Winds of solidarity in the Balkans

Sheila Osmanovic surveys Bosnian politics 28 years after the Dayton Accords

In February 2019, the 14th European Youth Olympic Festival brought its Olympic torch to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For a week, youth from across Europe competed in winter sports throughout  Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country which hosted the Olympic Games in 1984.

Although the event does not enjoy a high profile in the European sports calendar, for impoverished Bosnians it brought more than thirty thousand people to the opening Ceremony. It attracted prominent public figures and regional politicians. For a week, Sarajevo and surrounding mountains hosted competitions, award parties, and celebrations. The rhetoric of intolerance and hatred was replaced by vibes of unity and harmony, just as in the ‘good old’ times when the country was part of the Yugoslav federation. Even the notoriously far-right driven president of Republica Srpska, a part of the territory mainly populated by the Serbs in post-war Bosnia, abandoned his divisive and offensive nationalistic language to celebrate sporting spirit and the ethics of fair competition.

The positive atmosphere penetrated corners of Bosnia which generally fall victim to the nationalistic and separatist backbiting of local politicians. Since signing the controversial Dayton Agreement which ended the war 28 years ago, Bosnia was split into two parts and thus held hostage to the political climate of nationalism, extremism, intolerance and the denial of any accountability for extensive war crimes carried out all over the country during Serb-nationalists’ 1992-1995 aggression.

Following the end of the war, all three Bosnian peoples – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (an ethnic name for Bosnian Muslims) – have been conditioned via a plethora of tactically designed political and social factors to embrace ‘own’ people and protect ‘own’ religion from the ‘belligerent other’. Looking after the security of the group traditions and religion was presented as a more important matter than collective socio-economic wellbeing. The religious leaders from all three major denominations in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim – were given prominence in various media shows broadcast widely to ensure the public was re-educated about their roots.

The oft-repeated mantra is that the ‘other’ is ultimately a threat to one’s own religiosity. The ‘other’ ethnic group is presented as unwanted collateral outcome of the Peace Accord imposed by the ‘international community’ and signed in Dayton in 1995. Local politicians as well as those from neighbouring Serbia and Croatia, who were signatories to the peace agreement responsible for ‘their’ people in Bosnia, are playing an endless blame game about who caused the war and who is guilty of the muddled stalemate after it. Respected academia participates in the theatre, submitting various theories partly adopted from their Western counterparts and partly from local sources.

The truth is that neither the religio-political leaders nor the ‘international community’ representatives really care. These bigoted self-proclaimed pioneers of democratic freedoms are staging public displays of hatred to ensure a permanent stronghold for their political power. The same elite which led Bosnia into the war are now claiming to march the country to peace and European integration. There is a joke often heard on the Bosnian streets: by the time Bosnia is ready to join the EU, the EU will be no more! The current political and economic climate in Europe indicates that there might be a pinch of truth in it.

The gloomy economic position is very similar in the neighbouring countries of the ex-Yugoslav region (Slovenia may be an exception). In line with the other countries in ‘transition’ from Eastern Europe, a rich segment of the population has been formed and shaped. For them the reality is somehow different. The nationalist far-right cloak is worn less prominently. It is reserved for display during pre-election campaigns or special occasions to promote financial self-enrichment.   

It is these elites that see moments of solidarity amongst ordinary citizens as particularly dangerous. Any attempt to unite in the common struggle against exploiting interests of the oligarchs is swiftly dispersed by the local police, often helped by the European Police Forces that are still engaged in Bosnia as part of the post-war Dayton peace plan. The citizens’ protests of February 2016 which flared through all Bosnian cities indicate the potential power of a united people. 

The recent mysterious killing of a young university student is another example. It is still unclear how the youngster died after accidentally hacking into secret files of arms deals by the leadership of Republica Srpska. His parents have been persecuted and arrested for enquiring about the true circumstances of their son’s killing. This tragic murder sparked a series of nationwide solidarity actions involving people from all ethnic groups.

The collective mood also evident at the European Youth Games testifies to the winds of solidarity that can blow through the Balkans. Time will show if they are rays of hope for the United Europe.

Sheila Osmanovic

Sheila Osmanovic is a member of Chartist EB.