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Assessment for Muslims in Bosnia

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Muslims in Bosnia, 31 December 2003, available at: [accessed 30 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

Muslims in Bosnia have a low risk of rebellion, yet the possibility of protests remains high. The situation in Bosnia is improving, although 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 between the minority groups and ethnic tensions remain.

There are several reasons the risk of rebellion by Muslims is low in Bosnia. Muslims are represented in the Bosnian government and have their own president. In addition, there are far too many international observers in Bosnia to allow large scale rebellion to take place. The more likely scenario is a continuation of the verbal opposition and political resistance that were seen from 1999 to 2003. With peace resulting from democracy, a group is able to protest against policies that it does not agree with. As demonstrated by recent protests, there are issues that Muslims feel strongly about, and the failing Bosnian economy and refugee problems have not been solved. While the equality of the three ethnic groups has been established institutionally, the group which is most victimized appears to be the Bosnian Muslims. As long as this is the case, the chances of Muslim protest will remain high.

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 Muslim population was severely affected by the civil war in Bosnia. Muslims faced attacks by both Serbs and Croats at different points in the war. The Bosnian Muslims follow a different faith than the Croats and Serbs (BELIEF = 3, CUSTOM = 1), and they also speak what is thought of as a different language, although it is very similar to Croatian and Serbian (LANG = 1). They are not considered to be racially different from the other groups (RACE = 0), but most people are aware of each other's ethnicity (COHESX9 = 4) because of the volatile nature of ethnic relations within Bosnia. The majority of the Muslim population is found in the urban centers of Bosnia (GROUPCON = 1), though Muslims are now spread throughout the rest of the country as well (MIGRANT = 2).

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 Croats living in Bosnia favored secession from Yugoslavia, but they wanted to unite with Croatia rather than remain in a Muslim-dominated Bosnian state. A few months after the Muslim-Serb conflict erupted, fighting also broke out between Muslims and Croats. During their conflict with the Muslims, Croats formed a temporary anti-Muslim alliance with Bosnian Serbs. 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 a 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. Both communities in this part of the country had been trying since the 1996 elections to cooperate on the implementation of a plan to build unified central institutions. While many political agreements on this question have been achieved, problems still remained as of 2003. A special problem with the building of new democratic institutions is the status of two Bosnian cities – Brcko in the Serb republic and Mostar in the Muslim-Croat federation. Both of these cities have special importance for the two parts of post-Dayton Bosnia.

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. Presidential and parliamentary elections have consistently displayed an overwhelming support for the nationalist parties in Bosnia since the foundation of this government.

Despite the fact that Bosnian Muslims are currently experiencing no apparent demographic disadvantages (DEMSTR00 = 0), the process of returning all of the Bosnian refugees to their former homes is long and difficult. A large number of refugees are attempting to return only to find that people have taken over the land, which has caused many problems Bosnia. In the past, some Muslims have left the country for both economic and political reasons, tired of the years of struggle and poor living conditions. In 1995, the Dayton Accord was signed, which signaled an end to the open hostilities in Bosnia. As a result of this accord, a unique political system was created in which each ethnic group is allowed to elect one of their members to a three-person presidency, and therefore power is shared by the three groups. Since each group is represented in the presidency, each group's political rights are protected. Therefore, Bosnian Muslims do not currently face any political discrimination, at least from the highest levels of the government (POLDIS00 = 0). In the Croat- and Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia this may not wholly be the case, but in the country en bloc there is little discrimination. The same is true for cultural and economic disadvantages as the Muslims are protected by their representative in the office of the President (ECDIS00 = 0). There are no reports of current overt government repression against the Bosnian Muslims. The group does continue to clash with the other ethnic groups in Bosnia, and recently these clashes have mainly been with Serbs. Reports of violence at protests have occurred. For example, a Muslim threw a bomb during a Serb protest in 1998 and in 2001 a crowd of 2,000-5,000 Serbs attacked Muslims at a groundbreaking ceremony for reconstruction of a mosque.

As mentioned, the main organization that works to protect the Muslims in Bosnia is the Bosnian government itself. More specifically, groups such as the Party of Democratic Progress and the Bosniac Organization seek to promote Muslim issues and ensure that the group is protected in the fragile peace that has been established. There have been calls to improve the economic standing of Bosnian Muslims. The long civil war destroyed the Bosnian economy, and Muslims feel that they have suffered the most economically. There are also calls to protect the returning refugees when they find their homes inhabited by members of another ethnic group. There are still many outstanding issues over the rights of returning refugees, which the Muslims demand to be solved. 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 actually been criticized by all ethnic groups in Bosnia for not being able to protect the property of returning refugees. Bosnian Muslims are still concerned with violence carried out against them by Serbs and, at times, Croats. They are calling on the government to ensure their safety. The Muslims and the Bosnian government have looked for help in these issues from the United Nations Peacekeeping force, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other non-governmental organizations that monitor the situation in Bosnia and report any violations of the Dayton Accord. Incidents of ethnic violence continue throughout Bosnia. For example, from 1995 through 2003 the following events 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.

Muslims in Bosnia have historically been quite reluctant to engage in anti-state protests. The communist regime that controlled Yugoslavia prevented most actions of this sort from occurring. Muslims first began to protest in the early 1990s as Yugoslavia was falling apart (PROT90X = 2). More recently, larger demonstrations have been seen as Muslims began to express their frustration with the refugee problems, the poor economy, and low wages (PROT99 = 4), but protest activity has been restricted to scattered symbolic resistance and political organizing from 2001-2003. During the civil war, the Muslims were involved in large scale militant activity (REB95X = 7), but since that time there has been little or no such activity (REB03 = 0).



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