Is There Such A Thing As “Ethnic Conflict”?

“Ethnic conflict“ has become a very fashionable notion. However, it was not always so. Indeed, in the not-so-distant past such a notion was practically unknown. In the pre-modern times, conflicts were assumed to take place between power-holders, over pieces of land. The former sought to seize, control and exploit all resources within the latter, including the population that was also perceived and treated only as yet another resource for exploitation.

Ethnic identities of the population residing within particular territories were totally irrelevant to the power-holders and hence did not serve as a source of disputes and conflicts between them. Indeed, having been treated as yet another resource for exploitation, the inhabitants of the targeted lands were regarded as essentially identity-less. What mattered to the power-holders was the land itself, with all its resources, including the subjects residing there. And the subjects themselves, no matter whether they had several diverse ethnic identities or a single unified one, were so powerless as to be unable to launch a conflict between themselves, let alone a rebellion against the power-holders. Thus the powerless could only serve as the powerful's assets for the land's occupation and exploitation of its resources. 

Given the increasing presence of the term „ethnic conflict“ in the public communication, we may rightfully ask whether the nature of power, and hence the nature of conflict, has changed so much as to make identity, rather than power itself, the source of the modern type of conflict? True, during the tide of the 18th- and 19th-century revolutions it was proclaimed that power was granted to the people, who have thus ceased to be mere subjects. It was proclaimed that sovereignty – that is, the exclusive power to control a territory and exploit all its resources – was taken from the powerful and given to the powerless. Ever since, sovereignty itself has become treated as a matter of inherent right, that is, a natural posession of the latter, rather than a matter of exercised power, that is, a natural acquisition of the former. Thus, in the earliest modern theories of sovereignty, the former subjects were proclaimed a collective sovereign. And, in accordance with its newly-acquired collective nature, sovereignty itself was proclaimed indivisible and non-transferable. For, whereas the pre-modern individual sovereignty could easily be divided between the sovereign's descendants and transferred to them by inheritance or marriage, the very concept of modern, collective, popular sovereignty does not allow for any such arrangements: the sovereignty of the people can neither be divided between its collective sub-parts nor distributed among its individual members, nor can it be transferred to them or to any other people. And, according to the derivations of the classical theories of popular sovereignty gathered under the umbrella-name of „nationalism“, the possession of collective identity by a particular people equates to the right to sovereignty, i.e. the exclusive right to control a territory and exploit all its resources. Since identity is thus practically equated with sovereignty, conflict itself comes to be perceived as a struggle for control over a particular collective identity as a presumed source of sovereignty, rather than a struggle for sovereign control over a particular piece of land. Within such a discourse, it becomes conceivable that entire peoples fight one another, simply to assert their identities, which can only be achieved in the form of sovereignty over particular territories. And then, it also becomes conceivable that entire peoples, having successfully asserted their identities in the form of sovereignty over particular territories, strive for mutual „reconciliation“.   

Such discourse, derived from the aforementioned modern theories of sovereignty, dominates the public sphere in almost all modern societies. However, has the nature of power really changed so much as to translate a struggle for control over a particular territory into a struggle for control over a particular collective identity? Or does the discourse itself attempt to hide the true nature of power, centered around the struggle for a particular territory,  and all its resources,  by traditional power-holders, who now appear as a personification of peoples' identities?

A brief analysis of the so-called „ethnic conflict“ and the so-called „post-conflict transition“ in Bosnia-Herzegovina may offer  a straightforward answer to these rather abstract questions. This particular case is used as a paradigm that depicts the essence of power-relations hidden under the mask of the modern nationalist discourse, according to which ethnic groups naturally fight each other in order to assert their respective ethnic identities and seize exclusive control (that is, sovereign power) over respective targeted territories.

So, let us define the notion of ethnic identity and its application to the Bosnian political environment. Without any ambitions to provide a comprehensive definition, but rather an operative one, we may define this type of identity as being rooted in a myth of common origin. In this sense, members of an ethnic group share a belief in their common ancestors. They may well share common language, religion, values, and customs; but they may also share some or all of these features with other groups. What distinguishes one group from all others, and what constitutes the basis of its identity, is a shared myth of common ancestors. There is yet another important feature that usually caracterizes ethnic groups, which makes them distinct one from another and from other types of groups: a link with a particular territory, which a group considers its own living space and commonly depicts as a land of its forefathers. It means that such a territory is directly linked with the group's identity. Such a territory normally has its provisional boundaries, fluctuating together with the symbolic boundaries of the group itself. Within the frame of the modern nationalist discourse, when a group asserts its will  to transform provisional territorial boundaries into formal state borders, it transforms itself into a sovereign nation. Of course, a group does not have to share a myth of common origin to claim sovereignty over a particular territory and thus transform itself into a nation: it is sufficient for a group to become homogenized by a claim to sovereignty to undergo such a transformation; Americans are probably the most famous example.

Now, let us see how these parameters apply to the groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina usually referred to as ethnic ones. Firstly, they all share a common language, which every independent linguist would confirm without hesitation; and they also share it with the populations of the neighbouring countries of Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia. Secondly, they all share common South Slavic origin, and most of their common traditional customs; in other words, if we put aside their diverse religious traditions (Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim), we may well say that they share a common culture. Thirdly, prior to the 1992-1995 war, they never had distinct ethnically defined territories and predominantly lived together, especially in urban areas. As sociological research has shown, distinct religious groups may live mixed in common areas, whereas distinct ethnic groups usually possess or aspire to possess their distinct territories, just as distinct nations possess or aspire to possess their separate sovereign states. So, from a sociological point of view, prior to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, its distinct groups predominantly displayed the features of religious, rather than ethnic or national, groups.

On the other hand, in the former Yugoslavia, and especially after its breakup, in the public discourse these groups were commonly referred to as „nations“. This practice was particularly strange given the fact that one of them was commonly named after its religious identity as Muslims; at the same time, the other two were commonly labeled as Serbs and Croats, in accordance with the nationalist narratives established in the Balkans by the end of the 19th century, which basically proclaimed all Catholics members of the Croat nation and all the Orthodox members of the Serb nation. In this way, labeled as „nations“, they were all implicitly stimulated to claim sovereignty of their own, that is, to claim exclusive control over particular territories and thereby transform these territories into sovereign states or, alternatively, to cede these territories from Bosnia-Herzegovina and unite them with the neighbouring nation-states, Serbia and Croatia. Strangely, these narratives, mostly coming from Serbia and Croatia, have never encountered serious intellectual or political resistance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, although they represent a clear threat to its integrity. Obviously, the very meaning of the term „nation“ has never been taken into serious consideration by social scientists in this country. Of course, pragmatic politicians have not missed the opportunity to utilize the implications of the term for their own purposes.  

However,  these hidden implications never took the form of overt territorial and political claims before 1991. Prior to that, the very idea of distinct, let alone separate, ethnic territories within Bosnia-Herzegovina had been inconceivable. Yet, since then, this idea has acquired monopolistic status within the public discourse in this country. How has this happened?

The whole process was launched in a rather bizarre way. Prior to the elections in 1990, in which the three ethnonationalist parties won for the first time, the whole country was suddenly flooded with hundreds of thousands of the so-called ethnic maps, according to which particular ethnic groups were assigned „their own“ territories, on the basis of statistical majority: wherever a particular group had a majority of 51%, that piece of land was assigned to the group as its exclusive possession. No one has ever explained who was behind such a huge and expensive intelligence operation, but the very appearance of the maps in such huge numbers was a clear suggestion to all the country's inhabitants that they should classify themselves along the lines of ethnic division and consequent territorial partition. Indeed, ever since then the idea of belonging to a particular ethnic majority in a particular territory has become the prime stake in the country's political life. Ever since, the leaders of the three ethnonationalist parties have been persistent at using the maps manipulatively to  raise insecurity and tensions among the country's inhabitants, the majority of whom hitherto had not cared much about articulation of their ethnic identity, let alone about creation of exclusive ethnic territories. However, the maps and the politicians' messages clearly signalled that one's existence, indeed one's very survival, was to be projected only within such units. Systematically spread rumours that the ethnonationalist leaders were already negotiating how to distribute territories as the exclusive ownership of their respective groups directly supported such projections.

The next decisive step to implement these maps on the ground and officially partition the country along the ethnic lines was instigated by the Chairperson of the Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, Lord Carrington. Ethnic partitioning was further promoted by his aide, the Portugese diplomat Jose Cutilleiro, who led a  series of secretive negotiations between the leaders  of Bosnia's three ethnonationalist parties, Mr Izetbegović of SDA, Mr Karadžić of SDS, and Mr Boban of HDZ, known as the Lisbon Conference in 1991 and 1992. It is of the utmost importance to note that these negotiations began a  year before the Bosnian war started, so that the partition was NOT proposed because of the necessity to end the armed conflict (as all „international mediators“ have subsequently claimed). Moreover, it was the war itself that was fought along the lines drawn on the map agreed upon in Lisbon, where the ethnically profiled armies were taking over the agreed territories to become ethnically exclusive. Thus, Bosnia-Herzegovina was fully partitioned in Lisbon well before the war. However, the war itself, alongside  the process of ethnic cleansing, was necessary to implement the partitioning on the ground and eliminate minority population from the territories earmarked for  ethnic majorities. That may be the reason why any reference to the Lisbon Conference has remained shrouded in silence. Of course, the Conference itself was held in almost total secrecy, but the main reason for its absence from the official history is that it  established the permanent normative framework not only for the war operations and ethnic cleansing, but also for all the subsequent failures to restore the Bosnian society and state to its pre-war form.

What was reportedly promoted in Lisbon was simply a map of the intra-state borders, which were implemented by the war operations,  formalized by the subsequent peace negotiations, and are still in existence preventing the restoration of the normal pre-war communication between the country's citizens. However, what the Lisbon Conference actually promoted is no less than a total overthrowal of the most basic principles of popular sovereignty, those ones declaring that sovereignty is essentially indivisible and non-transferable. In Lisbon, the state sovereignty of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the basis of its Constitution, was divided into three parts and then transferred to the three ethnic groups represented there by the three ethnonationalist leaders. Each of the groups was assigned particular territories over which their respective political structures have since attempted to exercise sovereign control.

The subsequent developments, based on the assumptions adopted in Lisbon and formalized in the Dayton Peace Agreement, have demonstrated that even such a twisted interpretation of sovereignty has not been an end of the transformations of the country's structure. For, these territories, formally assigned to the three ethnic groups to exercise sovereign control over them, have practically been transformed into private property of their respective ethnic oligarchies. Even such a divided and transferred sovereignty has been reduced to private land ownership, with most of the resources within these territories having been granted as private property to individual members of these oligarchies, under the pretext of privatization, which was set as a precondition for joining the Western structures, such as the European Union and NATO.

Obviously, the so-called „ethnic conflict“ which physically destroyed the country between 1992 and 1995 and continues to destroy the Bosnian society in the political and economic sphere,  has never been performed as an interface between the three communities. Since its very beginning, it has been a process of distribution and redistribution of private possessions between the three ethnic oligarchies. As such, it has always been a product of the premeditated political strategies. These strategies have been promoted and performed by the local political oligarchies, but have also been sponsored by some of the global players, whose agenda – from the Lisbon Conference to the present day – has been the partition of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This also means that the so-called „ethnic conflict“ is not to be regarded as an inherent part of the collective identity of the country's existing ethnic groups, but rather as an artificially generated project designed by the aforementioned local oligarchies and their global sponsors,  in accordance with their immediate political goals.

As usual, these power-holders – just like those pre-modern ones – have sought to establish their own control over particular territories in order to assure possession and exploitation of their resources. The so-called „ethnic conflict“ in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been just a cover-up, as is usually the case with „ethnic conflicts“ around the world. Such is the nature of power, and it has not changed. It is only that power-holders now seek to cover it up by mobilizing the masses and trigerring massive conflicts, depicting it as genuine conflicts between entire collectivities.

In this sense, the terms „reconciliation“ and „post-conflict transition“, implying that so-called „ethnic conflicts“ are authentic occurrences on the level of entire collectivities rather than artificial products generated on the level of narrow political elites, should also be dismissed as misnomers. 

prof. Zlatko Hadzidedic

Graduate of the London School of Economics, prof. Zlatko Hadžidedić is a prominent thinker, prolific author of numerous books, and indispensable political figure of the former Yugoslav socio-political space in 1990s, 2000s and 2010s.


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