Ancient and medieval periods
When the Romans extended their conquests into the territory of modern Bosnia during the 2nd and 1st centuries bce, the people they encountered there belonged mainly to Illyrian tribes. Most of the area of modern Bosnia was incorporated into the Roman province of Dalmatia. During the 4th and 5th centuries ce, Roman armies suffered heavy defeats in this region at the hands of invading Goths. When the Goths were eventually driven out of the Balkans by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the early 6th century, the Bosnian territory became, notionally at least, part of the Byzantine Empire.
Slavs began to settle in this territory during the 6th century. A second wave of Slavs in the 7th century included two powerful tribes, the Croats and the Serbs: Croats probably covered most of central, western, and northern Bosnia, while Serbs extended into the Drina River valley and modern Herzegovina. The terms “Serb” and “Croat” were in this period tribal labels; they were subsequently used to refer to the inhabitants of Serbian or Croatian political entities and only later acquired the connotations of ethnic or national identity in the modern sense.
During the late 8th and early 9th centuries, part of northwestern Bosnia was conquered by Charlemagne’s Franks. This area later became part of Croatia under King Tomislav. After Tomislav’s death in 928, much of Bosnia was taken over by a Serb princedom that acknowledged the sovereignty of the Byzantine Empire. The first written mention of Bosnia was recorded during this period by the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who described “Bosona” as a district in “baptized Serbia.” The district he referred to was an area much smaller than modern Bosnia and centred on the Bosna River. Soon after Constantine wrote those words, most of the modern territory of Bosnia reverted to Croatian rule.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, Bosnia experienced rule by Byzantium through Croatian or Serbian intermediaries, incorporation into a Serbian kingdom that had expanded northward from the territory of modern Montenegro and Herzegovina, rule by Hungary, and a brief period of renewed Byzantine rule. After the death of the emperor Manuel I Comnenus in 1180, Byzantine rule fell away, and government by Croatia or Hungary was not restored: a Bosnian territory (excluding much of modern Bosnia and all of Herzegovina) thus became, for the first time, an independent entity.
A Bosnian state of some kind existed during most of the period from 1180 to 1463, despite periodic intrusions from the neighbouring kingdom of Hungary, which maintained a theoretical claim to sovereignty over Bosnia. Bosnia enjoyed periods of power and independence, especially under three prominent rulers: Ban Kulin (ruled c. 1180–1204), Ban Stjepan (Stephen) Kotromanić (ruled 1322–53) of the Kotromanić dynasty, and Stjepan’s successor, King Tvrtko I (ruled 1353–91). Under Stjepan Kotromanić, Bosnia expanded southward, incorporating the principality of Hum (modern Herzegovina). During the reign of Tvrtko I, Bosnia reached farther south and acquired a portion of the Dalmatian coast. For a brief period in the late 14th century, Bosnia was the most powerful state in the western Balkans. This Greater Bosnia of Tvrtko’s final decades was an exception, however: for most of the medieval period, Bosnia was mainly a landlocked state, isolated and protected by its impenetrable terrain.
One consequence of this isolation was the development of a distinctive Bosnian church. After the schism of 1054 divided Western (Latin, or Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Eastern Orthodox) Christianity, most of the Bosnian territory (excluding modern Herzegovina) was Latin, but during the long period of isolation from Rome the Bosnian church fell into its own de facto schism, electing its own leaders from among the heads of the monastic houses. A combination of poor theological training, lax observances, and Eastern Orthodox practices led to frequent complaints from neighbouring areas, beginning in the 1190s, that the Bosnian church was infected with heresy. In 1203 a papal legate was sent to investigate these charges, and Ban Kulin gathered a special council at Bilino Polje (near modern Zenica), where the church leaders signed a declaration promising to undertake a series of reforms. Most involved correcting lax religious practices; in addition, however, they promised not to shelter heretics in their monasteries. The extent to which these reforms were observed is very uncertain, since over the following century the church in Bosnia became increasingly isolated. Occasional complaints from the 1280s onward still referred to “heretics” in Bosnia, and, by the time the Roman Catholic Franciscans began to operate there in 1340, the official view from Rome was that the entire Bosnian church had fallen into heresy, from which its members needed to be converted.
Beginning in the mid-19th century, many historians argued that the Bosnian church had adopted the extreme dualist heresy of the Bulgarian Bogomils. Evidence for this view came from the papal denunciations of the Bosnians, which sometimes accused them of Manichaeism, the dualist theology on which Bogomil beliefs were based. In addition, Italian and Dalmatian sources referred to the Bosnians as “Patarins,” a term used in Italy for a range of heretics including the Cathari, whose beliefs were linked to Bogomilism. However, later scholarship suggested that the authors of those denunciations had little or no knowledge of the situation inside Bosnia and that confusion may have been caused by the existence of genuine dualist heretics on the Dalmatian coast. Furthermore, the surviving evidence of the religious practices of the Bosnian church shows that its members accepted many things that Bogomils fiercely rejected, such as the sign of the cross, the Old Testament, the mass, the use of church buildings, and the drinking of wine. The Bosnian church should thus be considered an essentially nonheretical branch of the Roman Catholic Church, based in monastic houses in which some Eastern Orthodox practices also were observed.
During the 14th century the Franciscans established a network of friaries in Bosnia and spent more than a century trying to convert members of the Bosnian church to mainstream Catholicism. In 1459 this campaign received the full support of the Bosnian king, Stjepan Tomaš Ostojić, who summoned the clergy of the Bosnian church and ordered them to convert to Roman Catholicism or leave the kingdom. When most of the clergy converted, the back of the Bosnian church was broken.
The final decades of the medieval Bosnian state were troubled by civil war, Hungarian interference, and the threat of invasion by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Ottoman armies began raiding Serbia in the 1380s and crossed into Bosnian-ruled Hum (Herzegovina) in 1388. King Tvrtko I sent a large force to fight against them alongside the Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo Polje in the following year. Tvrtko’s successor, Stjepan Ostoja, struggled for possession of the crown against his brother Tvrtko II, who was supported first by the Turks and then by the Hungarians after Ostoja’s death. The nobleman Stefan Vukčić also engaged in tactical alliances against the Bosnian rulers, establishing his own rule over the territory of Hum and giving himself the title herceg (duke), from which the name Herzegovina is derived. Ottoman forces captured an important part of central Bosnia in 1448, centred on the settlement of Vrhbosna, which they developed into the city of Sarajevo. In 1463 they conquered most of the rest of Bosnia proper, although parts of Herzegovina and some northern areas of Bosnia were taken over by Hungary and remained under Hungarian control until the 1520s. Vukčić and his son were gradually forced out of their domains, and the last fortress in Herzegovina fell to the Turks in 1482.
Bosnia was rapidly absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and was divided into military-administrative districts, or sanjaks (from the Turkish sancàk, meaning “banner”). In 1580 a broad area covering modern Bosnia and some surrounding areas of Croatia and Serbia was given the full status of an eyalet, or constituent province of the empire. Bosnia enjoyed this status as a distinct entity throughout the rest of the Ottoman period. The Bosnian eyalet was governed by a vizier and administered through a network of junior pashas and local judges. Land was distributed according to the Ottoman feudal system, in which the holder of a timar (estate) had to report for military duty, bringing and supporting other soldiers. A wide range of taxes was imposed, including the harač, a graduated poll tax on non-Muslims. Also introduced was the notorious system called devşirme, under which Christian boys aged 10 and above were taken off for training in the imperial administration and the Janissary corps, an elite army division. In all these respects, conditions in Bosnia were similar to those in the other conquered areas of Europe.
In one crucial way, however, Bosnia differed from the other Balkan lands (except, later, Albania): a large part of the native population converted to Islam. This was a gradual development; it took more than a hundred years for Muslims to become an absolute majority. There was no mass conversion at the outset, nor mass immigration of Muslims from Anatolia. The fundamental reason for the growth of such a large Muslim population in Bosnia may lie in the earlier religious history of the Bosnian state. Whereas neighbouring Serbia had benefited from a strong, territorially organized national church, Bosnia had seen competition in most areas between the Bosnian church and the Roman Catholic Church, both of which operated only out of monastic houses. In Herzegovina a third church, the Serbian Orthodox, had competed. Christianity was thus structurally weaker in Bosnia than in almost any other part of the Balkans. The motives that inclined Bosnians to adopt Islam were partly economic: the prosperous cities of Sarajevo and Mostar were also mainly Muslim, and it was not possible to lead a full civic life there without converting to Islam. Other motives included the privileged legal status enjoyed by Muslims and, possibly, a desire to avoid the poll tax on non-Muslims, though Muslims were subject, unlike Christians, both to the alms tax and to the duties of general military service. But the traditional belief that Bosnian noblemen converted en masse to Islam in order to keep their estates has been largely disproved by modern historians.
Another way in which Bosnia differed from other parts of the Ottoman Balkans is that, for most of the Ottoman period, Bosnia was a frontier province, facing some of the empire’s most important enemies— Austria, Hungary, and Venice. To fill up depopulated areas of northern and western Bosnia, the Ottomans encouraged the migration of large numbers of hardy settlers with military skills from Serbia and Herzegovina. Some of these settlers were Vlachs, members of a pre-Slav Balkan population that had acquired a Latinate language and specialized in stock breeding, horse raising, long-distance trade, and fighting. Most were members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Before the Ottoman conquest, that church had had very few members in the Bosnian lands outside Herzegovina and the eastern strip of the Drina valley. There is no definite evidence of any Orthodox church buildings in central, northern, or western Bosnia before 1463. During the 16th century, however, several Orthodox monasteries were built in those parts of Bosnia, apparently to serve the newly settled Orthodox population there.
Major wars affecting Bosnia took place almost every two generations throughout the Ottoman period. Bosnia was an important recruiting ground for Süleyman I’s campaign to conquer Hungary (1520–33). There was fighting on Bosnia’s borders during his final Hungarian campaign of 1566. And the large-scale Habsburg-Ottoman conflict of 1593–1606 was sparked by fighting in the Bihać region of northwestern Bosnia. This war left Bosnia financially drained and militarily exhausted. A Venetian-Ottoman war, beginning in the 1640s and lasting until 1669, involved heavy fighting and destruction in parts of western Bosnia. In the Habsburg-Ottoman war of 1683–99, Austria reconquered Ottoman Hungary and Slavonia, sending a flood of Muslim refugees (mainly converted Slavs) into Bosnia. In 1697 a small Austrian army under Prince Eugene of Savoy marched into the heart of Bosnia, put Sarajevo to the torch, and hurried back to Austrian territory, taking thousands of Roman Catholic Bosnians with it. In the next major war (1714–18), Austria joined forces with Venice, and in the Treaty of Passarowitz (Požarevac, Serbia) in 1718, Venetian-ruled Dalmatia was allowed to extend its territory inland, reaching a line that since then has formed part of the southwestern border of Bosnia. Austria invaded Bosnia again in 1736 but was repelled by local forces. In the subsequent peace settlement (the Treaty of Belgrade, 1739), Austria gave up its claim to the territory south of the Sava River. This settlement formed the basis of the northern border of modern Bosnia. Austria seized more territory after invading Bosnia again in 1788, but it yielded up its gains at the peace settlement in 1791.
The chronic fighting weakened Bosnia. War necessitated increased taxation, causing tax revolts. Forced conscription and frequent plague epidemics led to a relative reduction in the Muslim population, which contributed its manpower to Ottoman campaigns throughout the empire and may have suffered disproportionately from the effects of plague in the cities. In the 18th century there was strong growth in the Christian population; by the end of the century the Muslims were probably no longer in the majority. The social consequences of war also included a change in the system of land tenure: increasingly, the old feudal timar estates were converted into a type of private estate known as a çiftlik, in response to the imperial treasury’s need for cash instead of old-style feudal service. The conditions of work demanded of the peasants on these estates were usually much more severe, and these peasants tended increasingly to be Christians, since Muslim peasants were able to acquire smallholdings in their own right.
Nevertheless, Ottoman Bosnia was not permanently sunk in misery. Descriptions of Sarajevo by visiting travelers portray it as one of the wonders of the Balkans, with fountains, bridges, schools, libraries, and mosques. Fine mosques were also built in towns such as Foča and Banja Luka. (Many of these buildings were systematically demolished by Serb forces in 1992–93.) Numerous works of poetry, philosophy, and theology were written. The cities of Sarajevo and Mostar, where such urban culture flourished, enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under elected officials. After war forced the Bosnian viziers to move out of Sarajevo in the 1690s, they found it almost impossible to return, residing instead in the town of Travnik and exercising only limited power. Real local power passed increasingly into the hands of a type of hereditary official (unique to the Bosnian eyalet) known as a kapetan.
The existence of these powerful local institutions meant that Bosnia was well equipped to resist the reforming measures that the Ottoman sultans began to issue in the early 19th century. When Sultan Mahmud II reformed the military in 1826 and abolished the Janissary corps (which had acquired the status of a privileged social institution), the reform was fiercely resisted by local Janissaries in Bosnia. The Ottoman authorities mounted punitive campaigns against the Janissaries’ stronghold, Sarajevo, in 1827 and 1828. In 1831 a charismatic young kapetan called Husein seized power in Bosnia, imprisoning the vizier in Travnik. With an army of 25,000 men, Husein then marched into Kosovo to negotiate with the Ottoman grand vizier, demanding local autonomy for Bosnia and an end to the reform process there. But the grand vizier stirred up a rivalry between Husein and the leading kapetan of Herzegovina, Ali-aga Rizvanbegović, and in the following year Husein’s support melted away when a large Ottoman army entered Bosnia. Rizvanbegović’s reward was that Herzegovina was separated from the Bosnian eyalet as a distinct territory under his rule. Further reforms announced by Sultan Abdülmecid I, involving new rights for Christian subjects, a new basis for army conscription, and an end to the much-hated system of tax-farming, were either resisted or ignored by the powerful Bosnian landowners.
During these final decades of Ottoman rule, the rise of Serbia as a quasi-autonomous Christian province, from which Muslims were violently expelled, made Bosnian Muslims feel more isolated and vulnerable. The increasing role of foreign powers (especially Austria and Russia) as “protectors” of the interests of Christians in the Balkans also raised Bosnian suspicions. Bosnian landowners, feeling that they could no longer trust the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople (now Istanbul) to maintain their power, frequently turned to more repressive measures against their Christian subjects.
However, two Bosnian governors succeeded in forcing through some of the sultan’s reforms and curbing local resistance. The first of these, Omer-paša Latas, crushed a major rebellion in 1850–51 and revoked the separate status of Herzegovina. The second, Topal Osman-paša, introduced a new method of military conscription in 1865 and a completely new administrative system in 1866, dividing Bosnia into seven sanjaks and establishing a consultative assembly. He also built schools, roads, and a public hospital and allowed the two Christian communities to build new schools and churches of their own. Yet the growing tax demands on Bosnian peasants revived local resistance.
In 1875 a revolt against the state tax collectors began among Christian peasants in the Nevesinje region of Herzegovina. Unrest soon spread to other areas of Bosnia, and repressive force was applied both by the new Bosnian governor and by local landowners using their own irregular troops. The revolt aroused enormous popular sympathy in Serbia, which, along with Montenegro, declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1876. Russia came into the war on their behalf in the following year. After the Serbo-Turkish War ended in 1878, the other great powers of Europe intervened at the Congress of Berlin to counterbalance Russia’s new influence in the Balkans. The congress decided that Bosnia and Herzegovina, while remaining notionally under Turkish sovereignty, would be occupied and governed by Austria-Hungary. In 1878 Austro-Hungarian troops took control of Bosnia, overcoming vigorous resistance from local Bosnian forces. They also occupied the neighbouring sanjak of Novi Pazar (now in Serbia), which had been one of the seven Bosnian sanjaks in the late Ottoman period.
Bosnia and Herzegovina under Austro-Hungarian rule
Bosnia and Herzegovina was declared a “crown land” and was governed by a special joint commission under the Common Ministry of Finance. The Ottoman administrative division was preserved, and Ottoman laws were only gradually replaced or supplemented. This policy of gradualism was the most striking aspect of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina under Common Finance Minister Benjamin Kállay, a specialist in South Slav history who directed Bosnian policy from 1882 to 1903. Indeed, a common criticism of Austro-Hungarian rule was that little was done to resolve tensions between landlords and peasants. In other areas, however, Kállay’s rule was extremely active. A public works program was initiated, and by 1907 Bosnia and Herzegovina had a well-developed infrastructure, including an extensive railway and road network. Mines and factories were developed, and agriculture was promoted with model farms and training colleges. Three high schools and nearly 200 primary schools were built, although compulsory education was not introduced until 1909.
While he succeeded in many of these areas of practical improvement, Kállay failed in his central political project: developing a Bosnian national consciousness to insulate the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the growing movements of Croatian, Serbian, and Yugoslav (“South Slav”) nationalism. Roman Catholic and Orthodox people of Bosnia and Herzegovina had begun by the mid-19th century to identify themselves as “Croats” and “Serbs,” respectively. At the same time, Muslim intellectuals were campaigning for greater powers over the Islamic institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby becoming quasi-political representatives of a Muslim community with its own distinctive interests. During the first decade of the 20th century, new “national organizations” of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats functioned as embryonic political parties. In response, Kállay’s successor, István, Freiherr (baron) Burián, granted a degree of autonomy in religious affairs to both the Muslims and the Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In October 1908 nationalist feeling was strongly aroused by the sudden announcement that Bosnia and Herzegovina would be fully annexed by Austria-Hungary. The decision, which caught other great powers by surprise and created a diplomatic crisis lasting many months, was prompted by the revolution of the Young Turks in Constantinople. The Young Turks appeared ready to establish a more democratic regime in the Ottoman Empire, which could then plausibly reclaim Turkish rights over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Inside Bosnia and Herzegovina, one effect of this change was beneficial: Burián felt able to promote democratic institutions, and a parliament (with limited powers) was introduced there in 1910. But the bitter resentment that the annexation caused among Serb and South Slav nationalists led to the growth of revolutionary groups and secret societies dedicated to the overthrow of Habsburg rule. One of these, Mlada Bosna (“Young Bosnia”), was especially active in Bosnian schools and universities.
Tension was heightened by the First Balkan War of 1912–13, in which Serbia expanded southward, driving Turkish forces out of Kosovo, Novi Pazar, and Macedonia. In May 1913 the military governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gen. Oskar Potiorek, declared a state of emergency, dissolved the parliament, closed down Serb cultural associations, and suspended the civil courts. The following year the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, traveled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to review a military exercise. He was killed in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, by a young assassin from the Mlada Bosna organization, Gavrilo Princip, who had received some assistance from inside Serbia. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia one month later, precipitating World War I.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was under Austro-Hungarian military rule throughout World War I, and repressive measures were applied to those Bosnian Serbs whose loyalty was suspect. At the end of the war, Bosnian politicians from each of the three main communities followed the political leaders of Croatia and Slovenia in throwing off Habsburg rule and joining in the creation of a new South Slav state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.
Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Yugoslav kingdom
When the constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was finally settled in June 1921, Bosnia and Herzegovina retained no formal status of its own. However, its outline was preserved on the map, in the form of six oblasti (provinces) corresponding to the sanjaks (excluding that of Novi Pazar) of the late Ottoman period. Serfdom was abolished, but Bosnia and Herzegovina remained relatively undeveloped socially and politically. In 1929 the kingdom was renamed Yugoslavia, and a territorial division—introduced under King Alexander I’s royal dictatorship—divided Bosnia and Herzegovina between four new administrative districts called banovine. Bosnia and Herzegovina thus was wiped off the map. Further adjustments were made in 1939, particularly the creation of an expanded Croatian banovina within Yugoslavia that included portions of Bosnian territory. In 1941, after the Axis invasion of Yugoslavia during World War II, the entire Bosnian territory was absorbed into the puppet state known as the Independent State of Croatia.
The killing that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1941 and 1945 was terrible in both scale and complexity. The Ustaša, the fascist movement that ruled Croatia during the war, exterminated most of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 14,000 Jews and massacred Serbs on a large scale; tens of thousands of Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina died in death camps. Two organized resistance movements emerged: a Serbian royalist force known as the Chetniks, led by Draža Mihailović, and the communist Partisan force (including at first Serbs and then also Croats and Muslims), led by Josip Broz Tito. The sharply divergent aims of the two movements resulted in a civil war. Royalist forces turned increasingly to German and Italian forces for assistance and committed atrocities against Bosnian Muslims. At the same time, some Bosnian Muslims joined an SS division that operated in northern and eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina for six months during 1944, exacting reprisals against the local Serb population. The Partisans liberated Sarajevo in April 1945 and declared a communist “people’s government” for Bosnia and Herzegovina later that month. It is estimated that, when considering only the three largest ethnic groups, 164,000 Serbs, 75,000 Muslims, and 64,000 Croats died in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war.
Bosnia and Herzegovina in communist Yugoslavia
In 1946 the People’s Republic (from 1963, Socialist Republic) of Bosnia and Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of the Federal People’s (from 1963, Socialist Federal) Republic of Yugoslavia. Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina underwent all the social, economic, and political changes that were imposed on the whole of Yugoslavia by its new communist government, but Bosnia and Herzegovina was particularly affected by the abolition of many traditional Muslim institutions, such as Qurʾānic primary schools, rich charitable foundations, and dervish religious orders. However, a change of official policy in the 1960s led to the acceptance of “Muslim” as a term denoting a national identity: the phrase “Muslim in the ethnic sense” was used in the 1961 census, and in 1968 the Bosnian Central Committee decreed that “the Muslims are a distinct nation.” By 1971 Muslims formed the largest single component of the Bosnian population. During the next 20 years the Serb and Croat populations fell in absolute terms as many Serbs and Croats emigrated. In the 1991 census Muslims made up more than two-fifths of the Bosnian population, while Serbs made up slightly less than one-third and Croats one-sixth. From the mid-1990s the term Bosniak replaced Muslim as the name Bosnian Muslims use for themselves.
In the 1980s the rapid decline of the Yugoslav economy led to widespread public dissatisfaction with the political system. This attitude, together with the manipulation of nationalist feelings by politicians, destabilized Yugoslav politics. Independent political parties appeared by 1989. In early 1990 multiparty elections were held in Slovenia and Croatia. When elections were held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December, new parties representing the three national communities gained seats in rough proportion to their populations. A tripartite coalition government was formed, with the Bosniak politician Alija Izetbegović leading a joint presidency. Growing tensions both inside and outside Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, made cooperation with the Serb Democratic Party, led by Radovan Karadžić, increasingly difficult.
In 1991 several self-styled “Serb Autonomous Regions” were declared in areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina with large Serb populations. Evidence emerged that the Yugoslav People’s Army was being used to send secret arms deliveries to the Bosnian Serbs from Belgrade (Serbia). In August the Serb Democratic Party began boycotting the Bosnian presidency meetings, and in October it removed its deputies from the Bosnian assembly and set up a “Serb National Assembly” in Banja Luka. By then full-scale war had broken out in Croatia, and the breakup of Yugoslavia was under way. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s position became highly vulnerable. The possibility of partitioning Bosnia and Herzegovina had been discussed during talks between the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, and the Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, earlier in the year, and two Croat “communities” in northern and southwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, similar in some ways to the “Serb Autonomous Regions,” were proclaimed in November 1991. When the European Community (EC; later succeeded by the European Union) recognized the independence of Croatia and Slovenia in December, it invited Bosnia and Herzegovina to apply for recognition also. A referendum on independence was held during February 29–March 1, 1992, although Karadžić’s party obstructed voting in most Serb-populated areas and almost no Bosnian Serbs voted. Of the nearly two-thirds of the electorate that did cast a vote, almost all voted for independence, which President Izetbegović officially proclaimed on March 3, 1992.
Independence and war
Attempts by EC negotiators to promote a new division of Bosnia and Herzegovina into ethnic “cantons” during February and March 1992 failed: different versions of these plans were rejected by each of the three main ethnic parties. When Bosnia and Herzegovina’s independence was recognized by the United States and the EC on April 7, Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces immediately began firing on Sarajevo, and the artillery bombardment of the city by Bosnian Serb units of the Yugoslav army began soon thereafter. During April many of the towns in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina with large Bosniak populations, such as Zvornik, Foča, and Višegrad, were attacked by a combination of paramilitary forces and Yugoslav army units. Most of the local Bosniak population was expelled from these areas, the first victims in the country of a process described as ethnic cleansing. Although Bosniaks were the primary victims and Serbs the primary perpetrators, Croats were also among the victims and perpetrators. Within six weeks a coordinated offensive by the Yugoslav army, paramilitary groups from Serbia, and local Bosnian Serb forces brought roughly two-thirds of Bosnian territory under Serb control. In May the army units and equipment in Bosnia and Herzegovina were placed under the command of a Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladić.
From the summer of 1992, the military situation remained fairly static. A hastily assembled Bosnian government army, together with some better-prepared Bosnian Croat forces, held the front lines for the rest of that year, though its power was gradually eroded in parts of eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian government was weakened militarily by an international arms embargo and by a conflict in 1993–94 with Bosnian Croat forces. But later in 1994 Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks agreed to form a joint federation.
The United Nations (UN) refused to intervene in the Bosnian conflict, but UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops did facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid. The organization later extended its role to the protection of a number of UN-declared “safe areas.” However, the UN failed to protect the safe area of Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces perpetrated the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak men.
Several peace proposals during the war failed, largely because the Bosnian Serbs—who controlled about 70 percent of the land by 1994—refused to concede any territory. In February 1994, in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s first-ever use of force, NATO fighters shot down four Bosnian Serb aircraft that were violating the UN-imposed no-fly zone over the country. Later that year, at the UN’s request, NATO launched isolated and ineffective air strikes against Bosnian Serb targets. But following the Srebrenica massacre and another Bosnian Serb attack on a Sarajevo marketplace, NATO undertook more concentrated air strikes late in 1995. Combined with a large-scale Bosniak-Croat land offensive, this action led Bosnian Serb forces to agree to U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, U.S., in November. Serbian Pres. Slobodan Milošević represented the Bosnian Serbs. The resulting Dayton Accords called for a federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina in which 51 percent of the land would constitute a Croat-Bosniak federation and 49 percent a Serb republic. To enforce the agreement, formally signed in December 1995, a 60,000-member international force was deployed.
It was originally estimated that at least 200,000 people were killed and more than 2,000,000 displaced during the 1992–95 war. Subsequent studies, however, concluded that the death toll was actually about 100,000.
Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina
An election in September 1996 produced a tripartite national presidency chaired by Izetbegović and an ethnically apportioned national legislature dominated by nationalist parties. Karadžić had been indicted for war crimes and was prohibited from being a candidate, though he retained some support among Bosnian Serbs into the 21st century. (He eluded capture until his arrest in Belgrade in July 2008.) The national government was largely responsible for foreign affairs, and the internationally appointed Office of the High Representative—established under the Dayton Accords and later granted overriding executive powers (the so-called Bonn Powers)—oversaw the implementation of the peace agreement and acted as the final authority. Meanwhile, the two parts of the republic, the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic), were largely autonomous, each having its own assembly.Noel R. MalcolmJohn R. Lampe
Over the next several years the country experienced an uneasy peace. It received extensive international assistance, but the economy remained in shambles. Much of the workforce was unemployed—about 50 percent in the Federation and about 70 percent in the Republika Srpska. By the early 21st century, however, projects funded by the World Bank had succeeded in reconstructing much of the country’s infrastructure, and some political and economic reforms were implemented. In the course of the regional economic boom of 2006–08, unemployment in the country fell to less than 30 percent.As European bank credit and foreign direct investment took the place of declining international aid, rates of economic growth averaged 6 percent. Although the international financial crisis that began in 2008 did affect the economy, it had less of an impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina than elsewhere in the Balkans, as the country’s current account and state budget deficits were relatively small. Regional relations also improved in the early 21st century. In both the Croat and Serb communities, calls for breaking away from Bosnia and Herzegovina to unite with Croatia and Serbia declined in the face of faded interest from both of those states. Relations with Croatia in particular warmed in 2010, following Croatian Pres. Ivo Josipović’s apology for his country’s military actions in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the warfare of the early 1990s.
Nonetheless, other problems have continued to delay the internal integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaving in doubt the possibility of accession into the European Union (EU). Although the danger of renewed violence has remained minimal, the stalemate between the Federation and the Republika Srpska has persisted. Struggles over a potential new constitution, including disputed provisions for a common police force, have steadfastly resisted resolution. The international Office of the High Representative has remained in place, despite repeated attempts to end its authority and transfer its advisory functions to an EU office. Underlying all these difficulties are the continuing troubled relations between Bosniaks and Bosnian Serbs. Their leaders’ respective demands for a federation with some central powers in Sarajevo and a loose confederation offering the right of secession have been diametrically opposed. Their disagreement has frustrated repeated efforts to draft a new constitution to replace the Dayton agreement. Some promise for progress did emerge from the elections of October 2010. Although the hard-line president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, was reelected, the Bosniak presidency passed to Bakir Izetbegović, the son of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first president, Alija Izetbegović. Attracting younger voters to his campaign for reconciliation, he joined Bosnian Croat Pres. Željko Komšić as a moderating figure.John R. Lampe
In May 2011 Ratko Mladić, who had commanded the Bosnian Serb forces during the war and was widely held to be responsible for the Srebrenica massacre, was captured in Serbia to be extradited to The Hague to face trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The political deadlock that had hobbled the Bosnian government since the October 2010 election was finally resolved on December 28, 2011. The absence of a central government had threatened to spark a financial crisis, as foreign investment contracted and hundreds of millions of dollars from the EU and the International Monetary Fund were withheld. The six major political parties agreed on Bosnian Croat Vjekoslav Bevanda as a compromise choice as prime minister. Bvenda took office in January 2012, and he began to work on a budget that would allow the new government to function. Economic growth and political reform, however, were impeded by persistent gridlock and the country’s inability to effectively coordinate its policies and to establish functional, sustainable institutions at all levels of government.
In 2013 the parliament’s work was stymied by attempts to reshuffle the government and by street demonstrations in Sarajevo. Later that year the government’s precarious balancing of ethnic-based agendas was further eroded after the breakup of an alliance between the two main Bosnian Serb parties—the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). In its annual progress report, the European Commission warned that Bosnia’s complex decision-making process continued to hamper its progress toward EU membership. The country witnessed widespread civil unrest in 2014 after the government approved plans calling for the privatization of some of Bosnia’s largest state-owned enterprises. Citizen-led protests, dubbed by media outlets as the “Bosnian Spring,” focused primarily on long-festering economic and social problems, but they also called on government officials to resign amid accusations of widespread corruption and indifference. According to the Banja Luka-based Centre for Research and Studies, parliamentarians in Bosnia received more than six times the average salary of Bosnians, the largest proportional gap observed in 31 European countries. Joblessness also remained a persistent issue, with general unemployment reaching 46 percent and youth unemployment topping 70 percent in 2015.
General elections in October 2014 saw the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) claim the most votes, and Denis Zvizdić was confirmed as prime minister in February 2015. Zvizdić made the country’s long-stalled EU accession talks one of his top priorities, and on February 15, 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina formally applied for membership in the EU. Although full accession was likely more than a decade away, the move signaled the country’s commitment to economic and political reform as well as to greater integration with other European countries.
In March 2016 Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of genocide in connection with the Srebrenica massacre, and he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. In November 2017 Ratko Mladić was found guilty of war crimes and genocide for his role in the Srebrenica massacre, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Karadžić and Mladić were among the 161 individuals indicted by the ICTY during its 24 years of existence, and the list of the accused included individuals from every ethnicity and nationality represented in the Bosnian conflict. Although ethnic tensions remained among the various groups within Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conclusion of the ICTY’s mandate in 2017 represented the end of an especially painful chapter in the country’s history.The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
“What was happening in Croatia and more generally throughout Yugoslavia was discussed at the university, often in connection with soldiers from the Yugoslav National Army—many of whom were deserting and returning to Macedonia. We all followed the mothers who set out by bus to search for their sons across Yugoslavia, and who burst into the assembly shouting, through tears and rage, ‘Bring our children home!’ New students turned up at the university who seemed older than the rest, with deep bags under their eyes and hollow faces, confused and frightened, or rude and impudent, or drunk; tears ran down some of their faces during lectures, and it was clear where they had come from. While we were all dying to know, no one was brave enough to ask if they had killed someone, if they had been ordered to kill someone, if they had been imprisoned, if they had been tortured, if they had tortured someone else. Once, one of them said, ‘Fuck it all. How did I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time?’ And it was true for all of them—a lost generation that found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
–from A Spare Life
* * * *
Some years before Yugoslavia split apart in the wars of the 1990s depicted in my novel A Spare Life (tr. Christina E. Kramer), we still believed that everywhere throughout that land was our place in the world. There was even a school trip that proved it called the “trip through Yugoslavia.” In both primary school and secondary school, almost every class in Yugoslavia organized a trip through the country: it consisted of seven to ten days of traveling by bus to the country’s most important historical and tourist destinations, “from the Vardar river to the Triglav mountain” as the Yugoslav national anthem had it.
On my trip through Yugoslavia as a 13-year-old schoolgirl, I first visited Dubrovnik, the most beautiful town in what is now the former Yugoslavia, as well as the marvelous Plitivice lakes, the house where Tito was born in Kumrovec, and the former Jasenovac concentration camp from the Second World War (which was established by the governing Ustaše regime, not by Nazi Germany). We also visited the monument to the killed schoolchildren that the Serbian poet Desanka Maksimović immortalized in the poem “Bloody Tale,” which we all learned to recite by heart in school. My class also saw a Serbian monastery with tombs of kings and monks, magnificent Belgrade with its long avenues, the vivid cafés of Sarajevo, and so many other places. The motto of all these trips through Yugoslavia was: “Get to know your country, to love it more.”
In 1991 the nationalistic, absurd, and unbelievable beginning of the Yugoslav war erased this motto from the heart of my generation. The young men my age were the last to serve in the Yugoslav National Army, willingly or unwillingly fighting for the Serbian nationalistic agenda. Those who deserted from the Yugoslav National Army enrolled in the national armies of each post-Yugoslav republic or nation. All of them, willingly or not, participated in the separation of Yugoslavia. Brothers, neighbors, and friends fought against each other, many of them dying or disappearing.
Today my generation is in its forties, and we still feel the consequences of everything that happened in Yugoslav wars. For instance, I remember that in Skopje, the capital of my country, Macedonia, there was once a presentation of a poetry book by a young poet who was, at that exact moment, serving in the Yugoslav Army. On TV we saw that the Croatian army had caught his unit, and that he and his fellow troops didn’t have any food, any water. When the poet returned to Macedonia from the war, he became a monk. Another who came back from the Yugoslav battlefields went on to become a great poet.
So A Spare Life, with its story of conjoined twins who must become separated, is dedicated primarily to this lost generation that was caught up in the historical and political trauma around it. We used to live in peace, only learning about wars in school; we never imagined we would be witnesses to a war during our lifetime. But then the wars in Yugoslavia stole our hopes and dreams from us. We were used to living in the old world, but suddenly we were forced to figure out how to manage in this new one: this postwar, post-separation world in which many fragile states went on to make numerous mistakes, creating an enormous number of victims. Now my generation explains to its children how after the Second World War there was another war (a war that today is still very seldom taught in schools, and then from a nationalistic point of view). The tragedy of the Yugoslav separation was not in the separation as such but in the brutal way it happened.
These traumatic events that occurred right before our eyes have deeply influenced our art, especially post-Yugoslavian writing. At the time war broke out, my peers and I were still at the beginning of our careers, and so we have been indelibly marked by what we witnessed. When I first visited Sarajevo after the violence ended, I bought the newest anthology of Bosnian short stories, and almost every piece in it was connected to the war. Writers throughout the former Yugoslavia have tried to come to terms with why it happened, and precisely what went on. These would include: Biljana Srbljanović, Goce Smilevski, Nikola Madžirov, Andrej Nikolaidis, Faruk Šehić, Ognjen Spahić, Uglješa Šajtinac, Tanja Stupar Trifunović, Ana Ristović, Vladimir Kecmanović, Tatjana Gromača, Saša Ilić, Taja Kramberger, Aleš Šteger, Primož Čučnik, Ivana Sajko, Tanja Mravak, Igor Štiks, Muharem Bazdulj, Tanja Stupar Trifunović, Jeton Neziraj, Pavle Goranović, Dragana Mladenović, Aleksandar Bećanović, Senadin Musabegović, Igor Isakovski, Dorta Jagić, Goran Vojnović—to list only some of the many important writers born in 1970s.
Of course, not all of us have written directly about war: the works of my generation are varied. Some are about historical events, but many are simply about the experience of being dislocated, or dedicating to exploring the questions of nation, nationalism, freedom, identity . . . Still others reach for universal political themes, or try to explore ourselves as victims of the system. Many of us have used humor to combat these traumatic events.
The Croatian writer Zoran Pilic recently remarked that, “a lot of my friends since the 1990s have left the country; today they are on every continent. This is the generation that was old enough to remember the former country, a lost generation of victims and nomads in Europe trying to find a place for themselves.” Everywhere I travel I meet these exiles. They work all kinds of jobs; they try to support their families. I also often meet writers from my generation at literary events all around the world. These meetings are wonderful and full of emotion. After the reading we always go for a drink together. The connection between us is maybe not as strong as it was between the older writers, but it is real. We translate each other into our national languages. Literary projects like the literary magazine Sarajevo Notebooks, where all of us publish our works in Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin, try to consolidate the connections between us.
Nowadays, things are much easier, even friendly. That was not the case in 1995, when I was invited to Strasbourg alongside many other young Yugoslavian intellectuals, all of us born in 1970s. We were fragile and embarrassed, and we felt guilty for a war we hadn’t wanted. The Bosnians didn’t want to speak with us at all. They were so angry and sad that I felt guilty to be from Macedonia, which was then the so-called oasis of peace. One day one of them said to me, “Imagine that you’re a student, and your student card is burned in the National Library in Sarajevo, alongside all of our national documents and all of our books—your personal and national identity has been taken away. You are nobody and nothing, and around you people are dying.” She was right. We tried to understand each other—we even sang together a very popular song by the Balkan rock band Azra, which we all loved:
One day I’m gonna never come home
All the friends I know I don’t recognize anymore.
As if I never was in this world,
As if her body didn’t want me.
My song’s keeping still, and it’d go crazy,
Pretty, modern girls don’t go for cool haircuts.
I shave my beard and mustache to look like Pankrti,
If I had a Fender, you’d see some playin’.
Balkans, Balkans, oh my Balkans,
Be tremendous and stay good for me!
We are only gypsies, damned by destiny,
Always someone comes to threaten us.
And the bands aren’t like they used to be,
My amateur one is starting to rock.
Balkans, Balkans, oh my Balkans,
Be tremendous and stay good for me!
(See the original lyrics here.)
Many times, the professors at the university of Strasbourg, which hosted us, exclaimed, “You love each other!” They tried to create a dialogue between us, so that they could understand what exactly happened and why. But we couldn’t help them—we were all too stressed by what was then happening in Yugoslavia, and anyway we didn’t understand it either. Yes, I am sure that we loved each other, but deep down I could not shake a feeling of guilt for the war, even if none of us was guilty of anything.
If something good has come from these terrible events, it’s that the Yugoslav War and these political crises have provoked an interest in the literature of my region. We are in a way masochistic: in reading literature, and in enjoying art in general, people love tragedy, sadness, conflicts, exile, refugees, etc. And all of these are present in the writers of my lost generation. It is an irony that the tragedies that informed these works have led to them getting translated into many languages and invited to festivals around the world. They had just as much talent before the war and used it quite well, but the war brought to them readers, audiences, and a space in European literature. And most of them are still writing about it.