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Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina

  • Profile

    Serbs make up around 37 per cent of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Since the war, they are highly concentrated in the country’s Republika Srpska entity, stretching across its northern and eastern flanks.  They speak Serbian, often written in the Cyrillic script, and are mainly Christian Orthodox.

    Historical context

    Slavs entered the region in the sixth and seventh centuries, displacing Latin-speaking Christians. Over the following centuries, many were converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries.  The 11th century schism in Christianity also divided the Christians of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In the fifteenth century, Bosnia and the neighbouring duchy of Herzegovina were incorporated in the Ottoman Empire, and a sizeable portion of the population subsequently adopted Islam. Under the sultan, Orthodox patriarchs were granted political and juridical control over their followers. However, the Empire periodically conscripted Christian boys to be converted to Islam and become imperial slaves.  Many of these became imperial administrators and elite soldiers. In the 16th century, Mehmed Paha-such a convert from Orthodox Christianity who had risen to the level of minister to the sultan-used his power to separate the Serbian Orthodox Church from Greek dominance.  Gradually, Orthodox Christians in the territory of the new Kosovo-based patriarchate would come to see themselves as a Serb nation, with the Orthodox Church as its backbone.  In 1878, as the rise of Serbian national consciousness was in full swing, Orthodox Christians led the last in a series of uprisings against weakened Ottoman rulers and clashed with Bosnia’s Muslims.  With significant Russian assistance, this signaled the end of the Ottoman rule in the Balkans.  Bosnia and Herzegovina was placed under Austrian Habsburg administration, later to be annexed by the Habsburg Empire. After World War I, Bosnia and Herzegovina formed a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (after 1929, Yugoslavia), and during World War II it was absorbed within the Croatian Ustasa state. After 1945, Bosnia and Herzegovina was established as a republic within the reorganized Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) under Josip Broz Tito. The state structure was organized along ethnic lines. Some minority rights were respected, and Tito attempted to control ethnic divisions and to suppress nationalism by means of the one party state.

    With Tito’s death in 1980, Serbian resentment over the limited power in the SFRY caused a rise of nationalism, harnessed by Serbian politician Slobodan Milosevic in the late 1980s.  After Croatia and Slovena declared independence in 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina followed suit in 1992 rather than remain in a rump-Yugoslavia dominated by Belgrade.  Bosnian Serbs, however, did not want to be a part of an independent Bosnian state in which Muslims formed a plurality of the population, and largely boycotted the referendum on independence.  Serbs, under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic, instead declared the formation of ‘Republika Srpska’ (RS) and its withdrawal from Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Backed by Belgrade, the RS army and various militias set about on a campaign to ‘cleanse’ the ethnic patchwork of eastern and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina of non-Serbs, and besieged the country’s capital, Sarajevo.  During the 1992-1995 war, Serbs living in majority Bosniak and Croat areas were also subject to attack and displacement, particularly during a joint offensive by the Bosnian and Croatian armies in 1995 that rolled-back Serb military gains.

    At the peace negotiations in Dayton in 1995, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic represented the Bosnian Serb faction because the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had indicted Karadzic on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  The Dayton Peace Agreement recognized the RS as one of two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  In the post-Dayton environment, Serbs living as minorities in the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity have experienced marginalization, and many have moved to the RS or Serbia.

    Current issues

    Serb returnees to majority Bosniak and Croat areas of the Federation entity continue to face discrimination in employment.  Although far fewer Serbian Orthodox churches were damaged or destroyed during the war than their Catholic and Muslim counterparts in areas under Serb control, some vandalism of Orthodox churches in the Federation has continued in the post-war years.  The RS remains economically weaker than the Federation.

    Updated June 2015

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