From Donald Trump to Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, nationalism seems to have become the mainstay of political rhetoric everywhere these days. But nowhere has it become more entrenched and, above all, more harmful than in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which held national elections this past Sunday.
Unlike most other places, though, mainstreamed nationalist rhetoric isn’t a recent development here. More than two decades after the war that took an estimated 100,000 lives—and continues to be strongly identified with this Balkan country of about 4 million people—Bosnia is in a position to teach the rest of us a lesson. And it’s a lesson that, ironically, the United States and other Western powers involved in peacekeeping in Bosnia helped lay the foundation for.
The entirety of Bosnia’s Constitution, in fact, is an annex from the 1995 Dayton Agreement, which ended the war. It’s why the country has three rotating presidents from each of the three “constituent peoples”—Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats—to go along with two decentralized subnational entities divided along ethnic lines: the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, and the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated (and confusingly named) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which shares a name with the country.
Focused solely on ending the war, the consociationalist power-sharing agreement has given birth to a political reality no state should want. Since it aimed to appease the sides that were at each other’s throats during the war, no one is entirely happy with what they got. This, combined with an entrenched quota system that bureaucratizes ethnic belonging at every level of government, has created an environment in which ethnonationalist parties rule the day, where playing the politics of fear against the “other(s)” is the dominant political tactic.
The best example of what happens when someone tries to push against the nationalist nature of the Bosnian system is the victory of Zeljko Komsic for the tripartite presidency. Self-defining as Croat, he has often claimed that he sees his background as just a formality. His mother was of Serbian descent, his father is a Croat, and he was baptized in a Catholic church. His wife is Bosniak. So while he did run as a Croat candidate, Komsic has over the years had strong support from the Bosniak community in the federation, though this support has not come without criticism of his capabilities as a politician. His popularity has earned him the ire of “proper” Croats, who would only vote for an overtly nationalist candidate like Dragan Covic and his Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH).
“The electoral system allows for Komsic to run and to be elected,” says journalist Dragan Bursac. “It’s a fact that the HDZ [the main Croatian party in Bosnia] are merely local branches of the main party in neighboring Croatia.” Two of Bosnia’s main ethnic groups are the majority in its neighboring countries, and many consider Croatia and Serbia to be their respective motherlands.