Bosnia and Herzegovina - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

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Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnian Bosna i Hercegovina), country in southeastern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. Formerly a constituent republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence in March 1992. War then broke out among Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs in the country (see Wars of Yugoslav Succession). At the end of the war, in 1995, Serbs controlled 49 percent of the country’s territory, comprising an area known as the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska). The remaining territory, officially known as the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Federacija Bosna i Hercegovina), was controlled by a federation of Bosniaks and Croats. Today, the Bosniak-Croat federation and the Serb Republic together constitute the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reality, since the war the country has remained divided three ways—among the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs—despite international attempts to unite it.

In the 14th century the principality of Bosnia joined with a duchy to the south that would eventually be called Herzegovina as part of a short-lived medieval kingdom. The modern-day country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, often referred to simply as Bosnia, is still divided geographically into a northern region of Bosnia and a southern region of Herzegovina. The republic is bounded on the north and west by Croatia and on the east by the republics of Serbia and Montenegro. Bosnia also has 20 km (12 mi) of coastline along the Adriatic Sea, wedged between Croatian territories. The capital and largest city is Sarajevo.


Bosnia has an area of 51,209 sq km (19,772 sq mi). It is a mountainous country. In particular, extensions of the Dinaric Alps, which form Bosnia’s western border with Croatia, traverse the western and southern parts of the republic. The highest peak is Mount Maglič, measuring 2,387 m (7,831 ft), on the border with Montenegro. Much of the republic also lies within the Karst, a barren limestone plateau broken by depressions and ridges. The northern part of the republic is heavily forested, while the south has flatter areas of fertile soil. Those flatter areas are used primarily as farmland.

Bosnia’s principal rivers include the Bosna, the Sava, which flows along the northern frontier, and the Sava’s tributaries, the Una, Drina, and Vrbas. These rivers all flow north; only a few other rivers, notably the Neretva, flow toward the Adriatic Sea. The valleys of the northern rivers widen into the fertile Sava plain, which stretches across the northern third of Bosnia.

A Mediterranean climate prevails in the south, with sunny, warm summers and mild, rainy winters. A modified continental climate of warm summers and cold winters dominates the northern inland territory. At higher elevations, short, cool summers and long, severe winters with snow are common. The average temperature for Sarajevo, in the continental zone, is -1°C (30°F) in January and 20°C (68°F) in July.

Bosnia’s soils are predominantly brown earths. Beech forests constitute the primary natural vegetation. Among the wildlife found in the country are hares, lynxes, weasels, otters, foxes, wildcats, wolves, gray bears, chamois, deer, eagles, vultures, mouflon (wild sheep), and hawks. Lynxes, weasels, and otters have the status of endangered species.

Bosnia is rich in natural resources. These resources include large tracts of arable land, extensive forests, and valuable deposits of minerals such as salt, manganese, silver, lead, copper, iron ore, chromium, and coal.

Air pollution from metallurgical plants, water shortages, and poor or failing sanitation services are a few of the problems facing the country, but the destruction of its infrastructure because of the civil war that took place from 1992 to 1995 is the most pressing current issue. Most activity since the war’s end has been concentrated on restoring basic needs and services, rather than addressing environmental problems directly. However, despite their preoccupation with rebuilding a war-torn infrastructure, leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina have not lost sight of environmental issues—the country was an observer at the World Conservation Congress in Montréal in 1996.


In 1991, in the last census taken in Yugoslavia, Bosnia had a population of 4,364,574. Bosnia’s population subsequently decreased during the civil war, which left hundreds of thousands dead and forced many thousands of others to flee. Casualty rates during the war were approximately equal for the ethnic Muslims and Serbs (between 1992 and 1995, 7.4 percent of the prewar Muslim population and 7.1 percent of the prewar Serb population were killed or listed as missing); the casualty rate for the ethnic Croats was much lower. Of the Bosnians who fled, most went to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now the separate countries of Serbia and Montenegro), Germany, Croatia, and Sweden.

In 2009, the population of Bosnia was estimated to be 4,613,414, giving the country an average population density of 90 persons per sq km (234 per sq mi). In 2005, 45 percent of the population lived in cities and towns. The largest cities are Sarajevo, the capital and an important cultural and commercial center; Zenica; Banja Luka; Mostar; and Tuzla.

Ethnic Groups, Religions, and Languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia’s major ethnic groups are Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Since 1994 Bosnian Muslims, long considered an ethnic group, have officially been known as Bosniaks. A small number of Roma (Gypsies) also live in Bosnia. In the 1991 census, prior to independence, Muslims represented 44 percent of the population, Serbs 31 percent, Croats 17 percent, Yugoslavs (people of mixed Muslim, Serb, and Croat ancestry) 6 percent, and others 2 percent. The “Yugoslav” identity claimed in 1991 was abandoned when Yugoslavia broke up. In 2003 the government estimated that Bosniaks constituted 73 percent of the population, Croats 22 percent, and Serbs 4 percent.

The primary difference among the largest ethnic groups is religious, the Serbs being traditionally Orthodox Christians and the Croats Roman Catholics. The Bosniaks, descendants of Slavs who converted to Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, are generally Sunni Muslims (see Sunni Islam). Bosnia also has a small number of Jews.

The people of Bosnia speak the Bosnian language. However, according to the Bosnian government, the country officially has three languages: Serbian, Bosnian (the language associated with Bosniaks), and Croatian. In writing, the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet, while Bosniaks and Croats use the Latin alphabet.

Ethnic Discord in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Before the war, the rural Bosnian population lived largely in concentrations of each ethnic group, but the concentrations were so interspersed as to resemble a leopard’s skin. The Muslim population was concentrated mainly in central and eastern Bosnia (bordering Serbia) and in the far west (bordering Croatia). Concentrations of Serbs separated those of the Muslims. Croats were mainly concentrated on the northern and southwestern borders with Croatia, with some Croat pockets in central Bosnia. Serb military campaigns in 1992 and 1993 and Croat campaigns in 1993 and 1995 were aimed at expelling others from areas claimed by these groups. By the end of the war almost all non-Serbs had been expelled from Serb-claimed lands in eastern and northern Bosnia, and non-Croats from Croat-claimed lands in southwestern Bosnia. In turn, most non-Muslims had left land under Muslim control in northwestern Bosnia.

The largest cities had mixed populations in 1991, but the war and its aftermath made them almost homogenous. Banja Luka, 55 percent Serb in 1991, was almost 100 percent Serb by 1993. It is the capital of the Serb Republic. Mostar, 34 percent Croat, 35 percent Bosniak, 19 percent Serb, and 10 percent “others” (who registered no ethnic affiliation) in 1991, had by 1995 been divided into an almost purely Croat western part and an almost purely Bosniak eastern part, with very few Serbs or “others” left in either. Under the terms of the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which ended the war, Sarajevo, located in the Bosniak-Croat federation near the boundary of the Serb Republic, is a united city under federal Bosnian control. However, the city’s population changed from 49 percent Bosniak before the war to 90 percent by 1996, and the Bosniak authorities have permitted few non-Bosniaks to return.

The return of refugees was mandated by the international community at the time of the Dayton agreement, but had not occurred in any great numbers by the end of 1998. This was especially true of the return of people into areas where their group was in the minority after the war. In April 1998 Croats in the western town of Drvar rioted against the return of Serbs, attacking refugees and burning buildings used by the UN. In June 1998 up to 820,000 people within Bosnia remained displaced from their previous homes. In general, the political leaders of all groups have engaged in cultural projects aimed at ensuring that the ethnic groups regard themselves as inherently different from one another, with conflicting cultures and interests.

Education in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Education is compulsory and free for all children from ages 7 through 15. Secondary education is also free. Wartime destruction or damage to schools disrupted education for many children, although “war schools” were created in other buildings. There are officially four universities in the country, in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, and Mostar. The university in Mostar, however, has split into two unrelated institutions, a Croat university in western Mostar and an Islamic one in eastern Mostar.

Way of Life in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Until 1991 Bosnia had an urban population that aspired to the standard of living of western Europe and was increasingly intermingled ethnically by residence, occupation, friendship, and marriage. The rural population remained more divided ethnically and less well-off. As a result of the wars, religious identification and adherence to religious rules has risen among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Many Bosniak women have adopted Islamic dress styles that had not been common, at least in cities, before the war. The destruction of the economy has thrust many previously working women into traditional female roles as housewives and mothers. Members of all groups favor a diet that is heavy on roast meats and bread.


Bosnia’s diverse population has made the country’s cultural life rich. Epic stories, a form of traditional oral literature, were still sung throughout the country well into the 1950s. Bosnian urban love songs, largely Muslim in origin, were popular throughout the former Yugoslavia.

Literature, Film, and Music in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ivo Andrić, a Serb who was raised Catholic in Bosnia, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1961. His novels include Na Drini ćuprija (1945; The Bridge on the Drina, 1959), in which a bridge from the Ottoman period symbolically united the peoples of Bosnia. The novelist Meša Selimović was of Muslim origin but said that he wrote Serbian literature. The film director Emir Kusturica, also of Muslim origin, made internationally acclaimed films in Sarajevo. His film When Father was Away on Business was a finalist for the Academy Award in the United States for best foreign film in 1984. That film had a cast and crew that included Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Through 1991 the Bosnian rock group Bijelo Dugme was extremely popular throughout Yugoslavia, playing music influenced by the various traditions of Bosnia.

These ethnic and cultural mixtures have declined since the war. The Bosniak authorities regard Andrić as having been anti-Muslim, and they closed the museum devoted to him in his home town of Travnik. Filmmaker Kusturica moved to Serbia in 1992. His internationally acclaimed 1995 depiction of the war, Underground, was condemned in Sarajevo. As of early 1999, he had not been able to return there.

Cultural Institutions Destroyed in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The most important library in Bosnia was the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. It was intentionally destroyed by Serb shelling in 1992 and remained in ruins as of early 1999. The world famous bridge in Mostar, built by Ottoman rulers in the 17th century, was intentionally destroyed by Croat shelling in 1994. Throughout Bosnia, churches (Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and mosques were destroyed by the armed forces of the other major ethnic groups. Among the most important losses were two mosques in Banja Luka that were on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) register of world cultural monuments. These mosques were leveled by Serb authorities in 1992, with even the stones removed from the sites.


Bosnia was economically one of the least developed republics of the former Yugoslavia. The republic’s economy was largely devoted to mining, forestry, agriculture, and some sectors of light and heavy manufacturing, notably of armaments. Although Bosnia exported specialty agricultural products, such as fruit and tobacco, it had to import staples, including more than half its food. The war shattered the newly independent country’s economy, and recovery has been tentative.

Wartime Collapse in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In 1990, 48 percent of the labor force was employed in industry and 11 percent in agriculture. Bosnia produced mineral products, timber, manufactured goods such as furniture and domestic appliances, and about 40 percent of Yugoslavia’s armaments. By the time war broke out in 1992, Bosnia’s inflation rate was already at 120 percent; during the war, it rose to well over 1,000 percent. Unemployment was about 30 percent when war broke out, and by 1995 it had risen to 75 percent. Prices of goods soared during the war, and average living standards declined sharply. All sectors of the economy were hit hard by the war. About 45 percent of industrial plants, including about 75 percent of the republic’s oil refineries, were destroyed, damaged, or plundered.

Tentative Recovery of Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Dayton accord allowed economic recovery to begin. Bosnia’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew at 20 to 30 percent per year from 1995 to 1998, although the recovery was driven almost entirely by international aid. The GDP in 1998 was estimated to be about $6 billion. Unemployment dropped from its wartime high of 75 percent to 42 percent in 1998. Renewed economic growth has come mainly within the construction, trade, and services sectors, with traditional light industries also showing some capacity for recovery. But the big industrial conglomerates that dominated Bosnia’s prewar economic life remain largely unrestructured and are operating at a fraction of their production capacity. Corrupt political leaders apply regulations and taxes arbitrarily, stymieing the development and growth of new businesses. The black market remains a significant factor.

Behind this mixed pattern of recovery lie the special problems of privatization of state-owned firms in Bosnia. When Bosnia was part of Communist Yugoslavia, its economy was controlled by the state, which effectively owned most enterprises. These enterprises did not have to be profitable and often were managed inefficiently. Transferring firms to private ownership so that they can prosper or, if unprofitable, fail and cease to be a drag on the system, is a crucial step for the success of a free-market economy. While 90 percent of Bosnia’s registered firms are in private hands, the big conglomerates remain under state ownership. Comprehensive privatization legislation is now in place, but the political obstacles to privatization remain formidable.

The country’s mandated division into two autonomous entities has proved a significant obstacle to economic recovery. The central government has scored notable successes by establishing a single central bank and adopting a unified customs fee schedule for imported and exported goods. But in many essential areas of economic life the governments of the entities, rather than the central government, make the decisions. The Serb Republic’s territory includes much of Bosnia’s agricultural and mineral-rich land, while the industrial zones remain largely within the Bosniak-Croat federation.

Energy in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Prior to the war, Bosnia drew electricity from coal-burning and, to a lesser extent, hydroelectric power plants. As a result of the war, Bosnia’s electricity-generating capacity declined by about 78 percent. Aid-financed reconstruction of the electric power grid has made substantial strides, but the political divisions create serious obstacles to the entire country being reconnected. In 2006 hydroelectric plants accounted for 45 percent of Bosnia’s energy production, with coal-burning plants producing the rest. With most of the hydroelectric plants located in the Croat-controlled area of the Bosniak-Croat federation, cooperation across Bosniak- and Serb-controlled territory is essential for the widespread distribution of electricity. The cost of electricity varies enormously from region to region. In the Serb Republic the government heavily subsidizes energy producers, cutting the amount users must pay.

Foreign Trade in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In 1990 Bosnia’s imports totaled about $1.9 billion. They consisted primarily of fuel, machinery, transportation equipment, miscellaneous manufactured products, and chemicals. In the same year, exports totaled about $2.1 billion. They consisted mainly of miscellaneous manufactured products, machinery, and raw materials. The war severely disrupted Bosnia’s trade, with both the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (now the separate countries of Serbia and Montenegro) and Croatia imposing economic blockades on the republic and supply routes being obstructed by the fighting. In 2007 imports totaled $9.7 billion and exports $4,152 million. The huge trade deficit reflects the degree of Bosnia’s dependence on foreign aid.

Currency and Banking of Bosnia and Herzegovina

In January 1998, after Bosnia’s Bosniak, Serb, and Croat leaders failed to agree on a new national currency, the United Nations introduced one, the konvertibilna marka, or just marka. Marka banknotes entered circulation in June 1998 with a value equal to the German deutsche mark (In June 1998 1.79 deutsche marks equaled U.S.$1). Yugoslav dinars continue to circulate in the Serb Republic, and the Croatian kuna was used in the Croat parts of the Bosniak-Croat federation. Inflation came down in the federation following the introduction of the new currency. In the Serb Republic, price trends were less clear. The Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina, established in 1997 under foreign administration, is the bank of issue for the marka. The Serb Republic and the federation each oversee their own banks.

Transportation and Communications in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Much of Bosnia’s infrastructure, including its highways, railroads, and telecommunications network, was devastated in the war. In 1991 Bosnia had 21,168 km (13,154 mi) of highway, of which about half was paved. During the war, about 35 percent of the country’s highways and 40 percent of its bridges were damaged or destroyed. The railroad system consisted of around 1,000 km (600 mi) of track, of which three-quarters was electrified. Damage to the railway system was estimated at about $1 billion. There is an international airport at Sarajevo, which was also seriously damaged in the fighting. From 1995 to 1998 more than $1 billion in foreign aid was provided to rebuild Bosnia’s battered infrastructure. However, reconstruction of the road and rail network also has been hampered by Bosnia’s divisions. More is being done to reconnect the telecommunications network, with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) coordinating national reconstruction and providing a $20 million loan. The fourth donors’ conference for Bosnia and Herzegovina, held in Brussels, Belgium, in May 1998, made improvement of infrastructure a continued priority for future aid.


When Bosnia declared independence in 1992, it operated under a modified version of the Yugoslav constitution, which provided for a bicameral (two-chamber) legislature, a government headed by a prime minister, and a collective presidency with one representative from each of the three major ethnic groups. After the 1990 elections, in which most Bosnians voted along ethnic lines, Bosniaks enjoyed a slight advantage in representation. However, the Bosniak-dominated government was paralyzed during the war as the Croats and the Serbs established governments of their own and rejected its authority.

A new constitution was drafted as part of the Dayton accord, providing for a national government structured much as it had been under the previous constitution. There is a three-member presidency and a bicameral legislature. The central government has very little authority within the country, however, and for the most part its power extends only to foreign trade and foreign affairs. The new constitution recognizes Bosnia as a state officially composed of two entities, the Serb Republic and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. All governmental functions not given expressly to the central government belong to the entities.

The Bosniak-Croat federation has its own government. Its constitution was drawn up by U.S. government lawyers in 1994. The federation’s government is headed by a president and a bicameral legislature. However, this government has no authority except over foreign affairs. In addition, the legislature can easily be deadlocked when the deputies vote along ethnic lines. In reality, the federation has never really functioned, and the Croat-controlled areas of Bosnia remain free of control by the federation authorities, being closely linked with Croatia instead. In 1992 the Croats formed a breakaway state, the “Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia.” Herzeg-Bosnia continues an unofficial existence. Its territory is integrated into the Croatian telephone and electrical networks, and residents use Croatian money and vote in Croatian elections. Like the Bosniak-Croat federation, the Serb Republic has its own constitution (drafted by Serb leaders in 1992) and complete governmental structure, including a president and unicameral legislature, the People’s Assembly. The government of the Serb Republic wields authority over domestic and foreign affairs.

In practice, the constitutional system of Bosnia does not provide the structure for a workable state. From 1995 through 1998 the only effective governmental decisions were those made by the High Representative, the position established by the European Union and the U.S. government to oversee implementation of the Dayton accord. By 1998 the High Representative, Carlos Westendorp, was proclaiming laws when the national legislature was deadlocked. The High Representative also removed elected officials from the governments of the entities and disqualified candidates for the 1998 elections on political grounds, primarily if he believed they could jeopardize implementation of the Dayton accord. Westendorp selected the flag for Bosnia when the presidency and central legislature could not agree on a design. The major qualification for this new flag was that its elements had no traditional political meaning to any of Bosnia’s ethnic groups. Bosnia is a member of several international organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations (UN).

Executive of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia’s three-member joint presidency comprises one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb member. All members are formally equal, with chairmanship of the collective body rotating every six months. The members of the presidency are elected by direct popular vote from their respective entities (two from the federation, one from the Serb Republic). Although the first elections, in 1996, were for two-year terms, the members are to be elected for four-year terms. The collective presidency is supposed to make decisions by consensus, and a provision exists for nullification of a non-unanimous decision by the presidency if so demanded by the entity whose representative has been outvoted. The presidency, as head of state, has some powers related to foreign policy and represents Bosnia internationally. The presidency also nominates the government, composed of Bosniak and Serb co-prime ministers (with a Croat deputy prime minister) and a cabinet known as the Council of Ministers. No more than two-thirds of the members of this cabinet may be from the Bosniak-Croat federation, and each minister must have deputy ministers from the other two national groups. Ministers are confirmed by the central legislature.

Legislature of Bosnia and Herzegovina

The central legislature has two chambers, the House of Peoples and the House of Representatives. The House of Peoples has 15 members, 5 Bosniaks, 5 Croats, and 5 Serbs, elected by the parliaments of the entities. The House of Representatives has 42 directly elected members, two-thirds from the federation and one-third from the Serb Republic. The central legislature is charged with drafting laws that implement decisions made by the collective presidency, determining a national budget, and ratifying international treaties. Complicated procedures exist to try to ensure that no ethnic group is outvoted on matters concerning its vital interests.

Judiciary in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia has no national court system, but rather each entity has its own system of trial and appellate courts. At the national level there is a Constitutional Court, which decides constitutional issues and disputes between the entities. The Constitutional Court has nine members, four elected by the parliament of the Bosniak-Croat federation, two elected by the parliament of the Serb Republic, and three appointed by the president of the European Court of Human Rights who must not be citizens of Bosnia or any neighboring state. The first judges appointed hold five-year terms. Subsequent appointments are supposed to last until the judge reaches age 70.

Political Parties of Bosnia and Herzegovina

In every relatively free and fair election in Bosnia in the 20th century, starting in 1910, the population has voted along ethnic lines. In 1945 Yugoslavia emerged from World War II controlled by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (name changed to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, or LCY, in 1952). The Communists, whose power extended throughout Yugoslav government and society, were practically the only party in the country until 1990. The LCY chapters in each of the republics officially disbanded in 1990, some taking other names. In Bosnia, nationalist parties for each of the three largest ethnic groups formed that year. Since then the most important Bosniak party has been the Party of Democratic Action (PDA). In 1998 the PDA became the dominant party in a Bosniak coalition, the Coalition for a Whole and Democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina. The most important Croat party is the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CDU-BH), a branch of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union in Croatia. The CDU-BH answers to Croatian party leaders.

For Bosnian Serbs, more than one party has significant backing. The overwhelming winner in the elections in 1990 and 1996 was the Serbian Democratic Party (SDP). This nationalist party advocated either that Bosnia remain in Yugoslavia (when it still could) or that lands inhabited by Serbs in an independent Bosnia be united with Serbia. While this party was still the largest Serb party in 1998, Sloga (Accord), a coalition of other Serb parties less opposed to Bosnia’s ethnic reintegration, was also created. The coalition received backing from Western Europe and the United States for pledging to support the Dayton peace accord. The third major Serb party was the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, which staunchly advocated a “Greater Serbia.” The Serbian Radical Party is a branch of the same party in Serbia and is controlled from there.

Social Services in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Social services are supposed to be provided by the entities, not the central government. Within the Bosniak-Croat federation, services often are provided by Croat and Bosniak authorities (to their respective populations), instead of by the federation government. In the 1990s foreign non-governmental organizations actually provided the bulk of social services. Before the war, health care in Bosnia was state-administered and free.

Defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Separate Serb, Croat, and Bosniak military forces are acknowledged in the national and Bosniak-Croat constitutions, with some provisions for coordination but not for joint control. In 1998 the Bosniak army (officially the Bosnian army) numbered about 40,000; the Croatian Defense Council had some 16,000 troops in the country. The Serb Republic had up to 30,000 troops in its army. The military forces of one entity are prohibited from entering the other.


The earliest known inhabitants of what is now Bosnia, traceable to the Neolithic period, were the Illyrians, a people of Indo-European stock who are considered ancestors of the modern Albanians. By AD 9, when Rome crushed the last Illyrian resistance in present-day Bosnia, all of Illyria had become part of the Roman Empire. Rome’s most enduring legacy in Bosnia was the division between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian faiths along the border between the western and eastern Roman empires. That border, first drawn around 285, passed through Bosnia.

As Roman power declined, successive waves of nomadic Goths, Alans, Huns, and Avars devastated the land before moving on. In the 6th century Slavic tribes, probably swept along with the Avars, settled in the area and soon absorbed the peoples, languages, and cultures that were already there. A second wave of Slavic tribes, called Serbs and Croats, arrived in the 7th century. The names Croat and Serb probably both derive from the name of an Iranian or Sarmatian tribe that ruled and was absorbed by them on the way.

Bosnia was first mentioned by that name in a surviving document from 958. The area became a remote mountainous borderland between successive competing empires and kingdoms that subjugated or claimed all or parts of it during the early medieval period. Bosnia’s Slavs were generally Christian, either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. In 1180 Ban (“governor” or “viceroy” in Croatian and Hungarian) Kulin created the nucleus of an independent Bosnian state, which was revived, consolidated, and expanded by Ban Stephen Kotromanić (reigned 1322-1353). Kotromanić’s conquest of Hum (later Herzegovina) in 1326 united Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time. Medieval Bosnia reached its height under Stephen Tvrtko (reigned 1353-1391), who was crowned Tvrtko I, king of Serbia and Bosnia, in 1377. Under his rule, Bosnia briefly became the most powerful and prosperous Slavic Balkan state.

Ottoman Rule

Tvrtko’s kingdom gradually disintegrated after his death. In 1448 Stephen Vukčić, lord of Hum, asserted his independence by giving himself the title herceg (duke; from the German Herzog) of Hum, and his land soon came to be called Hercegovina (Herzegovina; the Duchy). The Ottomans quickly conquered most of Bosnia in 1463 and Herzegovina in 1483. Ottoman rule, lasting more than 400 years, introduced two more sizeable religious communities: Jews and Muslims. The Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492, and they became an important part of the cultural and economic life in Sarajevo and other Balkan cities. Immigrants from the Ottoman Empire were among the first Muslims to settle in Bosnia. Later, growing numbers of local converts added to their number.

Bosnia, along with Albania, was the only part of Ottoman Europe where large numbers of Christians converted to Islam. The most persuasive explanation for this, advanced in recent scholarly studies, is that all Christian faiths in this religious borderland were weak, with few churches and clergy. Current scholars reject the theory that all or most of the Bosnian Christians who embraced Islam had been members of an allegedly heretical (“Bogomil”) Bosnian church. The Bosnian church, essentially Catholic in doctrine, was nearly extinct by the 15th century. In an empire in which Muslims were privileged and a ruling caste, converting to Islam offered advantages. The result, unique in Ottoman Europe, was a landholding and military nobility of native Muslim Slavs ruling over a mostly Christian peasantry.

By the 19th century the Muslim Slav nobility, like the local ruling elite in several other Ottoman possessions, was virtually independent of crumbling Ottoman central authority. The Bosnian nobility was determined to prevent the Ottomans from reasserting authority and implementing modernizing reforms, collectively known as the Tanzimat. The Tanzimat threatened the Bosnian nobility’s power and exploitation of an increasingly impoverished and rebellious peasantry. The last decades of Ottoman Bosnia were marked by repeated rebellions of two kinds: by the Muslim elite against the Ottoman authorities, and by the mostly Christian peasants against that elite.

Austro-Hungarian Rule

In 1875 a peasant uprising took root in Bosnia and spread to Bulgaria in 1876, prompting a major international crisis. In 1877 Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire. Russian armies advanced to the gates of İstanbul, the Ottoman capital, in 1878. The Congress of Berlin, meeting that year to resolve the crisis and prevent a wider war, decided that Austria-Hungary should occupy and administer Bosnia. Austro-Hungarian occupation met with serious armed resistance, primarily Muslim but also Orthodox Christian; it took 82,000 troops and four months to subdue that resistance. But Muslim fears for their religion and privileges, which led many to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire, proved unwarranted. The Austro-Hungarian regime did not interfere with existing social and landholding relations, focusing instead, and with some success, on economic development.

In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia, partly to end Serb nationalist dreams of eventually incorporating it into the Kingdom of Serbia. The province had become a prime target of Croat as well as Serb nationalist propaganda and schemes, with Croat nationalists agitating for its union with Croatia, then a part of Hungary. Serbs claimed that the Bosnian Muslims were Islamicized Serbs; Croats claimed that they were Muslim Croats. The idea of a single nation whose people would be defined by their common ethnicity, not their religion, was promoted by Benjamin Kállay, the Austro-Hungarian official in charge of Bosnia from 1882 to 1903. He wanted to counter both Serb and Croat ambitions, but his idea emerged too late to win any except a few Muslim adherents. However, a group of Croats who in the 1830s began advocating the union of all South Slavs, which included Serbs and Croats, was more successful. According to the Yugoslav idea, the South Slavs were one nation or kindred nations who should be unified within a single state of their own (Yugoslavia means “Land of the South Slavs”). The Yugoslav idea appealed to a number of primarily younger Bosnians from the ethnic Muslim, Croat, and Serb communities.

On June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip, a young Bosnian Serb who professed to be a “Yugoslav,” shot and killed Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia a month later, igniting World War I. During the war, most Bosnian Serbs, Croats, and Muslims remained loyal to Austria-Hungary.

Integration into Yugoslavia

At the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated. Bosnia became part of the new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929). Serbia’s Karadjordjević dynasty and a Serb-dominated government and administration ruled the new state. The kingdom’s political parties, suppressed under a royal dictatorship from 1929 to 1934, were all ethnic nationalist parties except for a pan-Yugoslav Communist Party, which was banned and went underground in 1921. The main Bosnian Muslim party, supported by nearly all Muslims, was the Yugoslav Muslim Organization (YMO), founded in February 1919 and led by Mehmet Spaho until his death in 1939. Spaho skillfully maneuvered himself and the YMO into a balancing position among other parties that ensured that the YMO and Muslim interests would be represented in most Yugoslav governments and policies. Spaho died two months before the Yugoslav government made a major concession to Croat national aspirations and created an autonomous Banovina (Province) of Croatia that included parts of Bosnia with large Croat populations.

When Nazi Germany and its Axis allies invaded and dismembered Yugoslavia in April 1941, during World War II, Bosnia was divided into German and Italian occupation zones. It was made part of the so-called Independent State of Croatia (Nezavisna Država Hrvatska, or NDH in Bosnian). The NDH was an Axis puppet state run by the Ustaše, a Croat fascist and terrorist organization whose wartime attempt to exterminate the NDH’s nearly 2 million Serbs was modeled on Hitler’s genocide of Europe’s Jews. Bosnian Serbs fled to the forests to join two violently competing resistance movements. These were the Serb royalist Četniks, under Draža Mihailović, and the Partisans, a Communist-led multiethnic “Army of National Liberation” organized and headed by Josip Broz Tito, the Croat head of the Yugoslav Communist Party.

Bosnia became the Partisans’ principal zone of operations in two overlapping wars. In one war the Partisans battled the Axis armies of occupation. In the other they fought a parallel civil war against both the Četniks and the Ustaše. The fighting was particularly fierce between the Partisans and the Četniks. The Četniks’ anti-Communism and determination to restore a Serb-dominated monarchy led them to join first Italian and then German operations against the Partisans. In November 1943 Tito convened a Partisan congress in Jajce, a medieval Bosnian capital. The congress proclaimed a new federal Yugoslavia of equal South Slav peoples, naming Tito marshal and prime minister. The congress included the Muslims as one of the South Slav peoples. Bosnian Muslims and Croats joined the Partisans in growing numbers.

Tito’s Yugoslavia

By the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, the Partisans had won both of their wars and recreated Yugoslavia, under firm Communist control, as a federal state of six republics. Five were to be semi-autonomous ‘homelands’ for Yugoslavia’s Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. The sixth, Bosnia, was to be the joint homeland of its intermingled Serbs, Muslims, and Croats. When a new, totally Communist government was installed in November 1945 after strictly controlled elections, Tito headed the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (known after 1952 as the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, or LCY), the government, and the armed forces.

For the next 45 years, Bosnia was part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. That state was at first a faithful copy of the authoritarian, rigidly Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) under Joseph Stalin. After Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia underwent a gradual process of relaxation and decentralization, in which greater power was given to the republics, including Bosnia, and their own Communist leaderships. Economic experiments with “market socialism” and “socialist self-management” were introduced. The political changes included a strict apportioning of party and state positions among Bosnia’s three constituent peoples. Bosnia’s branch of the LCY continued to be more repressive and opposed to reforms of the Communist system than party branches in most of the other republics. In 1968 the Muslims were fully recognized as Yugoslavia’s sixth official national group.

Tito’s death in 1980 coincided with the onset of an enduring economic crisis in Yugoslavia, during which production levels and living standards declined significantly. Tito’s successors, the leaders of republics with conflicting economic interests and national aspirations, could not agree on effective remedies. Acceptance of the institutions and eventually even the structure of Tito’s Yugoslavia declined everywhere, especially in Slovenia and Croatia. This trend accelerated among non-Serbs in reaction to Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s militant assertion of Serb nationalism and his aggressive campaign to restore central party and state control under Serb domination. Tensions and disputes among the republics and among the ethnic groups in the republics multiplied.

The disintegration of the LCY in January 1990 paved the way for multiparty parliamentary elections in all six republics by the end of the year. The elections in all the republics produced absolute or relative majorities for nationalist parties. In Bosnia’s elections, the three winning nationalist parties, one for each of the major ethnic groups, garnered 76 percent of the popular vote and 202 of the parliament’s 240 seats. The principal party of the Bosnian Muslims, the Party of Democratic Action (PDA), led by Alija Izetbegović, won 87 seats, or 34 percent. The Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), led by Radovan Karadžić, took 72 seats, or 30 percent. Forty-four seats, or 18 percent, went to the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (CDU-BH), the Bosnian branch of the party that had won Croatia’s elections in spring 1990. That party was led by Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. Izetbegović became president of Bosnia’s seven-member trinational presidency. By pre-electoral agreement, the three parties formed a fragile coalition government. It fell apart as Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991.


Negotiations among the post-Communist republic leaders from January to early June 1991 failed to find a formula to preserve some kind of Yugoslavia. (Izetbegović and President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia kept trying to the very end.) Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991. The Yugoslav army lost a token ten-day war in Slovenia against Slovenia’s own police and military. In Croatia, a six-month Serb-Croat civil war ensued that left 30 percent of Croatia under Serb control until 1995. Bosnia and Macedonia, with large majorities unwilling to stay in a shrunken Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, also began leaning toward independence.

Bosnia’s Serbs were determined not to become a minority in an independent state, and its Croats would not stay in a Muslim-majority state if the Serbs seceded. Milošević in Serbia and Tudjman in Croatia had already discussed partitioning Bosnia between their two countries. The Bosnian Serbs and Croats began creating “statelets” of their own in 1991. Karadžić’s SDP established armed “Serb Autonomous Regions” and a self-proclaimed Serb legislature. In November 1991 the Bosnian Serb legislature held its own referendum in which Bosnian Serbs voted almost unanimously to “remain in a common Yugoslav state” with the rest of the “Serb nation.” Later that month Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia (it was admitted to the United Nations under the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). In January 1992 the Bosnian Serb legislature proclaimed independence as the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In western Bosnia, the Croat Community of Herzeg-Bosnia also was proclaimed in November 1991. It was run by the Croat Defense Council (Hrvatsko Viječe Odbrane, or HVO), which had the backing of the Croatian government and army.

Slovenia and Croatia gained international recognition in January 1992. In March, the Bosnian government held a referendum on independence demanded by the European Community (EC; now the European Union, or EU) as a condition for recognition. Most Serbs boycotted the referendum, but 97 percent of the Muslims and Croats who participated voted to secede. Bosnia proclaimed its independence that month, and the SDS formally proclaimed its separate Serb Republic (Republika Srpska). The United States and the EC recognized Bosnia’s independence on April 6, 1992.

Civil War

Full-scale civil war, with Serbs and Croats armed and backed by Serbia and Croatia respectively, erupted the same week in April 1992 that Bosnia was recognized by the United States and the EC. Bosnian Muslims fought alongside Croats against the Serbs. In May, Serbia and Montenegro declared themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). By summer, Serb forces, which included troops from the Serb-dominated army of the former Yugoslavia, controlled about 70 percent of Bosnia. They laid siege to Sarajevo and carried out brutal massacres and expulsions of non-Serbs in territories they controlled, a process chillingly called “ethnic cleansing.” These atrocities produced worldwide condemnation, but no effective international intervention other than humanitarian aid under the protection of an otherwise ineffective United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR).

The HVO consolidated Croat administration of Herzeg-Bosnia, and the district was virtually joined to Croatia by mid-1992. In May 1993 the Croats launched a war against their former Bosnian Muslim allies for control of central Bosnia and the Muslim portion of Mostar, the capital of the Herzegovina region. Muslim Mostar held out, and the Bosnian government’s initially almost nonexistent army, consisting mostly of Bosnian Muslims, held its own against the HVO in central Bosnia. Both the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims also carried out bloody massacres and “ethnic cleansing” in contested territories.

International efforts to achieve a ceasefire and resolution of the conflict included conferences, sanctions, peace proposals, and charges against suspected war criminals. Conferences attended by all the parties were held in Lisbon, London, and Geneva in 1992 and 1993. The UN began imposing economic sanctions on the FRY in 1993 and co-sponsored a series of peace plans with the EC that one or more Bosnian factions in each case ultimately rejected. The UN also established so-called “safe areas” for Bosnian Muslims (officially known as Bosniaks since 1994). However, those areas were frequently violated, most notoriously in Srebrenica. In July 1995 Bosnian Serb forces overpowered the UN peacekeeping troops at Srebrenica. They systematically executed about 8,000 unarmed Bosniak men and boys and buried them in mass graves.

In May 1993 a UN war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was established at The Hague, the Netherlands. By mid-2005 the ICTY had publicly indicted more than 160 individuals, including Bosnian Serb leader Karadžić, for war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. See also War Crimes Trials; Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile, the international community negotiated brief local or general ceasefires. Pressure from the United States put an end to the Bosniak-Croat war, forcing the Croats to agree, on paper, to a Bosniak-Croat federation in March 1994.

Postwar Bosnia

The war in Bosnia was finally ended in late 1995 by a combination of efforts. These efforts entailed vigorous diplomacy led by U.S. assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, a successful joint Bosniak-Croat offensive in western Bosnia (the first serious Serb defeat in the war), and a major air attack on Bosnian Serb positions by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In November 1995 the warring parties initialed a peace accord at a U.S. Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, after three weeks of intensive negotiations and pressure by the United States. Tudjman, Izetbegović, and Milošević (who represented the Bosnian Serbs with their reluctant agreement) signed the Dayton peace accord in Paris in December. The war had claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

In addition to dictating a new constitution for Bosnia and providing for internationally organized elections, the accord established a formally united Bosnia made up of two entities, the Bosniak-Croat federation and the Serb Republic. It included provisions for the unhindered return of refugees to their places of origin. The UNPROFOR was later replaced with a multinational but primarily NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) of 60,000 troops, initially for one year but soon extended indefinitely, to keep the peace and oversee the agreement’s military and civilian security provisions. In 1997 the IFOR became the Stabilization Force (SFOR) and was reduced to 31,000 troops. The number of troops was gradually decreased to 7,000 by the time NATO concluded its military mission in Bosnia in December 2004. At that time an EU-led stabilization force called EUFOR, also 7,000 strong, replaced the SFOR.

The Dayton provisions put the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in charge of the return and reintegration of war refugees and internally displaced persons. The UNHCR estimated that the war had displaced about half the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or about 2.3 million people out of the prewar population of 4.4 million. The UNHCR reported that by mid-2005 some 440,000 refugees had been repatriated to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and more than 500,000 internally displaced persons had been returned to their homes.

Following the war, ethnic divisions remained strong between the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. They remained divided on the cause of the war and its outcomes, leaving open social wounds that impeded the recovery process and further entrenched ethnic tensions. The leaders of each ethnic group continued to oppose one another, and there was little free movement and provision of services between their communities. The United Nation’s High Representative for Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, had to dictate such things as a common flag, vehicle license plates, and the form of currency. Westendorp also dismissed some nationalistic mayors and police chiefs and many observers asserted that he was turning Bosnia into a NATO-EU protectorate.

Recent Developments

Elections under the supervision of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) were held in September 1996 for national offices and in September 1997 for local governments. The winners, each capturing about 80 percent of its ethnic constituency in 1996, were again the nationalist parties, the PDA, SDP, and CDU-BH. The republic and its entities remained in the hands of the parties and most of the people who had run the war.

But in 1997, Biljana Plavšić, the president of the Serb Republic, abandoned much of the Serbs’ nationalist rhetoric and became a NATO and U.S. favorite. A close Karadžić ally, Plavšić replaced Karadžić as Bosnian Serb president when he resigned under outside pressure after his indictment. After taking office, she promised to uphold the Dayton peace accord and clashed with Karadžić’s supporters in the Serb Republic’s People’s Assembly. She and the assembly dismissed each other, initiating a crisis that was not resolved by a special legislative election in November. In that election the SDP won 24 seats but lost its majority. Plavšić’s new Serb People’s Alliance and the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRP) of Vojislav Šešelj, now vice prime minister of Serbia, each won 15 seats. The deadlock virtually split the Serb Republic into two entities, with a Plavšić administration based in the western city of Banja Luka and Karadžić’s supporters still in control of the east from the village of Pale.

Elections for central and entity offices in September 1998 were contested throughout Bosnia by the Coalition for a Whole and Democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by the PDA. In the Serb Republic, the coalition called Sloga (Accord), organized by Plavšić, was a force. Still, the results were mixed and contradictory.

For Bosnia’s House of Representatives, both the Bosniak PDA’s coalition and the Serb SDP and SRS lost votes to nonnationalist opposition parties. Svetozar Mihajlović, of the moderate Sloga coalition, was elected co-prime minister from the Serb Republic; Haris Silajdžić of the moderate Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was named co-prime minister from the Bosniak-Croat federation. A Serb moderate defeated the nationalist incumbent as the Serb member of Bosnia’s collective presidency. Alija Izetbegović, of the PDA, and Ante Jelavić, of the CDU-BH, took the other seats in the presidency.

In the Bosniak-Croat federation nonnationalist parties also gained votes, but the Coalition for a Whole and Democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina and the CDU-BH dominated elections for the federation’s two houses. In the Serb Republic, Plavšić was defeated by an extreme Serb nationalist, Nikola Poplasen, for the Serb Republic’s presidency. Moderates won a significant number of seats in the People’s Assembly, and Milorad Dodik, a Plavšić ally appointed prime minister in January 1998, kept his position at the head of a caretaker government. Poplasen nominated others to replace Dodik, but the assembly confirmed none of them. In March 1999 High Representative Westendorp removed Poplasen from office for obstructing political reconciliation. Westendorp asserted that Poplasen’s attempts to unseat Dodik constituted a violation of the Dayton accord.

Also in March a UN arbitrator designated Brčko, a city in northeastern Bosnia at the Serb Republic’s narrowest point, to be placed under the joint administration of Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. The Serbs had held the strategic city, which had formerly been inhabited mainly by Bosniaks and Croats, since 1992.

The November 2000 elections for central and entity offices, like the preceding elections in 1998, produced mixed results. Support for nationalist parties remained strong, and in the Serb Republic the SDP emerged as the largest party. Nevertheless, the SDP failed to gain an absolute parliamentary majority and was compelled under international pressure to take a back seat in the governing coalition to the moderate Party of Democratic Progress (PDP). At the level of the central government, and in the Bosniak-Croat federation, nonnationalist parties fared much better. A coalition of nearly a dozen mostly nonnationalist parties, under Western tutelage and led by the center-left Social Democratic Party, formed governments in both entities.

Elections in October 2002 were a setback for nonnationalist moderates. The three largest nationalist parties—the CDU-BH, PDA, and SDP—won the most votes for nearly every post in the country, including seats in the central parliament, the assemblies in the Serb Republic and the Bosniak-Croat federation, and for the tripartite state presidency. The three parties united to form a coalition government in the central parliament, with support from two smaller, more moderate, parties. The PDA, the clear victor among Bosniak voters, emerged as the leading party in the central parliament and in the Bosniak-Croat federation, and it entered into a coalition with the SDS in the Serb Republic.

Also in October, former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavšić pled guilty to one charge of crimes against humanity before the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Plavšić, who succeeded Radovan Karadžić as president of the Bosnian Serb republic in 1996 (and who had earlier served as the republic’s vice president during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina), was the first high-ranking Bosnian politician and the only woman to plead guilty to war crimes. Plavšić admitted her involvement in the commission of atrocities against Bosnian Muslims and Croats during the war. In February 2003 the ICTY sentenced Plavšić to 11 years in prison.

In April 2004 the ICTY conclusively ruled that the massacre of about 8,000 Bosniak males at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an act of genocide. The events at Srebrenica were recognized as the worst mass killings in Europe since World War II (1939-1945). In June the Serb Republic authorities for the first time publicly acknowledged that Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. The ICTY indicted the alleged perpetrators, wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, on charges of genocide. Karadžić was not arrested and brought before authorities until July 2008. Mladic remained at large. Shortly after Karadžić’s arrest, Bosnia’s own war crimes tribunal sentenced seven Bosnian Serbs to long prison terms for their role in the Srebrenica massacre.

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