Stjepan Kljujić, Radovan Karadžić, and Alija Izetbegović

Stjepan Kljujić, Radovan Karadžić, and Alija Izetbegović

There is one case in which inter-nationalist cooperation manifested in an electoral process: that of Bosnia and Herzegovina on November 18th, 1990. The first multi-party elections after the socialist era saw the triumph of the three parties on an ethnic basis

19/11/2020 -  Alfredo Sasso

The emergence of a potential "alliance between nationalisms" on a European scale has been a constant theme on the political scene in recent years. Although there was no boom in the European elections and despite the difficulties of the Covid crisis, the question remains open. What unites today's right-wing nationalisms is well known: a shared vision of the world based on ”traditional values” ​​and, above all, a common enemy – the so-called European super-state and the ideology it stands for. However, any reflection leads to a fundamental question: can movements that look by definition only at the borders of their own community of reference really share a joint strategic horizon? Are they not bound to clash if the common enemy really were to fall or if those borders, as often happens, overlap with those imagined and claimed by other communities?

Mutatis mutandis, this reflection cannot but recall, perhaps with some potential analogy, episodes of contemporary European history. In the long phase of Yugoslavia's dissolution, the synergies between opposing nationalisms were far more numerous than the official narratives can tell. And there is one case in which inter-nationalist cooperation manifested in an electoral process: that of Bosnia and Herzegovina on November 18th, 1990. The republic's first multi-party elections after the socialist era saw the triumph of the three ethnic parties: SDA (Muslim nationalists), SDS (Serbian nationalists), and HDZ (Croatian nationalists). Compared to the "memory loads" that abound in the country, that event is hardly remembered in the press and in the collective sentiment.

How did those elections come about? It was not as fast a process as in Slovenia and Croatia, where elections were held already in spring 1990, nor as linear as in the other republics, which voted in the autumn with a sequence of steps similar to that of the post-socialist European countries. The League of Bosnian Communists (SKBiH) initially tried to manage the transition in a different, more gradual way: the creation of so-called "parties on a national basis" was prohibited by law, even if these already existed in the other republics and, informally, were developing in BiH too.

Coming from a tradition of dogmatism, in which they had historically stood out even from their counterparts in other Yugoslav republics, the leaders of SKBiH were sincerely convinced that the only way to protect multi-culturality was normative. But they miscalculated the legitimacy and real power of the party, a section of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ) which by then in fact no longer existed after the disaster of the 14th Congress. Furthermore, the SKBiH was deeply weakened by the general economic crisis and by the many corruption and embezzlement scandals that raged in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the late 1980s – another topic on which, with exceptions such as the accurate ”Bosnia-Herzegovina, the end of a Legacy by Neven Anđelić, less has been written than would be appropriate, and on which elements remain to be clarified.

Even before the nationalist parties, which would jump to the chance of presenting themselves as victims of repression, it was the progressive and liberal circles of Sarajevo that publicly protested against the restrictions imposed by SKBiH. Among these were the youth organisations, the newspapers Valter and Dani, the anti-nationalist intellectuals of the UJDI, andvarious public figures who, consistently with their radical anti-authoritarian position, advocated unlimited pluralism. The already well-known Goran Bregović and Miljenko Jergović took a stand, equating with contempt the Bosnian Communists with the North Korean ones. Given the growing indecision in the League, the ball went to the Bosnian Constitutional Court. On June 12th, 1990, in a controversial decision, the Court ruled that norm unconstitutional, thus allowing the formation of ethno-nationalist parties.

It is possible that, even if the ban had remained in force, it would have been circumvented or simply overcome by fait accompli. But in the years to come, many continued to look at that decision as a crucial event of Yugoslav dissolution, a what-if moment on which to project scientific hypotheses and, probably, some human regret. Political scientist Nenad Stojanović suggested that a popular referendum on the issue – a hypothesis that some Communist leaders had actually contemplated at the time – could have been an "elegant and democratic solution to avoid this Hobbesian dilemma". In a survey carried out in April 1990 in Mostar, Sarajevo, and Banja Luka, around 70% of those interviewed said they were in favour of maintaining the ban. Come November, a very similar percentage of voters voted for nationalist parties. Time went by very fast in 1990.

"We have been waiting for you"

The campaign of the three nationalist parties could then begin, combining radicalism and moderation with almost scientific shrewdness. They amplified narratives of danger that became real performative acts – from the alleged repression against cultural differences to suspected ethnic discrimination in the workplace, from the perception of insecurity to the conflicts of memories concerning the Second World War – to then show themselves as the only forces able to both express and control fear, legitimising each other.

“We have been waiting for you, this Bosnia and Herzegovina needs you. People have stopped believing in the high-sounding words [of communists], but they will never stop believing in love, good neighbourliness, and community", said SDA leader Alija Izetbegović on July 12th, 1990 in the founding assembly of the SDS. He stood in front of Radovan Karadžić who, a year and three months later, in his famous speech to parliament, announced the beginning of the war and the annihilation of Bosnian Muslims. Gestures and words of good will were reciprocated by representatives of all three parties, who even carried out joint events to show together their respective religious symbols and national flags, waiting to share power.

It must be said that the three nationalist parties cautiously avoided the term "alliance", always using the term "collaboration". It soon became clear that their strategic objectives were clearly irreconcilable. The SDS had announced since the campaign the creation of parallel institutions on an ethnic basis (another performative act, which materialised a year later), the HDZ advocated a cantonised, Swiss-style Bosnia, and the SDA called for a unitary republic. Everyone's tactical goal was, after all, only one, as HDZ leader Stjepan Kljujić dryly admitted in an interview: "First of all, we must free ourselves from communism".

But the Communists – by then "post", having added the label of social democrats as was the case everywhere, with the slogan "We will live together" echoing Titoist brotherhood and unity, were still the favourite party according to all polls. Many still wonder why these macroscopic errors were made. In addition to the possible inexperience and incorrect methodology of the operators, several believe that there was a real  silent voter effect: many people would not reveal their real preference for ethnonationalist parties, either because they still feared repercussions from the authorities, or because they did not dare to admit to supporting what seemed socially not accepted, but responded to one's desire for change at any cost.

Immediately behind in the polls was another non-nationalist party, which gathered a lot of expectations in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Alliance of Reformists (SRSJ). The movement founded by Federal Prime Minister Ante Marković had the ambitious plan of economic transition and a democratic, plural Third Yugoslavia , ready to approach the European Community without completely giving up its origins.

“Someone talks about coexistence, but we don't want to live in coexistence. We don't want to coexist. We want to live!”, said writer Abdulah Sidran, candidate for the reformists, at a rally, to claim what was then the normality of a common citizenship and daily life. Someone said that the reformists were like a dream team, bringing together prestigious names among intellectuals, artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. But several factors led to their defeat: the ambiguous relationship with the post-communists (they harmed each other, running more as competitors than allies despite similar programmes) and the failure on a federal scale of Marković's project, caught in the crossfire between the Slovenian and Serbian leadership – another of the many synergies between nationalisms of the Yugoslav dissolution. Some of the reformists, realising they had boarded the wrong wagon, would soon ride the nationalist zeitgeist. One of them was Emir Kusturica.

Prisoner's Dilemma

Overall, the impression is that the 1990 election campaign took place in a more ordinary, calm atmosphere than one might imagine in hindsight. “We expected more problems than there have been”, said Alija Izetbegović himself two days before the vote. But there were some episodes of tension in some areas, mainly in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Foča, the unrest resulting from the conflict between employees of the local bus company lasted for months and became violent, also leading to a state of emergency and a rift between the local Serb and Muslim communities.

It was one of the hundreds of cases of protests related to productive activities, to conflicts between workers, business leaders, and local administrators in the context of extreme uncertainty of the economic transition. In a few and limited cases, like in Foča, they resulted in identity tensions. There are no cases in which the opposite happened, at least before the elections. However, it must be said that, even with the temporal distance and the sources available today, it is not easy to fully grasp the real significance of those events. Newspapers of the time could minimise or amplify reports from the ground according to editorial interests. Nor is it easy to disentangle the testimonies, which at times tend – as is inevitable in subjective memories – to deterministically mix or connect that period with the descent into war and the terrible sufferings that followed; or they even idealise, or remove, that strange time window on which much remains to be heard and understood.

The outcome of those elections is sometimes rather equated to that of a census. The three nationalist parties won over 70% of the votes for the Bosnian parliament, which yielded 83% of the seats, guaranteeing them a comfortable division of power and relegating the reformists to irrelevance and the League of Communists to the lowest result of a post-communist party of all Yugoslavia (and among the worst in the whole of Central-Eastern Europe). However, several authors, such as Nenad Stojanović and Asim Mujkić , argued that those elections – and all subsequent ones – were not really the expression of a widespread, conscious nationalist sentiment. Rather, many voters were motivated by a "prisoner's dilemma": in the expectation that the "others" would vote for "their" nationalist party, they did so in turn, fearing that their own interests – and, later, their biological safety – would be threatened if there was an uneven outcome between groups. The synergy between the nationalists started from the top of meetings and rallies, but took form in the intimate solitude of the ballot, through a careful sequence of calculations and fears. After thirty years this dilemma has not yet been solved, leaving incalculable damage behind it.


In November 1995, the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The solution adopted – with its contradictions, including the de facto recognition of ethnic cleansing – was born as a result of a compromise to obtain peace. Now, in a country that is losing young people who emigrate in search of a future, it is clear that, without a reform, Bosnia and Herzegovina may remain a dysfunctional state that will not be able to proceed towards European integration. Our dossier

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