What has Dayton wrought and where do we go from here? Bosnian policy analysts and activists Gorana Mlinarević and Nela Porobić Isaković bring a feminist perspective to discuss the legacy of the Dayton Peace Accords after 25 years of implementation.
Milan Lajčák, Miss Bosnia, and JFK also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Peace Accords, Dayton Peace Agreement or the DPA, which concluded the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and set up the country’s governing structure. The agreement was announced on November 21st, 1995 in Dayton, Ohio and signed by Alija Izetbegović, Slobodan Milošević, and Franjo Tudjman, presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Croatia, respectively, on December 14, 1995 in Paris.
Peace and stability were the Agreement’s chief goals. These it accomplished—and then some. For twenty-five years armed conflict has been absent from Bosnia and Herzegovina. And the administrative structure the DPA set up has been pretty much intact. Which is in fact its biggest problem. And Bosnia and Herzegovina remains the one former Yugoslav republic where the break, on the level of society, with socialist Yugoslavia has been the starkest.
Here to talk about the Dayton Peace Agreement after twenty-five years of implementation are my guests Gorana Mlinarević and Nela Porobić Isaković. Their comments about the agreement in many ways echo the prevailing views from politically unaffiliated analysts and commentators in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But they also bring a feminist perspective into the mix, an aspect of the Agreement that has been largely overlooked in the dominant discourse. Both Gorana and Nela are affiliated with the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, which addresses root causes of violence through a feminist lens.
Gorana Mlinarević has a background in international human rights law and media studies. Chief among her engagements, she is a research fellow at Goldsmiths University of London, where she focuses on a feminist critique of international criminal law.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: The problem is that we were learning their system, how they learned to live rather than kind of shaping the system we want to live in.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nela Porobić Isaković is the coordinator of Women’s International League of Peace & Freedom’s project Women Organizing for Change in Bosnia.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: It very much immediately, but also in the long run, entrenched ethnic identities as the new normal.
PETER KORCHNAK: Milan Lajčák, Miss Bosnia, and JFK also make an appearance.
PETER KORCHNAK: Gorana Mlinarević, you were born in the 70s and remember Yugoslavia as a child and as a teenager. What did and what does Yugoslavia mean to you and your career path?
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: I was brought up in the family that we never actually had or considered ethnic belonging or any form of other identity politics. That is part that I was proud of, and I’m still proud of.
I would say [a] typical Yugoslav middle class family that was appreciating [the] entire socialist system in the context of self management, in the context of the free education, free healthcare, and everything that we at that time had.
So for me, Yugoslavia is kind of that framework where it is possible to talk about equality. Of course, on the other hand, I am aware and I was aware that there were still inequalities even within that system.
I was actually 19 when the war started, and I spent four years under the siege in Sarajevo. So it was something like, just [a] teenager kind of deciding what to do with my future, and shifting into the situation of war and war under the siege.
Previously [an] apolitical person, up until the war started, kind of got involved in thinking about how the politics is actually about everyday life. So it is kind of more being in some form of protected, I don’t know, middle class life and then just being forced into something that at the beginning, I couldn’t explain.
And my engagement is actually more on the political level and on just forcing myself to first learn and to kind of develop analytical skills to understand the life and surrounding and context I live in.
PETER KORCHNAK: Nela Porobić Isaković, you are a child of the 80s, and your memories of that country are, as you put it, of a “happy, careless childhood.” What does Yugoslavia mean to you today?
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: So I was 10 when the war started in Bosnia, and we had to flee. I now again live in Bosnia, and did make some trips to Sweden and back as a refugee, spent some years there during the war, and a bit longer, and moved back to Bosnia in 2006.
My general political awareness came during my early teenage years, at which point I was living in Sweden. What I was, at that point, trying to do is to figure out, not just what the war was about, but also what my own lived experiences were about.
When I became politically aware, and eventually also politically active in Sweden, I identified myself pretty quickly as a socialist. And pretty early on, I think my curiosity about Yugoslavia was twofold: it was both about, you know, understanding my own experience, but also understanding some of the progressive attempts in Yugoslavia to sort of organize a society differently.
My sort of relationship to Yugoslavia post-war was never about sort of longing to recreate it to glorify it. One of the things I have learned to appreciate about Yugoslavia is that there were these attempts to fix stuff that didn’t work, you know, Yugoslavia went through several reforms, and sometimes managing to fix the problems and sometimes making it actually maybe even worse. But the thing is, it was not a static system. And when I look at it from the perspective of Bosnia today, with this presentation and perception of the Bosnian constitution and Bosnian system as a fixed unchangeable category, despite, you know, overwhelming evidence of how badly it works. Of course, sometimes then these feelings around Yugoslavia become almost a little bit nostalgic, I have to admit, but more towards a time when I think people dared to dream and to imagine and to even make mistakes, you know, around what sort of society they wanted to have. And there was some sort of ideological and political awareness in recognizing these mistakes and trying to sort of, do things differently, as opposed to the Bosnian very stuck reality we live in today.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the U.S. it’s common for people to remember where they were when, let’s say, Kennedy was shot or on 9/11. Do you remember where you were when the Dayton Peace Accords were signed?
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: Not really. I mean, At that point of time, we had so many ceasefires and peace agreements agreed upon, and nothing was followed. I left Sarajevo by that time, I was in Croatia, I left in August ‘95. No one really still believed in something like that happening.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: Not the exact moment. I mean, I have this memory of a press conference, and more of an emotional memory of a relief rather than, you know, visual what I was doing at the time. But I also think partially because [the] Dayton Agreement was a culmination of a process. It wasn’t something that, you know, happened overnight and came as a surprise; there was a long row of attempts and failed attempts to negotiate ceasefires and peace.
PETER KORCHNAK: What did, in your view, Dayton mean for Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war? What have been its effects in the short and the long run?
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: At the beginning, you focus on basic stuff or normalizing life. In Sarajevo, for example, you were kind of learning to walk again, because you couldn’t walk everywhere because of the sniper and shelling. So you were learning how to walk again throughout the city, you could actually learn that.
For certain other areas, it was kind of going back with the trauma of surviving the camp or losing quite a lot of family members or being raped as well and going back—or not going back.
The first I would say, five years, it is partially kind of foggy and then you just wake up and kind of discover, “Oh, guess what, they actually completely, without asking us, divided the country, made identities being determinant for power shareholding.”
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: When people in general think about peace agreements, there is this sort of tendency to think of peace agreement as, as a sort of a mechanism for stopping the the militarized violence for stopping the war and we evaluate them by that, whether they succeeded or not. But peace agreements are actually quite often about much more than, you know, being a mechanism for enforcement of ceasefires. And certainly the Dayton Peace Agreement and in particular its 11 annexes, was so much more.
PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to ending the war on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Dayton Agreement contained, among its 11 annexes, the country’s constitution. It set up BiH as a state comprising the entities of Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina with a central presidency, government, bicameral parliament, bank and a constitutional court. The state presidency rotates every eight months among its three members, a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb, each of whom represent the three major ethnic groups and are directly elected in their respective entities. The state government and parliament also consist of predetermined percentages of each major ethnic group. Each entity has its own presidency, government with 16 ministries, and parliament. The Federation comprises ten cantons, each of which has a government of its own. And there’s also Brčko, a multi-ethnic self-governing administrative unit that is formally part of both entities.
If this sounds convoluted, it’s because it is. The system is one of the most complicated in the world. The bottom line: ethnic division undergirds the country’s administrative division. Ethnic representation keys are in place for state-level positions, from the presidency on down. And each of the three major ethnic groups is dominated by a single political party.
The Dayton Peace Agreement is widely viewed as the entrenched source of political division in Bosnia and Herzegovina today.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: It really brought to Bosnia profound changes to our political and economic and social structures. We didn’t just go from war to peace, supposedly, we went from a political economy of socialism to one of capitalism and, you know, this was not a matter of popular vote, but rather as an outcome of a peace agreement that was negotiated and signed by a handful of men in a military base in a foreign country.
It affected our, our value system, our norms, it affected how we imagined our social relationships, to be built with each other, how we would interact with each other, and it very much immediately but also in the long run entrenched ethnic identities as the new normal.
Dayton Peace Agreement was built on an understanding of the Bosnian war being about supposedly mutually exclusive national identities rooted in this imaginary of ancient ethnic hatreds, and it really effectively negated the various other identities, forms of identities that did exist. So that brought really substantive changes to our society, to our understanding, you know, what a collective is and how we govern how we want to govern that collective. And that understanding stopped being about, about ideologies, about politics, about everyday needs, and problems, and, you know, everyday ideas and dreams, I would also kind of say, and became exclusively ethnic, and power and influence and resources and distribution was very tightly tied to these ethnic groups.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: It was dealt with as if we didn’t have [a] system before. In that kind of building the peace, we were forgetting what we had before. So it was like Dayton Peace Agreement of starting to build the country from the beginning. But it is actually working on certain memories, working on certain forgetting, really, forgetting equality, and on the other hand, accepting power sharing, and power sharing based on identity.
So that’s the shift: on the level of now using power through identity, ethnic identity, and using this power to construct and shape this ethnic group the way the person in power wants it to look like. That person shapes the ethnic community, the way it fits him.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: What this does, immediately and in the long term, is that it more or less sort of sees ethnic groups, rather than the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina in all their diversity, as subjects of the country’s sovereignty.
Frames and mechanisms the Peace Agreement put in place, they are very exclusive, they exclude everybody that does not ascribe to an ethnic identity, that doesn’t seek to derive its position in the society from that identity. It excludes women unless they abide by the patriarchal and ethnonational matrix, it excludes, you know, non-militarized men and so on and so on.
It really profoundly changed, you know, the perception of who we are, and who gets to speak, who gets to take public space, who gets to decide, who is worth the resources, you know, any resources, not just financial, but basically, who is worth talking to.
In a long term, and it’s been 25 years now so it’s pretty much long term, because we are so deeply entrenched into this identitarian framework, we have lost the ability to be political, you know. We’ve lost the ability to discuss structures, to have ideologies, unless they are within this framework of ethnicity. And this ethnicity is constantly highly instrumentalized, basically used as a shield for any attempt of any sort of people or activists or movements to sort of question or criticize politics and political demands.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: My one of my arguments is that, immediately after the war, in ‘96, we were [a] less divided society along the ethnic lines but through the political power struggles, we are now highly divided.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: What it’s also done, it has compartmentalized us in a way. You know, [the] return process, it’s one box, and you have the human rights in the other, the justice in the third, the security in the fourth etc. So everything was sort of seen as separate pieces, and I think this compartmentalized thinking rubbed itself off. There seems to be this understanding that how and when you deal with inequalities in the society, including gender inequalities, is sort of not tied to peace itself, it’s not tied to economic reforms, etcetera.
PETER KORCHNAK: Because of the war and its aftermath, Bosnia and Herzegovina did not undergo the kind of transition, not just democratic but also economic transition, that countries like mine, Czechoslovakia, and other Central European countries underwent after the fall of communism. It was Dayton that executed these changes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and of course the transition, such as it was, was further complicated by post-war reconstruction.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: The whole peace was framed, and very firmly grounded in [a] neoliberal understanding of peace, and then out of that followed neoliberal approaches to post conflict recovery and reconstruction. There was this underlying understanding that liberalization of the market was basically a way to stabilize the country, you know, to attracting investments. And also free elections were seen as instrumental for it, without even attempting to address power relations created through the wars. So basically, there was this idea that, you know, we hold free elections, you vote, we call it a democracy, then we have investments and trade and all of it will sort of sort itself out.
[The] Key mechanism for this was obviously privatization, disregarding you know, totally the problems [of] distribution inherent in it. They were privileging, you know, foreign investors and elites, in terms of access to resources. And also inherent into this liberal understanding of peace is this minimal state administration, which is sort of framed within the concept of good governance and rule of law. And I have to laugh a little bit when I say this, because, you know, in Bosnia, this minimal state administration actually only translates into minimal state interference, while sort of administrative apparatus is enormous. And it’s enormous because there is an attempt to accommodate the three ethnonational elites and their sort of need to have political institutions replicated along these three ethnic lines.
PETER KORCHNAK: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s public sector accounts for nearly half of the country’s economy. Some 35 percent of those employed work in the public sector. And 12 percent of GDP is spent on public sector wages. These are all highest percentages in Central/Eastern Europe. Jobs in government and administration are significantly and increasingly more attractive than in any other economic sector.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: We see sort of the next level of dependency going from this sort of political dependency, through [the] introduction of [a] sort of new political economy to being stepped up by international financial institutions in just in the last couple of years. Basically sort of really tying us into an economic dependency based on, you know, the credits, the loans from IMF, the World Bank, the pushing of very specific policies that are not good for the majority of the people in Bosnia. They are good for some people but they are not good for the majority of people and they add to inequalities and they reflect, I think, the inequalities as we see them at the global level, I mean, it’s no different than globally.
PETER KORCHNAK: Now what does all this, what does Dayton mean on the ground? For an average Bosnian living their life on an everyday basis?
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: I can give you an example when your child is born. And you go to register that child, and you’ve given that child [a] name, and they ask you a question what nationality that child is. And you can say, Well, I don’t know how my child will want to identify itself. And you can have problems in registering your child.
I have a kid, she goes into fifth grade. And just these days, she is learning about [the] administrative setup of the country, which is an impossibility for [a] child of 10 years old but yet they attempt. So she comes to me to explain the lesson for her. And it goes that Bosnia is a country where three constituent people live, they are Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, and my kid—because I don’t ascribe to any of these ethnic identities and neither does my partner and we don’t talk about these ethnic identities within a family, it’s not a concept that she’s familiar with— she doesn’t understand that conceptually.
There are other more difficult problems people face. But these are some of the examples how it really sort of has nestled into our lives and become about, you know, you are expected to have that identity, no question.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: Yugoslavia was constructed on socially-owned property. Public and universal health care system, retirement system, and so I mean, all those kind of economic and social rights were to [a] certain level, accessible. There were inequalities, but that’s something that was supposed to be addressed.
Nowadays, with this system that is partially decentralized, but partially centralized: decentralized in the level of access [to] economic and social rights, you always have to navigate to kind of think about how to achieve certain rights. Health care, that’s not universal anymore, that is only achieved through the employment status. The system is crumbling. Now, we have certain public systems, like [the] public health care system that is being destroyed in order to be privatized. I mean in COVID era, there is a problem of access to basic health support.
But the biggest problem is the natural resources that were treated as public before now are being privatized. So we are now, I mean, at this point of time struggling that so called mini-hydroelectric power plants are not going to be built on each and every single stream because it kind of stops the river and destroys the entire flora and fauna.
Now, Sarajevo is one of the most polluted cities in the world during the winter.
So it is to breathe, to have access to water, to have access to health care. It is really about basic rights that we lost.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: You know, it’s not just about the political space. There are unwritten rules following the same logic. You know, ethnic groups are represented as groups, through individuals in different state institutions, you know, as civil servants, basically institutionalizing ethnicity as a primary political objective. It goes even down to these very ridiculous places, like for example, when they do beauty pageants, whatever it’s called, when they select Miss Bosnia on [an] annual basis, the representative always alternates between these three ethnic identities.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: Another part of [the] Dayton Peace Agreement, which is highly problematic is that [it] introduced [the] international community as a monitor for the peace.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Dayton Agreement mandated international oversight over its implementation both administratively and militarily. The Office of High Representative oversees the Agreement’s implementation on the civil administration level; I have somewhat conflicted feelings about the fact that my compatriot, Milan Lajčák, held the office from 2007 to 2009. A multitude of additional international organizations, from the United Nations and its various affiliated agencies to non-governmental organizations work in a variety of sectors.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is nominally an independent country, with a seat at the UN and so forth, but essentially functions as an international protectorate.
This results in a host of intractable issues.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: The problem is that we were learning their system, how they learned to live rather than shaping the system we want to live in.
I call it— I’m quite critical now and call it [a] neocolonial system, but it is in parallel because a neocolonial system existed in order to confirm those men in power, who rule by identity and actually stealing the stealing the socially-owned property, and just getting rich. And those men could actually constantly exist because [the] international community help them be in power all the time because no matter, for example, what we choose in elections, they always go and talk to those self-proclaimed leaders of ethnic groups.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: It’s like more common than not that when you United Nations development agencies are supporting civil society in their activities, they ask for [the] inclusion of the three ethnic groups in any activities. So basically, claiming it’s about equal representation, but you know, it’s basically buying into this ethnical division of the society.
PETER KORCHNAK: You are both very critical of international organizations.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: I’m highly critical of ICTY—
PETER KORCHNAK: —the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia—
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: —in a sense that, and this is again, the logic of, and the broadest sense of neoliberal capitalism is blaming everything on individuals while those individuals actually run the system and create system criminality.
We never kind of had this opportunity to deal with the systems that were built and caused the war and then kind of continue further. Rather, we confirm those systems and those systems continued.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: I am critical, I’m highly critical of the international intervention. But that is not to say that, you know, some level of international intervention wasn’t needed. It wasn’t a sincere involvement, it was loaded with, you know, geopolitical interests, with the ideas of what sort of society we were to become, it wasn’t honest in its attempt to deal with the conflict. An honest attempt would be to actually have a proper conversation with the people that this concerns. And you can see it in Syria as well, you can see it in Ukraine.
They really don’t see how what they’re talking about is your life, they don’t get to live the constitution they’ve given us. They don’t get to live the consequences of it. And they, even after making those horrible mistakes back in the 90s, are still today very incapable of correcting those mistakes. And I think not always, because they don’t know how, but because they don’t want to. To this very day, they continue to legitimize [the] ethnonational political elite, both in economic and political levels.
Let me put it this way: they are interested in dealing with the problems only within a certain sort of concept, and that concept is neoliberal and it’s a very capitalist one, it’s one that lacks solidarity, it’s one that is sharply focused on privatization and competition and individualism. And that’s just not going to work, and it’s not working, I think.
PETER KORCHNAK: Bosnia’s ethnonational setup has been challenged in the European Court of Human Rights. A Bosnian Jew, a Roma, a Bosniak from Republika Srpska, a person claiming no ethnic belonging, and members of other minorities sued for discrimination because under the constitution they are ineligible to be nominated to the state’s presidency or other bodies and do not enjoy the protections the three major groups have. The Court found that Bosnia’s constitution indeed discriminates and excludes such minorities from politics and public institutions.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: That was 10 years ago. Nothing changed.
The problem is that if these structures are changed, power sharing would be actually dis-balanced, and [the] persons in power do not want to change it.
And unfortunately, neither [the] Council of Europe nor any form of the so-called international community in Bosnia is pushing for it.
In 2014, I think, [the] European Union said we are going to suspend negotiations on implementation of [the] European Court’s decision because [the] economy is more important. So that’s why I say [the] international community wouldn’t be able to exist in Bosnia without those men in power and those men in power wouldn’t be able to exist in power without [the] international community.
PETER KORCHNAK: A recent opinion piece in EU Observer described the situation in similar terms. Quote, “Western patronage, infused in various forms, goes to Bosnia’s political elites in what amounts to a protection racket – assisting them in pacifying an increasingly frustrated citizenry.”
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: Uh, well, I mean, there’s, there’s not much to comment. The ruling very clearly said that our Constitution is discriminatory. You know, the expectation that the ethnonational political elite will give up its power positions, it’s not gonna happen. They were given, they were awarded these power positions through the Peace Agreement, they’re not going to give up on them easily. And anything that challenges them is something that they can drag on forever.
And here is a sort of a twist in the story: So we have the international community that is constantly saying rule of law, rule of law, you have to implement this, this, or that. But when they were pushing for the implementation of the ruling so that we would have at least a minimal chance of getting rid of at least the most horrific parts of the discrimination, they pushed, they pushed, they pushed, and then they gave up, changed their story and said, “Okay, we will not hold you accountable for these sort of human rights and political reforms that need to take place, if you subscribe to the economic reforms,” which were super neoliberal, which were about austerity, which were about, you know, fiscal constraints, etcetera etcetera. So they fully sort of gave up on that story. And that’s the only comment I can really give you because there is no motivation for them to do it. They’re not going to do it out of the goodness of their hearts.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a quick peek at the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond and spend a good amount of time and energy writing and recording and editing to bring you these stories, interviews, and analysis two to four times a month.
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Alright, back to the story.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: I found both of you through your work on the feminist reinterpretation of the Dayton Peace Accords. Can you outline what that means? What are the shortcomings of the DPA from the gender perspective?
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: We use [the] feminist framework as [an] analytical tool. So, I mean, on that level looking into feminization and masculinization, first of all. So for example, we are highly critical of [the] militarization of police. Dayton actually introduced the demilitarization of the army, but then, consequently, introduced militarization of police. And [the] police is actually on the lower level so every single small ruler—because we have quite a lot of administrative division—is actually able to kind of navigate the police.
On the level of gender equality. First of all, introduction of ethnic identity as a political identity. We have to understand that any form of ethnic nationalism or nationalism is highly patriarchal, because women are— they’re used only for reproduction and seen as a tool for reproduction.
Reproduction is highly connected to the care work. So it is the question of women being more and more pushed into the private sphere. We are going to question things like abortion that was never questioned before. Then the question of care, when we talk about it, it is [the] public health care system, public services, that are crumbling, now, all that burden falls on women. So women are kind of faced now with picking up the slack of the state or public services. Old-age care, childcare is now being transferred to women.
Then with public service as well, we can see trends where women are encouraged to be educated in certain spheres, certain areas. Previously, decision-making bodies, even like judiciary, was equal or even like it was a female sphere and now it’s kind of becoming more and more [a] male sphere and now we can actually see with the masculinization and feminization of certain professions where there is a power, it is going to be more access to men and that’s how the way education as well starts to function.
Aiming towards equality in the economic and social sphere is gone. There are now pushes for kind of women entrepreneurs, women in politics, but these are actually supports to individual women, not women as a group, not women fighting the patriarchal system and power positions.
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: Bosnian women are often mostly portrayed as victims, but also as very much part of holding, you know, communities together, providing not just for the children, but providing also care, just making sure that the family and the community survived. And they continued doing that, they continued, sort of through organizations and through different associations supporting each other and supporting sort of other members of the community. And this sort of peace work was not reflected in the Peace Agreement, because it was basically negotiated with just men who had no clue what was happening outside of the sort of war framework. What actually took place in the communities, what was needed for those communities to put themselves back together, what was needed for the return, none of these people were part of that conversation. So in moving forward the gendered consequences of war remained completely not understood.
When, early on after the war, women organizations and activists were trying to approach representatives of the so-called international community in trying to sort of push in some of the gender equality conversation into the post-conflict reconstruction, they were often told that this is something to be dealt with later. There was no understanding that gender equality is very much at the heart of peace building because the war itself also was very highly gendered.
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of the international community, what are the impacts of Western governments and international organizations and their interventions on the politics of gender equality?
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: Basically, you know, much of the work on gender equality post war has been done within the framework of nongovernmental organizations. And this whole concept of NGOs, it came post war. This wasn’t something that was, you know, existing, not in that sense, in Yugoslavia. So NGOs as a concept was new and also the fact that gender equality was almost exclusively being addressed by women’s NGOs.
[The] Dayton Peace Agreement treated Bosnia as a blank sheet of paper. So you know, nothing existed before the war, then came the war, and after the war came the international community, came the nationalists, came the, you know, bilateral donors, came the multilateral donors, and that’s when apparently our lives started. And I think this did very much suit the nationalist parties because this very neutral discourse that came through the NGO activism, unlike the sort of ideologically sharp feminism or feminist movements, really didn’t threaten their position.
Very few actors have been as consistently involved in peace building as either organizations with feminist and women’s rights agendas, or as individuals, even without this ideological sharpness, as women have been here in Bosnia. And but despite, you know, the continuity of their work, women’s demands and attempts to sort of participate in political decision making have been marginalized in negotiations leading up to the Dayton and have sort of remained marginalized up to date.
And I think, you know, within the implementation of the Peace Agreement and this new neoliberal context, this idea of projectizing everything became so powerful. So, basically, we deal, you know, with education on a project basis, we many times you know, work on development of the legal framework on a project basis. Our whole dealing with the past has been done through projects and so too is, you know, dealing with gender equality as a matter of project and not as a process, which it is. This projectization was seems to have really been a final blow to you know, whatever roots of feminist thinking was left from the Yugoslav period. Basically, you know, the postwar demands for gender equality was really trying to adapt to whatever donors or donor funders found, you know, worthwhile at the moment.
So basically, you know, this sort of, again compartmentalized and boxed in view, didn’t deal with less visible effects, you know, male privilege and structural inequalities, and even things such as, you know, labor market inequalities, gender pay gap, etcetera, etcetera.
PETER KORCHNAK: So how can the conundrum that is Bosnia and Herzegovina be resolved? I’ve seen proposals promoting “substate regionalism,” meaning cooperation among nonprofits, membership organizations, and local-regional projects across entity borders. More loftily, I’ve read proposals to shift ethnonational cleavages to class-based cleavages. Some want the constitution to be scrapped, others rewritten, say to break up the Federation into a separate Croat and a separate Bosniak entity, others still merely tweaked, and there’s a vocal minority who want to break Bosnia and Herzegovina up altogether. But there seems to be little chance of reaching an agreement on anything any time soon. What would your solution or solutions be? What would you do with a magic wand here?
NELA POROBIĆ ISAKOVIĆ: What I would do with the magic wand, I mean, you know, it’s been 25 years, and the problems have really piled up. There are no easy fixes. And I to be really quite frank with you, sometimes I think that you know, short of a revolution, it is really difficult to do anything. But I’m also sort of afraid of what that revolution might bring with it in terms of violence. So I really do hope we find other ways.
There are some things that, you know, that can be named, that can be done. One is definitely taking the identitarian framework out of our Constitution. The Constitution is not an unchangeable category. It’s not fixed, it’s possible to have conversations, and to bring back the political and ideological and structural debates. It’s possible to imagine that we organize our society centered around equality, solidarity, mutual care, rather than this exclusion and competition that runs us today.
What is possible to do, even without, you know, the magical wand, is to immediately put a stop to ongoing reforms in order to have a proper dialogue about what kind of society we want to have before we completely lose our ability to decide over our economy and politics. It is possible for [the] international community to stop legitimizing the corrupted national elite, both in, like I said, political and economic sense.
We need to politicize ourselves as individuals and as a collective because, you know, we cannot seriously discuss and deliberate about what sort of society we want to have, we cannot discuss a new constitution, if we don’t have the capacity, the ability to understand what is going on now and imagine all the different ways we can organize amongst ourselves outside of existing categories.
And then finally, you know, we have to have capacity to be able to clearly define what is it that needs to happen in order for us to lead, I guess, a decent life. I think that’s basically what it comes down to, a decent life. And I think only then can we really get to work and change things.
GORANA MLINAREVIĆ: There are no quick solutions. This is the system that functions based on the conflict—pretend conflict, because they keep creating conflict and tensions all the time. We live conflict 25 years.
For me now, it is the question of political education of [the] population, because in 25 years, everything has been done to create politically uneducated people.
I am highly critical of representative democracy. Elections are supporting neoliberal concept of thinking. So all the political options are just neoliberal, identity based or non-identity based. I’m not seeing anything, any changes, through the elections.
I see changes on the local level, because we have quite a lot of mobilization around defending the rivers. So you can see those changes that are coming through people being affected with the climate change and environmental injustice. How long is that struggle going to be? I don’t know. But it’s the long road ahead.
PETER KORCHNAK: Everywhere I go in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I hear variations of this story, and with it a sense of powerlessness to change its course. That’s the problem with ethnic nationalism: once identity gets entrenched and manipulated in that base framework, it’s hard to remove.
But I also meet Bosnians who vote for political candidates and parties not based on ethnicity but based on their civic and secular political, economic, and social programs. Change is possible at the ballot box if in fact people vote civically, not ethnically.
Plus the fact is, it was environmental activists who sowed the seeds of democratic transition in my country back in the 80s. Perhaps in Bosnia too, environmental activism will spill into effective political activism.
And there are Bosnians, mostly born since the very end of the 80s, who, while acknowledging their ethnic or religious roots, consider themselves Bosnians, that is, not Bosniaks or Serbs or Croats or Jews or Roma or what have you, not Catholics or Orthodox or Muslims or Protestant or Jewish, but citizens of a country that’s theirs to change and theirs to govern. Perhaps it takes a generation, if not two, who see the world differently, who have different goals, who work and live and play in different ways, for true, deep change to occur.
Either way, if it’s possible to create a system, it’s possible to not only change it, but also to create another. If Bosnia ever was Yugoslavia in miniature yesterday and if it is an ethno-nationally divided international protectorate today, it can also be a civic democracy tomorrow.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: These societies, they’re celebrating these defunct socialist era holidays…
PETER KORCHNAK: Every year since 2008, an official commemoration of Yugoslavia’s founding on November 29th, 1943 has been held in the Bosnian town of Jajce. What happens at the event? And what is its meaning?
In the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: a field report from Jajce’s Days of AVNOJ.
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
I am Peter Korchňak.