was that the Church of Rome continued its efforts to proselytize among the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The second had to do with emergence of the Dualist creed, which was combated (though with varying degrees) by both the Catholic and Orthodox clergy as a heretical sect. It is important to note that religious diversity in Bosnia and Herzegovina was not due to ethnic changes in the population but to the absence of a single strong ecclesiastical organization which would have been able to impose religious uniformity on the region. Stability and constancy, however, marked the political and cultural relations with Serbia. Bosnian and Herzegovinian rulers, themselves of Serbian origin, were naturally drawn to Serbian civilization and culture as it unfolded in neighboring Serbia, irrespective of whether they professed the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, or the Dualist faith. Religious differences only began to matter under Ottoman rule, as it was then that one's religious creed came to be regarded as a criterion for membership in a particular ethnic group.

The first three hundred years of Ottoman domination, which lasted from the 15th to the early 20th century, were marked by changes which had a profound impact on modern Bosnia and Herzegovina. Substantial sectors of the population converted to Islam, either forcibly or voluntarily, which led to extensive transformations in the socio-political organization of the region (primarily because the population was constantly on the move) and in the religious sphere, particularly since the Serbian Orthodox Church entered a period of revival that has sometimes been described as a veritable renaissance. These developments may be regarded as part of a "longue durée" process marking the gradual consolidation of the three different confessions into three distinct religious identities. The three groups were further differentiated on the basis of the particular political legacy, that is, the ethnic-national category toward which each of the three religious groups - Muslim, Roman Catholic, and Serbian Orthodox - inclined. By the beginning of the 19th century, the century of nationalism par excellence, the tendency to associate the particular religion with its particular ethnic-national counterpart was overwhelming. Concretely, this meant that most Orthodox were also Serbs (and vice versa), most Roman Catholics also Croats, while the Muslims regarded themselves as Islamicized Slavs (Serbs and Croats, and eventually as Bosnian Muslims in the late 20th century). By the end of the 19th century, national affiliation thus became practically inextricably linked to religious affiliation. It must be pointed out, however, that the peaceful coexistence of the three distinct religious communities was only possible in the supra-national empires - first the Ottoman and then the Austro-Hungarian - as long as their rule remained stable, more or less tolerant of religious diversity, and relatively free of severe and arbitrary repression.

This, however, was not the case with the Ottoman Empire (and subsequently the Dual Monarchy). A series of wars, especially in the later centuries, in which the Ottomans engaged, compounded by increasing tax burdens and other economic pressures on the Christian population and the sharply increasing religious intolerance of the Porte, finally led to seething popular discontent and to armed insurrection. The division between the Christian and Islamic communities, already clearly emerging by the end of the 17th century, was further intensified by the growing political disorder and social dissent within the Empire, but especially by the periodic, mostly Serbian-led, revolts that finally set the already ailing European part of the Empire on its path of disintegration.

The era of nationalism found Bosnia and Herzegovina in a lamentable socio-economic state, which was further aggravated by the closely interconnected religious-national tensions. Insurrections in Bosnia and Herzegovina spearheaded by the Serbs (though not only Serbs) included demands for economic relief and a return of political order and stability, but also gave increasing voice to Serbian national aspirations. Thus, for the Orthodox Serbs, redress of socio-economic and political grievances was closely linked to national unification, and they considered the Islamicized Slavs, bearers of the Ottoman order, a major obstacles of Serbian political unity. In the early 19th century, Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina streamed into the autonomous Serbian state with its freeholding peasant society. For Serbia, the incorporation of Bosnia was - like Herzegovina for Montenegro - of utmost importance, both because of the close ethnic and kinship ties that existed between them and because unification would have provided a stable geopolitical basis for the young Serbian state. If anything, the Eastern Crisis of 1875-1878, provoked by insurrections in Bosnia and Herzegovina against the Porte, clearly demonstrated that the Ottoman Empire no longer was viable.

But, instead of becoming unified with Serbia after shaking off Ottoman rule, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Serbs found themselves, for the next thirty years, under the rule of a new master, the Austrians. The ultra-Catholic, religiously intolerant, politically repressive, economically non-progressive, and socially discriminatory Dual Monarchy failed to pacify the country. On the contrary, the Austro-Hungarian policy of merging ethnically and religiously differentiated communities into a single "Bosnian nation" only accentuated the divisions along national and confessional lines. By favoring Roman Catholic, that is, the Croatian, sector of the population the only one loyal to the Monarchy, Vienna drove the Muslims and Orthodox Serbs, both deeply resentful, into a mutual - secular - alliance which lasted until the First Balkan War against Turkey in 1912. Generally, however, the Austrians scored many successes with their divide-and-rule policy, including the formation of a Muslim-Croat alignment that was directed against the Serbs. Systematically repressed and persecuted by Austria-Hungary, the Bosnian Serbs turned increasingly toward radical solutions and violent means.

Violence, however, whether from above in the form of a repressive regime or from below in the form of popular terrorism, did not solve the question. The assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 showed that, and also the following four-year war in which religious tension and intolerance peaked when extremist Croat and Muslim groups launched wholesale massacres against Bosnian Serbs. With the establishment of monarchical Yugoslavia, the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina accomplished their centennial goal: to live in the same state with Serbia which had proved to be the only guarantor of their religious, civil, human, and national rights. But Serbia, the natural "Piedmont" before the war which provided for the obvious political framework of unity for the South Slavs, could not fulfill that promise in the new Yugoslavia after the war. Belgrade faced the same old problem in a new political context: Because of the need to form tactical alliances with the Muslims against Croatian separatism, Belgrade, adhering to a broader "Yugoslav" ideology, was blocked from completing the process of national integration as a Yugoslav state. Furthermore, Serbian "Yugoslavism" with its centralist emphasis on the unity of state and nation aroused the resentment and opposition of Croats who rallied to a homogenous, that is, specifically Croatian, national movement. To compound these national-ethnic problems, aggravated by the inability of Serbs and Croats to settle on a federal solution, parliamentary democracy did not establish a strong foothold for itself in the inter-war period and its final suspension by King Alexander, followed by personal rule, only weakened the state - and the Serbs who strongly identified with it - even further. Ruled by the Axis powers in the Second World War, Yugoslavia was dismembered, Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of the fascist puppet state of Croatia under Ustasha control, and the Muslims and Croats formed another alliance, this time under Ustasha fascist auspices. In 1941, its central purpose became the systematic elimination - by conversion, expulsion, or slaughter - of the Serbian Orthodox population. To this day, the genocide of those years has not been effectively memorialized, let alone overcome.

In the new communist Yugoslavia of 1945, Bosnian Serbs found themselves entrapped in two utopias: on the one hand, the idealistic vision of Yugoslavism (where all Serbs live within one and the same state) which had failed before the war, and, on the other, the Marxist-Leninist plan for "brotherhood and unity," which, in its Titoist version, ultimately worked to the disadvantage of the Serbs as a national group. The Titoist solution of the national question was more or less the direct opposite of the one enforced by Stalin. After two decades of centralism which he considered crucial for the stabilization of the regime, Tito introduced a kind of federalism that subjected the Serbs, numerically the dominant nation in Yugoslavia, to the permanent control of the rival national groups allied against them. Tito's form of "national-communism" effectively transformed the promise of "brotherhood and unity" into the rule of the sovereign nation (sovereignty in this case was achieved by ethnic coalitions and alliances) in a particular republic with the right to discriminate against the non-sovereign nation that had only minority status. The legal basis for this exceedingly complicated arrangement was inscribed into the Tito's new Constitution of 1974. In this way, the local communist nomenklatura were able to form themselves - with the additional help of national-ethnic coalitions - into homogeneous mini-nation states in which the minority national group had little or no say. Dispersed throughout five of the six federal republics, the Serbs, consistently disadvantaged - even in their own republic of Serbia, which, as the only republic in the Yugoslav Federation, was divided into three units with two autonomous provinces - could not but express extreme discontent at Tito's arrangement.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, it was the Bosnian Muslims, officially recognized as a separate nationality, who became the relative majority and representatives of communist sovereignty. This, in turn, meant the silent discrimination of the Serbs, to some extent also the Croats, although the latter were able to form another Muslim-Croat alliance so as to ensure the stability of the nomenklatura in Bosnia and preempt a possible Serbian challenge (made possible by their numerical superiority) to Tito's federal solution. Once again, the Bosnian Serbs found themselves caught up in the ironic situation that the very - Yugoslav - state to which they lent their support (without which, needless to say, Tito's federal solution would not have been feasible) in effect helped undermine their position by transforming their majority status into that of a minority. Engulfed by the crisis of Yugoslavia's disintegration as of 1991, the Bosnian Serbs opted for the only solution they thought possible, which was to remain in the same state with Serbia and Montenegro.

Unfortunately, the neo-communist regime of Slobodan Milosevic counteracted these aims. Manipulating the growing fears among Bosnian Serbs of another Muslim-Croat alliance and taking full advantage of their readiness to fight for the right of self-determination (in other words, to stay within the Serbo-Montenegrin rump state of Yugoslavia), Milosevic played the power game to the hilt. In the end, exploited by Milosevic for his own ends, the Bosnian Serbs, in a cruel twist of history, became the "aggressors" in the very country of which they were the indigenous population.

Bosnia-Herzegovina can be described as a Yugoslavia in miniature. If Serbs and Croats have been unable to coexist peacefully in Yugoslavia at large, why should they be able to live side by side with a third group, the Bosnian Muslims, which has not only been granted majority status (in alliance with Croats) on a constitutional basis but will soon also become a majority group (due to high birth rates) in absolute terms, thereby dominating the whole of Bosnia? Granting the right of self-determination, in accordance with Tito's vision, to territories instead of to nations residing within (former) Yugoslavia meant that every ethnic group was left fundamentally dissatisfied. As long as Tito was alive, he kept the lid on these dissatisfactions, much the same way that he painted over historic national-religious rivalries or poured concrete over the memory of Ustasha victims in order to solidify his dictatorial power. With his death, the suppressed antagonisms between the Yugoslavia's ethnic groups were unleashed with renewed force. Instead of using the fall of communism as an opportunity to establish political democracy and a free-market economy, to introduce cultural pluralism and principles of inter-ethnic tolerance, the three national groups, conditioned by years of communist-inspired religious intolerance and national-ethnic separatism or superiority vis ŕ vis a group's outsiders, resorted to the nationality principle as the sole criterion of state organization. In so doing, they launched a brutal inter-ethnic war that left both Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Herzegovina dismembered and the fate of the Bosnian Serbs as a distinct national group in both their own homeland and the larger Serbian political entity uncertain at best. Tito himself could not have done a better job in relegating them to this position.



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