Bosnia: Complex Citizenship in a Complex Country

Eldar Sarajlić
A view of Sarajevo

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Paper Series and is available for download here.

Being a Bosnian Citizen

Today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina has a complex citizenship regime. It emerged as a response to instability at a particular point in the country’s history, which then became established as the dominant pattern of political interaction. The threat of war and protracted instability has rendered the state as complex it could be: its citizenship is two-level, ethnic-based, highly politicized. To understand how this can work in practice, let us imagine a hypothetical Bosnian citizen. She would have a Bosnian (state) citizenship, as defined by the existing legislation, possess a Bosnian passport and be recognized as a member of the Bosnian political community outside of its borders. This would not be her only political identity, however. Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is consisted of two entities (called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska), she would be a member of one of these sub-communities and have a respective entity citizenship, also defined by the existing laws. Since these are state sub-units and not self-standing members of the international system, there are no passports for this membership level. If she were a citizen of Republic of Srpska, she would most likely be of a Serb ethnic origin, but not necessarily. Although Serbs predominate in this part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are many non-Serbs living there, such as Bosniaks or Croats. If she were a Bosniak or Croat, she would most probably be a member of minority communities that had been expelled from Republic of Srpska during the 1992-1995 war, only to return after the signature of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 and the subsequent social and political stabilization. If she were a Bosniak, there is a very likely possibility she would probably have strong emotional links with the other part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and resent the existence of Republic of Srpska in general. Accordingly, she would very likely opt for abandonment of entity structure of the country and wish for unity on the state level. She would perhaps have many relatives in diaspora, who would hold dual citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina and their new homeland. If these were in a state that does not allow for dual citizenships (such as Germany), they would have probably given up of Bosnian citizenship but still remained emotionally attached to their former homeland.

But, if our hypothetical Bosnian citizen were a Serb, there is a likely possibility she would resent Bosnia and Herzegovina and hold the existence of Republic of Srpska as a matter of historical and political necessity. She could have a strong emotional attachment with Serbia, cheer for Serbian football representation instead of Bosnian and wished for a union between Republic of Srpska and Serbia.

However, if she were a Croat, she could be less concerned with both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republic of Srpska, and have more emotional ties with the neighboring Croatia. This emotional tie would probably have an institutional anchor, as she would probably have a Croatian citizenship as well, together with half a million of her co-ethnics and a two hundred thousand of other individuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If she were to have a baby, she would have probably gone to Croatia to deliver it and receive social benefits from the Croatian state. If her husband was, by chance, a member of Bosnian Croat armed forces during the war (HVO) and retired after the end of hostilities, he could receive retirement benefits from the Croatian state. They could also vote at Croatian parliamentary and presidential elections, watch Croatian television and travel with Croatian passports, as their Bosnian ones would be less useful (until quite recently, almost useless) for travel in Europe.

But, if she were not a member of any of the dominant ethnic groups in the country, yet still held state and entity citizenship, she would be deprived of certain positive rights in the country. If she were a member of so called “non-constitutive” minorities, such as a Jew or a Roma, she would be unable to run for office or vote for her own representative in state institutions, because the existing legislation does not provide for the possibility of minority representation in the highest state offices. The collective presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, provides only three positions reserved for the three main ethnic groups in the country. However, if our hypothetical citizen were an active member in social and political life, she would probably have joined other similar individuals and filed a suit against Bosnia and Herzegovina at the European Court of Human Rights. At this moment, she would be probably waiting for the state institutions to act upon the judgment of the Court that had rendered such provisions in discord with leading human rights conventions.

History’s Endowment

The complexity of the existing citizenship regime in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not only due to the situation produced by inter-ethnic war , but also due to historical factors. Throughout its turbulent history, Bosnia has never been fully autonomous. It has always been incorporated into larger frameworks, from imperial ones ruled from Constantinople and Vienna, to royalist ones ruled from Belgrade. In all cases and contexts, Bosnia’s political and communal status had been determined in relation to stronger powers and interests beyond its borders. Once a boundary province of Ottoman Empire and a semi-colony of the mighty Habsburgs, Bosnia gained its statehood in the midst of the Second World War, when it joined its south-Slavic neighbours in creating a socialist and federal Yugoslavia. Although its status was on par with other republics of the newly created socialist federation (with symmetric citizenship properties), it has always been different from others, insofar as it did not have a leading nation of its own, but consisted of a number of equal and constitutive ethnic nations within its boundaries. Once a blessing for its cultural life and diversity, the complex ethnic setup turned into a curse when, with Yugoslavia’s collapse, Bosnia and Herzegovina entered a bloody ethnic war in which its neighbors, Serbia and Croatia, also took part. Two of its ethnic groups (Bosniaks and Croats) overwhelmingly opted for independence from collapsing Yugoslavia, while the majority of Serbs opposed the idea and wanted to stay united with their brethren in Serbia within a single polity. Although the newly independent country established republican institutions with an inclusive citizenship, this was not sufficient to preclude the break up of the country, and the outbreak of hostilities that lasted for almost four years, only to be brought to an end by a decisive American diplomatic initiative.

The political solution reached at an American military base in Dayton, Ohio in 1995, not only reflected the grave and intricate situation on the ground, with de facto dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina along ethnic lines and establishment of separate political units, but also the institutional and political legacy bestowed upon the country by its complex, diverse past. The citizenship solution arranged through Dayton negotiations structurally resembles the Yugoslav internal organization. Just as socialist Yugoslavia sustained common (federal) and separate (republican) citizenships that determined the legal status of its citizens, Bosnia and Herzegovina today has both state and entity citizenships as complementary parts of a single citizenship regime. As could be discerned from the example of the hypothetical citizen , political membership in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a complex issue. Its consequences are profound, most importantly, in the domain of human rights.

Social Exclusion and Human Rights Concerns

The problem with complex and multilevel citizenship in Bosnia, as has been notd by many observers of the Bosnian situation, is that it lends itself to functional political usage aimed at social exclusion. This is most visible in the realm of political rights, from which certain groups of population are disenfranchised. Namely, the entity citizenships, in combination with entity residence, prevent minority individuals running for office at certain levels of government, such as the state presidency. In addition to the non-constituent minority example, there are other fundamental obstacles to enjoyment of political rights in the country. For example, a Serb individual residing in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (a Bosniak-Croat dominated entity) cannot run for the office of Serb member of the state presidency, nor can he or she vote for it, because only individuals from Republika Srpska (a Serb entity) are able to run and vote for this office. Reciprocal rules exist for Bosniaks and Croats residing in Republika Srpska as well.

The need to transform the constitutional structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina and enable higher levels of human rights enjoyment has been at the top of the agenda for both international and local analysts of  Bosnian political life. For example, the European Union’s Venice Commission has put forward several suggestions to the decision makers in Bosnia and Herzegovina in terms of constitutional detachment from the ethnicity-based political representation. The Commission especially emphasized the incompatibility of particular constitutional provisions and the electoral law with the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols. Namely, the Preamble of the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina makes a categorical distinction between the ‘constituent peoples’ (the main ethnic groups, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) and the ‘Others’—individuals and groups who do not identify with any of the dominant ethnic communities, which represent 10% of the country’s population. In accordance with the constitutional provisions and the current election law, key state institutions, such as the House of Peoples of the Bosnian parliament or the Presidency are composed exclusively of members of the three dominant groups.

This exclusion was already wide scale before 2000, since the entity constitutions contained a provision that defined entities as exclusive domains of their ethnic majorities. The Republic of Srpska was defined as a state of the Serb people and the Federation as a state of Bosniaks and Croats. The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina eventually changed this. In a decision from 2000, it concluded that provisions of the entity constitutions, giving special rights to respective ethnic majorities, were not in accord with the state constitution that stipulates the constitutional status of all three ethnic groups on the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nonetheless, it did not substantially change the ethnocentric structure of the legal and political system, since it continued to favor ethnic groups over individuals in terms of civic entitlements. Moreover, by limiting political rights to members of the three dominant groups, it has been argued that this decision contributed to the exclusion of other ethnic minorities in the country (such as Jews, Roma and others) and further entrenched the tripartite ethnic ‘ownership’ of Bosnia and Herzegovina that limits substantial citizenship only to the three main groups.

However, some individuals from the disenfranchised groups decided to oppose the exclusionary provisions by trying to reform the system using a broader leverage: a European institution. Upon a suit filed by a group of minority citizens, members of the Jewish and Roma minorities, the European Court of Human Rights in December 2009 decided that the constitutional ineligibility of these individuals to run for office lacks an objective and reasonable justification and therefore breaches norms established by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Can the EU Help?

What reason is there to hope that the EU will be able to exert a transformative influence on Bosnian institutional and political life? When it comes to citizenship, some argue that the perspective of European citizenship might render Bosnian internal conflicts irrelevant and attach a new meaning to the community membership envisaged by the European perspective. If Bosnia joins the EU, one may add, it will be utterly irrelevant which entity citizenship individuals in the country hold, since all will be citizens of the EU and the need for such petty delineations will disappear. 

Unfortunately, the integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU does not seem to offer a straightforward solution to this dilemma. On the contrary, it may even add an additional layer of complexity, not only in increasing the number of levels of citizenship to three—in that case Bosnian citizens would have entity, state and European citizenship—but also by opening up some other politically sensitive issues. Part of the problem lies in the fact that, unlike the majority of EU member states that have developed their citizenship models under the form of nation-state before joining the Union, Bosnian citizenship is still being constructed, with no clear indications in which direction it might develop. If it is pushed more in the direction of unification, to resemble the prevailing nation-state model in the EU, it will deepen the crisis, since a large part of the Bosnian population would resist such an outcome. Conversely, if it is directed into more fragmentary and decentralising frames, it will also cause friction and alarm those parts of the population who are frightful of further ethnic, social and territorial fragmentation.

The other part of the problem directly relates to the EU policies of shaping the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina through intervention and involvement in its immediate neighbourhood. Given their internal coherence, which reflects their current ethnically homogenous nature rather than a genuine democratic development, both Croatia and Serbia seem to be far ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina in delivering the reforms conditioned by the EU accession process. This provides them with leverage to shape Bosnia’s political perspectives, both directly through means provided by the Dayton agreement, co-signed by Croatia and Serbia respectively, but also indirectly through means of shared citizenship with large parts of the Bosnian population. If any of these joins the EU before Bosnia and Herzegovina (Croatia is most likely to enter first), large numbers of Bosnians will become citizens of the EU before the country itself fulfils the necessary requirements for accession. This may provide Croat or Serb political parties and interest groups in Bosnia with a sufficient leverage to influence internal political processes and thus exert control over the accession dynamic by eliciting exclusive and partial concessions that can cause further tensions and be detrimental for political stability. Additionally, such a regional context, in which Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be an exception in terms of the poor delivery of reform efforts and a slow EU integration process, might leave it excluded in the long run. This could contribute to existing fears that the unspoken aim of this issue is to exclude Muslims from the EU. Clearly, a misbalanced and partial regional approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina might have negative effects and deepen the existing crisis.

A Way Forward

Despite the above caveats, the European Union will have a crucial role in helping Bosnia complete the process of democratic transition and build a sustainable and rights-based citizenship regime. Its main role will be to support Bosnia’s rights-based institutions and provide a framework for the authentic development of Bosnia’s citizenship, one that is free from preconceived forms of nationality and ethnocentrism. Being an exception in European terms, as a country that defies continental patterns of political organization, Bosnia and Herzegovina can be a litmus test for a new type of polity, a state in which a hegemony of ethnicity and nationalism will be replaced with a regionally integrated civil society and institutions focused on the protection of all its citizens’ human rights. Bosnia and Herzegovina will probably never develop into a classic European republican polity, nor will it dissolve along ethnic lines into three miniature nation-states, because both the complex ethno-territorial internal setup and the external context do not allow for these scenarios. Thus, the only viable alternative is to try to come up with other solutions which will aid both priorities of Bosnia’s democratic transformation at nobody’s expense: human rights and long term political stability.


Eldar Sarajlic is a PhD student at the Central European University in Budapest, where he does research in political theory, focusing on problems of morality and conflict in politics. He completed his Masters at the University of Sarajevo, and has published a monograph on ethnicity and postmodernity, as well as several articles on issues of citizenship, identity and Islamic networks in the Balkans. 

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Photo: A view of Sarajevo by Eldar Sarajlic