REVIEW: Article

Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Future? Part II

In May 2007, I made my fifth visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This time, I was especially interested in the prospects for a change in the structure of the young state’s government. The declaration of independence on March 3, 1992, was soon followed by three years of severe ethnic and cultural conflict. Many people were killed and injured before the warring parties signed an agreement on November 21, 1995, to terminate the war.

As I pointed out in my article for the Fall 2006 edition of The Ambassadors Review written after my May 2006 visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dayton Peace Accords deserved most of the credit for having ended this brutal ethnic war. But I again raise the question: What about the future?

In addition to research, my conversations with Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats have convinced me that a new model of government should be established. The current multi-ethnic government, which conducts foreign, diplomatic, defense and fiscal policy simultaneously, permits a second tier of government: the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska. This division blocks economic growth and prevents the development of political tranquility between the three communities.

The economic situation for the slightly more than four million people in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a source of real concern because the country is doing poorly. The challenges of its extremely complicated political system are not offering enough certainty for potential investors and puts great pressure on its own public expenditures. The slow process of privatization illustrates that the investment climate is not attractive. The existence of a grey market along with a heavy and expensive bureaucracy further impede the country’s economic development. The financial situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot be improved until a more pragmatic system of government is in place.[1]

Several governments, including the United States in 2007, are calling for a highly centralized government in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I believe that this would be ill advised. The cultural differences between the three communities are significant. Given that there has not been a census since 1991, it is only possible to estimate the ethnic breakdown of the population: Bosniaks represent 48 percent of the population, Serbs are 37.1 percent, and the Croats are 14.3 percent. The major religious breakdown is: Muslim (40 percent), Orthodox (31 percent) and Roman Catholic (15 percent). There are significant cultural differences between the Bosniak-Muslim community and the Serbs and Croats.

During my last two visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I realized that the alienation between the three ethnic-religious communities is a cause for concern. The most recent historical indication took place relatively recently, i.e. slightly more than a decade ago.  The civil war in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina was bitterly fought along ethnic-religious lines.

There is little dispute about the facts of the Srebrenica massacre during July 1995.  Thousands of innocent lives were viciously extinguished. Some observers may say that there is something evil in the cultures of these communities, where such violence would take place.

History has shown that experiments to construct federations of diverse ethnicities, where outside forces push distinct cultures together into a state with a centralized government, have had significant difficulty in maintaining their unity. In fact, many have failed. Why would Bosnia and Herzegovina be different?

Three Failures in Europe

When I was being prepared for my assignment as Ambassador to the Holy See in 1989, I was told that US foreign policy favored the preservation of what was the Soviet Union as a state without, of course, the communist ideology. In the case of Yugoslavia, the administration made my instructions very clear. I needed to convey the importance to the Vatican of keeping “Yugoslavia unified.”Later, US officials informed me that I should advocate to the Holy See the continued unity of Czechoslovakia. All of these attempts to keep nations of different cultural backgrounds together in one state eventually failed. While the change in Czechoslovakia was bloodless, the transformation was rocky in the Soviet Union, and the collapse of Yugoslavia was brutal.[2]


For decades, communal strife threatened Belgian internal peace. This small, densely populated country combined two distinct ethnic groups: the Germanic Flemish in the North and the French Walloons in the south. The insistence of each group that its separate identity be maintained resulted in a splitting of the country by a “language frontier.”  This line established by law in 1932, divided the country in half and protects the rights of the Flemish and French languages on each side.

This background has resulted in prolonged tensions between the two communities. Sometimes over the decades, riots have resulted and a few people have been injured or killed. The distinguished University of Louvain was forced, at great expense, to establish two campuses to satisfy the individualistic desire of each community for a separate university.The quality of Belgian leadership and the protection of the cultural traditions of each community resulted in the country remaining unified. When Belgium is compared to the record of communal strife in Northern Ireland or the challenge to domestic tranquility of the Basques in Spain, those recommending a structure of government that all communities in the state will not accept should reexamine their reasoning.

Other Situations

In 1963, the British government guided the new country of Malaysia to independence and its declaration as a sovereign state. This new member of the international community was formed from the former British Crown colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawah and Sabrah. Just two years later, Singapore left the federation because of communal violence and race riots.

The underlying factors in the collapse were the divergent political and economic interests of the two Malaysian groups—the Chinese and the Malays. The leaders of the predominantly Malay community obviously felt that the fears and hatreds were too deep to make feasible any attempt to work things out despite the economic advantage to be gained. They went their own “independent way.” The multi-ethnic experiment that caused the violence came to an end.

The British government also had its plans for East Africa. As the sweep of independence in the late 1950s was taking place in Africa, British leaders drafted a plan for a unified sovereign state. The plan was for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to unite. Here too, the economic benefits were cited.  In this case, the plans were never carried out. The local leaders knew that cultural and historical differences were such that the communities of these three nations should remain separate and independent.

The French government planners, recognizing the same sweep of independence in Africa in the 1960s, were strong in their advice to the West African leaders in Senegal and then the Sudan. They saw great advantage for both countries, upon separation from France, to be united in one country. Cultural differences were ignored. On June 30, 1960, the Mali Federation was proclaimed a sovereign state. It was made up of Senegal and Sudan. This marriage of two different cultural communities ended several months later in September 1960. Both members of the original Mali Federation, after the experiment, are now sovereign. They are the Republic of Senegal and the Republic of Mali. The leaders of the two countries realized that such a union was premature. Dr. Leopold Senghor, President of Senegal, later told me that high officials of France had strongly supported the proposed union.[3]


Soon after the end of World War II, British leaders began preparing for the separation of India from its formal ties to the British government. In 1946, a delegation from Britain visited India to finalize this transformation to “independence.” Under the initial plan, India was to become autonomous. The first plan called for a united India with a centralized government. Eleven provinces were to be created in order to protect Muslims’ rights and to avoid civil war.

An alternative plan offered a solution to divide India into two self-governing states.  India’s Hindus would comprise one state, while territory would be set aside for Muslims in a new state, Pakistan. Muslims did not agree with a centralized India and preferred the partition. Muslims in India were more like a separate nation and not just a minority group.

However, after riots began everywhere in the area, the British government announced in 1947, that sovereign power would be transmitted in 1948 and the partition would take place. The Mountbatten Plan led to the creation of the new independent state of Pakistan. On August 14, 1948, India was proclaimed a sovereign country.

The process for determining the structure of government in the sub-continent of India was difficult. During one episode, riots and attacks resulted in the deaths of over 500,000 persons. The original plan to “unite” the Hindu and Muslim communities into one state ignored all the data on the dangers of experimenting with and placing diverse cultural communities into one state prematurely.

Burundi and Rwanda

When I completed my assignment as United States Ambassador to Burundi in 1972, I suggested in a report to my colleagues in the United States Department of State that our government consider urging the separation of the Tutsi and the Hutu communities. My recommendation also indicated that a decentralized form of national government should be set up. I had witnessed the brutal clash between the Hutu and Tutsi communities where an estimated 150,000 were killed.[4]I resided in Burundi for almost three years and recognized the significant cultural differences and age-old animosities between the two communities. This was also true in the neighboring country of Rwanda.

Both countries had a similar pre-colonial background. Approximately 84 percent of the population in both countries was Hutu. But the Hutus were dominated by the Tutsi people who constituted around 15 percent of the population. The Germans whose colonial rule lasted from 1891-1919 and the Belgian administration—first, the League of Nations and then the United Nations—governed through indirect rule; thus, the Tutsi monarchial structures were the instruments of governance.[5]

Significant Cultural Differences

Deep alienation evolved between the tall Hamitic-Semitic Tutsis and the overwhelming Bantu Hutu peoples. German and Belgian authorities prevented serious outbreaks of violence between them. There were no serious clashes during the periods of German and Belgian rule,[6] because there was a strong military presence to maintain law and order.

Independent Period

This situation changed as the two nations approached independence. The Hutus in Rwanda in 1959 overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and almost 200,000 fled to Uganda. The independent government of 1962 was strongly Hutu controlled.  At that time, Tutsis were not welcomed in the Rwandan government.

Burundi began its independent period with a Tutsi-dominated government in 1962.  Within a few years, several hundred Hutu leaders were executed. In 1972, over 10,000 Tutsis were killed in an unsuccessful coup d’état attempt by the Hutus. The Tutsi govern-ment reaction was immediate and severe.  Around 150,000 Hutus were killed.

Ethnic alienation and violence have been the core characteristics of independence since 1962.  In Burundi, it is estimated that in the six-year period of 1993-1999, Hutu-Tutsi violence took at least 100,000 lives.[7]

Shocking Events of 1994

The record of ethnic violence in both countries from 1962 to the mid-1990s was overshadowed by the tragic events of 1994 in Rwanda. On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan President and the Burundian President were killed in a crash of the Rwandan President’s personal plane. Within hours of the plane crash, a campaign of killings was launched against the Tutsi community in Rwanda. Over 500,000 people were killed in a few months. This is a minimum number. It may be closer to 800,000.  There is no doubt that the killings against the Tutsis were an act of genocide.[8]

In both Burundi and Rwanda, the tragedies of imposing one culture on another are evident. I argue that a form of decentralized government allowing local communities extensive powers in education, culture and police (like Switzerland) would have more effectively served the common good of both communities.

My Recommendation: A Confederation

My last visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2007 confirmed my observation from previous visits about two entities within one country: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska. The socio-economic results of the 12 years since the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords are uneven. Republika Srpska, however, has developed a system of governance that within the complicated system of Bosnia and Herzegovina has worked out fairly well for its citizens.

During my May 2007 visit, I met with the President of the Republika Srpska, Milan Jelić,* and both leaders of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. I also met with Nebojša Radmanović, the Serb member of the Presidency. A few scars from the war torn days of the past still remain, but I was pleased to observe the improved Catholic-Orthodox relationships.

The improved quality of life in Banja Luka was reflected among the younger people that strolled through the streets in the early evening. This more comfortable situation will complicate discussions about the future of the country from a human point of view as the Serb community will not be interested in discussing a change in governance unless it will benefit them, or at least not be harmful.

The Bosniak-Croat Federation, on the other hand, has disappointed the Croatian community. This, among other things, is reflected in the high rate of young Croats leaving the country to live and work in other countries.  This exodus may have lowered the number of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina although there has not been a recent census. A good number of Croats leave the country for extended periods of employment or study in another country. They still maintain legal residence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

During recent visits, I met with leaders of the Croatian political and religious communities. This year, it was interesting to meet with the intellectual leaders of the University of Mostar, one of seven universities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the only Croatian-speaking one. The university, which counts 11,000 students and about 890 professors, is the center of intellectual life for the Croatian community.

From my conversa­tions with both faculty and students, I could see why the university is a source of inspiration for them. It is also a source of consolation for the Croatian community in a country where the protection of their culture is becoming difficult.

The government of Croatia has been supportive of the University of Mostar, recognizing the university’s role in preserving the culture of the Croatian community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The leaders of the Croatian community were clear and specific to me in their preference for a system of governance that would protect their culture.

It was only a few years ago that the world witnessed the tragic collapse of and the attempt to create a multi-ethnic state: Yugoslavia.  The same decade of the 1990s saw the breakup of another multi-ethnic state: the Soviet Union. At the end of the same decade, Czechoslovakia became two sovereign states: the Czech and Slovak Republics.

History has shown that centralized multi-ethnic states tend to break up.  The British and French created states in Asia and Africa that eventually collapsed. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be the final authority in determining their future government. I believe that the failures of multi-ethnic experiments where one culture was dominant should instruct the international community. We should, in my opinion, refrain from pressuring Bosnia and Herzegovina to adopt a centralized model that has not been successful for so many other countries.

Models to be Considered: The Confederation of Switzerland or The United States 

Switzerland - 1848

In the early years of the 19th century, there was general pessimism that the German, French and Italian speaking cultural areas of Switzerland could work out a political arrangement of one sovereign state. But in November 1848, a constitution was adopted.  The various cantons retained significant authority over language, cultural and police affairs. Switzerland became a state with three major languages and Romansch, and it remains a multi-ethnic state: German (65 percent), French (18 percent), Italian (ten percent), Romansch (one percent). The religious breakdown is: Roman Catholic (46 percent), Protestant (41 percent), other (five percent), and none (eight percent).

The state has the power for defense and taxation. The authority devolved to the cantons allowed the country to grow as a beautiful mosaic—a multi-ethnic state. It is doubtful that this would have occurred if, for example, the German-speaking area in 1848 emerged as the dominant member in a highly centralized government.

United States

The system of government in the United States is rooted in the authority of the Constitution, the Congress and the subsequent legislation of each state. Originally 13 states formed the union; now there are 50 states in the nation, which reflect the distinct cultural traditions of the country.

Once the British left, the United States began to consider what form of government should be adopted. There were a few who advocated a monarchical government with George Washington as the first king. However, the debate about the construction of the government battled over whether it would be centralized, with authority coming from the federal capital, or decentralized, where the power resided in the states.

Given the various cultures and the differences among the original 13 states, the founding fathers selected a system that allocated to the states significant authority on matters related to education, police and family. The United States in its infancy, therefore, selected a system of government that allowed for the differences between predominantly Catholic Maryland, German-influenced Pennsylvania, and Protestant Massachusetts and Connecticut. Two hundred thirty-one years later, the states still have this authority in most aspects of their governance.

 I suggest that between the confederation of Switzerland and the United States, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina could find a good model for their future government.

The People of Bosnia and Herzegovina

With each visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am aware of the people’s desire for a sense of tranquility and a stable future.  The pains of a turbulent history are too recent.  The inequities and inadequacies of the present system of government are obvious to most citizens who think about the current status of the country. The new High Representative of the international community, Miroslav Lajčák, has assumed his responsibilities. I hope that he will carefully study the situation and realize the problems that will be created if the European Union is successful in pushing for a more centralized government.

The people must make the final decision through democratic procedures. Neighboring Montenegro is a recent and good example wherein the leaders through consultation, patience, honest elections, and seeking the advice of the European Union, found a way.  This year, 2007, is the first anniversary of Montenegrin independence.

All who have witnessed the tragedies of ethnic conflict desire a form of government for Bosnia and Herzegovina that will allow the communities to flourish in peace and economic security.

[1] For these and other facts on Bosnia and Herzegovina, see The World Factbook (2007) at

[2] Thomas P. Melady. The Ambassador’s Story: The United States and the Vatican in World Affairs. (New York: Our Sunday Visitor, 1994).

[3] Thomas P. Melady. Faces of Africa. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1964).

[4] Thomas P. Melady. Burundi: The Tragic Years. (New York: Orbis Books, 1975).  This work contains a more complete discussion.

[5] Thomas P. Melady. “Burundi and Rwanda: A Tragic Past, A Cloudy Future,” The Ambassadors Review, Fall 2001, p. 45.

[6] Ibid., p. 45.

[7] In the original article, the number was 250,000, but upon further review, the actual number was closer to 100,000.

[8] Melady, “Burundi and Rwanda,” pp. 45-46.

* Editor’s Note: As The Ambassadors REVIEW went to press, BBC News reported that Milan Jelić, died of a heart attack on September 30, 2007.

Photo Credit: The World Factbook, 2007.

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