Critical Decisions: Pre-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina (1990–1995)

During 1990–1991, following a protracted political crisis, the breakdown of the SKJ Congress, multi-party elections in all republics, and countless meetings of the presidency to attempt to come up with an acceptable new frame for the defunct federal structure, Yugoslavia separated into its constituent republics. From then onwards, the former Yugoslav republics pursued separate trajectories. Though old and new political elites across the capitals of the newly independent successor states declared commitment to democracy and prosperity, the road to achieving them proved to be more difficult than most at the time predicted. And Bosnia's postindependence path proved the most tragic of any of the former Yugoslav states.

Yet, the paths that different states followed were not inevitable. The fall of communism across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the subsequent dissolution of Yugoslavia, led to a short period when political leaders in each state had to choose how to restructure the defunct communist political system along democratic political lines. Facing a critical juncture, when the options chosen would constrain future political developments,8 Bosnian political leaders entered the first multi-party elections in November 1990. The results of these would determine the composition of the first post-communist government and its political priorities. The choices made during this brief period were to determine the subsequent trajectories of post-communist politics, which for Bosnia ended in violent ethnic conflict.

Bosnia 1991–1995: Break-up of Institutions

The first multi-party elections in Bosnia, held in November and December 1990, saw the victory of newly-established ethnic parties against the re-branded former Communist Party of BiH. The three parties that won most votes in the elections had all based their platforms on exclusive appeal to a single ethnic group. As Table 3.1 shows, the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action (SDA) won 35 per cent of votes; the Serbian Serb Democratic Party (SDS) won 29 per cent and the Croatian Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) won 18 per cent of the votes.9 Despite their nationalist appeal, with the intention of displacing the former communists, these three parties formed a coalition government largely based on power-sharing logic. The main executive positions were divided between the three parties (and ethnic groups): Bosnian Muslim Alija Izetbegović, was appointed as a President of the presidency of the republic, Serb Momčilo Krajišnik, as the President of the

8 Giovanni Capoccia and David Kelemen, 'The Study of Critical Junctures: Theory, Narrative and Counterfactuals in Historical Institutionalism', World Politics, 59 (2007): 341–69.

9 'Results from the Bosnian elections 1990', Centralna Izborna Komisija BIH. Available at: (accessed 20 November 2010). Assembly and Jure Pelivan, a Croat, as Prime Minister.10 In addition, Bosnia was the only one among the Yugoslav republics to replicate the federal-style collective presidency in its new institutional structure, (opting for a seven-member one), an indicator of sensitivity to ethnic diversity in Bosnian politics and reflecting early efforts to establish accommodating mechanisms in government.

Table 3.1 December 1990 election results in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Political party Seats in parliament

Party for Democratic Action (SDA) 43

Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) 34

Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) 21

Party for Democratic Changes (PDP) (former Communist Party) 15

Serbian Radical Party (SRS) 12

Others (greens, liberals, Bosnian Muslim movement) 5

Total 130

Source: Parlamentarna Skupština Bosne i Hercegovine, Istorija parlametarizma u BIH. Available at: (accessed 20 November 2010).

Bosnian political elites were no less prone to nationalism than their counterparts in other Yugoslav republics. Their decision to opt for power-sharing mechanisms had more to do with the fact that no single party (or ethnic group) had won enough votes to be able to form a cabinet on its own, even if they would have preferred that to sharing power with other groups' parties. Therefore, it was comparatively more difficult to redefine Bosnia as the nation state of any one of the three ethnic groups, and not only because no group was demographically or politically dominant, but also because of the Bosnian tradition during Yugoslav times to share political power. In Yugoslavia, Bosnia had never had a single titular nation and was considered the republic of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, though the latter were only recognised as a separate nation in the 1974 Constitution.

Based on these early efforts to introduce mechanisms for ethnic accommodation in politics and ethnic tolerance levels among the population in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it did not seem inevitable that in less than two years after the election the country would be plunged into ethnic conflict. Among the former Yugoslav republics, by 1989 people in Bosnia were the most tolerant of other nationalities. According to surveys from the late 1980s, thanks to the almost equal mix of the three ethnic groups and the large number of mixed marriages, people were increasingly tolerant and social distance between different ethnic groups was smallest in

10 David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (London: Harvest Books, 1995). this republic.11 This was particularly the case among urban and professional groups, suggesting the growing importance of social identities that cut across ethnic group boundaries. Although much of social life in Yugoslavia was dominated and controlled by the Communist Party and its local bodies, the existence of professional and local associations still helped the development of cross-cutting social identities – based on profession, location, age or other indicators.

However, these initial efforts of Bosnian elites aimed at sharing political power across ethnic lines did not prevent the descent into ethnic conflict. And neither did the growing national tolerance among the population. From a power-sharing perspective, with a coalition government, collective presidency, and relatively even distribution of seats in Parliament, Bosnia seemed much more likely to witness ethnic accommodation than Croatia or Macedonia, where the winning nationalist Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and VMRO parties respectively, did not consider including other ethnic groups in government. Perhaps Bosnian political elites would have been more successful in accommodating their differences through the institutional structure had the political climate in Yugoslavia been different. However, the pending dissolution of the Yugoslav federation posed to the new Bosnian leadership a greater challenge than managing ethnic relations – independence.

More was at stake in Bosnia during 1990–91 than the division and access to political power for different ethnic groups, or their equality in terms of rights, distribution of resources and access to employment. The three major groups in Bosnia were relatively evenly represented in the public sphere. The challenge was of a more fundamental nature: there was no consensus between the three constituent nations and the political elite about the nature of the state of Bosnia. As other Yugoslav republics started seceding from the federation in the course of 1991, the Bosnian people and their leaders were incapable of reaching a wide consensus on the issue: Bosnian Serbs preferred staying as part of a smaller Yugoslavia consisting of Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia, but Bosnian Muslims and Croats wished to opt for an independent Bosnian state rather than remaining in a Serb-dominated new federation.

This was no superficial dilemma. When a shared vision of what constitutes the state and its people is lacking, institutional and political concerns about democratic managing of ethnic diversity are of secondary importance.12 This became apparent when in November 1991, Bosnian Serbs, under SDS leadership, held a referendum in the Serbian dominated territories voting in favour of staying in a common state with Serbia and Montenegro. The referendum was deemed unconstitutional by the Bosnian institutions and declared invalid. Bosnian Serbs, however, proceeded with establishing the institutional structure of a separate/

11 See: R. Hodson, D. Sekulic, G. Massey, 'National Tolerance in the former

Yugoslavia', American Journal of Sociology. 99 (May 1994): 1534–58.

12 Dankwart A. Rustow, 'Transitions to Democracy: Towards a Dynamic Model',

Comparative Politics, 2 (April 1970): 350–52. autonomous republic. Serb members abandoned their seats in Bosnian political institutions, a process tacitly supported by Milošević-led Serbia. This culminated in the Declaration of Republic of the Serb people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, soon to be Republika Srpska, by the separate Bosnian Serb assembly on 9 January 1992, and the adoption of its Constitution on 28 February 1992.13 A month later, in March 1992, the rest of Bosnia voted in an independence referendum, boycotted by the Serbs, and in April 1992, Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia, although large part of its population refused to accept such an outcome.

Demands for territorial autonomy, and territorial solutions to ethnic problems in general, appeared to be the Yugoslav political elites' preferred way of addressing ethnic issues. Serbs declaring autonomous republics and regions in Bosnia and Croatia as well as Albanians demanding territorial autonomy in Macedonia, all relied on what was an established principle in Yugoslav (and Soviet) communist ideology concerning national diversity: granting territorial self-rule to ethnic groups, but avoiding any re-design of political institutions to make the central decision-making system more inclusive of diverse interests.14 Yugoslav communists claimed to have solved the 'national question' in Yugoslavia by granting all nations self-rule and self-determination through the republics in which they lived, combined with a weak federal structure where common interests were to be negotiated and eventual conflicts of interest solved.15 The decadeslong experience of the Yugoslav institutional structure shaped how political elites articulated the problems of inter-ethnic relations and the types of solutions they proposed as an answer to these problems. As a result, for ethnic leaders in Yugoslavia, territoriality (autonomy or independence) was the most attractive aspect of self-determination, even though some institutional solutions could have given minority ethnic groups greater say in the political process of the country. Instead of trying to find a mutually acceptable way of managing ethnic issues through alternative means, Serbian politicians immediately resorted to declaring an autonomous republic. As the option used by Kosovar Albanians and Vojvodina Hungarians in Serbia, this was the one solution that they were most familiar with. The disregard for institutional solutions to ethnic issues was enhanced by another feature of communist politics, its intolerance of opposing views and the resulting

13 'History', National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska. Available at: (accessed 20 November 2010).

14 See on ethno-federalism: Phillip Roeder, 'Soviet Federalism and Ethnic

Mobilization', World Politics, 43 (1991): 196–232.

15 See Edvard Kardelj, O osnovama društvenog i političkog uređenja (Zagreb, 1970); Joseph V. Stalin, 'Marxism and the National Question', in Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954); and Petra S. Ramet's analysis of nationalities policy in communist Yugoslavia in Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia 1963–1983 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985). lack of debate and negotiations and deep distrust in government.16 The parliament or government coalition was not perceived as a forum for negotiations or as any real locus of power. Rather, territorial self-governance of ethnic groups, as the model successfully used for decades, was preferable, as later became clear during the negotiations of the Dayton agreement.

During the next three years, from mid-1992 to the end of 1995, Bosnia plunged into a devastating inter-ethnic civil war. The ambitious three-member coalition government and seven-member Presidency became completely powerless as mass-scale violence and ethnic cleansing ensued in a struggle by all sides to gain as much territory as possible. The external actors, led by the European Community (EC) and the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY) (a body established by the UN to deal with the problems in Yugoslavia) soon recognised Bosnia as an independent state and claimed that there was no support for changing the borders in the region.17 While this constrained the actions of local elites by limiting the available external allies to support their secession projects, it did not much affect the situation on the ground, where political leaders of the three ethnic groups strengthened their grip on political power. Systematic expulsion, violence, threats and property destruction prevented political competition and led to the creation of ethnically homogeneous territorial units controlled by the leaders of each of the ethnic parties that won the 1990 elections.

Throughout the war, the leaders of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia were engaged in peace negotiations, which were only loosely based on the constitutional structure of Bosnia, and instead also included the political and military leaders of the three warring sides, plus representatives from Croatia and FR Yugoslavia (FRY). Despite claims to the contrary, the peace negotiations in Bosnia during this period appear to have been largely about territory, not about rights, resources or institutions. The most contentious points in all of the different peace plans devised by external negotiators (Carrington-Cutigliero in 1992, Vance-Owen, HM Invincible Place and the EU Action Group plans in 1993, Contact Group in 1994) were the maps rather than the proposed constitutional provisions.18 The positions of the new ethnic boundaries seemed to outweigh the importance of constitutional provisions or even the distribution of industrial and infrastructure assets and

16 Beverly Crawford and Arendt Lijphart, 'Explaining Political and Economic Change in Post-Communist Eastern Europe: Old Legacies, New Institutions, Hegemonic Norms and International Pressures', Comparative Political Studies, 28 (1995): 171–99. Ken Jowitt, 'Weber, Trotsky and Holmes on the study of Leninist regimes', Journal of International Affairs, 41 (1991): 31–48.

17 'Statement of Principles', 26 August 1992. The London Conference. ICFY. Available from: Balkan Odyssey Digital Archive. Special Collections and Archives. University of Liverpool. (accessed 20 November 2010).

18 See: David Owen, Balkan Odyssey; Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The Struggle for

Peace in Bosnia (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1998). natural resources. Percentages of territory were the main subject of discussions both in the negotiation rooms and among the international public and media. The foreign mediators involved claimed they were seeking solutions which would not legitimise the territorial gains made from ethnic cleansing and the use of force, but they too were dragged into swapping villages and valleys to make the percentages fit and coax local assemblies and leaders to subscribe to peace.19

Yet, before the end of the war and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, some institutional features of the future constitutional outlook of the Bosnian state could already be discerned. In March 1994, encouraged by US representatives, Bosnian Muslim and Croat leaders signed the Washington Agreement, which put an end to the Muslim-Croat hostilities, and, among other things, established a frame for a future Muslim-Croat federation.20 Republika Srpska institutions were also becoming more accepted by the Serbian population in Bosnia as well as by international actors, even though Bosnian Muslim and Croat leaders refused to cede any legitimacy to these institutions, or to their members as legitimate representatives of the Bosnian Serb population. By the end of the negotiations this stance was also accepted by the foreign mediators who decided to negotiate with Slobodan Milošević as the representative of all Serbs, instead of Radovan Karadžić, Momčilo Krajišnik and Ratko Mladić.

Once the political leaders of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia signed the peace agreement at Dayton, the violence subsided and international troops were deployed to enforce and guarantee the terms of the Dayton Accords. However, those three years left a deep scar and a legacy of mistrust and division, which still affects Bosnian politics and society.

Reflecting upon the four years of war and independence between 1991 and 1995, two major factors appear to have driven the failure of the state to appropriately address ethnic issues with institutional solutions: the lack of a wider elite consensus on what the state and its citizens were; and political elites' preference for territorial solutions to problems related to ethnic diversity. Both were legacies from the previous political and ideological regime – the lack of consensus over sovereignty among Yugoslav leadership and its reliance on territorial tools for managing ethnic issues.

In 1992, a large part of the population – most Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina – boycotted the independence referendum, questioning the legitimacy of the state for members of this ethnic group. This lack of initial acceptance of the state by some ethnic groups, coupled with a separate Bosnian Serbs' referendum on territorial autonomy and the lack of an independent statehood history, remained a source of insecurity, distrust and division among both the political elites and the wider population. It also further aggravated inter-ethnic relations. It was testament to

19 See Carl Bildt's account of the Dayton Negotiations in Peace Journey. 20 Washington Agreement. 1 March 1994. Available at: Peace Agreements Digital

Collection. United Stated Institute of Peace. collections/peace_agreements/washagree_03011994.pdf
the highly fragmented political elites in Bosnia, who were divided across ethnic lines and failed to accommodate to reach a mutually acceptable agreement on the fundamental issues underlying the establishment of the new state. The advent of democracy did not provide a unifying platform for Bosnian political elites, but allowed further replication of ethno-national divisions within the new state.

The war also eradicated much of the ethnic tolerance and cross-cutting social identities among the population. The large scale violence, ethnic cleansing and property destruction inevitably left deep scars on the social tissue of all communities. Even without the polarising effect of the media and ethnic mobilisation efforts by nationalist politicians, the traumas of the war would have pushed the three communities apart. By the end of 1995, very little of the pre-war social ties and civic group identities had survived, as evidenced by post-conflict research on social distance and attitudes towards reconciliation.21

In addition, ethnic political leaders showed a preference for territorial solutions to ethnic problems, leading to demands and declarations of territorial autonomy and secession. This ideological legacy of Yugoslav communism turned inter-ethnic negotiations during the conflict into bargaining over territories, while preventing political elites from seeking institutional instruments to address ethnic grievances. Moreover, the experience of the failed Yugoslav federation made dominant ethnic groups suspicious about federal and other territorial concessions to minority ethnic communities, as witnessed by Bosnian Muslims' continuous efforts to recentralise the Bosnian federation.

The increased conflict between the political elites of different ethnic groups and the deterioration of inter-ethnic relations, all against an institutional background that was largely inadequate to accommodate the demands of all ethnic groups, eventually led to armed ethnic conflict. Such a grave failure of the Bosnian state to deal with domestic ethnic problems, which led to violence and destruction, invited external actors to get involved in the negotiation process. It also presented an opportunity for another reform of the political and constitutional system, albeit one in which the available options were restricted by the external actors. These new choices were embodied in the Dayton agreement, which outlines the structure of the country's post-conflict institutions.

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