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A Brief History of Bosnia

Updated on October 5, 2012

From Yugoslavia to Bosnia and Herzegovina: Balkanization and Re-Integration

The map of Europe has changed significantly over the last century. Acting as a crucible for many of the Modern Era's major ideological debates, the continent also served as the bloodstained battleground on which those ideals were tested. Capitalism, Communism, Fascism, Naziism, and Socialism were all born here, some falling out of style or mixing with other forms of government, others growing into giants on the world stage.

Yugoslavia, now known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, was one of the countries caught in the crossfire of this turbulent period. Already suffering from endemic inter-cultural strife, it was invaded by the Nazis during World War II. Communist-led resistance took control after the war, politically orienting the troubled state towards Moscow. With the fall of communism and the death of Yugoslavia's dictator, old tensions flared, leading to a brutal war which dislocated thousands of people. Essentially, Yugoslavia was a powder keg, and the tensions brought on by the early twentieth century were like a lit match.


Life in Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia was made up of a number of ethnic groups, each with their own agendas and outlooks. Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Muslims of each ethnicity clung to separate groups, arguing over land ownership and public rights. When the Nazis began taking over Europe in World War II, Yugoslavia was invaded and occupied.

Nazi occupation created a great deal of turmoil. The resulting resistance groups initiated the rise of Josip Tito, whose communist forces united the ethnic and religious groups in an attempt to fight back. After the war, Tito rose to lead Yugoslavia, and reorganized the country into a communist federation. Galvanized by communism and a message of tolerance, Tito's Yugoslavia remained held together by the people's loyalty towards him, stemming from his credibility as a patriot and war hero.

For most Americans, the idea of communist dictatorship is one draped in shadowy memories of McCarthyism and Red Dawn references. According to Goran Terzic, not only was life in a communist country not what we saw advertised on TV, it was in some ways better.

“It was really good,” says Terzic. “We had simple lives.”

Mr. Terzic is a Bosnian refugee. When war broke out in his homeland, he and his family fled to Germany, where they remained for several years. Eventually, they relocated to the United States, where he now lives a hectic life as a businessman.

“People didn’t live such dynamic lives as they do here,” Terzic continues. “For example, people here are always working and busy and they don’t have time for socializing and for family. People are so [much more] stressed in the U.S. than they are in Bosnia. People here have a higher standard of life, but people in Bosnia are much happier. The life in ex-Yugoslavia and Bosnia is simple and fulfilling at the same time."

This raises an important question; how did Yugoslavia, a prospering country full of happy people, degrade violence and bloodshed?

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Citizens visiting a commemorative statue of TitoFlag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Citizens visiting a commemorative statue of Tito
Citizens visiting a commemorative statue of Tito
Flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Flag of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

The Cold War Sets the Stage

After the end of World War II, the United States and Russia saw to recreate their respective forms of government in the countries formerly occupied by Axis powers. The US became the champion of Capitalism, while the USSR preached the ideals of Communism, leading up to the eventual build-up and stalemate of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union ended up with much of Eastern Europe, and in it's efforts to maintain a “Buffer Zone” against potential invasion, installed puppet governments and reorganized the region into Socialist Republics. Most of these Communist countries, if not members of the USSR, were in some way supported by Russia in order to maintain them as satellite nations. While Yugoslavia was never a direct part of the Soviet Union, it did enjoy close relations with the USSR- at first.

Since Yugoslavia was already a communist state, it drew the attention of the Soviet Union, who sought to add the country to its growing collection of East Bloc subordinates. Tito was a communist, but he did not wish for Yugoslavia to become dependent on the Soviet Union, and so avoided becoming a satellite nation after much controversy. This encouraged the West to step in and attempt to woo the young government themselves, but they too were shooed away.

Tito steered Yugoslavia into a neutral position, ensuring independence as well as a strategic position in the building tensions between East and West; however, he also effectively isolated the country. So long as he was in power, things remained stable, but after his death in 1980, centrifugal forces began to take hold.

“People with different religious and ethnic groups lived together and fought through WWII against the Nazis.” says Terzic. “50 years later, nationally oriented political groups became leaders of the country and their actions led to war.”

Indeed, the forces that began to eat at Tito-ism were the same ethnic and religious conflicts that had been supplanted by it. Tito's death had created a power vacuum. Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and Muslims, who once lived together in relative harmony, saw this vacuum as an opportunity. Each faction began to carve their own states out of the remains of their homeland, and payed a great price in human lives in what became the bloodiest European war since World War II.

Ironically, the Bosnian War might have been prevented had Tito not been so effective at forcing Yugoslavia's neutrality. At the critical moment after Tito's death, when political forces began tearing the country apart, the Soviets were unable to intervene for fear of American retaliation, and vice-versa. Had this not been the case, the Soviets may well have absorbed Yugoslavia in Tito's absence, enforcing the communist tolerance that had so well kept the ethnic tensions in check.

By the time war broke out, the Soviet Union was no longer in a position to do anything, weakened by and later dissolved in a surge in anti-communist sentiment that swept the region. The United States aided some Western-minded splinter groups, and ultimately Yugoslavia was reorganized into a democratic government, but the unity of Tito's reign had officially ceased.

Current political map of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Current political map of Bosnia and Herzegovina. | Source
The Bosnian Parliament building under siege during the 1992 war.
The Bosnian Parliament building under siege during the 1992 war.
The Parliament building today, rebuilt after the war and now used as the Building of the Government of Bosnia.
The Parliament building today, rebuilt after the war and now used as the Building of the Government of Bosnia.
The Bosnian Army today, made up of soldiers from all of the country's ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The Bosnian Army today, made up of soldiers from all of the country's ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Though things have calmed since the war, and Bosnia has been mostly rebuilt, the scars of war are far from forgotten. Many Bosnians, like Mr. Terzic, remain abroad to this day, living out the lives they've built for themselves.

“It depends on the U.S. economy.” he says, when asked about whether or not he may someday return home. “The economy [of Yugoslavia],” he adds, “was better before than it is now because nothing was destroyed at that time.”

It should be worth noting that while things have settled, the old conflicts have still not disappeared forever. Just as they hid under the surface during Tito's reign, uneasiness between ethnic and religious groups, though less prominent, still lingers.

“Every religion was fighting against each and still is today,” says Terzic, “but it’s a lot more tolerant”

Today, what was Yugoslavia is a federal republic split into two political entities, one being Bosnia and Herzegovina, primarily populated by Bosnians and Croats. The other entity is the Republika Srpska, home to the majority of Bosnian Serbs.

Based in Sarajevo, Bosnia is lead by a head of state, called the President, and a head of government, called the Chair of the Council of Ministers. The President is the primary leader, whose major duties are setting foreign policy, running the military, appointing ambassadors, and proposing a budget for the legislative branch.

The head of government, called the Chair of the Council of Ministers, who appoints government ministers for various subjects including the economy, intelligence, and defense. The Chair and his Council are then responsible for carrying out policy, both foreign and domestic, as directed by the President and Legislature. Vjekoslav Bevanda is the current Chair.

The political climate remains civil, but tense, as each entity has borders drawn on ethnic lines. This can create problems, as the ethnic groups are prone to disagree over important matters. It was only recently, for example, that both sides agreed to have a shared military. Imagine the catastrophe that would ensue if one of their disagreements resulted in another armed conflict; at east this way, it may be more easily contained by the military, rather than being a conflict between militaries.

“The Bosnian government still doesn’t function as it should due to conflict of interest.” Terzic explains.

Even seemingly simple matters, such who is in charge of the Federation, are not so easily explained. The presidency, for example, is held by three people, rather than one. One Bosnian, one Serb, and one Croat take turns as acting president every 8 months.

Currently, the Presidency is held by Bakir Izetbegovic (Bosniak), Zeljko Komsic (Bosnian Croat), and Nebojsa Radmanovic (Bosnian Serb). Mediation between factions can be difficult, and negotiations tend to be one-sided.

Despite all of these obstacles, things do seem to be getting better. Social tensions, while never erased, are easing. It's been a long, difficult struggle, and likely will continue to be challenging in the future, but the future looks hopeful.

“I think it will be better.” says Terzic. “Because of the new generation and they’re learning from the mistakes that were made in the past.


CIA World Factbook, Bosnia and Herzegovina

U.S. Department of State, Background Notes: Bosnia and Herzegovina


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