A year ago I published in Dani an article titled ‘A new Serb policy for Bosnia- Herzegovina: the three Bosnian Serb political options’ [translation posted on the Bosnian Institute website 29 December 2007], in which I argued that of the given three options – an independent Republika Srpska (RS), the status quo, and treating Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state belonging also to the Serbs – this last one represented the only ‘winning’ strategy.

When we come to the Bosniak policy options in regard to Bosnia, it is difficult to single out any one in particular, because the Bosniaks have at their disposal many more ‘winning’ options than do either the Croats or the Serbs. Before presenting the Bosniak political options, it is necessary to point out that the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina have irretrievably split into Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, and that this fact constitutes an unavoidable starting-point for any relevant debate on the country’s future. While respecting and advocating the rights of all underprivileged groups and individuals who do not belong to the three constituent ethnicities, I believe that the definition and mutual harmonisation of the three constituent interests will of itself greatly contribute to the achievement of legal equality of all citizens.

Twentieth century: towards a final settlement in Bosnia-Herzegovina

One can say of the Bosniaks in the twentieth century that they passed through the eye of a needle during this period, determined as it was by Croat-Serb relations and the wills of Zagreb and Belgrade. To understand the Bosnian Muslims’ highly unenviable position during this period, it is enough to recall Serbia’s emergence from the Ottoman Empire, its growing strength in the first decade of the twentieth century right up to the First Balkan War, the consolidation of its position after the Second Balkan War, and its triumph at the end of World War I when the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom was established under the Karađorđević dynasty. At this time and even before, following the Congress of Berlin in 1878, the Muslims were a negligible social factor existing on the margins of the political processes, who in addition were expected to shoulder the burden of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat. Disregarding the fact of the Muslims’ distinct identity, the Catholic Croats and the Orthodox Serbs viewed them as the remnant of a hated enemy who should ‘pay’ for the centuries of misfortune brought by the Asian conqueror. World War II likewise passed in the shadow of Croat-Serb relations, and the same is true of the last war and Yugoslavia’s break-up, when Croat-Serb relations also determined events in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In this kind of twentieth century, the Bosnian Muslims passed through the eye of a needle. Yet at the same time they succeeded in bolstering their position on the ground, step by step: from Mehmed Spaho, who helped Nikola Pašić win a majority in the kingdom’s first constituent assembly, acted as minister in its government for many years, and led the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation (JMO) whose aim was to preserve the Muslims and Bosnia (e.g. by ensuring passage of the famous ‘Turkish paragraph’ in the kingdom’s first constitution);[1] via 1943 and ZAVNOBiH [when Bosnia-Herzegovina became a separate Yugoslav republic]; then via the constitutional reform of 1974, when the Muslims became recognised as a nationality in their own right; up until the 1992 referendum on the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which depended precisely upon the Bosniaks. Finally, during the war that followed, the Bosniaks managed somehow to preserve the Bosnian state continuity that was confirmed at Dayton.

Start of the twenty-first century: relations of force within Bosnia-Herzegovina

In contrast to the previous century, the twenty-first places the Bosniaks in a completely new situation. They are now the key factor in the survival of an internationally recognised Bosnia-Herzegovina for whose existence they are responsible, given that the Serbs and the Croats had sought – unsuccessfully – to achieve its partition. According to the latest demographic estimates, Bosniaks form between 53 and 55 per cent of the country’s population, and inhabit geopolitical areas crucial for its survival. By contrast with the ‘favourable’ geopolitics of the Bosniaks, we find on the other side a highly ‘unfavourable’ and unworkable Serb geopolitics (in the sense of statehood and sustainability) that blocks all possibility of Republika Srpska (RS) seceding from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Bosniak areas provide, in fact, the only natural connection between the western and eastern parts of RS, which means that without Bosnia RS would always be stalemated. To be more precise, RS can exist only within Bosnia-Herzegovina, because its existence is not possible without it.

We should recall here the various ideas launched before Dayton about exchange of territories, which then seemed little more than rumours and airy talk, although it is now clear that some people did think about geopolitics and geography as the key premises for some future division of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There were rumours at the time that Tuzla would go to Republika Srpska and Banja Luka to the Federation, i.e. that there would be an exchange of territories and population. Setting aside the fact that these and similar ideas about the ‘humane’ resettlement and redistribution of the Yugoslav populations were absolutely unacceptable and fascistic, we must credit the planners of the day for knowing full well what they were after. If, by some chance, Tuzla had gone to RS and Banja Luka to the Federation (having in mind here the wider regions, not simply the towns), Bosnia-Herzegovina would have broken up on the third day following Kosovo’s independence, because the eastern half would have simply separated itself off from the country’s western half by a simple decision of RS national assembly. No peace agreement, nothing under the sun could have prevented such an RS from seceding. Bosnia-Herzegovina, in other words, survives and will survive thanks only to the impossible geopolitics and geography of RS, and not to any particular desire or unbounded love on the world’s part for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Bosniaks’ strategic advantage

We thus find at the start of the twenty-first century a completely different card game in Bosnia-Herzegovina, one that unlike in the previous century actually favours the Bosniaks. There are two forces that as constants will influence the picture of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the future, and two other forces with the potential to shape that future. The first constant force is the will of the Bosniak people that Bosnia-Herzegovina should survive and exist, with two advantages in relation to the other two peoples: birthrate and connective geopolitical distribution. The other constant force is Bosnia’s ‘gravitation field’ or the ‘Bosnian centrifuge’, which inexorably keeps the country together. This is made up of three contributing factors: the Bosniaks’ commitment to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s survival; the country’s geography as defined by its powerful rivers and mountains, stimulating the survival of a unified social and political comm unity on its soil; and the ‘geopolitically dead-end immobility’ of Serb policy in regard to RS separation, which in turn absolutely blocks and conditions any Croat policy of separation of ‘Herzeg-Bosna’. ‘Herzeg-Bosna’ could split off only if RS managed to do so; but this is made impossible by the Bosniak will. The historical process has placed the Bosniaks in a position of strategic advantage, and has made their will more decisive for the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina than are those of the Serbs or the Croats. In chess terminology, they hold the latter in perpetual check.

It follows from the above that only two visions of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s future are possible:

1.Bosnia-Herzegovina as a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural state and society;

2.Bosnia-Herzegovina as the national state of the Bosniaks.

This means that any policy that the Serbs and Croats choose to conduct ‘suits’ the Bosniaks, whereas only certain kinds of Bosniak policy suit the Serbs and Croats.

As indicated above, in addition to the two permanent forces active in Bosnia-Herzegovina (the Bosniak will and the ‘Bosnian centrifuge’) there are two other forces that can potentially influence the character of a future Bosnia: the Croat and Serb political forces. Their actions can help Bosnia become either a multi-ethnic state or, alternatively, a national state of the Bosniaks. From the point of view of current Croat and especially Serb policies, this choice is viewed according to a classification of bad, worse and worst; whereas on the Bosniak side, every Serb or Croat option can be ranked as good, better or best. It follows that in order to turn Bosnia-Herzegovina into a multi-ethnic community, a radical reorientation is required in Croat and Serb policy towards Bosnia-Herzegovina as their own state; meanwhile the Bosniaks must stop pursuing a dual policy of declaring themselves in favour of a multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, while at the same time turning the country into a de facto Bosniak national state.

Creation of a Bosniak national state

The starting-point of this political option is that Bosnia-Herzegovina is the national state of Bosniaks and others just as Croatia is the national state of Croats and others and Serbia the national state of Serbs and others. This option became dominant after Dayton, and is most likely to predominate also in the future. Such an outcome is facilitated by a contradictory alliance of the three nationalist policies in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However surprising this may appear, the current policies of both Serbs and Croats are unwittingly helping the Bosniak nationalist policy to proceed in this direction.

If we look at the modern civil societies that have by and large emerged following the constitution of national states, we shall see that it is impossible to speak in this context about Bosnia as a civil state in advance of its constitution as a harmonious tri-national, bi-national or mono-national state. The attempt to create a Bosnian supra-nation in Bosnia-Herzegovina failed under both Austria-Hungary and the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Today, it stands absolutely no chance.

The concept of the national state is essentially tied to demography, to population figures. The demographic factor will play a decisive role also in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where twenty years from now the numbers will tell whether we are dealing with a tri-national or a bi-national or a mono-national state. It is useful, therefore, to look at the Bosnian population censuses up to 1991, which made it – in practice as well as theoretically – a multi-national state. The fact is that during the previous century and a half, no national group had formed a majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The census of 1865 thus records the population as 46.3 per cent Orthodox, 30.7 per cent Muslim and 22.7 per cent Catholic. The numbers for 1895 are 42.7 per cent Orthodox, 36.9 per cent Muslim and 19.9 per cent Catholic. Similar proportions are produced also by the censuses carried under Austria-Hungary: the last, conducted in 1910, showed 43.5 per cent Orthodox, 32.2 per cent Muslim and 23.3 per cent Catholic. A relative Orthodox majority is recorded also in the censuses conducted between the two world wars (in 1921 and in 1931), and in the immediate post-war period (1948, 1951 and 1961). The census of 1971, however, for the first time showed a relative Muslim majority: 39.6 per cent Muslim, 32.7 per cent [Orthodox] Serb and 20.6 per cent [Catholic] Croat. The census of 1991 indicated a growing Muslim preponderance: 43.7 per cent Muslim/Bosniak, 31.2 per cent Serb, 17.4 per cent Croat.

But today, for the first time in a century and a half, we do have an absolute majority of one group. This fact is as important a historical event for Bosnia-Herzegovina as were the above-mentioned data from the past. According to a projection by the Statistical Agency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country has 3, 447, 156 inhabitants, 64.2 per cent of whom live in the Federation, 33.8 per cent in RS and 2 per cent in the district of Brčko. If one accepts the Catholic Church’s optimistic estimate of there being 450,000 Croats or 12-13 per cent of the total, and given that the number of Serbs cannot be more than 1,150,000 or 32-3 per cent of the total, this leaves 1,850,000 Bosniaks or 53-4 per cent of the total. The Statistical Agency has produced an even more alarming datum, which is that the average age of the population in RS is 3.8 years higher than in the Federation, due largely to the emigration of young people from RS to Serbia. This trend will ensure that the number of Bosniaks will grow faster in the future than that of the Croats or Serbs, and that the trend will accelerate as the percentage difference becomes larger.

If one adds to this observation the Bosniaks’ strategically advantageous geopolitical distribution that prevents the break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina; reports by the statistical offices in RS and the Federation, which show a persistent annual decline of the birth-rate in RS and a simultaneous rise in the Federation (with the Croat areas also in decline); and the constant emigration of Croats and Serbs from the rural areas to respectively Croatia and Serbia – and if one takes into account also the growing influx into Sarajevo of Bosniaks from the Sandžak – then it becomes highly likely that Bosniaks will achieve a two-thirds majority, or 67 per cent of the total, in about twenty years time. In other words, this could happen in around 2028, which is not far ahead.

Current Bosniak policy

The dominant Bosniak policy – the one that has won in practically all elections over the past eighteen years, and which represents solely the interest of the Bosniaks, conscious of the new historical process since 1995 and Dayton – is skilled at playing a double game: on the one hand, loudly advocating a multi-ethnic and civic Bosnia; on the other, acting in a way that favours the emergence of a two-thirds-majority Bosniak national state. This Bosniak policy, to be sure, is helped by the Serb policy at all times and by the Croat policy some of the time.

What are the changing circumstances that are rapidly creating a demographic balance favouring the Bosniak people at the expense of the others?

1. The ethnic separation of the Bosnia-Herzegovina population, as a result of which the Croats and the Serbs are concentrated in peripheral and largely rural areas, while the Bosniaks are concentrated in the central area, which contains a number of connected urban centres. And as we know, it is cities that in peacetime are the bearers of economic growth and development.

2. The systematic production of hatred against Bosnia-Herzegovina on the part of the Serb and Croat political elites, and combined with that their total orientation towards Belgrade and Zagreb respectively. This sends a clear signal to ordinary people as to where they should seek their fortunes.

3. The encouragement of an antagonistic attitude towards Sarajevo on the part of the Croat and especially the Serb political elite, despite the fact that the capital city provides the greatest possibility for the affirmation of talent, knowledge and intellect.

There is little doubt, however, that Sarajevo is for the Serbs of strategic importance, given that the eastern part of RS can relate only to Sarajevo or Serbia. There is no third option. If the thirty- odd municipalities in the rural areas of eastern RS that are economically its suburbs reject Sarajevo, and then Tuzla and Mostar too, their economic collapse is inevitable. There is not even a theoretical possibility that the eastern part of RS could develop without the Federation, as the map makes clear. Without its full integration into the Federation, let me repeat, eastern RS, which does not form a sustainable economic region on its own, stands no chance of economic development, regardless of desire and effort. Even the alleged hydro-electric potential of this area is a great illusion, since the erection of a hydroelectric plant would lead to a centralisation of capital and bureaucracy in Banja Luka, accompanied by a further emigration of the local population. A proof of this is the Višegrad hydroelectric plant, which has led to the economic devastation ofVišegrad and its area, the population of which continues to leave for Serbia.

The Banja Luka region, on the other hand, is able to develop, not because RS acts as a state but because it is a natural economic area. RS is currently reduced, in fact, to administering the business of the Banja Luka economic area. The area itself does profit from this to some extent. On the other side, however, in the east, the hard entity border is in practice inimical to Serb national interests, because it prevents the region’s economic development and leads, in the last instance, to the creation of ‘many mountains and valleys without shepherds or sheep’. And, as the proverb says, ‘the mountain belongs to those who own the sheep’.

The merry-go-round of decline on which the RS political elite has embarked is the assumption that RS can develop economically without a European road for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integration into the European Union is impossible without a transfer of authority from the entities to the state – yet the RS elite defends the entity’s powers at all costs. As a result, the population is promised the fulfilment of two diametrically opposite goals: preservation of RS powers on the one hand, economic development on the other. Since one of the two must fail, the present government has opted for the former, and is using television and its other controlled media to fan the illusion that RS is flourishing economically and that its people are living well.

Something similar is true also for the Croats. Without an orientation towards Sarajevo, there is no possibility that a largely rural and sparsely populated Herzegovina can retain its young, bright and talented people. They will be gobbled up by Zagreb.

Sarajevo is a world brand, famous for Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, the Winter Olympic Games, and the recent long siege. This world brand has been attracting successful Bosniaks from all over the world, who are coming back to live in Bosnia. Serbs and Croats could do likewise, if only they wished to.

Croat and especially Serb politicians treat as traitors those of their peoples who see their future in Sarajevo and other Bosnian places, while hailing as patriots those who make their way to Serbia or Croatia, when in fact the opposite should be the case. The Bosniak side, by contrast, appears far more committed to its people returning to RS, for example by promoting ‘Drina patriotism’ among the Bosniaks. Serb politicians meanwhile scornfully denigrate any idea of strengthening the Serb presence in Sarajevo and other ‘age-old Serb hearths’.

The departure of so many young Serbs and Croats for Serbia and Croatia respectively leads to a decline in Serb and Croat birthrates, which can only aid the creation of a two-thirds Bosniak majority in the country. According to the statistical offices of the two entities, during the last five years alone (2003-7, ) in RS the number of deaths surpassed the number of births by 15,100, while in the Federation 18,000 more people were born than died. Since we know that Croat areas within the Federation also have a negative demographic trend, any growth in the Federation’s population favours the Bosniaks still further. If we put these two figures together, during the past five years the gap between Bosniaks and Serbs grew by 33,000 or 2 per cent in favour of the former, due solely to the birthrate. (What this means can be illustrated by the fact that most municipalities in eastern RS have around 10,000 inhabitants.) If one adds to this the fact that at least twice as many people have left Bosnia-Herzegovina (in the absence of relevant research, this estimate is buttressed by the tens of thousands of Serbs with RS identity card who have been living in Serbia for the past five, ten or more years), or on the other hand have arrived in Sarajevo from the Sandžak then we can conclude that we are dealing with weighty percentages.

What is happening can be summed up in a single sentence: ‘This is logical, because more Serbs and Croats than Bosniaks leave this country with its low living standards, which in any case they do not love, and since they have another state to which they can easily move, so that they lose the endurance and persistence needed for staying on – unlike the Bosniaks, who may also have living problems but who, not having a reserve state and also loving this one, retain the ability to endure the hardship.’

What is the current Bosniak policy in this new situation: a situation in which the Dayton settlement and the infantile national policies of Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats have served them on a platter the possibility of turning Bosnia-Herzegovina into a Bosniak national state?

The Bosniak politicians know that Bosnia survived the last war – and that its existence is now unquestionable – for various reasons, geopolitical ones in particular. They are aware that the internal structure of the Dayton state could be a threat only in the event of RS secession, but that since such secession is impossible they can enjoy both the comfort and the time in which slowly to build up their two-thirds majority. They also know that the only true guarantee for the preservation of Croat and Serb national interests is their birthrate and their prosperity, while their struggle to achieve legal-constitutional detachment has been a wrong strategy. The proof of this is Kosovo, ruled by the Serbs for the past ninety years but which nevertheless became fully Albanian in both the formal and the demographic sense.

Viewed from this perspective, the Serb concentration on preserving RS competencies and the Croat preoccupation with the creation of a third entity are an absolute waste of time, a wrong strategy that will recoil on them like a boomerang when the Bosniaks’ two-thirds majority becomes established in 2028. It will then become even more difficult to divide Bosnia. For if Karadžić failed to achieve this in the lunacy of 1993-5, and Krajišnik and Poplašen in the crazy postwar years, if even Dodik failed to achieve this after Kosovo’s independence, then there is no possibility that it could be done twenty years from now, in a country in which the Bosniaks will form 67 per cent of the population. The existence of RS will mean very little to the Serbs when they become a negligible percentage of the population, just as the ‘Turkish paragraph’ of Mehmet Spaho’s times would have meant nothing to the Bosniaks in 1991, at the time of the referendum on independence, if they had formed only 20 per cent and the Serbs, say, 57 per cent of the total population. Had the Serbs grown by ten per cent between 1910 and 1991, there would have been no referendum on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s independence in 1992, but rather a referendum on its adhesion to Serbia. The numbers proved more important to the Bosniaks than the ‘Turkish paragraph’, which was later erased.

Bosniak politicians know that the Serb belief in the eternal protection of RS competencies is a mistake, because Serbs are leaving for Serbia. Reasoning in this way, the Bosniaks will enjoy multiple and long-term profit from the existence of Republika Srpska, because Karadžić’s incomplete project (which could be completed only through secession) will help them achieve a two-thirds majority in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And when they do gain that majority, they will conduct a six-month campaign with the aim of having 500,000 Bosniaks register their identity cards in RS, after which they will perfectly legally elect a government there, appoint a new prime minister, and with a parliamentary majority decide the future of RS. Those with a favourable birthrate do not need to take up the gun. It is a Serb mistake to believe that what matters is ethnic separation, or the fact that RS is now 90 per cent Serb. This might play a role in the event of secession, but since secession is impossible without catastrophic effects on the Bosnian Serbs in particular, it is quite unimportant who lives where and who dominates ethnically which place. The Serbs themselves, indeed, are living proof of having survived as a distinct people for centuries under the Turks without having any powers. During the past twenty years of struggle for competencies, on the other hand, they have been disappearing from their centuries-old habitats in Croatia, Kosovo and now also Bosnia-Herzegovina.

After the first few years following the end of the war, the current Bosniak policy understood this historical process and embraced it as its guiding idea. From the perspective of a people that during the last war was fighting to preserve crumbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosniaks are now being offered the incredible perspective of making Bosnia-Herzegovina a national Bosniak state. This has become an inspiration for the Bosniak nationalist circles which are defining the Bosniak project in the twenty-first century. Realising that Sarajevo is the foundation-stone of multi-ethnic Bosnia, and that the idea of ethnic pluralism lives or dies in Sarajevo, they have busied themselves with ‘killing’ the multi-ethnic idea at its very source in Sarajevo itself. Utilizing the truly perverse policies of the Serbs and the Croats, who are giving up on Sarajevo, the city’s gradual radicalisation and islamicisation has now come to the fore, evident in education, in architecture, in the media, in the absence of other national groups in the administration. As a result an increasing number of those non-Bosniaks who remained in Sarajevo during the war now wish, thirteen years after its conclusion, to move away, to go to places with a Serb or a Croat majority. According to prominent Sarajevo citizens, the city was far more cosmopolitan during the war than it is today.

The aim of this policy is to destroy Sarajevo’s strong civic tradition, which retains strong support among its citizens, and to encourage further the already misguided Serb and Croat policy towards Sarajevo, hoping that it will become even more radical and move even further from an understanding that the Serbs and the Croats cannot survive in Bosnia without Sarajevo. From the point of view of this Bosniak nationalist policy, it is not important that Bosnia will fall behind on the road to modernisation, because the harder life is in Bosnia the faster will the project of a two-thirds majority be realised, since Croats and Serbs will simply move to Croatia and Serbia. In this historical perspective, twenty or thirty years signify little when it comes to the one thousand years of Bosnia’s history; and a degree of economic decline of the country is a worthwhile price to pay for the realisation of their supreme project – the creation of a national Bosniak state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Translated from a longer text in
Dani (Sarajevo), 16 January 2009 The author is one of the leaders of the recently formed ‘Our Party’, which now shares power on the Sarajevo city council in coalition with the SDP

Translated by Bosnian Institute, 09.02.2009.

Peščanik.net, 18.02.2009.


  1. The ‘Turkish paragraph’ is a popular name for Art. 135 of the 1921 constitution, which ensured that Bosnia-Herzegovina alone, in its pre-war borders, would form a single region among the twenty-six into which the Serb-Croat-Slovene kingdom came to be divided. The ‘Turkish paragraph’ was the outcome of Mehmet Spaho’s efforts and policy, a result of the JMO’s constructive approach and votes, which secured the adoption in 1921 of the so-called Vidovdan Constitution. All in all, the ‘Turkish paragraph’ is an example of a wise policy adapted to the given circumstances.