Was The Bosnian War An Ethnic Conflict Politics Essay

The process by which one perceives a given situation can be misleading, especially when the information being relayed is moulded in a particular format- to the liking of the transmitter. World views of the war that took place in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 leave most to conclude that the tension was a classic case of ethnic conflict. This essay will explore the multidimensionality of the conflict in hopes of shedding light on other areas of stress that might have contributed to the forming or outbreak of the war by assessing the general discord in terms of measures set in place by theories of ethnic conflict. After offering definitions of some key terms that will be used in this writing, the essay will provide a brief history of the conflict, single out ethnic and identity entrepreneurs, rediscover roots of any existing particularity or stressors (including polarisation and pillarisation in the conflict), present theories of ethnic conflict, and show a detailed analysis through review of literature before concluding. An analysis of the diverse facades in this conflict will serve as a basis for comparison for points of interest, actors or parties involved, and will highlight how these factors influenced the surge of events that took place. Can the conflict in Bosnia be considered solely an ethnic conflict? This paper will endeavour to challenge the status of this war, as purely ethnic, by showing that there exist dimensions of this conflict which render it impossible to disavow the presence of convincing supporting evidence regarding the role of ethnicity and ethnic diversity as a cause for civil war.

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It is important to point out that because of the qualifying large number of loss of life and the nature in which that loss took place in this conflict, it can and will be termed as a war and genocide. For the purposes of this essay, while it is not always the case that ethnic groups share exclusive languages or affiliations, ethnicity, will refer to the existence of a unique set of racial, historical, linguistic, religious, cultural and/or ancestral traits, all shared specifically by a given group of individuals. National and ethnic identity, touch on the borders of a single concept, identity; it would seem fitting to relate them in terms of the conflict to be mentioned, as they both play a part in its history. Walker Connor defines this type of identity as being the “self view of one’s group, rather than the tangible characteristics, that is of essence in determining the existence or non-existence of one’s nation” (Qtd in Davis, 1999), while the presence of this type of identity is not always stable or fixed, as ethnicity is dynamic (Feron, Introduction to Concepts of Conflict, War & Violence 2009). This essay will highlight four groups involved in this conflict: the Serbs (mainly Orthodox group), the Bosniaks (Muslim group), the Croats (mainly Catholic group), and potential causative foreign actors involved directly or indirectly in this conflict through participation or interest. A key term in this essay, prejudice, is defined by Herbert Blumer as “a protective device. It functions however short-sightedly to preserve the integrity and position of the dominant group” (Qtd in Kunovich and Hodson, 2002). Lastly, the term ethnic conflict, will indicate a situation of conflict, a clashing of goals among two or more parties or ethnic groups, sometimes depicting “ancient hatreds,” discrimination or victimisation through the use of media outlets and/or historical account, the possible involvement of ethnic or identity entrepreneurs whose contribution directly or indirectly leads to a primary form of stress placed on any of the given parties or ethnic groups, differentiating the group in a way which might lead to the birth of a sense of external threat and resulting in a need to preserve the identity itself (Feron, Ethnicity & Conflict 2009).


The Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) has had a multi-cultural and was always made up of multi-ethnic countries, while always falling under new rule or administration- each guided by different ideologies. This foundation makes for a breeding ground of multiplicity, resentment, gains and losses, and most of all change ever-present. As communism lost is hold on FRY, new, nationalist and separatist ideologies began to grow popular among the territories. Slobodan MiloA?eviA‡ was placed into office in 1989, and quickly amended the Serbia constitution to allow for influence in Kosovo and Vojvodina (Region currently in the North of Serbia, which used to pertain to Hungary), which gave Serbia access to more votes on the federal level of Yugoslavia’s government. Montenegro’s vote then meant an additional vote for Serbia, leaving Serbia as the most powerful hand in the government (Ron 2000). Bosnia was considered an exotic country among European nations, due to its inhabitants and rich melange of cultures. Bosnia was a cosmopolitan country where more than a quarter of marriages cut through cultural divides (Lifschultz and Ali 1994). As the new nationalist and separatist mentalities span over the territories of FRY, mainly in Croatia and Serbia, things began to become clear that change was in the near future. After attempts to divide up Bosnia, into administrative and ethnic districts, proved semi-successful, but not without outbreaks for justice, it seemed inevitable that the moment had come for independence. Bosnia was already divided into the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, Republika Srpska, and around the same time, both Slovenia and Croatia gaining independence from FRY. The then unseen yet not unthought-of situation was more evident day by day; if Slovenia and Croatia were to secede from Yugoslavia, Bosnia would quite literally be at the mercy of the Milosevic regime. Problems would then be expected from all sides of Bosnia, not to mention the larger evil, as seen by Bosnians in that moment- Greater Serbia. Due to the separation of Croatia and Slovenia, even after thoughts to pursue a looser Yugoslavia Serbia would begin feeling its foundation and republic, quickly falling out beneath it, this only caused political leaders to consider preemptive action, in the form of attack. The republic became more unstable than ever when the government in Bosnia made it clear that when Slovenia and Croatia sought independence from FRY, that it would no doubt be forced to seek the same liberty, and Bosnia and Herzegovina began the referendum for independence alike. On March 5, 1992, parliament declared independence for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which shook the throne on which FRY’s government had been founded, (Ron 2000). It is this timeline of events that outlines the situation in which Bosnia found itself under attack- both from the outside and the inside, including mass rape, killings, torture, oppression and finally the loss of approximately 200.000 lives. It is the identification of these sides which will prove interesting in testing theories of ethnic conflict on the conflict in Bosnia.

Ethnic & Identity Entrepreneurs

In any given conflict there is sure to exist those who somehow find a way to use an existing fear or hate, to pressure or persuade others to feel endangered or moved to act. Franjo TuA‘man, of Croatia, and Slobodan MiloA?eviA‡, of Serbia, entered into discussions which are known as the KaraA‘orA‘evo Agreement, which did just that by claiming rights to parts of Bosnia based on ethnic and demographic make-up (Ron 2000). As mentioned in the history (prior to the outbreak of this conflict) section of this essay, Croatia and Serbia took it upon themselves to divide up Bosnia- favouring ethnic enclaves and creating new republics for which, of course, new influences and/or votes could be easily manipulated, in the great scheme of gaining more and more land and authority. Populations were made to feel that their ethnic identity was externally threatened, and that there was somehow a need to protect it at any cost- first by separation and later through physical battle. Other leaders, nations, entities, had made their views clear, that they would not interfere in this conflict and that they would also not stand for Bosnia to defend itself, without the forced attempt to sway Bosnia toward surrendering and ending up a helpless pawn in the international system, left to be carved or moulded- all the while losing its uniqueness (Kunovich and Hodson 2002). The issue with intervening in this matter, for the United States, and General Colin Powell, in 1992, was the question of deploying ground troops into Bosnia, something that would have held a cost of tens of billions of dollars. That particular point of debate took the panels down another avenue of discussion and of course complicated the situation of helping Bosnia (Lifschultz and Ali 1994). Later, the United States, the European community, and the United Nations, entered into a political huddle in what seemed to last forever. “The process took the form of a remarkable ‘policy debate’, a discourse in search of rationales, while, in Diego Arria’s apt phrase, ‘slow-motion genocide’ was systematically carried out in Bosnia” (Lifschultz and Ali 1994). The Serbs and the Croats had taken action to attempt to pull out of the game with more land, more authority and less opposition, but these actions do not directly target an ethnicity, and do not seem to be completely or even mainly ethnically based tactical decisions. After such a disaster, it was evident that life and surroundings echoed the erasing of certain ethnic qualities, but there was always an ulterior motive present.

Bosnia as it had existed for six centuries had to be destroyed; the fabric which wove the lives of its many peoples together torn beyond repair; the loyalty of its indigenous Serb and Croat communities to a multi-ethnic Bosnian nation subverted; its native Muslim population terrorised. The objective was to ‘cleanse’ Bosnia not only of the Muslims but also of the unique and dangerous cosmopolitanism of its cities which clearly had no place in the new ‘pure’ nation-states emerging from the ruins of Yugoslavia. A ‘cleansed’ Bosnia could then be carved up and annexed to the national states of ‘Greater Serbia’ and ‘Greater Croatia (Lifschultz and Ali 1994).

These strategies to place pressures on ethnic grounds, as to influence the crowds, came about from already existing tensions in the communities that later witnessed the true results of what they had been convinced to do, all the while perhaps still not aware of the fact that they were being utilised, that their identity was being used as an instrument to gain their numbers, their voices and their force.

Particularity & Prejudice

Genocide of this size could not have taken place without mass involvement of the common man and abuse of already established institutes/agencies, such as the existing military forces and of course the creation of new forces for the purposes of annihilating anyone that stood in their way. All prior events including agreements and discussions, only prepared the grounds for even worse events to come. “Many contemporary theories of ethnic and racial prejudice, ethnic political mobilization, and ethnic conflict emphasize structural conditions that provide a context within which attitudes and behavior toward out-groups develop” (Kunovich and Hodson 2002). In this way, it is a bit easier to follow the outcome of the events, and to understand how in the midst of such chaotic circumstances, so many windows to malice are opened. The events that followed ran rampant as pretexts of hatred, diversity and fear guided the masses to direct their uncertainties and reactions to those uncertainties toward all things that seemed to represent the historically recognised Bosnia that Europe knew.

Similar conflicts to the Bosnian War arose within the same time, such as the Rwanda genocide, which provide clear examples of particularity. Rwanda was a nation whose marriage statistics, just as pre-conflict Bosnia, showed a harmonious and culturally accepting coexistence. Upon the arrival of the Belgians to Rwanda, local authority was given in exchange for Tutsi collaboration, overturning many previously governed Hutu districts (Sadowski 1998). These types of interactions promote jealousy and fear in environments where such fears had never been so prevalently manifested. Foreign intervention did not come first in the physical form, but in the form of distant involvement, influencing authority throughout ethnic enclaves in Bosnia, although leaving a like scar, to that of the Rwandan example, in the midst of the conflict. Agreements were reached, regarding or involving these particular enclaves by foreign leaders from afar, who attempted to encourage the distribution of administrative authority ethnically, as to prevent the nation from sliding into war. This division of Bosnia used the previously existing, or seemingly clear ethnic population divisions that existed in Bosnia in areas where notable enclaves existed, which intended to label administratively as: Bosniak, Serb or Croat. Another point of this doing was to decentralise the Bosnian government by giving ethnic groups a sense of authority in their own land. This was done by assigning districts as pertaining to one ethnic group of another, even though random review showed that certain villages could have been up to 70% Bosniak and 30% Serb and yet still designated as a village or district administrated by Serbs or municipally adopted under Republika Srpska- an example of this type of agreement is the Lisbon agreement, which was drawn up by Lord Carrington and Ambassador of Portugal, Jose Cutileiro (Ron 2000). The agreement was signed on March 18, 1992, by the three leaders of the ethnic groups, although Izbetgovic, leader of the Bosniaks, after meeting with the U.S. Ambassador, Warren Zimmerman, quickly withdrew his signature only ten days after having signed it. It is said that Izbetgovic’s decision to withraw his signature and renounce the agreement was influenced by the United State’s offer to finally intervene, viewed that he did so immediately after leaving the U.S. embassy on March 28, 1992 (Ron 2000). Even today, Bosnians ask themselves questions as to the interests behind such decisions, and wonder how their ethnicity was able to be so very discretely instrumentalised in the scheme of something that was obviously very multifaceted.

One of the most targeted and still the most visibly affected aspects of that once cosmopolitan Bosnia that one recognised, are the elements of diversity that were once revered as the nation’s richest social resource- its cultural quality, eccentric and obvious traces of history demonstrated throughout the cities of all Bosnia & Herzegovina. “The country’s architecture, its buildings, bridges, monuments built by the Ottomans were the most visible, most immediately tangible signs of Bosnia’s ‘otherness’. These became targets of relentless artillery bombardment or straightforward demolition. As if the intent was to destroy all recorded history, libraries housing rare books and priceless manuscripts were deliberately destroyed. Hundreds of delicately designed mosques, large and small, that had stood for centuries unharmed, untouched, disappeared overnight” (Lifschultz and Ali 1994). It is in this way that any and all unlikely seeming traits of Bosnia were the targets of particularity in the atrocities that took place throughout the cleansing of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The particularities and stressors that factored into this conflict, were perhaps greatly influencing reasons for the masses to be shift into motion but they somehow do not come across as a great enough cause given the history prior to this conflict and the strategically devised agreements that led to the need for independence- much less the outbreaks of violence that followed.

Theories of Ethnic Conflict

When given a vast amount of information about a conflict, you use a sphere by which you measure the elements and the gravity, logic or even reality of the events occurred. As mentioned before the tool by which we are measuring up the events of the Bosnian Conflict, are theories of ethnic conflict. These theories provide limits and start points for possible patterns to describe a conflict of this genre and are ever growing in that they descend from fruitful tests of hypotheses that have branched from detailed research. There are two sides or clusters, if you will that theories of ethnic conflict provide us with, for views on analysis of this type of conflict: the primordialist and the instrumentalist take on things. The primordialist stance rests on explicitly attributing the cause for the events that took place as a history of ancient hatreds and prejudice. Instrumentalists negate that the direct cause of these types of conflicts could be a clear-cut question of primordial abhorrence (Blimes 2006). These paths help refine a thin line of sight for analysing this type of affair, facts and deeds fight myth and hearsay- in fact, instrumentalist refuse to accept that this could be the direct cause of antipathies. “Instrumentalists point out that in many instances, ethnic groups with a history of animosity have managed to live in peace and therefore reject the “ancient hatreds” argument. After all, interethnic cooperation is the norm rather than the aberration between ethnic groups. Instrumentalists argue that ethnicity is merely a tool that an individual or group uses to achieve an end” (Blimes 2006). Scholars have begun combining theories of ethnic conflicts with theories of civil war, in an attempt to view if either incites a greater probability in the other. The analysis proves interesting although no concrete results were extracted through any empirically tested models. Through the mentioned research, there were no greatly solidified demonstrations that ethnic fractionalisation contributed directly to the onsite of civil war. Other scholars, not related to that particular study, conclude similarly that the link between ethnicity and civil war are relatively evident but, as of now, in no finitely tested way conclusive. “The Bosnian war arose out of a familiar set of circumstances: the collapse of totalitarian control of territory producing a political void that, in turn, exposes a deep-rooted rivalry between ethnic groups leading to a struggle for control of territory ending in an attempt at violent resolution. Central to the process are the notoriously ambiguous concepts of ethnicity and nationalism” (Doyon and Slack 2001). While opinions may differ, much research shares a relatively similar conclusion in that the roles of ethnicity and civil war are greatly influencing factors in terms of general dispute, and it is through the evaluation of analysis in these two theories that this essay has attempted to clarify the labelling of the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990’s.


Ethnicity is definitely a recurring theme in this conflict, and very rightfully so. Some academics, such as Jovanka Stojsavljevic, would say that the war in the Former Yugoslavian Republic was merely an opportunity- that old guard communists took advantage of a vulnerable moment in FRY’s history to use the ideology of nationalism as their own personal ticket to increased power (1995). The important fact to remember when dealing with this type of immediate reaction, is to remember that with such a great deal of input to process, and more than enough on both sides of the scale (both supporting and negating), there is not one single response and when there is perhaps a combined answer, even that is difficult to clearly devise into a black or white response. “The Bosnian war arose out of a familiar set of circumstances: the collapse of totalitarian control of territory producing a political void that, in turn, exposes a deep-rooted rivalry between ethnic groups leading to a struggle for control of territory ending in an attempt at violent resolution. Central to the process are the notoriously ambiguous concepts of ethnicity and nationalism” (Doyon and Slack 2001). This conflict demonstrates a great deal of multidimensionality and it is clear that such a trait must be taken into consideration when attempting to trace a fault or pin blame. Stojsavljevic’s conclusion of these events gets directly to the point and immediately cancels out ethnicity as a cause for the war. The one thing it does not do is seek to locate the role of ethnicity in the controversy or to quantify ethnicity as an influence. To do so, it is important to realise the situation that Bosnia & Herzegovina was in at the time. “With the decentralization of political power following Tito’s death and trends toward democratization within republics, political leaders on all sides mobilized ethnic enclaves for political gain. Once small-scale conflicts began to develop in these ethnic enclaves, fear spread rapidly, and the mobilization of individuals in more “tolerant” regions became possible. Thus, regional differences in ethnic prejudice provided a foundation for the emergence and spread of ethnic conflict” (Kunovich and Hodson 2002). Misdistribution of power, bad leadership, a lack of checks and balances system and utter greed brought upon by fears for loss of fortune, authority, as well as future livelihood became deciding factors and the people who were not among the few in power, were significant liabilities that needed to be made to cooperate quickly.

The decision in Bosnia and Herzegovina to seek independence was one that Serbian leaders anticipated and feared. It is that fear that incited a chain reaction of domestic and international obstacles to aid that would later end in ethnic cleansing, genocide and an immense infraction on human rights. The length, in time, that these obstacles stalled the international community from intervening, would serve as the lifeline for the atrocities that took place. The more divided the nation became; the easier it became to instrumentalise historical accounts and diversity as weapons to fan the flames of fear. Many claim that the simple fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina was so ethnically fractionalised directly affected the probability for the onset of conflict and that it made for a likely place for civil war. Scholars, such as Blimes, would respond that empirical assessment of any such hypothesis, that the very existence of ethnic fractionalisation could directly, much less greatly affect the inception of civil war has not turned out any unassailable conclusions (2006). To attribute ethnic cleansing, genocide, and mass violence to ethnic fractionalisation, or even ethnicity alone, would mean that everything that took place from the late 1980’s to 1995 to build up to this conflict somehow all stems from ancient hatreds or that sooner or later all nations where ethnic fractionalisation exists will have a similar fate. This way of thinking suits a primordialist view in the sphere of theories of ethnic conflict. Blimes goes into detail by mentioning that primordialists consider ancient hatreds to be the direct root of these ethnic issues, while instrumentalists view that an explanation or blame on ancient hatreds quite commonly oversimplifies conflicts that are really much deeper than can be simply explained by timeless rancour (2006). The worst genocides of modem times have not been targeted along primarily ethnic lines. Rather, the genocides within Afghanistan, Cambodia, China, the Soviet Union, and even, to a great extent, Indonesia and Uganda, have focused on liquidating political dissidents: to employ the emerging vocabulary, they were politicides rather than ethnicides. Indeed, the largest genocides of this century were clearly ideologically driven politicides” (Sadowski 1998). This and many similar conflicts are simply much too multifaceted to ascribe all responsibility to one factor or to omit the existence of other very evident agents.


As one refines the scope of analysis a bit, it becomes more and more apparent that in order to strongly support whether or not this conflict can be looked at solely as an ethnic conflict, indeed lies in isolating and identifying the function of ethnicity and/or ethnic diversity as factors. Of the two clusters mentioned in theories of ethnic conflict, it seems an instrumentalist view is more efficient in meticulously combing through this tumultuous history with a fine toothed comb. This does not indicate that ancient hatreds did not or do not exist or that a primordialist viewpoint is completely erroneous- only that it does not convincingly represent the foundation of motive behind years of strategically planned moves that in turn yielded even more power and riches to those making the decisions (which were not those of the targeted ethnic groups). Ethnicity and ethnic diversity do not compellingly embody a basis for ethnic cleansing, genocide or mass violence. “Rather, ethnic diversity serves as natural fault lines on which a society, subjected to other variables that have a direct influence on the likelihood of civil war onset, can fracture or act as a solution to collective action problems that might otherwise prevent a cohesive rebellion from forming” (Blimes 2006). While it is true that ethnicity and ethnic diversity are both pervasive in the sphere of this conflict, this essay finds that the Bosnian Conflict cannot justly be labelled and viewed solely as an ethnic conflict.