Left-wing Liberal Identity Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Against violence, for the protection of minorities, for universal human rights

In the 1990s, excesses of ethnonationalism led to the devastating Balkan Wars. During the 1992-95 Bosnian War alone, approximately 100,000 people were killed, and more than 20,000 women raped. Today, left-wing liberal agents are trying to free themselves from these destructive forces. They are fighting for fundamental individual and civil rights and the European integration of their country.

Illustration von Jasmina El Bouamraoui

Azra Zornic wants only one thing: as a citizen, she wants to stand for elections in order to contribute to political change in her home country, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Zornic is one of many Bosnians resisting the classification of people primarily by their perceived ethnicities. Yet to reach posts and receive favours, residents of Bosnia must declare allegiance to one of the three dominant social groups: the Bosniaks, the Croats or the Serbs. Zornic takes no stock in this. She wants to operate as a person, to act as an upstanding citizen for the common good in a system that is among one of the poorest in Europe. Political participation in certain positions is therefore not possible for her.

Day-to-day politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina sounds grotesque. With its complex state structure and cemented lines of ethnic conflict, the Balkan country is certainly one of the most glaring examples of right-leaning identity politics that declares the collective the determining factor and which, in this sense, has ethnic overtones. For three decades, these three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats), have been dominating the political landscape. During the war, some of them were opponents, and today still, they decide on the lives of the Bosnian population. Jobs in institutions, administration, media, and even positions in schools and nurseries are predominantly given to party supporters who mercilessly plunder the country’s resources.

According to the Dayton Agreement, which ended the war in 1995, the three constituent groups have more rights than “other” social groups – a unique situation worldwide. Thus, minorities such as Jewish and Romani people cannot run in presidential elections. Citizens like Azra Zornic are also excluded – systematic discrimination exists.

The person, the individual is abolished

The highest maxim of this right-wing identity politics is therefore the construction of an ethnicity. All other identities are marginalised, devalued. The person, the individual – based on the Dayton Agreement, these categories de facto count for nothing. Everything that constitutes the normative foundation of the European Union – equal participation, equal rights for all citizens – is non-existent in Bosnia.

In everyday life, this leads to an open attack on individual rights: Leading the way, ethnonationalists, the Croatian HDZ, the Serbian SNSD, as well as the Bosnian SDA, have divided the state system up among themselves and seized institutions – they rigorously control every angle of political and social life and thwart important reform processes. In particular, the educational system serves the nationalists in passing extremist ideologies on to the younger generation, thus keeping alive the toxic nationalism that led to the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. In Herzegovina for instance, a kind of apartheid system is practiced in schools. There are different school entrances for the children of Catholic Croatians and Muslim Bosniaks. The nationalists even introduced different lesson times so that the children cannot meet each other in the breaks either.

Right-wing nationalist identity politics led to the most heinous war crimes

In this manner, twenty-six years after the end of the Bosnian War, the same separatism is being kept up that led to heinous war crimes between 1992 and 1995 and culminated in the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. In 1991, the then president of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman, and the Serbian ruler, Slobodan Milošević, came to an arrangement to divide up Bosnia and create ethnically pure territories – a Greater Croatia and a Greater Serbia were to emerge. Part of the plan was the annihilation of other groups. For the nationalist camps, war criminals count as heroes who have advanced the cause of their ethnicised collective. The perspective of victims, on the other hand, is disregarded.

With the peace treaty, this toxic nationalism was updated – ultimately, the document was first and foremost geared towards ending hostilities. No one in the international community, discerns the constitutional lawyer, Nedim Ademovic, contemplated on the fact that the Bosnian state could hardly function on the basis of the Dayton Agreement.

Strasbourg rulings: Bosnia must end discrimination

Time and again, citizens distraughtly appeal to the European Court of Justice for human rights, in rebellion against the dominance of this ethnonationalism. More than ten years ago, the president of the Jewish community Jakob Finci and the prominent Roma Dervo Sejdić filed a lawsuit against the Bosnian state – according to the constitution, neither of the two populations are allowed to stand for presidential elections. From the perspective of the European Court of Justice, Bosnia thereby infringes upon the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a further four cases, judges also ruled that Bosnia is systematically breaking European law.

The Strasbourg rulings have still not been implemented. The nationalist blocs are obstructing every reform that would allow other social groups equal political participation. That a large part of the population (roughly 15%), does not have the same rights proves how undemocratic the identity politics of the ethno-power cartel are. Unfortunately, even the international community, especially the EU, has thus far proved too weak to help discriminated against Bosnian citizens obtain their rights. This is one the reasons tens of thousands leave the country for the EU year after year, in order to escape this system of injustice at home.

LGBTQI community – despised and threatened

The left-wing liberal struggle against nationalist supremacy also affects other societal groups who are being denied their fundamental rights as well. LGBTQI people are particularly exposed to verbal and physical attacks. Bosniaks, Croatians and Serbians can agree upon common hatred for members of this community; they are supported by radical representatives of churches, who serve as the long arm of the nationalists and contribute negatively to the rigorous policies of exclusion.

In the context of the first pride parade which took place in the capital of Sarajevo in 2019, despite massive security concerns, it became apparent just how significant the liberal resistance against the nationalists’ dogmas of injustice is: The protest march, which was supported by a strong security contingent and the presence of Green politicians [1] in particular, turned into an impressive manifesto – against the exclusion and discrimination of individuals and for the preservation of their civil rights. The protest march had to be secured with snipers and a twofold security perimeter to hinder extremists from storming the LGBTQI community’s peaceful demonstration. In neighbouring Serbia, at a pride parade in 2010, more that 120 people, mostly police officers, were injured by a violent mob that allegedly wanted to defend family and the fatherland.

In Sarajevo, at the end of the historical LGBTQI protest march, attendees sang an old partisan song. For many it was an emotional moment, as left-wing liberal forces interpret the advocacy for the freedoms and rights of every individual in the tradition of the Yugoslav Partisans’ resistance against fascism during World War II. Those democrats trying to gain rights for minorities through left-wing identity politics are, indeed, an important motor on the path to the much-needed democratisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Instead of the brutal politics of annihilation and ethnically motivated hate of the right-wing nationalist camp – best exemplified at present by the highly dangerous secession efforts of Serbian extremist and member in the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik – the protagonists of the left-wing identity politics are advocating for universal human rights, equality before the law and the inviolability of every individual person. Precisely these ideals are significant to overcoming the division of Bosnian society and ensuring peace, along with protecting the country’s characteristic religious and cultural diversity. This is precisely why these agents need progressive European support.

[1] Alongside ex-Green party leader Krista Sager, Green member of the Bundestag, Manuel Sarrazin, and member of the European Parliament from Germany, Terry Reintke, also took part in the protest march