Quick Read: Why Does Bosnia Exist?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is two separate countries with three separate presidents. The presidency comprises three members, one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb. The Bosniak and Croat candidates are elected by residents of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while the Serb is elected by residents of Republica Srpska. Republica Srpska has close ties with neighbouring Serbia, and by extension Russia. Bosnian Serbs are fiercely independent, and threats of secession are never far away. 

Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims have a complicated history, to say the least. The fact that the three ethnic groups have wound up in an uneasy union is a quirk resulting from the troubled peace brought to the Balkans following the fallout from the collapse of Yugoslavia. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina today. The separate entities of Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina are clearly divided. The Brčko District is a condominium of the two entities.

But how, and why, was the modern state of Bosnia and Herzegovina created? The Bosnian ‘region’ has been contested since the middle ages, from the Hungarians to the Byzantines to the Croats. While independent or autonomous Bosnian Kingdoms did emerge, the region was vulnerable to outside influence. The Bosnian Church was considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, meaning Bosnia did not enjoy the same religious societal structures that underpinned much of Europe at the time.

In 1463 Bosnia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and remained under its control for 400 years. During Ottoman rule a distinct Islamic-Slavic community emerged alongside existing Serb and Croat communities. In the 1870s Christian Serb and Croat communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina revolted against the Ottomans, leading to most of the territory being occupied by Austria-Hungary in 1878. 

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century the Austrians promoted a ‘Bosnian’ or ‘Bosniak’ identity in an attempt to water down Serb and Croat nationalism in the region. Tensions around Austrian rule led Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, sparking the First World War. Following the war, Bosnia joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. 

Throughout the 1930s tensions between Serbs and Croats across the Balkans were at a high, and it seemed likely that the ethnic regions of Bosnia would break away into their ‘mother’ regions. That came to a halt when Hitler invaded in 1941. Bosnian Serb, Croats and Muslims fought as part of Josip Tito’s partisans during WWII, and after the war Bosnia and Herzegovina was established as one of six constituent republics of the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Bosnia remained relatively peaceful within Yugoslavia until the collapse of communism in 1990. The November 1990 Bosnian elections saw the establishment of a tri-ethnic coalition, each of which had their own distinct interests. The Serb population strongly favoured remaining within Yugoslavia, while the Croat and Muslim populations favoured independence.

In 1991 the Serb population established the Assembly of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which would later become Republica Srpska. A similar Croat assembly was established but was declared illegal by the central government.  Bosnia and Herzegovina gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, following a vote that was boycotted by the majority of Bosnian Serbs. Aggrieved Serb members of the Yugoslav army took up arms for Republica Srpska and went on to occupy much of the country, carrying out ethnic cleansing under leader Slobodan Milosevic along the way.

Fighting also broke out between the Muslim and Croat Bosnian populations, with similarly horrifying violence. The US-brokered peace saw the Croat and Muslim areas of Bosnia consolidated into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, divided along Swiss-style canton lines to deflate ethnic tensions. The unified federation was then able to quash Serb resistance, ushering in an uneasy peace between the units that make up modern day Bosnia Herzegovina.

Today, the West has come to rely on that uneasy peace in order to prevent a flare up of geopolitical tensions in the Balkans. With tensions remaining high around Kosovo, a break up of Bosnian territory could spark a new period of violence in the region. For now therefore, Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats remain in a creaking alliance in the name of geopolitical stability. 

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