Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Tensions

Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Tensions

July 21, 2009 | 1229 GMT
Bosnian Muslims pray in December 2007 at the central mosque in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina

A brawl in Mostar, a town in southern Bosnia, left a prominent Wahhabi leader dead and several other people injured July 15. Bosnia is already hot spot for interethnic violence due to its cultural diversity and simmering social unrest stemming from the economic crisis; the July 15 brawl shows that intraethnic conflict is also a possibility.


More graffiti calling for retaliation against Bosniaks, Muslim Slavs who are the dominant group in Bosnia, surfaced in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar on July 19. The graffiti follows a July 15 intraethnic brawl between Bosniaks and Wahhabis in Mostar. People from both sides were injured in that fight, and one prominent Wahhabi died in the hospital July 18 from severe head wounds. Several hundred friends and fellow Wahhabis attended his funeral, while graffiti calling for the death of a Bosniak man allegedly responsible for the death began appearing the following day.

The July 15 brawl indicates that intraethnic conflict in Bosnia could lie ahead.

Ethno-sectarian tensions are not new in Mostar. The city lies on the strategic Neretva River, which allows north-south access throughout southern Bosnia and Herzegovina and eventually the Adriatic coast in the south. Mostar’s location at the heart of the Neretva Valley positions it at the crossroads of the Muslim-dominated northern Neretva basin, the predominantly Croatian western Herzegovina and Serb-dominated eastern Herzegovina. The town’s demographics before the 1992-1995 Bosnian Civil War illustrated its diversity, with nearly every ethnicity equally represented: the Bosniaks and Croats were dominant at around 35 percent each, while the substantial Serbian population stood at around 20 percent. Today, the city is split down the middle between Croats and the Bosniaks.

The town saw heavy conflict between Croatians and Bosniaks during the Bosnian Civil War,tensions that have resurfaced recently. The latest case of violence is notable, however, in that it is within an ethno-sectarian group: the moderate Muslim Bosniaks and the hard-line Wahhabis. During the Bosnian War, Wahhabis were tolerated in Bosnia because they were seen as a vital link with the Middle East able to provide financial and military support for the Bosniak cause.

Nearly 15 years after the end of the Bosnian civil war, however, the more moderate Bosniaks have no desire to see Islamic fundamentalism imposed in the Balkans, and now largely resent the Wahhabis’ presence in the region. The tensions in Mostar follow the arrest of six men in neighboring Serbia’s predominantly Muslim Sandzak region last month over similar fears of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

These tensions are likely to be exacerbated in coming months as the economic crisis continues to hit the region, and Bosnia in particular. While there have been ethnic tensions in northern Kosovo and most recently in south Serbia between Serbs and Albanians, those conflicts are more stable than Bosnia’s. In Kosovo, communities are largely segregated and firmly separated by the presence of a sizable international armed presence. In south Serbia, the predominantly Albanian Presevo Valley has again flared up with sporadic attacks against Serbian Interior Ministry personnel and civilians, but Belgrade has a firm grip on the region and is making sure that it does not use a heavy-handed approach that would elicit an international backlash. Either way, the Albanians of Presevo are unlikely to receive any support from the West. This is because the West has tired of Balkan intrigue, and because Belgrade is making sure to cooperate closely with international forces in Kosovo.

However, Bosnia is still prone to unrest. The country is still mixed ethnically, particularly in the joint Croat-Muslim federal entity, where different ethnic groups are in close proximity. The most recent attack in Mostar, however, also illustrates that as social tensions rise due to the economic crisis, intraethnic violence is also possible. Though this does not mean that new clashes are imminent, STRATFOR will be watching any new developments in this volatile region closely, with Bosnia at the center of our attention.

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