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What Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs think of each other and what do they think about Bosnia and Herzegovina? PDF Print E-mail

What Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs think of each other and what do they think about Bosnia and Herzegovina? A summary of the results of survey of perceptions, stereotypes and images among the citizens Bosnia and Herzegovina In spite of the efforts invested by the international community to overcome divisions and differences among the three constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mutual tensions are still present, sincere cooperation between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs is relatively law, and there are no common positions either about the past, or about the future of this state. At the last elections, national parties have achieved great success again, while ethnic interests came to the fore even in the rhetoric of the parties that, until recently, claimed to be multi-ethnic and to represent all the citizens of the country. Due to all these facts, one may conclude that it is exceptionally difficult to carry out the announced constitutional changes and reforms that would secure a desired „coexistence“ without respecting ethnic differences, given the nature of mutual relations among the three peoples, the abundance of stereotypes, open wounds and reasons for mistrust, as well as mutual perception.

This is the reason why the Banja Luka Office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, in cooperation with Mr. Božo Skoko, Ph.D., Professor of the Faculty of Political Science of the University of Zagreb and an expert for ethnic identity and image, conducted a field survey on a representative sample of 1,000 citizens of BiH. The aim of this survey, conducted in May 2010, prior to the pre-election campaign, was to establish mutual perceptions of the members of the three peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what burdens their mutual relations, to what extent they are truly ready to live together, and how they perceive their joint state.

The survey has demonstrated that the Bosniaks, the Croats and the Serbs, although they have been living in the same state for centuries, have a relatively poor knowledge and interest for each other, and that their mutual perception is still burdened with stereotypes from the past and the recent war. Members of the three peoples are mainly informed from „their own” media, while most of those media do not broadcast enough information about the others. Travelling, which would contribute most to breaking those stereotypes and would foster mutual understanding, are undertaken relatively rarely within BiH.

Analysing mutual stereotypes, associations and perceptions, the survey has shown that relations among these peoples are not good enough and that they are burdened with mutual mistrust. The most positive relations perceived are those between the Bosniaks and the Croats, then between the Croats and the Serbs. The worst perceived relations are those between the Bosniaks and the Serbs.

Conditionally taken, the Croats have the best image in BiH, while the most negative perception is that of the Serbs and the Bosniaks. Analysing what individual peoples „blame“ the others for, and what burdens their relations, we have come to the result that the Croats and the Bosniaks have negative opinion about the Serbs because of the war and violence, and that they perceive them as cruel and nationalistic. The Serbs and the Croats perceive the Bosniaks as hypocritical. The Serbs blame them for the war and violence, while the Croats blame them for excessive influence of religiousness on public life. Both Serbs and Croats perceive them as backward. The Serbs and the Bosniaks also have a negative opinion about the Croats because of the war and violence. Furthermore, the Serbs perceive them as arrogant, while the Bosniaks perceive them as hypocritical. Many respondents within both these peoples perceive them as insincere and cold. Therefore, it is obvious that the war is the greatest generator of mutual mistrust and poor relations among these three peoples, given that most of the aforementioned qualifications arose during the conflict or because of the conflict. It is the war and the war-related trauma that are still very much present in all aspects of life in BiH, and they represent the most significant burden on the relations among its peoples. However, according to the survey, there is no consensus whatsoever about the causes of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina; instead, each people has its own view of the conflict in the 1990s, and, evidently, its own truth, which is one of the key problems when it comes to the process of closing the pages of the past and turning the pages of the future.

For the Serbs, the most responsible factors are the international community (56,5% of the respondents) and all the politicians of the former Yugoslavia (52,2%). Following such a share of responsibility, 43,7% of the Serb respondents „accuse“ the first Bosnian-Herzegovinian President and the Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegović, while 36,8% of them accuse the first President of Croatia, Franjo Tuđman. As many as 18,9% of the Serb respondents perceive that all the war events, suffering and genocide in BiH were the consequences of the circumstances of that era. Only 16,2 % of respondents perceive Slobodan Milošević as the one who is responsible for the war.

For the Bosniaks, there is no doubt that the individual who was the most responsible for the war in BiH was Slobodan Milošević (49,9%) and the people most responsible for it were the Serbs (43%). The third place is taken by all the politicians together (31,9%), followed by Franjo Tuđman (26,1%). Unlike the Serbs, only 14,7% of Bosniaks hold the international community responsible, and as few as 5.7 % see their leader, Alija Izetbegović, as the one who was responsible for the war.

The positions of Croat respondents are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes, i.e. Bosniak and Serb views. Most of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Croats (57,7%) believe that all the politicians of the former Yugoslavia were responsible for the war. The next most responsible, in their view, are the Serbs (29,8%), the then circumstances (28,5%), and Slobodan Milošević (22,5%).

In order to try to identify what could be the factors for the strengthening of mutual cooperation, we have tried to identify what would make the respondents change their views about other peoples and their members. According to the results of the survey, the Croats and the Serbs seek from the Bosniaks not to abuse the state and entity institutions (over 50% of respondents) and to be less exclusive towards the other two peoples (over 40%). It is interesting to note that there is quite a degree of consensus among Croat and Serb respondents relating these issues, which clearly indicates the need for change of behaviour of Bosniak leaders towards the other two peoples, if they want to gain their support for the strengthening of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Serbs (unlike the Croats) expect from the Bosniaks to show awareness of their own guilt for the war and to apologize for it (this is expected by as many as 58% of the Serbs). Only 15% of the Croats perceive that Bosniaks should apologize to the Serbs for the crimes committed during the war.

On the other hand, the survey has shown that among Bosniak and Croat respondents in the Federation of BiH there is a significant level of consensus about „the Serb“ guilt for the war atrocities and suffering in BiH, and the negative image of the ruling policy in Republika Srpska. Namely, both Croats (61%) and Bosniaks (82%) expect from the Serbs to show awareness of their guilt for the war and to apologize for it and to show more responsibility towards BiH (Bosniaks 72% and Croats 49%), as well as to stop abusing the state institutions (Bosniaks 57%, Croats 45%). More Bosniaks (59%) perceive that the Serbs should be less exclusive towards the other two people than the Croats (32%). The Croats, on the other hand, do not perceive that the Serbs are exclusive within BiH, but they perceive them as those who abuse the state institutions.

Bosniaks and Serbs generally disagree regarding the expectations from the Croats, except that they should be less exclusive towards the other two peoples.

A significantly higher number of the Bosniaks (55%) than the Serbs (38%) expect from the Croats to show more responsibility towards BiH. The Serbs think that the Croats need to become aware of their guilt for the war and to apologize for it (50%), while the majority of the Bosniaks do not share this view (only 26% of respondents chose this option). The Bosniaks think that the Croats need to stop abusing the state and entity institutions (44%), while only 21% of Serb respondents believe that the Croats really do it.

It is interesting to note that as many as 55% Bosniaks expect from the Croats (as well as from the Serbs, but to a much lesser extent, i.e. 42% of them) to enable them to earn money. Namely, all respondents believe that the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina are economically the most independent and stable people.

In this context, we have made a survey of what is it that the members of one people admire in the other two. Generally speaking, the Croats admire the Bosniaks for their hospitality and loyalty to their faith. The Serbs admire them for their unity, diligence and hospitality. Bosniaks and Croats admire the Serbs for their unity and diligence. The Bosniaks admire them for their pride and perseverance, while the Croats admire them for their hospitality and perseverance. Both Bosniaks and Serbs admire the Croats for their culture and diligence. Bosniaks admire them for their pride and politeness, while the Serbs admire them for their resourcefulness and unity.

Once we have researched the issue of mutual perception among the three peoples, we have tried to explore how they experience and perceive Bosnia and Herzegovina as their joint state. The greatest degree of agreement has been shown by respondents from all the three peoples in their description of Bosnia and Herzegovina as „a divided state without any future“ and „the state of three constituent peoples“. 29% of all respondents opted for both these descriptions. Briefly put, for the Bosniaks, BiH is a divided, multi-ethnic European state of three constituent peoples. For the Croats, BiH is a divided state of three constituent peoples, under the scrutiny of the international community. For the Serbs, BiH is the state of three constituent peoples, under the scrutiny of the international community. A relatively low number of respondents perceive Bosnia and Herzegovina as an Islamic state in the heart of Europe, however, among those who have opted for this description, the Croats are in the lead (12%).

How to make BiH a state in which all the three peoples would eventually be satisfied? Most of the respondents among all the three peoples perceive that mutual relations could be improved by the engagement of better politicians from all the three peoples (this is proposed by 49% of Bosniaks, 40% of Croats and 40% of Serbs). A somewhat lower consensus is demonstrated in relation to the view that better and more just laws would contribute to the strengthening of mutual relations (this is the view shared by 20% of the Serbs, 19% of the Croats, and 14% of the Bosniaks).

Regarding other proposals, there is mainly no consensus among the three peoples. The Bosniaks see better future in the abolishment of entities and strengthening of the state. This is the view expressed by as many as 49% of Bosniak respondents. On the other hand, this view is not shared by the Croats and the Serbs. Namely, only 7% of the Croats and 3% of the Serbs believe that this would improve mutual relations. As the matter of fact, the Croats (39%) and the Serbs (28%) see better future if the state is better structured, i.e. by the establishment of three entities (the Serb, Bosniak and Croat entity). On the other hand, almost none of Bosniak respondents share this view. This is, actually, the issue that shows the greatest degree of disagreement over the future structure of the state; on the one hand, it may be interpreted as Bosniak unitarism, while, on the other, as the “alliance” of the Croats and the Serbs in their struggle for three entities, i.e. the Serb interest to preserve Republika Srpska and the Croat interest to get their own entity.

Summarizing the results of this survey, we can isolate some key problems burdening the relations between the three peoples in BiH. One of the key aggravating circumstances on the road towards their mutual reconciliation and the building of their joint state that would be acceptable for all is the lack of one single and shared goal. More or less, each people has its own national, i.e. particular goal, and their own vision of the future and of BiH as the state in general, and eventual accession of BiH to the EU is evidently not the magnet that is sufficiently strong to force the three peoples to make concessions or to give up their individual interests for the sake of the shared ones. On the other hand, accession of BiH to the European Union seems very distant and almost unrealistic.

The other problem lies with the lack of the minimum consensus relating the recent war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which certainly does not contribute to the process of healing the wounds of war and reconciliation. As long as there is no consensus about the war, which still causes numerous clashes and disagreements, it will be difficult to draw a line with the past and turn towards the future. An artificial state divided to two entities and with three peoples, the state without winners and defeated, without clear understanding of who were the victims and the state where the war criminals are not punished for their crimes, obviously cannot provide its citizens with a just peace, which is an indispensable prerequisite for cooperation and normal (co)existence.

The third important problem is the unsolved national question, which is reflected in everyday politics – from the election of representatives of the three peoples to national institutions, to the struggle for the media in one’s own language. Although this issue is strongly present in all surveys, there is a trend of underrating its significance, or of total misunderstanding by those who decide, in the name of the international community, about the destiny of this state.

The fourth problem is the non-existence of trust among peoples. They are all convinced that the others abuse the state and entity institutions, that they are exclusive towards the others, and that they actually do not care about Bosnia and Herzegovina as their joint state. It is accompanied by non-existence of political will and the total absence of empathy of majority of political leaders for the needs of the members of others. More or less, everyone meets its own needs and interest and, by doing so, in most cases, disregard the others, or takes them into account only when there is no other alternative to it. In this respect, greater responsibility lies with the Bosniaks and the Serbs, as politically more relevant ethnic groups that need to show greater responsibility and good will in mutual relations, as well as in relations with the Croats, as the smallest constituent people. Here, the role of the Croats is exceptionally important, as an integrative element, since this people does not have significant problems either in its relations with the Serbs or with the Bosniaks, while, at the same time, these two ethnic groups perceive the Croats in a somewhat more positive way.

In any case, this survey has shown that, despite everything, there is a potential for development of mutual relations, since the fact is that respondents recognise more and more positive values in other peoples, while the degree of negative stereotypes has been significantly reduced over the past decade.


PhD Bozo Skoko