Transcript of Gordon Bardos’s Comments

Great, thanks a lot, Andrew.  Well, next is Gordon Bardos who I think, hopefully you should all know, ah, and who is, ah, an astute observer of everything Balkan and of course when I asked him to join the panel he had already ah, not quite read the book but had the book already, ready to read and so there is nothing which escapes his attention in terms of following matters and he, of course, is someone has not just scholarly interest but also spent time at a crucial moment in Bosnia at that juncture so I’m looking forward to your comments, Gordon.


Thank you, thank you Florian, thank you Gerard, for asking me to do this.  Um, I want to apologize at the outset because this is the end of a very, very long week so my mind is kind of all over the place.  I had to put something in writing because otherwise I would be going off on all kinds of tangents to I’ll be a little bit more formal in saying what I have to say than I probably should be.  But I guess I really want to congratulate Gerard and his coauthor. This is a very impressive piece of work.  Um, I personally haven’t studied the returns process in BiH adequately enough, so I’m not going to criticize them on those efforts.  But I do want to applaud them for focusing on what’s probably the most noble thing that the international community can do in the region which is asserting the right of people to go back to their homes.  Um, there’s clearly still a lot to be done in this regard and the authors deserve our thanks for emphasizing the continued importance of this.  Now, I want to… so much for the praise (laughter).

Yeah, it’s not fun if we agree on everything… it’s something that I know that Gerard and his coauthor and I have a deep ontological disagreement.  Um, the authors have a largely constructivist view of identities.  Um, and my sense in reading the book is that their completely legitimate disdain for nationalism and nationalist projects leads them to underestimate the importance and the strength of ethnic identities and loyalties.  Thus, the authors at the outset reject the view that ethnic identity was the primordial axis of life in Yugoslavia.  While using the word “primordial” is perhaps too strong, I would argue that it is not off the mark to say that it was the “primary” access to life in Yugoslavia, in the region before Yugoslavia was created and in the era of post-Yugoslavia era as well.  In fact, a very strong case can be made that ethnicity predicts two-thirds to ninety percent of the time, and if I had those odds in Las Vegas I would be a very wealthy man.  Two-thirds to ninety percent of the time what someone’s political and historical views are, who they’re going to vote for, whom they’re going to marry, where they are likely to move, which soccer team they’re going to root for, and where they’re going to be buried.

And moreover, this is not something that only began in the 1980’s or 1990’s.  Less than ten years after World War II, Dennison Rusinow noted that the problems of ethnicity and nationalism in Tito’s Yugoslavia have become so serious that, and I quote: “The tendency to subsume all other questions and conflicts to the national one, and to interpret and simplify every issue in national terms, was again becoming nearly universal” (The Yugoslav Experiment, 1948-1974, p. 273). Decades before Rusinow, another one of the great scholars of the region, R.W.C. Watson, would in his turn bemoan the fact that when writing a history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, “the vital question of nationality met me at every turn.” As a side note, I suggest here- that the sort of, underestimation of the importance of ethnicity is why, I mean we can talk about this because it’s really actual… given what’s happening now, ah, I would say that the authors mistakenly view the SDP as, and I quote, “a genuine alternative to nationalist dominance,” and I think that’s, that’s a misrepresentation of what the party really is. But, we can talk about this more during the discussion.  Now, I also found the discussion of Bosnia as a distinctive geopolitical space to be somewhat weak and contradictory. While the authors correctly state that territorializations of Serbia should be understood as, quote, “historically shifting and geographically contingent,” they then seem to adopt the- ah- and please correct me if I’m misreading it, they then seem to adopt the opposite view with respect to Bosnia, implying centuries-old and almost organic unity. In fact, ah, BIH’s borders have been just as historically shifting and geographically contingent as those of any other states in the region, at times expanding to include parts of Serbia and Sanjak, and at other times becoming smaller as Montenegro and Croatia or Serbia incorporated parts of it.  Moreover, the view that the authors claim- that Yugoslavia was collectively- was a collectivity of separate entities, and that it’s incorrect to compare Yugoslavia and Bosnia. Now, that is true that Yugoslavia was a collective of separate entities, but I would argue that you can make the exact same argument about Bosnia.  Um, eastern Herzegovina has much more in common culturally and spiritually with Montenegro than it does with central Bosnia. Western Herzegovina and the Posavina have much more in common with Dalmatia or the Pannonian Plains respectively than they do with Sarajevo.  And the traditional economic areas of the areas around Banja Luka has traditionally been more towards Zagrab than it has been towards- towards ah, Sarajevo.  Um, the authors ah, they actually to some extent admit this as well when they claim that the Serbs from the krajina have a separate identity from those in Herzegovina, which kind of shows that, you know, to me the argument that it’s a really kind of distinct geographical space really doesn’t kind of, hold very strongly.  Another problem with this line of reasoning is that I think there is simply not a critical mass of people in Bosnia who see it that way.  In fact, many people in BiH imagine themselves to be in another place or associated with some other peoples.  Whether we look at the frequent sentiment expressed by the current president of the RS, when he says that Serbia, he considers Serbia to be his homeland, so the statement by one of ??? main ideologist, and I quote, “Spiritually and emotionally, I feel closer to a Muslim in the Philippines than I do to a Croat or a Serb in Sarajevo.” So for these reasons I think that the book, to some extent, overdoes the argument about Bosnia being any more of a distinctive geopolitical unit than any of the other states in the region.  Um.  Another problem that I had was that I think that the timeline in describing the polarization of Bosnian politics was problematic.  I think it would be pretty easy to go much further than the 1980’s or the 1990’s.  Let me take just one example of how, I mean this has always been out there: the history of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Dialectical Journal. I’m sure everybody spent a lot of time reading that.  Um, it was founded in 1975, the majority of the studies published between 1975 and 1986 were not about dialects common to all the peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, they were about Muslim dialects (quote), and Croat dialects, and Serb dialects. Stories like this are repeated about every aspect of the Bosnian experience, especially in the anthropological studies of Bosnia where as Toni Bringa points out, Croats and Muslims did not like to go into each others’ houses because they didn’t like the smell of each others’ cooking. Or, the William Lockwood study of central Bosnia in the 1960’s, when he observed the following: “On one occasion in Gorni Vakuf, when a Muslim and a Catholic celebration fell on the same day, the town was evenly divided. The Muslim festivities were held at one end of the town, and the Croatian at the other, with youths of each group strolling the main street of town, only to the invisible boundary which separated the two halves.  Because of evidence such as this, I would- you know- I would personally say that- you know- I think the authors go too far in one direction in terms of their understanding and portrayal of Bosnia.

Now, I would say that there’s kind of four competing perspectives that are out there in terms of you know, the Bosnian experience and what Bosnia is like.  The first would be Donia and Fine’s view of the common life of Bosnia, which ah, Gerard and his co-author endorses, you guys seem to sort of fit into that one. Maybe I’m oversimplifying things a little bit too much. Um, there’s a somewhat more nuanced view provided by Xavier Bougarel, who says that the words “tolerance” and “hate”, “coexistence” and fear”, are all equally applicable to Bosnia.  Then there’s Robert Hayden’s thesis of interethnic relations in Bosnia being characterized by antagonistic tolerance. And finally, there’s the “ancient ethnic hatreds theory” that I find to be most often promoted by residents of Bosnia-Herzegovina themselves.  Um, I kind of tend to see Bosnian history at some points between what Bougarel and Hayden say it is. But let’s consider what Bosnians themselves have to say about their historical experience.  And, especially how the most important and influential Bosniak authors and public figures understand it.  Now, in contrast to this view of Bosnia as “common life” in Bosnia, and interethnic relations in Bosnia being those of tolerance, consider the following: according to one Bosniak intellectual, “All of the existing documentation reliably confirms that genocide has been committed against Bosniaks in a permanent continuity since 1683.”  Genocide in permanent continuity since 1683.  Another leading Bosniak intellectual, Mahmood Shaikh, pushes the persecution of Bosniaks even further back in history.  According to Mahmood Shaikh the persecution of the Bosnian Aryans in Bosnia, the Bosnian Christians, and ultimately the Bosnian Muslims, and all the Muslims of southeastern Europe, in fact, extends back at least to the twelfth century.  Bosnia, according to Mahmood Shaikh, is the victim of a centuries old tragedy and the victim of Satanic forces, and claims that the Bosniak national community which lives in Bosnia today represents the historically continuous remainder of a community always exposed to genocide and persecution.  A recent book on the Sanjak reports that the Muslim population on the territory of the former Yugoslavia has been exposed to a horrible genocide dating back three hundred years.  And, the current mufti of the Sanjak¸ Muamer ef. Zukorlić, claims that the Bosniaks of Bosnia, and the Sanjak, have been the victims of eleven genocides throughout history.  Um, now that road does not fit in with the view of a tolerant, multiethnic society. Now, just to add to this sort of, this portrayal of violence in the region, um, something I just came across which was very interesting, and it just happens to come from a book by the person sitting to my left, and I notice that just everybody take a look at the book, um, there are 132 military conflicts- 132 military conflicts- between the Ottomans and the Bosnian Muslims, on one side, and Serbs and Croats and Habsburgs on the other, before the twentieth century even began.  Um, so, again this really doesn’t sound like a very tolerant and harmonious society to me, and that’s why I think it’s problematic to put Bosnia, to portray it in the paradigm of the common life, that, that it’s sometimes depicted. And it’s too bad that Bob Donia’s not here because, because he would be able to defend some of these charges.  (Laughter)

Ok now, so much for history.  What do the authors have to say about Bosnia’s future?  Unfortunately, they’re not very optimistic.  After nationalists came to power in Bosnia in 1990, the authors claim that Bosnia’s government was dysfunctional, and they also say that the system set up under Dayton is dysfunctional.  Given the fact that Bosnians and Herzegovinians have voted strictly along strictly ethnic lines in every election held in Bosnia since 1911, this suggests that a democratic Bosnia with freely elected officials is doomed to being a dysfunctional state, especially since international interest in Bosnia has not proven sufficient to radically change the course or nature of Bosnian politics and society.  And, it’s indicative that in a very big book- 321 pages plus endnotes, appendices, and bibliography- the recommendations that the authors have for improving things in Bosnia come in one paragraph on page 319. This is not a criticism of the authors.  In fact, they are to be applauded for their realism and their intellectual honesty in recognizing that there’s relatively few things that we can to do control and manage ethnic conflicts as severe as those in Bosnia. Even as great a thinker as Ernest Gellner admitted that he could only come up with relatively banal- his words- relatively banal suggestions for what to do to ameliorate ethnic conflict. And, that seems to be the general consensus. I mean we all basically talk about the same thing: some sort of co-sociationalism, some form of federalism, power sharing- but there’s not that many really original ideas out here.  Now, I want to end on a positive note.  One of the book’s strong points is the wonderfully vivid way the authors describe particular places, a skill which is probably specific to geographers.  But, there’s one detail they miss when describing Zvornik: when one looks across the Drina river from Zvornik, one sees two mosques with minarets on the Serbian side of the river, which were there undamaged throughout the war, whereas we know what happened to virtually every mosque in Zvornik territory um, on the Bosnian side of the river.  To me, that shows the importance of order and relative peace.  Fortunately these are, I think, the two things we can provide Bosnia.  Um, while the experience of the last 15 years shows that we have neither the resources nor the intelligence to nation-build or state-build properly, we do have the ability to provide Bosnians with the security and the time to let them do these things themselves in an environment free from the threat of war and violence.  Um, I’m going to end it at that. Gerard, again, congratulations it really is a very impressive piece of work despite my… my disagreements (laughter).


About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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