Bosnia-Herzegovina: Political paralysis of “civic” option

, by KREHO Dinko

A political system in Bosnia and Herzegovina is strongly determined by the strict division on nationalist and civic options. Persisting “new” civic political projects are crashing themselves against the rocks of post-Dayton Bosnian settlement. Although the history of the illusions of civic alternatives to the tripartite nationalist division of votes and resources suggests their impotence, there is actually much space for political progress. But, for the beginning, it is necessary to refute some of the usual, self-explanatory distinctions as civic and individual vs. national and collective.

Writing about the perspectives of “civic”, “alternative”, or “non-nationalistic” political options in BiH can easily begin and end in general conclusions. Among others, this conclusions can be multiculturalist, liberal-individualistic or neoliberal, ranging from calls for more co-operation, tolerance and trust among peoples, through insisting on the emancipation of an individual and the affirmation of his / her rights, up to technocratic promotion of business-entrepreneurial pragmatism as an alleged counterbalance to nationalistic “irrationality”.

Through activism and social criticism, a radical leftist position was also formed on the margins. This one dismisses equally nationalist and “non-nationalist” party-political options as two branches of the capitalist system and insists on the need for anticapitalist mobilization as the primary form of struggle. Young non-party Left also often shows a lack of analytical scruples and their theoretical positions is not so easy to accommodate with the situation in politics and society – which again leads to the proliferation of general conclusions and some kind of paralysis. In such a situation, it’s not easy to say something meaningful about the prospects and perspectives of
“different” political engagement in Bosnia.

A wide range of “civic”

We should first address the distinction between the “nationalist” and the “civic”, which is repeatedly discussed when talking about possible alternatives for BiH. The binary opposition between nationalist barbarians and civilized, liberal, cosmopolitan or “civic” forces determined the social, political and cultural context in each of the post-Yugoslav states during the 1990s. With rare exceptions, such antagonism has been constructed everywhere: it has occupied a central place in the discourse of Western political establishment, but also in the discourse of the opposition media or in the self-perception of various “alternative” political actors.

However, in BiH, the widest possible range of different political actors, orientations and options were considered “civic” or “anti-nationalist”; since there are three ethnonationalist policies in the country that spilled a lot of blood, almost every tendency that did not carry the mark of one of them would have the chance to be promoted as an “anti-nationalist”. Thus, for a long time, the integral Bosnian patriotism was figuring as an alternative to nationalistic policies, because it opposed the territorial division of the country which they created through state-based integralism. The discourse on distinctive Bh. identity – whether it postulates “civil society” as opposed to ethnic tribalism, or imitates nationalist identity collectivism and primordialism – was also perceived as an opposition within BiH itself, but also in
Zagreb and Belgrade.

Twenty years later, the perception of opposition between “nationalist” and “civic” as a fundamental antagonism in BiH’s political life is still very persistent. While there are sometimes appearances of a different conceptualization of the social situation in the media, at the level of party politics, mentioned opposition remains unquestionable: every actor on that scene has to be branded as one of ours (Serb, Croat or Bosniak) or as a “civic” oriented. For a long time, the role of the central “anti-nationalist” option in the sphere of party politics was occupied by the Social Democratic Party (SDP), with an orientation that could be identified as a sort of belated “third-way” Blairite policy. However, in the last ten years, the SDP has been continually in decline: its former members often establish new “civic” parties, usually accusing SDP of opportunism and surrendering to nationalist mainstream.

Our Party example

Latest such project, declaratively determined to “different BiH”, proclaims principles such as: “one person, one vote, reduction of group rights, development of the economy, promotion of private entrepreneurship and equality of all peoples in every part of BiH”. This clip illustrates well the ideological mixture we find in program acts and discourse of the average political party of declarative “civic” orientation. Liberal promotion of an individual’s rights is mixed with economic (neo)liberalism and state-territorial integrity, without any insight into either nationalist discrimination or capitalist exploitation, even less about other forms of oppression of different individuals and collectives.

Our Party case is worth further analysis. Unlike numerous similar projects, this undoubtedly “civic” party did not emerge as SDP spin-off. It was formed in 2008 with a lot of media attention and the participation of some of the most famous figures from Sarajevo’s cultural and intellectual life. At first, it was presented to the public as a “post-ideological” political party that “depoliticizes the political system” and “depoliticizes profession”, ie the one that will “defend Bosnian-Herzegovinian society from major national narratives and turn it towards questions of so-called everyday life”. Although this obvious attempt of “policy without politics” would be expected to be shortlived and to serve only as a platform for the promotion of individuals, Our Party has grown into a respectable player on BiH party scene. In the meantime, they gave up their “post-ideological” and “postpolitical” positions.

More recently, they represent themselves as a “party of social-liberal orientation” advocating “a society of solidarity and social justice, the rule of law and broad civic freedoms”. The leaders of Our Party claim to offer “concrete solutions to the worst problems in the country and taking responsibility for brave initiatives in the local community”. Indeed, at the level of community work and local initiatives, especially in smaller towns, Our Party proved capable of launching good initiatives and the continued engagement of its membership – in opposing sexism, homophobia, “criminal privatizations” (not privatization as such) and the suppression of labour rights (but of course, not capitalism) – deserves to be perceived. However, problems with the political orientation of the Party as such are not less intrusive.

The trauma of being politically undefined is visible in the name of “Our Party”, which suggests local connectivity, networking and a certain humanization of the political space. But apart from opposing “us” and “them” (nationalists), it does not point to any positive vision (we can imagine a far right, neoliberal, and social democratic party with the same name). Furthermore, the advocacy of “solidarity and social justice” on the one hand, and “broad civil liberties” on the other hand, are not integrated into any particular political direction. For example, we do not know how Our Party understands the interdependencies and interactions of individual, (ethno)national, class, state, etc. factors and identifications, or what do they think about the neoliberal impact on society in general. Statements about “rule of law” are used by all party actors, which is quite understandable in the “wild” social environment of post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina – but what if the legal apparatus is modelled to favour ruling classes and as a tool of oppression? We can hardly find answers to these questions in programming documents, actions and discourse of Our Party.

The paradoxical potential of BiH

Naturally, the atmosphere of a permanent social crisis was only intensified by the global crisis of the capitalist system after 2008. Despair grows, sentiments are radicalized and the legitimacy of the declared non-nationalist options are becoming more and more drastically questioned. In addition to the above mentioned leftist critique of “civic” alternatives, rightist critique is increasingly gaining momentum. That one assures us that any evocation of “civil” is only a mask for nationalism, mostly that of the most numerous nation. It needs to be said that the latter is sometimes the case – the symbiosis of liberal rhetoric, Bosnian patriotism and Bosniak nationalism is not a new phenomenon – but when such politics are denounced from nationalist positions, with aim of discrediting even the slightest possibility of non-nationalist politics in BiH, the problem becomes even more complicated.

At the same time, the lack of political articulation in the discourse, action and the program of “civic” oriented actors is used by the apologists of nationalism to claim that attempts to find alternatives to nationalism are, at the very least, impossible job. By apologists, I do not imply here only passionate nationalist ideologists, but perhaps even more those who accept the logic of nationalism with opportunistic motivation, with “common-sense” arguments – like the former poster boy of the young Left in BiH, Vuk Bačanović, who perceives “breaking up” of BiH as a “wise” solution.

However, the very fact that, apart from discussing the nationalist options in BiH, we can at least think about the alternative perspectives, is not something to be ignored. It confirms that, unlike in Serbia and Croatia, nationalism in BiH is not fully legitimized and naturalized in everyday life. Of course, ethno-nationalist identity politics is aggressively present, their narrative is filling the media, institutions, and everyday life – but precisely this visibility proves that nationalism has not triumphed completely. Nationalist politics in Serbia and/or Croatia do not have to assert themselves in this way; in these mostly monoethnic counties, nationalism can be reproduced more discreetly, implicitly and “more naturally”. The inability to ethnical demarcation in BiH by war operations and the failure of the post-war politics to finally implement their segregation projects have caused that ethno-nationalism is not the only show in town.

Often, we can rightly write off the idea of “civic alternatives” to nationalism, the one that has been presented for a quarter of a century, as, in the best case, hollow rhetorical skeleton. However, very fact that the nationalism is recognized as a dominant but not mandatory mode of political activity (and everyday life) is worthy of our attention (in Croatia it is hard to imagine SDP calling HDZ nationalist). The reasons for this specificity do not lie in a fundamental, mystical “Bosnian exceptionalism”, but in a series of socio-historical-geographic factors and circumstances – among which the fact that BiH was for the first time formed as a political project and state inside Peoples Liberation Struggle as an anti-colonial and anti-fascist project.

Of course, in order for contradictory “civic” forms of resistance to nationalism to become any political alternative worthy of that name, much work, struggle and sacrifice are needed. If we are talking about the sphere of party politics, a convincing antinationalistic option should at least be “intersectional” and reject the logic of the binary opposition between “civil and individual” and “national and collective”. This struggle should be directed against the complex system of exploitation, oppression and discrimination, even when it is limited by the repressive parameters of party politics.

In other words, this would be struggle for a different understanding of politics as such and not only for a concrete political change. It is not impossible that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which appears in the context of the other post-Yugoslav countries as a “troubled country”, there is the most open space for such a thing to happen.


Dinko Kreho

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