Politics and Everyday Life in Mostar and Bosnia & Herzegovina: What to Do Against Ethnicisation?

Impuls 06/2019 by Carla Schraml and Kristina Ćorić, CSSP Berlin Center for Integrative Mediation

The 1992-1995 war and the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended it and set its constitutional framework, left Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) divided across ethnic lines. Favoured by this Constitution, but more importantly, nurtured by the powerful nationalist parties, a fundamental, conflict-prone and distracting discourse regarding the relationships among Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs and their political representation dominates political debates. Most political, economic and social issues, such as access to public services, the fight against corruption, independent judiciary, public broadcasting, fair appointments to posts, government accountability, security or EU integration lack progress to the benefit of ethnicisation and division. By referring to concrete examples, above all in Mostar, this article will show what ethnicisation of politics as well as of daily life means. Mostar is one of the few multi-ethnic places in B&H, with Croats and Bosniaks living there in almost equal shares (Serbs today are a politically non-significant minority). Political rule and daily life are polarised, separately organised life and opposing narratives contribute to the power of ethnicised politics. Our subsequent part will introduce local peacebuilding work, which supports local change by strengthening open and constructive dialogue among citizens, civil society and local political authorities, aiming at challenging stereotypes and simplified views. However, a central point, which is still left unanswered, is that the ethnicised state and its institutions, guaranteed by the Constitution, must be changed. Only then, nationalist politics and rhetoric as well as ethnic divisions will be undermined sufficiently and permanently.  

Ethnicised politics: deeply ingrained in the political system

The political system in B&H is deeply intertwined with ethnicity: the Constitution emphasises ethnic affiliation. Crucial for the predominance of the formulation of interests along ethnic lines are the nationalist parties, which have been powerful actors during the last 28 years – based on extensive wealth and large networks to remain in power. High unemployment, an enormous bureaucratic apparatus as well as weak voter mobilisation of the (non-nationalist) opposition consolidate the overall system.  The Constitution (being an Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement) identifies Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs as the “constituent peoples” and views politics and political functions as to be based on ethnicity. Consequently, the major parties in B&H, Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica (HDZ), Stranka Demokratske Akcije (SDA) and Savez Nezavisnih Sociodemokrata (SNSD), are ethnically defined. They “usurped” ethnopolitical identities by claiming to be their exclusive defenders. Possible ideological and programmatic differences are blurred by nationalist rhetoric. Since SDA, HDZ and, initially, Srpska Demokratska Stranka (SDS), inherited by SNSD, were powerful actors during the war and transition period, they were able to occupy and privatise what were once resources owned socially or by the state. Their networks infiltrated the state and public companies, thereby ensuring stable votes. The power of SDA, HDZ and SNSD is further strengthened by a very high unemployment rate (with youth unemployment exceeding 57%), making the government the biggest employer in the country. 14 different levels of government with hundreds of ministries and 137 local self-governments, leave the nationalist parties with additional influence since thousands of public servants are employed according to ethnic, i.e. party affiliation – thus, in fact, the Constitution strengthens an ethnic system based on some exclusive, self-enriching party-actors. Resignation of voters, a complex voting system and no unified opposition contribute to the power of the major parties. The constantly low voter turnout in B&H – only about 50% throughout the last two decades – is partly caused by many voters not knowing for whom of the more than 150 political parties, independent candidates and coalitions to vote in order to pressure for political change. Nearly 200,000 people, out of which 700 families are from Mostar, have left B&H in the past three years – proving the high level of resignation felt among the population.

Separately organised everyday life and opposing narratives 

Ethnic divisions within the political system are also reflected by daily life on the local level – even more so in the few multi-ethnic municipalities and places, such as in the city of Mostar. Separately organised life and opposing narratives support nationalist politics and parties and are, at the same time, a direct consequence of it. In Mostar, the largest part of Bosniak population lives in the east and the majority of Croats in the west. Although the city administration was politically unified in 2004, many institutions legally exist twofold, divided along ethnic lines: Croat and Bosniak centres of culture and sport clubs or two electric, water, and telecom companies, two post offices. Most of the media is known to be either rather Croat or rather Bosniak. Educational institutions from kindergarten to university are separately organised as well: pupils are following either the Federal (meaning Bosniak) or the Croat Curricula. The divisions are further strengthened by different narratives on contemporary history – so that e.g. one side’s war hero is another side’s war criminal. When Slobodan Praljak committed suicide in the International Criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in autumn 2017, hundreds of people mourned publicly in the western part of Mostar – while the event caused spontaneous celebrations in the eastern part. Due to separately organised life and different narratives, substantial interaction and contact is missing between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. Here, the perspective of the younger generation is particularly interesting. During research for the Youth Strategy of the City of Mostar in 2012, about 2000 people aged 14-29 were interviewed: 55 % have never met a person from another ethnicity. However, 78% were ready to meet and make friends from other ethnic background – a fact, which indicates that, while narratives are slowly losing strength, it is still the divided institutional system that prevents inter-ethnic relations.  Another positive sign is that during the last 24 years, some extent of integration has been achieved in the city. Free movement in town, across the former demarcation line, reconnected citizens in their daily work and routines – at least to some extent. People share the same language and a similar culture. Cultural institutions, as much as they are exponents of official ethnic policies, are visited by people independently of their ethnic background. But the most important integrative factor are local civil society organisations, which provide opportunities for people to meet, exchange and engage in activities together. Furthermore, citizens are increasingly tired of ethnic politics and more and more concerned with their conditions of living: unemployment, low wages and a decreasing quality of life are omnipresent. The public sector is not able to absorb all the well-educated people, entering the job market each year.   In the recent period, a great number of civil society organisations and citizens have become united over issues of communal services and waste management. The local network Naše Društvo has pressed charges with the cantonal Prosecutor against the responsible signatories of the city of Mostar for mismanagement of funds, misuse of position and negligence. Against environmental pollution, major citizens’ protests take place in Mostar. These protests include e.g. the blocking of waste dump, which operates without proper procedures and safety measures.

What can be done to further weaken ethnicised politics in Mostar and Bosnia & Herzegovina? 

Even if a certain level of integration and regional identity has been achieved in Mostar, the ethno-political system is – as argued above – deeply engrained in nearly all public institutions. Most people are still not sufficiently encouraged nor equipped to tackle these broader issues and develop a critical stance regarding official “truths”. While recent protests and campaigns against multiple mismanagement in Mostar show that people are dissatisfied with the current system, these initiatives are quickly suffocated – as institutionalised democratic mechanisms are prone to corruption and party loyalty, above all the judiciary. As there is no higher instance where grievances could be addressed, people resign while the elite – and the ethnicised system – remains untouched. The current CSSP Berlin Centre for Integrative Mediation project in B&H, like other external and local NGOs, tries to further challenge the ethnic focus of everyday life in Mostar and smaller multi-ethnic municipalities in the region. The project strengthens open and constructive dialogue among citizens of different ethnic background and with diverse political opinions. It also supports citizens and civil society organisations in becoming recognised as a stakeholder and representative interlocutor by the local government. It facilitates constructive dialogue e.g. about the future of their municipalities. Relevant actors, such as civil society actors, teachers, pedagogues and pupils, are provided with skills to challenge stereotypes and simplifying views. Within workshops and trainings, CSSP tries to take up narratives about the (post-)war period and promotes converging narratives.  However, although NGOs support a non-divided everyday life free of discrimination, an important point is that without major changes regarding the political system as such and the Constitution, ensuring e.g. joint institutions, especially in terms of education, divisions will continue to be reproduced locally. In order to undermine ethnicised politics (and daily life) sufficiently, the Constitution must be adapted and politicians and media need to abstain from replicating ethnic rhetoric, blurring and dominating any other agenda, such as socio-economic reforms to tackle unemployment and low wages.  For achieving this, the international community could be of help. With the Office of the High Representative (OHR) the ultimate political power in B&H still lays in the international community. Therefore, it should push harder for political reforms. Clear standpoints in respect to ethnic politics should be taken and negotiations with nationalist political parties, bypassing the people and non-governmental organisations of the country, should be avoided. 


Links and Literature

Alternative Report on the Application of Bosnia and Herzegovina for European Union Membership

Adrijana Hanušić Bećirović et al. | Initiative for Monitoring the European Integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina | February 2019


Bosnian Croat Leadership on Course to Throw Bosnia and Herzegovina into Electoral Chaos

Bodo Weber | Heinrich Böll Stifung | December 2017


Commission Opinion on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for membership of the European Union

European Commission | May 2019


Das Politische System Bosnien und Herzegowinas. Herausforderungen zwischen Dayton-Friedensabkommen und EU-Annäherung

Tobias Flessenkemper & Nicolas Moll | VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften | 2018


Mostar: Beyond the Stereotypes of a Divided City

Aline Cateux | Balkanist Magazine | September 2017


Sites of Friction: Governance, Identity and Space in Mostar

Ivan Gusic & Annika Björkdahl | Routledge | 2016