Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Komsic affair – restored!

Zeljko Komsic

Balkan history is replete with examples of how disingenuous political tactics used to establish an ethnic hegemony lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, people who refuse to recognize history’s mistakes are prone to repeating them.

By Gordon N. Bardos/ transcoflict 

Some six years ago, the present author did a mathematical analysis of Bosnia’s 2010 electoral results which showed that the ostensible Croat candidate for the Bosnian state presidency, Zeljko Komsic, had in fact received some 70-80 percent of his votes from Bosniac voters. Two months ago, in a replay of the 2006 and 2010 elections, Komsic again won election to the Bosnian presidency by effectively disenfranchising the vast majority of Croat voters, heralding what is likely to be yet another period of political instability in the country.

To anyone familiar with the history and fate of the two Yugoslavia’s in the 20th century, historical precedent suggests that Komsic’s election under these conditions should be of considerable concern. The disingenuous political manipulation involved in Komsic’s election is nothing new—and unfortunately we have considerable evidence of the consequences such tactics have had in the past. As this year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the first Yugoslav state, it is worth reviewing Komsic’s election from the perspective of how previous such attempts have fared.

Probably unavoidably, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929) that emerged in 1918 from the breakup of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires started out as an administrative extension of the independent pre-war Kingdom of Serbia. This pre-war Serbian kingdom had the moral authority of being on the victorious Allied side, and the organizational advantage of having a fully-developed governmental bureaucracy and military force. Unfortunately, what this pre-war Serbian bureaucracy lacked was the political experience needed to understand that governing a diverse, multiethnic and multi-religious population would be significantly different than governing a largely mono-ethnic and mono-religious Serbian national state.

Thus, almost by default, the post-World War I Yugoslav state simply tried to expand and impose Serbia’s pre-war unitary political system upon the whole of the new South Slavic state. Yet the problem with this strategy, as Ivo Banac noted in his study of the first Yugoslavia’s formation, was that

unitarism was plainly opposed to the reality of Serb, Croat, and Slovene national individuality and moreover in contradiction to the empirically observable fact that these peoples were fully formed national entities of long standing…to ignore the fact that the South Slavs were not one nation, one culture, and one loyalty, or to insist that they could acquire these unitary characteristics in due course, only weakened the already fragile state and diminished the prospects for good-neighborliness based on the rejection of all forms of assimilationism and on respect of Yugoslavia’s multinational character, the only policy that could strengthen the Yugoslav polity…Cooperation was not the aim of political leaders, nor could it be as long as the centralist bloc refused to respect a principle of concurrent majority in each national community…A pretense was made that such parties as the Democratic Party were ‘multitribal,’ though in fact the Croat and Slovene Democrats had no stable support in their communities. Yugoslavia was indeed a highly diversified multinational state, but multinationalism could not promote consociationalism while the national ideologies of the principal group encouraged the notion that domination through assimilation was imminent.

Given these ideological blinders, in the first Yugoslavia neither multi-party democracy nor royal dictatorship could develop a framework for a united state which at the same time satisfied the legitimate interests of Yugoslavia’s various ethnic groups to autonomy and self-governance. After some two decades of chronic instability, the outbreak of World War II provided the final nail in the first Yugoslavia’s coffin.

Tragically, during World War II these problems came back to haunt the South Slavs in the form of the fratricidal civil war which afflicted Yugoslavia from 1941-45. Josip Broz Tito’s communist movement emerged victorious from the bloodbath, due in no small part to the fact that it was perhaps alone in formulating a political platform able to attract at least a modicum of support from amongst Yugoslavia’s various peoples.

One of the most important pillars of this platform was the creation of an ethno-federal system, and an implicit acceptance of the political equality of Yugoslavia’s constituent peoples, regardless of size (the implicit acceptance would become more explicit as time went on). For many academic specialists of Tito’s Yugoslavia, this was in fact the key reason for the Partisan movement’s successes; Susan Woodward, for instance, has claimed that “the commitment to recognize the separate existence of Yugoslav nations and their sovereign rights was critical to the communist victory after 1943.”

Nowhere was this more critical than in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), where the famous 1943 declaration of the Anti-Fascist Resistance Council of BiH (local acronym: ZAVNOBiH) claimed that Bosnia was “neither Serbian nor Croatian nor Muslim…but Serbian and Muslim and Croatian,” thereby explicitly endorsing the concept that all three ethnic groups were equal constituent peoples in BiH.

Yet even though the Yugoslav communists were more astute politically when it came to dealing with Yugoslavia’s national question, they too failed to find a formula to resolve it, just as the Habsburgs and the Royal Yugoslav government had failed before them. By the 1960s, for instance, Dennison Rusinow would claim that

the tendency to subsume all other questions and conflicts to the national one and to interpret and simplify every issue in national terms, reminiscent of old Yugoslavia and of the Habsburg monarchy before it, was again becoming nearly universal.

Indeed, as time went on, the main Marxist theoretician in the Yugoslav communist leadership, Eduard Kardelj, became more and more pessimistic about resolving the problem. By the 1960s Kardelj would claim

We have up until now tried everything possible to maintain Yugoslavia; first it was a unitary state, then it became a federation, and now we are moving towards a confederation. If even that does not succeed, then it only remains for us to admit that the Comintern was right when it claimed that Yugoslavia was an artificial creation and that we—Yugoslav communists—had made a mistake.

With Tito’s death in 1980, the terminal stage of Yugoslavia’s disintegration began. Although the country’s collapse was caused by multiple phenomenon (both domestic and international), one of these most certainly was Slobodan Milošević attempt in the latter half of the decade to impose his own designated leaders in Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina, all in an attempt to build an artificial majority coalition for his chosen vision of a more centralized, unitary Yugoslav future. Predictably, the leaders of Yugoslavia’s other republics/ethnic groups objected. As Slovenian president Milan Kučan argued, “Can the imposition of majority decisionmaking in a multinational community by those who are the most numerous be anything else but the violation of the principle of the equality of nations, the negation of its sovereignty and therefore the right to autonomous decisionmaking…? “ The rest, as they say, is history.

Just as it had in the two Yugoslavia’s, disagreements over the principle of the equality of nations in a multi-ethnic state plagued Bosnia & Herzegovina from its beginnings as well. In 1991-1992 Bosnia’s Serbs justified their rebellion in part on the argument that their equal rights as a constituent nation in BiH were being violated by the outvoting of the Croat-Muslim coalition in Bosnia.

Resolving this issue would plague peace negotiators for the duration of the war; indeed, one of the prerequisites for ending the Bosnian war was for international negotiators to reconcile themselves to the necessity of applying federal and consociational principles to any post-war settlement. As the late Richard Holbrooke once noted,

Bosnia is a federal state. It has to be structured as a federal state. You cannot have a unitary government, because then the country would go back into fighting. And that’s the reason that the Dayton agreement has been probably the most successful peace agreement in the world in the last generation, because it recognized the reality.

Somewhere over the past few years, however, a new concept has crept into Bosnian politics, which Ivan Lovrenovic has described as an “epochal precedent”: a renunciation of the ZAVNOHBiH idea that Bosnia & Herzegovina was “Serbian and Muslim and Croatian, which excluded the idea the criteria of majority and minorities in governing, in claiming to have greater rights,” in favor of the notion that there is now a political majority and political minorities in BiH. Entirely predictably, the unilateral abandonment of the ZAVNOHBiH principles has thrown Bosnian politics into chaos.

Numerous motivations are driving this policy. Islamist elements in the country have for decades wanted an unchallengeable unitarist order in the country. As Alija Izetbegovic demanded some forty years ago

There exists one order, one dynamic, one well-being, one progress which can be built on this land and in this region, but that is not the order, progress and well-being of Europe and America…the Islamic movement can and must move towards taking power as soon as it is morally and numerically strong enough so that it can not only destroy the existing non-Islamic [order], but build a new Islamic power.

While Bosnia’s secular unitarists have a different metaphysical inspiration, the end result is largely the same. Unfortunately, few international observers have been keen enough to recognize this. Among the rare few has been Sumantra Bose, who once correctly noted that many of “the strongest opponents of diffusion of political authority and sharing of power [manifested in the Dayton Peace Accords] are very often deeply illiberal elements—ethnic majoritarian nationalists . . . who sometimes try to obscure their real agenda, centralization and domination, by invoking the principle of equality of all citizens regardless of ethnicity or nationality.” Bose would also note,

The shrill protests of many (not all) Bosnian and foreign integrationist revisionists against the Dayton settlement are inspired, in fact, not by a value-based commitment to a multi-national, civic, society but by a desire for a less decentralized, more unitary state which will put the disobedient and disloyal Bosnian Serbs (and to a lesser extent, the intransigent BiH Croats) in their place. The underlying motive is to settle accounts from the war, rather than build a forward-looking vision and strategy for the reconstruction of Bosnia & Herzegovina in the overall context of the Yugoslav region.

Somewhat ironically, although the advocates of this policy claim to be civic non-nationalists who reject “constructed” ethnic categories, they either do not understand or do not care about the intellectual contradiction at the heart of their own argument—that dividing ethnic groups into permanent political majorities and minorities does not break down ethnic identities and allegiances, it reifies and reinforces them.

Moreover, given the realities of contemporary Bosnia, what the unitarists are actually trying to impose is not a civic, non-national state and society, but a form of internal colonialism in which one group of people in one part of the country is allowed to establish political domination over other groups of people in other parts of the country.

While Komsic claims he has the understanding of the American ambassador in Sarajevo and the High Representative, most reasonable people agree that in a complex multiethnic country such policies are detrimental. As far back as September 2006, for instance, Haris Silajdzic explained the obvious to Komsic,

I believe that if we live in a system of ethnic representation and if the Bosniacs choose the Bosniac representative, and the Serbs the Serb representative, that it is not just towards the Croats that someone chooses their representative on their behalf. I believe that that is dangerous for BiH…and that will cause citizens of Croat nationality to feel revulsion towards BiH. And that could lead the Croats to ask for a third entity.

Other prominent public figures in Bosnia have voiced similar concerns. Senad Hadzifejzovic once noted that Sarajevo’s imposition of Komsic on the Croats was akin to the HDZ trying to impose the rebel leader Fikret Abdic on the Bosniac electorate, while Muhamed Filipovic has said that if Komsic had any morals he never would have even presented himself as a candidate. Meanwhile, scholars such as Mile Lasić and Sacir Filandra have argued that the unitarist nationalism Komsic represents was as dangerous to Bosnia & Herzegovina as Croat and Serb separatist nationalism.

Even individuals whose political opinions on most things are diametrically opposed have expressed similar views on this issue. On the eve of BiH’s October elections the leader of the Islamic Community of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Husein Kavazovic, explicitly stated that “I do not consider it good that the members of one people choose the representatives of another people,” while Milorad Dodik, for his part, warned that others should not make the same mistake the Serbs made in Yugoslavia. The prominent Sarajevo commentator Nedzad Latic has perhaps been most dire of all, warning that the political games Komsic and his followers are playing were “leading Bosnia to hell.”

To conclude, it is worth going back to the quote by Ivo Banac cited at the beginning of this piece. Banac’s description on the problems facing the first Yugoslavia was written in 1980s to describe what had taken place some six decades earlier. An interesting thought experiment, however, is to take what Banac wrote in the 1980s, and, by changing tenses and a few nouns and adjectives, see how his words apply today, some forty years later. What we get is the following:

…unitarism is plainly opposed to the reality of Bosniac, Croat, and Serb national individuality and moreover in contradiction to the empirically observable fact that these peoples are fully formed national entities of long standing…To act as if this is not the case, to ignore the fact that the peoples of Bosnia & Herzegovina are not one nation, one culture, and one loyalty, or to insist that they can acquire these unitary characteristics in due course, only weakens the already fragile state and diminishes the prospects for good-neighborliness based on the rejection of all forms of assimilationism and on respect of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s multinational character, the only policy that can strengthen the Bosnian polity…Cooperation is not the aim of political leaders, nor can it be as long as the centralist bloc refuses to respect a principle of concurrent majority in each national community. Instead, the centralists seek to impose a patchwork majority, consisting of Bosniac parties and their tactical allies, onto the parties that represent most of the non-Bosniac groups. A pretense is made that such parties as the Democratic Front are “multitribal,” though in fact the Croat and Serb Democrats have no stable support in their communities. Bosnia & Herzegovina is indeed a highly diversified multinational state, but multinationalism cannot promote consociationalism while the national ideology of the principal group encourages the notion that domination through assimilation is imminent.”

As the French might put it, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Balkan history is replete with examples of how disingenuous political tactics used to establish an ethnic hegemony lead to tragedy. Unfortunately, people who refuse to recognize history’s mistakes are prone to repeating them.

(Gordon N. Bardos is president of SEERECON, a political risk and strategic consultancy specializing in Southeastern Europe)


  1. Reblogged this on Ace News Desk.

  2. Thank you Ina , the formation of Yugoslavia compares to the EU.
    Look forward to an article about that.
    Best regards

  3. How can someone who is part Serb, fought against Croats in central Bosnia in 1993, is an atheist or does not attend church service be elected as the representative for Catholic Croats in BiH. This goes against the Dayton Peace agreement which allows for all 3 ethnic groups to be equal. I don’t see equality here at all. A country which historically once was a Croatian Kingdom has now become state which wants to drive Croats away from their ancestral lands. Zagreb needs to continue to lobby the E.U about Bosnia’s continued injustice towards the Croatian people. Please god save us from these ‘Red Bandits’ who continue to destroy our traditions and way of life.

  4. Bună ziua, Ina ! 🙂
    Un mare om politic român, fost savant, istoric și prim ministru al României interbelice, NICOLAE IORGA ,a spus la acea vreme :
    ” Cine uită greșelile trecutului, e predispus a le repeta ” ……….
    Felicitări pentru postare ! 🙂
    O lună decembrie cât mai frumoasă și plăcută ! 🙂
    Alioșa ! 🙂

    • Nicolae Iorga was right, Aliosa, it’s in learning the lessons of past that a future has a chance. Blessings to you this December and beyond, throughout Advent 🙂

  5. ..the problem with the embattled Croatian nation, is that the Croats have NEVER had good leaders! ..Dr. Franjo Tudman, was a good leader (but he should have NEVER let the Hague take Tihomir Blaskovic, as the Serbians NEVER relinquished Radovan Karadzic, even with a $5,000,000 reward!), and Cardinal Stepinac, should have urged Ante Pavelic to switch to the American side, because in 1942, General Lovric was contacting the Americans to have an invasion through the Dalmatian coast, but stupid Pavelic had him hanged, and the idiot Stepinac should have urged him to turn to the Americans, and not turn to fairytales, such as Jesus! The Serbian Orthodox priests switched sides (in 1943, with the Chetniks going to the Paritisan side!), as they know how to play both sides, in order to win! Just look at Koca Popovic, who switched from the Chetniks to the Paritsans, when he knew that they were losing, and these god-damned “Serbians” (mostly from Croatian & Bosnia) did the most blood thirsty killing of the Croats, during May 1945!
    Croatia made a deadly mistake to adopt this poison of Christianity, instead the Roman emperors should have of destroyed that silly death cult of Jesus followers! I was raised as an Roman Catholic also, but because that church (and King Tomislav) allowed these Serbian janniserries into Croatia, in 925 AD, my parents fled our homeland!

  6. Claiming something on a card of history ancestry like having Kingdoms (once upon a time) is a trick game and in general a bunch of nonsense, that way any great neighbouring nation can claim anything (and everything) in this region. Almost every little peace of land we live on and own now was once a part of Roman Empire or later of Italy as well. It was all Italian. The rest was either Austrian or Hungarian. We just changed the city Italian names and now it’s “our” lovely towns. Claiming the deep history, it turns that nothing belonged to us. We were actually the invaders here as we have had invaded these lands around 7th century (as they say) but there were people who lived here before we came. These lands belonged to them. We killed many of them, put many in exile and slaved the rest. Of course we took their land. Later came the Turks, the same way. Horrible murderers as we know but they have been here for 500 or so years. They could claim something as well.
    In the light of all this I suggest to keep our mouth shot.

    As for Bosnia, the time of great decisions for Croats is way behind us, the disastrous politics of late president Franjo Tudjman, take it’s tool. The Croats once a great nation in Bosnia are now a minority. Still, they want to rule. But only loyal citizens should have the honour to represent the country. Imho Bosnian Croats (along with Serbs) have never been loyal to country they live in. Have you ever seen a single Bosnian Croat to publicly carry a Bosnian national flag for any cause? I haven’t. It’s always flag of the foreign country, a Croatian flag. Something we don’t like or approve if Croatian Serbs do. You remember what Zeljana Zovko, a once from state of Bosnia appointed ambassador in Rome did? She simply turned her trust to the other state. She represents the foreign state in EU parlament now. It is not Bosnia anymore (hopefully it is the last representing state for her?). Now how do you call that? An apostasy? Call it whatever you like but acts of that sort keep stucked in certain people’s minds and definitely don’t do any favor to remainder of the Croatian people there. Like, they can’t be trusted anymore.
    Now the recent situation for our people there is so pathetic that we go hand in hand with Serbs there, Croats even vote for their representatives when ordered (true). Voting for those who put hundreds of thousands Croats in exile is the most miserable political act one could ever imagine. Of course they have the right to vote anyone they like (constitutional rights) but we all know it’s not because they tend to be so democratical but for some more ground reasons. I have really lost respect to those people, over time I lost compassion too.
    So I would say that mr. Komsic is not the problem, he is the consequence, the problem is we ourselves.

    Thank you.

  7. The great traitor and Serbian butler Dragan Covic has been in Banja Luka on this day apparently in order to support a great Serbian orgy or what they call a “memorial day” on January 9th (and to further promote his selfish politics) by which act he betrayed and undo all the innocent Croatian (and Bosniak) victims of ethnic cleansing done by the Serbs on what is now called a “serbian republic” or “republika srpska”. And think, that man has been and allegedly still is a representative of our people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I mean all of them. Doing this he clearly is showing that what he only cares about is only a small fraction of our population there, letting all the others to their tragic destiny. I hope those will become aware of what this man is doing to them. Until it’s too late.

    Still this politician unlike mr.Komsic has not been called undesirable to any place with Croatian mayority. Not yet.

  8. Jerry Saric says:

    Excellent article! Detailed analysis.Arguments are spot on. As an ethnic Croat with roots in this region I must say I am quite impressed in the deep understanding the author has of local nationalist politics given the complexity of the socio-political landscape. I do believe however that many western political leaders are more aware than we believe in the real motives behind the “civic state” that the political elite in Sarajevo deceivingly claim to adhere to. Could be the West does not care? Perhaps there are Western Elements interested in instability? Or perhaps the perpetual if not misguided fear of growing Russian influence in Europe is driving such anti-democratic Western interest? Which would not be the first time in history nor the last globally speaking.

    • All you points could be at play Jerry! Indeed one finds it incredulous that almost thirty years on many undercurrents creating unrest etc linger on so strongly there

Leave a Reply to DalmoCancel reply

Disclaimer, Terms and Conditions:

All content on “Croatia, the War, and the Future” blog is for informational purposes only. “Croatia, the War, and the Future” blog is not responsible for and expressly disclaims all liability for the interpretations and subsequent reactions of visitors or commenters either to this site or its associate Twitter account, @IVukic or its Facebook account. Comments on this website are the sole responsibility of their writers and the writer will take full responsibility, liability, and blame for any libel or litigation that results from something written in or as a direct result of something written in a comment. The nature of information provided on this website may be transitional and, therefore, accuracy, completeness, veracity, honesty, exactitude, factuality and politeness of comments are not guaranteed. This blog may contain hypertext links to other websites or webpages. “Croatia, the War, and the Future” does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness or completeness of information on any other website or webpage. We do not endorse or accept any responsibility for any views expressed or products or services offered on outside sites, or the organisations sponsoring those sites, or the safety of linking to those sites. Comment Policy: Everyone is welcome and encouraged to voice their opinion regardless of identity, politics, ideology, religion or agreement with the subject in posts or other commentators. Personal or other criticism is acceptable as long as it is justified by facts, arguments or discussions of key issues. Comments that include profanity, offensive language and insults will be moderated.
%d bloggers like this: