Sarajevo has largely recovered from the physical scars of the 1990s battles. The one thing that has changed — ripped apart by ethnic powerplays — is the easy sort of intercommunal tolerance of 30 years ago. In its place is a simplified map consisting of more or less homogenous ethnic groups. It’s as if the ingredients in a stew suddenly agglomerated themselves together until you had lumps instead of a mix.
In a telegram from Sarajevo to London back in 1997, I used a similar culinary metaphor: Bosnia had been an ethnic omelette, now after the conflict it was three hard-boiled eggs.
What was Sarajevo like then? It had a new Yugo-cool atmosphere, a place where young people from across the country would go to hang out. The fave Yugo-rock group Bijelo Dugme (White Button) came from there, to deserved acclaim.
Yet there was a much darker side. Because of political tensions between the different ethnic factions unresolved since WW2 within the League of Communists, both within Bosnia and more widely, local tolerance for ‘anarcho-liberalism’ and ‘clero-nationalism’ was nil.
A group of alleged Muslim nationalists including future BH President Alija Izetbegovic was imprisoned in 1983 on charges of wanting to create inter alia an ethnically pure Bosnia.
Also into prison around then went future ICTY indictee Serb Vojislav Seselj, a talented law scholar, jailed for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. Biljana Plavsic, another Serb who ended up being sentenced for war crimes by the ICTY, told me with tears in her eyes how she had listened to the prison doctor describing the appalling torture injuries inflicted on Seselj by Muslim prison authorities – "his extremism came from that".
Another more lowly Serb was jailed for singing an allegedly nationalist song in a bar.
In 1983 I joined a group of other (mainly Eastern bloc) Olympic Attache diplomats on a tour of the Olympic facilities then busily being finished. We were given a long and ridiculous lecture by a senior Bosnian Communist on the glory of Bosnia-style democratic ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. I eventually lost my patience and asked about the trial of Izetbegovic and others – where did that fit in?
The Commie looked at me intently. "When you are shown a rose, do you see only the thorns?" he sneered, not exactly answering the question.
So, yes, there was a fairly normal and even positive human ethnic ‘getting along’ in Bosnia in the 1970s and 1980s. But at the price of not challenging in any way the explicitly repressive and vicious local communist regime.
Belmont Club again:
What is truly scary about the experience of the former Yugoslavia is how quickly a multicultural society could turn in an historical instant from harmony to savage intercommunal violence.
Maybe it turned because that apparent multi-culturalism was at root not ‘organically’ harmonious but rather ideological, phoney and synthetic, indeed imposed by violence, with too few ways available for people to express different and more pluralist views?
I completely agree with Belmont Club on this:
Maybe the real threat to multiculturalism are the demagogues who see identity politics as the road to power, even if that process involves the destruction of the larger polity. Under the color of multiculturalism, the ship of separatism steams majestically on.