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Assessment for Serbs in Bosnia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Serbs in Bosnia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 31 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Bosnia Facts
Area:    51,129 sq. km.
Capital:    Sarajevo
Total Population:    3,366,000 (source: unknown, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The situation in Bosnia is improving, yet still quite volatile. Bosnia has a long history of ethnic tensions, and its unique structure creates challenges for its constituent minority groups. The 1995 Dayton Accords set up two entities combining to create one federal Bosnian government. The two entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina frequently clash over issues such as refugee return and war criminal prosecution. The Repulika Srpska (RS) is predominately Serb and in this region Croats and Bosniaks experience significant oppression. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Federation) is predominately Croat and Muslim Bosniak. In this region, Serbs experience significant discrimination. However, since most Serbs live in the RS and most Muslims and Croats in the Federation, each minority group as a whole experiences low levels of discrimination. The federal structure has become more efficient in recent years, but the fundamental differences of the minority groups and ethnic tensions remain.

Rebellion is unlikely at this time because ethnic groups are relatively satisfied with their limited regional autonomy. Also, the international presence and attention limit opportunities for an armed rebellion. The Dayton Peace Accord has largely been upheld; however, the federal government system has its share of problems. Protests are likely to continue, especially by Bosniaks and Croats in the RS and Serbs in the Federation. The large support for nationalist parties is evidence of the underlying ethnic tensions in the region.

Analytic Summary

When Yugoslavia was torn apart in 1992, turmoil and civil war resulted in almost all of the successor states. Bosnia was hit the hardest by this outbreak of violence and ethnic hatred. Within Bosnia, the three main ethnic groups, the Muslims, Serbs and Croats all have large populations. The Serbs in Bosnia represent the largest single ethnic group in the country. The Serb population was the most outspoken in opposition to the secession of Bosnia from Yugoslavia. The resulting civil war between the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims cost thousands of lives, forced many to flee their homes, and threw the entire region into an economic downfall. The Serb population has been in the region of Serbia/Bosnia for hundreds of years (TRADITN = 1). Within Bosnia, they are concentrated in a region close to the Serbian border (REGIONAL = 1), but many Serbs were forced from their homes during the civil war and are only now beginning to return (MIGRANT = 5). The Serbs of Bosnia share many of the beliefs of the Serbs in other regions of the former Yugoslavia, and Serbs in both Bosnia and these regions are employed across the border (COHESX9 = 3). Beyond the use of the Serbian language (LANG = 1), the Serbs follow the Orthodox Christian religion (BELIEF = 3), rather than Catholicism or Islam. While the Serbs are not racially distinct from the other large groups in Bosnia (RACE = 0), most people are aware of each other's ethnicity because of the highly charged ethnic tensions in the country. The former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia has been beset by civil war since its mainly Muslim population voted to secede from the Yugoslav Federation in March 1992. Ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia who wanted to remain aligned with the Serb-dominated government of Yugoslavia opposed independence. Ethnic Serbs were reportedly aided by troops and supplies from Serbia and Montenegro in their armed resistance. Croats formed a temporary anti-Muslim alliance with Bosnian Serbs during their joint conflict with Bosnian Muslims. In early 1994, however, Bosnian Croats and Muslims formed an anti-Serb alliance.

Two distinct periods stand out in a review of the state of human and collective rights in Bosnia, beginning August 1994 and ending July 1999. The first period outlines war-related human and collective rights abuses in the final year of the war (August 1994 – November 1995). Reports from this period do not differ substantially from previous reports on "ethnic cleansing", massacres, and mistreatment of civilians. Thus, 1995 reports reveal the most terrifying massacre in the Bosnian war, assessed by Richard Holbrooke as "the biggest single mass murder in Europe since World War II" – the capture of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs and the follow-up execution of thousands of Muslims. This event caused a change in what was the prevailing humanitarian aid strategy adopted by the international community in relation to the Bosnian crisis. It also led to the active involvement of NATO in a war against the Bosnian Serbs.

The second period, linked to the first by the principles of the late-1995 Dayton peace accord, reflects the situation of the three ethnic groups within the political framework of confederated Bosnia set up by this accord. Reports from 1996-1999 point to problems of mutual accommodation of Bosnian ethnic groups and the uneasy process of building a multi-ethnic democracy. The building of multiethnic democratic institutions has been a problem for both halves of Bosnia, but is more serious in the Muslim-Croat federation.

The Dayton Peace Accord drew internal confederal boundaries along ethnic lines and carved up Bosnia into two parts, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb republic. The Dayton agreement guaranteed the existence of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single sovereign state, within which the Bosnian Serbs and Croats are allowed to have political links with their ethnic parties elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. Political confederation with either side is strictly forbidden. 1998 presidential and parliamentary elections displayed an overwhelming support for the nationalist parties in Bosnia.

Currently, the Bosnian Serb population is not experiencing any ecological or demographic disadvantages (DEMSTR03 = 0) beyond the large number of Serb refugees who are beginning to return to the region from Yugoslavia and elsewhere now that the fighting has ceased in Bosnia. In 1995, the leaders of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia signed the Dayton Peace Accord. One of the stipulations of this accord is the creation of a three-person presidency. This multi-person presidency allows each ethnic group to elect one of their members to this office, which ensures that no single ethnic group possesses more political power than the other two in this office. Within the geographic areas where they comprise a majority of the population, it is highly unlikely that they face any form of discrimination, but due to the tensions that exist between the three groups, the possibility of discrimination against Bosnian Serbs in non-Serb areas is high. While many Bosnian Serbs have been subject to arrest recently, these arrests are not a result of their ethnic background. Rather, they have been incarcerated because of their actions during the civil war. Many Bosnian Serbs have been charged with war crimes. The Serbs in Bosnia have been involved in conflicts both with other ethnic groups and with themselves since the cease fire was signed in 1995. Intra-group conflict has been marked by hardliner assassinations of Serbs considered either not sufficiently committed to the Serb cause or too willing to compromise. Inter-group conflict has consisted of disputes with both Croats and, more recently, Muslims. An example of this conflict is an incident where a Muslim threw a bomb during a Serb protest in 1998.

Due to the importance of ethnicity in Bosnia, it is not surprising that the Serbs are represented by a variety of organizations. The most radical and active political party is the Serb Democratic Party, which fared better than most expert predictions in the 2000 elections. Other groups include the Movement for Civic Equity, the Serb National Alliance, and the Association of Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina. All of these groups are attempting to influence the Bosnian government to give more rights to the Serb people and are encouraging a better relationship with nations from the former Yugoslavia. While in the past the Bosnian Serbs could rely on the Yugoslav government for money and weapons, since the collapse of Yugoslavia this is no longer an option. Most Bosnian Serbs advocate greater political autonomy within Bosnia rather than outright secession. Another important issue for the Serbs is the protection of their religion, culture and language, which serves as a rallying cry for Serbs despite the fact that these institutions are not currently in any danger. The Serbs also desire an end to the civil war crimes tribunals, which they claim are biased against Serbs. In addition, Serbs are concerned for refugees returning to Bosnia. This issue is actually of concern for all three Bosnian ethnic groups, as refugees of all groups have returned only to find new residents in their homes. The government has been criticized by all ethnic groups in this area for not being able to protect the property of returning refugees. The issue of returning refugees is an extremely important one, as over 25,000 Serbs returned to Bosnia in the first 9 months of 2001 alone. These high numbers have continued through 2003. Finally, even with the cease-fire in place, incidents of ethnic violence continue, and Serbs have called on the state to protect them from the Muslim and Croat communities. For example, from 1995 through 2003 the following incidents occurred: Serb refugees protested against the planned return of Bosnian Muslims; Muslims launched grenade attacks on Serbian villages; extremist groups of the Bosnian Croats carried out attacks on the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and claims were forwarded that only Serbs and Croats were being indicted by The Hague Tribunal.

The Serbs began to protest what was happening in Bosnia in the early 1990s as they became aware that Yugoslavia was breaking apart (PROT90-91 = 2). The communist regime that controlled Yugoslavia prior to this era prevented most actions of this sort from occurring. Protests resumed after the civil war and have continued to this day (PROT00 = 3, PROT01-03 = 2) over issues such as wages and the rights of both returning refugees and Serbs who are being evicted from their homes as the country is restructured. Militant activity reached its peak during the civil war in the 1990s (REBEL90X and REBEL95X = 7). While nowhere near that level, some militant activity has been reported as late as 1999 (REB99 = 1), when there was a minor outbreak of violence between Serbs and the Bosnian army. No rebellious activity was reported from 2000-2003 (REB00-03 = 0).



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