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Education Strategies in a Multisectarian State: The Clash of Nationalism in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina

By Karim El Mufti
25 May 2010

Torn by a devastating war back in the 1990’s, Bosnia-Herzegovina emerges as a deeply divided society, homeland of three main communities from three different religions and handling two alphabets, not to mention a number of minorities living alongside the sole “constituent peoples” of the country, the Bosniaks (Muslim1), the Croats (Catholic) and the Serbs (Orthodox). Historically, Bosnia’s making followed the path of a “plural society”, defined at an early stage in social science by John Sydenham Furnivall, after observing the Indian context, as a social corps in which “two or more segments or social orders live side by side, but without mixing, in one same political entity”2. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, its social matrix is structured according to a scheme inherited from the millet system of the Ottoman Empire, a system of social organization where separate religious groups other than Islamic were granted specific cultural rights and privileges in exchange of loyalty to the Sublime Porte and the settlement of taxes. This system strongly shaped what Donald Rotchild considers “self conscious collectivities”3 or “quasi-national communities”4, the expression with which Ernest Gellner characterizes the millets.

Contemporary Bosnia hence continues to hold distinct segments or ethnic groups, in the sense developed by Theodor Hanf : “[Ethnicity] incorporates not only common origins but also common language, religion or other feature of ethnic identity. In this sense, ‘ethnic groups’ may be people, national groups or religious communities, groups distinguishable from one another by one or more cultural markers”5. Each of the three components is officially recognized as a “constituent people” of the country, or in other terms, distinct national communities, defined by distinct cultural identities. For James Clark, « what had been religious communities until then were transformed into nationalist ones. Inherited religious affiliation surpassed religious belief in importance, and the word millet gradually assumed the meaning of nation »6. From his side, Walker Connor elaborated the notion of “ethnonationalism”7 defining “the nation [as] a self-conscious ethnic group”8, a very pejorative reference in the Balkan context, given the confrontational history in the region.

The Bosnian war (1992–1995) transformed the Bosnian territory into a military arena for the three rival nationalisms and ended with the adoption of the Dayton Agreement of December 1995 which managed to preserve the integrity of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but without putting an end to the nationalist aspirations of the different groups, maintaining very much alive the phenomenon of what Jean-François Gossiaux theorized as “Ethnic Power”9. In the shadow of a failed state crippled by war, power-sharing arrangements10 were designed to ensure political participation of the Bosniak, Croat and Serb nationalist entrepreneurs in exchange of the cessation of hostilities and the launching of the construction process (or State-Building) of the Central State of Bosnia-Herzegovina. And when the Dayton Agreement confirmed Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single, independent state, it also planted two highly autonomous ‘entities’, the predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (FBiH) and the predominantly Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska (RS)11. Supervising the entire workshop of implementing the Peace Agreement and re-building a Bosnian State is the Office of the High Representative, an international appointee by the Peace Implementation Council, gathering all the international countries involved in ensuring a sustainable and lasting peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with a very impressive number of inter-national agencies tackling major aspects of peace building, from the humanitarian perspective to the security dimension of the theatre, passing through all types of policy reforms, such as electoral and educational reforms, to undo the nationalist grip on the Bosnian polity, which is considered as the main obstacle to peace by the international stakeholders.

Referring to education, it is worth observing the very high impact of the ongoing clash of nationalism that switched from a war mode to a more political mode in the context of a deeply divided society on the country’s educational systems. As all plural societies, education is inextricably linked to the right to express, promote and protect one’s identity: “next to the family, [education] is the single most important agency for cultural reproduction, socialization and identity formation”12. In post-Dayton Bosnia, education is in the hands of the entities’ level, thus leaving very little margin of action for the Central State. For instance, looking at Section III, article 4(b) of the Constitution of the Federation shows that the Cantons acquired all responsibilities not expressly granted to the Federation government, including “making education policy, including decisions concerning the regulation and provision of education”. Article 38 of the RS Constitution states that: “everyone shall be entitled to education under equal conditions”, that “primary schooling shall be compulsory and free”, and “everyone shall have access, under the same conditions, to secondary and higher education”.

The institutional arrangements favoring the entities, in the field of education among other culturally-related items, kept alive the system of ethnic education, a system that had been set up in the pre-war period, thus cultivating the seeds of the coming conflict.

The Education System in Bosnia, reflection of a fragmented society

The very complex political structure set by Dayton hence paved the way to a duplication scheme of different layers of regulatory and policy enterprises. Subsequently, education in Bosnia has geared into parallel systems, “failing to benefit from economies of scale and suffer from duplication, redundancy and an expensive system in an already poverty-stricken country”, as international experts put it13. Unlike countries where minorities struggle to gain cultural recognition and basic human rights related to their group’s language and education, Bosnia’s peace deal gave the three constituent peoples enough leverage to maintain what many in Bosnia agree to qualify as a school segregation system, where students attend separate schools and learn distinct curriculum depending to which of the groups they belong to. And when there are not enough schools (60 per cent of the schools were destroyed during the conflict or requisitioned for military purposes), the one roof two schools system was established, where two sectarian educational programs run separately in the same building but through unconnected schedules.

This institutionalized system of segregation and discrimination illustrates the politicization of education in Bosnia, each group in its own entity following a nationalist agenda aimed at defending its educational privileges: “schools have become the […] battlefield for ethno-linguistic dominance and control. The result is a system where children are taught in segregated schools and classrooms, according to ethnically specific curricula and textbooks”14. Education expert in Bosnia, Valery Perry, considers the “politicization of education”15 as a “deliberate strategy by nationalist politicians to use the politics of identity and fear to continue the war by other means in spite of the peace agreement”16. Reaching University level, the configuration is no different for the students, each community having developed an academic pole of reference, either around the University of Sarajevo for Bosniaks, the University of Mostar for the Bosnian Croats and the University of Banja Luka for the Bosnian Serbs.

The nationalist cleavage in the educational system of the Bosnian Republic started before the 1992–1995 war, in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s general elections of 1990 which favored the nationalist rise to power within the different Yugoslav republics. The old Yugoslav educational system was dismantled at all levels, religion lessons were introduced into schools and students who failed to attend would be subject of pressure and intimidation. Bosnian Croats adapted their curriculum from the one in Zagreb (Croatia), and the same was observed on the Bosnian Serb side, who looked towards the Serbian curriculum from Belgrade. History, Geography and Literature acquired a significant political importance and, hence, were subject to substantial changes.

After the civil war, the school system in independent Bosnia Herzegovina remained fractured, and the many mandated agencies in charge of supervising Bosnia’s peace building did not focus in its early stages on the education sphere. Although briefly mentioned in Annex 6(1) of the Dayton Agreement, the international community’s mandate primarily concentrated on implementing the peace agreement in which education was not a top priority, since no organization, international or domestic, was given a clear mandate to ensure educational reform. As a result, there was a de facto domination of the ethnic approach to education at the levels of governance (cantons of the Federation and RS entity level) where nationalists from a given community were in control. As a part of their respective “claims of distinctiveness” to borrow the expression from Craig Calhoun17, the Serbian-Croat language spoken in ex-Yugoslavia by the majority of the population, broke into three different languages, the Bosniak, the Croat and the Serb, driven by nationalist agendas from the ethnic entrepreneurs within the country, each community claiming their right to speak their ‘own’ language, glorifying their respective poets and writers. Geography became similarly a highly politically charged topic, directly related to the kin states of Croatia and Serbia. An illustration of this could be observed back in the beginning of the years 2000 in Republika Srpska where the geography textbooks used to show the regions of RS and Serbia-Montenegro as if these areas represented the map of a single country, and without any mention of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the official State to which RS is integrally part of.

Studying history textbooks in post-war Bosnia, Branislava Baranovic uncovered how each ethnic group developed its own culturally oriented history texts18, which she explains are “contributing more to the creation of a closed, ethnocentric identity than to an identity open to diversity”19. As Historian Dubravko Lovrenovic (ex-deputy Minister of Education of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina) puts it, “Bosnia has three biographies”, since each historiography needs to secure the historical continuity of what is been considered as three separate nations. As such, each group is allowed to envision an entitlement to a Nation-State, which emerged to be “an organizing principle”20 as put forward by Anthony D. Smith, and governing the nationalistic dynamics in the Balkans. In that particular context, ethnic entrepreneurs undertake “nationalist processes that seek to maintain this fictive image of cultural homogeneity”21, thus perpetuating a configuration which Donald Rothchild characterizes as “non-negotiating situations”22, in which the risk of conflict is extremely likely and where education crystallizes the pursuit of the confrontation.

As a major means of socialization, education (and schools) has acquired the role of channeling the fabrication of ethnonational ideology and cultural values, fueling the nationalist clash in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Education Strategies, Vectors of the Nationalist Clash

In Bosnia, like in many other deeply divided societies, maintaining cultural distinctiveness represents a core political agenda. In that, ethnic groups are extremely active at keeping alive their specific claims of nationhood as agents of legitimization of a Nation-Building project, through establishing a historical continuity of the concept of a nation, associating the group with a specific territory and by claiming statehood, “passing from the tribe to the Nation”23. It is through these nationalist lenses that the ideals of Grand Serbia and Grand Croatia were developed, leading the Muslim Bosniaks to promote their own historiography in order to legitimize a parallel claim to statehood.

With three Nation-Building ideals in action in a single State, Bosnia-Herzegovina witnesses what Xavier Bougarel calls a “superposition of rival sovereignties”24, where education became a decisive means to maintain a distinct collective memory as part of the perpetuation of one’s national and cultural celebration. Added to that, politics has entered schools where electoral meetings are regularly held and where nationalist posters and slogans are displayed, along with religious symbols. As a result of labeling a school’s area with an ethnic marker, discrimination had become a serious challenge for the international community working to ensure for instance the right of the refugees and displaced persons to return to their homes where they would be considered as minorities by a given ethnic majority. In August 2008 for instance, the city of Stolac suddenly forbid the children of Bosniak returnees of attending the school, prompting an intervention of the High Representative to correct the situation.

Developing the will to de-politicize education in Bosnia, the international community slowly involved itself in the very sensitive field of education, pushing (imposing) legislative reforms, namely between 2003 and 2007, to try to alleviate the nationalist grip over educational curricula25. The Office of the High Representative, the OSCE, even the World Bank, intervened to have offensive material removed from educational material and introduce legal provisions providing principles for an education system which respects the right to a decent education, regardless of ethnic and religious affiliation and origin. As part of these efforts to depoliticize education, a State agency was created for pre-school, primary and secondary education in Bosnia holding the mission of establishing the standards of knowledge, the criteria of the assessment of students’ achievements and developing common core curricula, hence strengthening the role of central institutions vis-à-vis the power of the entities in educational affairs. A pilot program was launched in the district of Brcko with multiethnic classes to discuss national (as in Bosnian) issues.

Such initiatives were met with strong nationalistic reactions from the political main-stream from the different communities, whether in the Federation or in Republika Srpska, namely fueling a perception of endangerment and the feeling of vulnerability. Theorized by Donald Horowitz who introduced the notion of “the fear of extinction”26 among ethnic groups, it constantly fuels the lack trust and confidence of the ethnic entrepreneurs as they feel they cannot afford to demobilize or remove any nationalistic promoting mechanism. For instance, transfers of competence from the entities level to the State’s central institutions are seen by the main nationalist Croat and Serb parties as undermining the core of their existential condition, whereas the Bosniaks welcome any additional competence to a central state they consider as rightfully theirs. Since 2000, it has been the international community’s strategy to more aggressively strengthen the central state, as part of the dynamics to give it a sense of functional normality and efficiency27. Here, the state-building (or institution-building) agenda directly clashes with the nation-building aspirations of the national groups, and the main arena of this political battle lays in a battle State versus Entities.

This clash is the larger dynamic which engulfs education and many other sensitive affairs related to nationhood (military, justice and police), triggering many deep political crisis on a regular basis. The cleavage opposes from one hand the nationalist Bosniak approach leaning towards strengthening a central state in Sarajevo, “regarding Republika Srpska as an illegitimate product of war [and considering] Sarajevo [as the] natural centre of the Bosnian political universe”28. On the other hand, the Croat and Serb perspective tend towards conserving enough political leverage to prevent Bosnia from becoming a Bosniak-controlled country, with the Serbs’ particular focus on defending the wide autonomy of Republika Srpska and maintaining the system as decentralized as possible.


In this clash of unsatisfied nationalisms, education proved to become a highly exist-ential struggle in post-war Bosnia. Fifteen years have passed since the adoption of the Dayton Agreement and the High Representative, who was supposed to be a temporary agent, is still in place in a mission to consolidate the Bosnian State infrastructure, still nourishing the ambitions of establishing a citizen Bosnia rather than a nationalist fragmented one. Many efforts and achievements were accomplished to undo segregation and discrimination in the educational spheres of the country at many levels, but without defusing the nationalist attachments. Indeed, in a Multinational State as such, where constituent nations are recognized and legitimatized by the very constitutional order of the Bosnian regime, the international state-building model advocating against nationalist dynamics demonstrated to be an extremely uneasy path. In this context, investment in education and insufflating the spirit of tolerance, citizenship and coexistence (the traditional Bosnian komciluk), were deemed incompatible with the different national senses of belonging. As a result, the de-politicization of education in Bosnia, speared by the international agents of state-building, has been of a deconstruction type, as part of a larger enterprise of dismantling the ethnic structure of the country through the perspective of European integration, but fueling at the same time a vicious circle of radical counter-reactions of harsher nationalism.


1 Despite the fact that the noun refers to the religion, it is the term used officially to designate the Bosniaks¸the Slavic population of Muslim confession living in ex-Yugoslavia.

2 FURNIVALL, J.S. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy, Cambridge, Cambridge Univer-sity Press, 1939, p. 446

3 ROTHCHILD, Donald. Ethnicity and Conflict Resolution. World Politics, vol. 22, n°4, July 1970, p. 598.

4 GELLNER, Ernest. Muslim Society, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984, p. 59.

5 HANF, Theodor. Coexistence in wartime Lebanon: decline of a state and rise of a nation, Oxford, Centre for Lebanese Studies, London, Tauris, 1993, p. 14.

6 CLARK, James. Frequent Incompatibilities: Ethnic and Religious Diversity and the Nations of the Middle East. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, vol. 22, n°1–2, 2002, p. 36.

7 CONNOR, Walker. The Politics of Ethnonationalism. Journal of International Affairs, vol. 27, n°1, 1973, pp. 1–21, CONNOR, Walker. Ethnonationalism : The Quest for Understanding, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994, 234 p.

8 CONNOR, Walker. The Politics of Ethnonationalism. Op. cit., p. 3.

9 GOSSIAUX, Jean-François. Pouvoirs ethniques dans les Balkans, Paris, PUF, 2002, 217 p.

10 For more insights on the concept of power sharing, cf LIJPHART, Arendt. Consociational Democracy. World Politics, vol. 21, nº2, January 1969, pp. 207–225; LIJPHART, Arend. Democ-racy in plural societies. A comparative exploration, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1977, 249 p.

11 The Federation is constituted of ten cantons, a sublevel of government holding an important number of prerogatives, as the RS holds a more centralized system with a division into municipalities.

12 WILLIAMS, C.H. The Cultural Rights of Minorities: Recognition and Implementation, in PLITCH-TOVA , J. (ed.). Minorities in Politics: Cultural and Language Rights, Bratislava, 1992. Cited in HENRARD, Kristin. Education and Multiculturalism, International Journal on Minority and Group Rights, vol. 7, 2000, pp. 393–410.

13 PERRY Valery. Reading, Writing and Reconciliation: Educational Reform in Bosnia and Herze-govina, ECMI Working Paper num. 18, September 2003, p. 27.

14 Cf OSCE website: Background of the Education Sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina, www.osce

15 PERRY, Valery. Reading, Writing and Reconciliation: Educational Reform in Bosnia and Herze-govina, European Centre for Minority Issues, Working Paper 18, Sept. 2003, p. 29.

16 Idem.

17 CALHOUN, Craig. Nationalism and Ethnicity. Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 19, 1993, p. 216.

18 BARANOVIC, Branislava. History Textbooks in Post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. Intercultural Education, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2001, pp. 13–26.

19 Op. Cit. p. 13.

20 Cf SMITH, Anthony D. The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, 312 p.

21 BUSH, Kenneth D., SALTARELLI, Diana. The Two Faces of Education in Ethnic Conflict, UNICEF, August 2000

22 ROTHCHILD, Donald. Ethnicity and Conflict Resolution. World Politics, vol. 22, n°4, July 1970, p. 611.

23 GELLNER, Ernest. Nations et nationalismes, Paris, Payot, 1983, p. 49.

24 BOUGAREL, Xavier. Bosnie. Anatomie d’un conflit, La Découverte, Paris, 1996, p. 78.

25 A state-level Framework Law on Primary and Secondary Education was adopted in 2003. In 2007 and 2008, other pieces of state-level legislation were passed, such as the Framework Law on Higher Edu-cation, the Framework Law on Pre-school Education, the Law on Vocational and Educational Train-ing and the Law on an Agency for Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education.

26 HOROWITZ, Donald. Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1985, pp. 175–179.

27 Cf COX, Marcus. State Building and Post-War Reconstruction: Lessons from Bosnia, the Rehabili-tation of War-Torn Societies, Center for Applied Studies in International Negotiations, Geneva, January 2001.

28 European Stability Initiative. Making Federalism Work: A Radical proposal for practical reform, 8 January 2004, Berlin/Sarajevo, p. 5.

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