Gareth Davies

Last week a news report emerged stating that a newborn child, Faruk Salaka, had become the first formally registered Bosnian citizen. This may sound a bit strange. One might expect that all Bosnian born people would be Bosnians by proxy? The answer is more complicated than this. Unofficially one may identify as Bosnian, but in the eyes of the state nobody has been officially Bosnian since the end of the war and the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995. The recognition of the first Bosnian citizen is of particular import because it represents a potential move away from the unworkable form of ethnocratic politics which has been practiced since the end of the conflict.

Elvira and Kemal Salaka with their children Tarik, Lamija and Faruk. Photo by Elvis Barukcic, AFP.

As we know, the war in Bosnia saw people of ethnic groups fighting against one another in one of the most brutal conflicts in recent history. One of the most shocking aspects of events in Bosnia was the locality of violence along with crimes motivated by ethnic identities.

The dynamics and identity politics of the Balkans are incredibly complex, having crystallised out of the identitarian vacuum left by the fall of Tito in 1989. The fragmentation of Yugoslavia launched the Balkan region into a period of ultra-nationalist state-building which saw Bosnia’s frontiers placed between the more ethnically discrete states of Croatia on one side, and Serbia on the other.

Popular representations of Bosnia often portray cities like Sarajevo before the war as bastions of liberalism, multi-culturalism, and integration. If this was true of the pre-war period, then the war saw those characteristics turned on their head. The ethnic diversity in the country made the in-fighting even more intense, as it became a contested territory.

As an attempt at resolving what were dubiously perceived as ‘primordial’ ethnic divisions in Bosnia, the Dayton Agreement of 1995 wrote into the post-war constitution that political representation would depend on subscription to particular ethnic groups: Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Serb, Croat, or ‘Other’. Such reifications of identity were deemed necessary to ensure a workable and egalitarian basis for political representation. As a result of this decision Bosnia and Herzegovina is now recognised for having one of the world’s most complex systems of government.

The problem with trying to fix complex ethnic identities into rigidly defined categories needs little elaboration. Not only does such ordering demonstrate a misunderstanding of the ethnic diversity of Bosnia, but as a practical method of representation and governance it has proved highly ineffective. Governmental, and non-governmental bodies such as Crisis Group, The Democratic Policy Council, and even the European Commission have acknowledged the urgent need for political reform.  

Such calls for political reform have been echoed in the scholarly literature for a considerably longer time. Bosnian scholar Asim Mujkic1 claims that the constitutional change to an ethnically driven form of politics doesn’t reflect the wishes of the people, that representation based on ethnic identity discourages civic integration, and that ethnic essentialism reinforces the ethnic divides which were productive of the conflict in the first place.

The use of ethnic essentialism as a tool for resolving ethnic conflict is not only limited to the case study of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but can also be extended to Northern Ireland, where one may only be politically identifiable as Protestant, Catholic, or Other. Such policies of ethnic separatism and essentialism are the product of technocratic understandings of ethnicity and culture, which lead to a “flat-pack peace made from standardized components”2. Such methods may serve to keep peace in the short term, but do little in the way of building any form of sustainable peace.  

As part of Salaka’s registration as a Bosnian citizen, the Sarajevo Center municipality stated there were no restrictions preventing anyone from being formally registered as ‘Bosnian’. Such a decision by the courts begs the question of why nobody had previously pushed to be registered as Bosnian, and if they had why were they denied? These questions remain unanswered, but it is clear that this decision is encouraging many others to follow suit. According to Balkan Insight there have already been five further requests from parents for their children to be registered as Bosnian.

The news that the first citizen had been registered outside of these constrictive ethnic divisions is therefore a huge event, representing a step away from the constrictive ethnic identifiers that reinforce ethnic divisions. We can hope that the recent decision marks a step away from the constrictive identifiers of Bosniak, Serb, Croat, “Other”, and a step towards a system of representation which may one day depart entirely from ethnic essentialism.

1. Asim Mujkic. 'We, the Citizens of Ethnopolis' Constellations. 2007. Vol. 14 no. 1, 112-128

2. Roger MacGinty. 'Indigenous Peace-Making Versus the Liberal Peace' Cooperation and Conflict. 2008. Vol. 42 no, 2, 139-163

Gareth Davies is Associate Editor for Warscapes. He graduated from the University of York with a BA in English and Related Literature. He is currently studying towards an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at Trinity College Dublin. He has experience in writing about representations of conflict in film and literature, and his research focuses on genocide theory and military technology. Follow him on Twitter at @garethaledavies.