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Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina

0 Comments 🕔25.Aug 2016

Twenty years past Dayton, what have been the effects of the peace agreement’s imposed political framework on Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH)’s first post-war generation? In Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, anthropologist Azra Hromadžić argues that consociational democracy in BiH has produced an “empty nation” amongst the generation that was born after the 1992-95 war came to its stalemated conclusion. This core theme of emptiness resonates throughout Hromadžić’s six chapters, each of which can stand alone as they explore the various physical and emotional spaces shared (or, more often, not shared) by Bosnian youth. Indeed, the concept of space is so important to Hromadžić’s analysis that she adopts the term “spatial governmentality” to allay the point that the effects of the Dayton-constructed Bosnian government have a very real presence felt in places and spaces extending far beyond the capital, Sarajevo. Hromadžić takes an ethnographic approach, and much of her data is collected from within the Stara Gimnazija (Old Gymnasium) in the divided city of Mostar, where she exists amongst the students, observing how, when, and where Bosniak and Croat youth interact. These ethnographic observations couple with a zoomed-out view of the Bosnian state in the second half of the book, providing a balanced and insightful perspective on the practical side of peacebuilding.

The “empty nation,” according to Hromadžić, is best understood as “a category of absence that captures the growing lack of social and political vision for BiH” (185). This category of absence is the embodiment of the “Bosnian” national identity—it is an identity that means nothing, because it is subject to a constant process of being “denationalized, segregated, ethnicized, and stripped of citizen-identification… holding too little” (185). This is the text’s most valuable and important contribution—that, after two decades of ethnicizing everything under the new, post-war Bosnian state, there is no place for Bosnians to exist. Dayton’s democracy has stopped the shooting, but it has also suffocated the cultivation of a common, shared nation under the post-war Bosnian flag. Hromadžić arrives at this conclusion delicately but deliberately, highlighting the pervasive samo da se ne puca (as long as there is no shooting) mentality that is shared across BiH’s three constituent ethnic groups.

The first half of Hromadžić’s book focuses on the school as a metaphor for the Bosnian state. Schools, like states, bring together people from a broad cross-section of socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds under a shared set of rules and expectations for behavior. And like states, schools have leadership bodies that organize their “citizens” (in this case, students) into smaller units on the basis of some governing criteria. Most schools organize students into classes based on their age, abilities, and/or interests. In Mostar, as in the political framework of BiH, students are also organized based on their ethnicity, following the model of dvije škole pod jednom krovom (two schools under one roof). In this way, Hromadžić’s usage of the school as metaphor for the state is effective.

The issues that prevent the unification of schools in BiH relate to the fear of loss of ethnonational identity. Croats in particular feel threatened by the imposition of one language of instruction, and argue that children of Bosnian Croat descent have a right to learn in their mother tongue—not because the Croatian and Bosnian languages are so different (they are mutually intelligible, just as British and American English are), but because failure to achieve fluency in Croatian proper will limit Bosnian Croats’ ability to attend university in Zagreb. In this sense, Bosnian Croat students are taught from an early age to keep an eye trained on future opportunities that are outside of BiH, rather than within. Hromadžić points out that this exemplifies “language purism” (53), which has been “institutionalized, desired, and protected by ethnonationalist regimes in post-Yugoslav spaces” (53). Integrating the classroom, therefore, threatens the integrity of language by necessitating a single language of instruction. By extension, integrating the state under shared, de-ethnicized political institutions threatens the integrity of BiH’s constituent nations—or so the story goes. Hromadžić sets up this premise nicely, and it is a recurrent theme throughout the book.

Another essential component to Hromadžić’s text is the role of space—physical and psychological, shared and separate. In the school in Mostar, classrooms are designated on the basis of the curriculum they instruct—Croat or Federal (Bosniak). These classrooms effectively separate students on the basis of ethnicity, and although Mostar’s gymnasium “administratively unified” in early 2004 (meaning that there is one administration for the entire school, thereby marking Mostar as the most integrated of all of BiH’s segregated schools), the physical separation of students along ethnic lines that followed from administrative unification is deeply troubling to Hromadžić. Indeed, much of the text is fixated on this “ethnic demarcation” in various settings, and although I concur with Hromadžić’s assessment that separation along ethnic lines is not conducive to fostering mutual understanding and interethnic cooperation, I would argue that separation alone is not sufficient to trigger misunderstanding and/or reluctance toward intergroup cooperation. Rather, in the context of schools, it is the content of the curriculum that matters far more than the composition of the classroom, and I would argue that Hromadžić focuses a bit too extensively on the former at the slight expense of the latter.

Hromadžić’s discussion of the school restroom as a space to “mix” more effectively, captures the role of space in shaping the interethnic relations of BiH’s post-war generation. She describes the bathrooms at Mostar’s gymnasium as a shared, ethnically neutral space in which students would congregate during the five-minute recess between classes to smoke cigarettes and exchange playful, often flirtatious banter across ethnic lines. But these spaces also illustrate Hromadžić’s concept of spatial governmentality, as she notes that these interactions don’t provide a substantive, meaningful foundation on which a common identity can form. Rather, the interethnic proximity engendered by bathroom mixing is superficial and may even serve to heighten interethnic insecurities amongst Bosnian youth. Nevertheless, bathroom mixing stands as a palpable symbol of, as Hromadžić puts it, the “suffocating” (102) nature of the current Bosnian political structures. Furthermore, school bathrooms are spaces that exist outside of the painstakingly demarcated ethnic zones that characterize the rest of the Mostar gymnasium, and as such, provide a valuable opportunity to observe and understand student behavior in de-ethnicized space.

In the second half of the book, Hromadžić takes a broader view of the Bosnian state and its afflictions, augmenting her arguments about schools with an argument about how the dysfunctional Bosnian state and its incomplete transition from communism to capitalism have contributed to the emptiness of the post-war Bosnian nation. In particular, the form of capitalism that has settled on BiH has left Bosnians—of all ethnicities—uncertain about norms and expectations for behavior. There is the so-called “old way” of doing things that is sometimes effective, but sometimes not (as in the case of the doctor who refused a bribe, but was unclear as to whether his refusal was based on taking the moral high ground or on his dissatisfaction with the amount of the bribe). This uncertainty surrounding what does and does not constitute socially acceptable behavior (including socially acceptable corruption) in present-day BiH is projected onto an uncertain understanding of what it means to be Bosnian in the present-day, a line of reasoning that adds depth and nuance to Hromadžić’s main arguments about the role of education in the construction (or destruction) of national identity.

In addition to unclear behavioral norms, BiH is plagued by an exceptionally high youth unemployment rate. This contributes to a collective sense of bleakness to the Bosnian future, magnifying the desperation for change and drive to escape, felt by so many of BiH’s youth. Despite this outward-looking desperation and drive, Hromadžić asserts that Bosnian youth are not “lost, sacrificed, or socially impotent” (180). Rather, their reticence to participate fully in the current political arrangement governing BiH is cast by Hromadžić as a form of resistance. Fair enough, but if significant numbers of this first generation of postwar Bosnians—the “empty nation” that is the subject of this book—ultimately end up fleeing BiH in search of greener pastures and more accessible opportunities, then both the Bosnian nation and the Bosnian state will be defined by emptiness.

The tense uncertainty of this possible future leads to what may be BiH’s most pronounced glimmer of hope in recent years—the February 2014 protests. An epilogue addresses these protests, which swept through BiH beginning in February and lasting more or less until the devastating flooding of May 2014. These protests took complacent politicians by surprise as citizens of BiH crossed ethnic lines to protest against deteriorating economic conditions and increasing government dysfunction, crying out both literally and figuratively: “Gladni smo na tri jezika” (we are hungry in three languages) in an almost-parody of the ethnic division that characterizes post-Dayton BiH (190). Hromadžić could not have known the outcome of the protests, as they were unfolding while she was finalizing the manuscript for this book—but she is quick to note that they do not represent the sudden overcoming of ethnicization in BiH. Rather, she argues, the protests unfolded from within the Dayton framework and required citizens to use the language and labels of ethnonational division to convey to politicians—and the international community—the gravity of their situation. That is to say, protestors were quick to point out the multiethnic nature of their protests, and they did this as if to preempt any speculation that one ethnic group might be bearing a disproportionate quantity of suffering relative to another. This is a fair but perhaps overly simplified depiction of what took place in BiH beginning in February 2014—although in the divided town of Jajce, protestors displayed their multiethnic cooperation by tying the flags of BiH, Croatia, and Serbia together in a show of solidarity, in many other cities and towns throughout the country (in particular, those sites that organized the largest protests, including Tuzla and Sarajevo) ethnicity was barely an afterthought. Put differently, these protestors were not “performing ethnically” (191). Rather, they were performing angrily, regularly disrupting public transportation, shutting down central Sarajevo, and assembling for open debates on the future of local governance. At these open fora, ethnicity was not even a footnote as participants instead petitioned for increased transparency in government and technocratic leadership. In this sense, the protests do reflect some degradation of the so-called “ethnonational matrix” (190). But regardless of how we ought to interpret the ethnonational implications of the events stemming from the February 2014 protests, it stands to reason—the very fact that they did take place confirms Hromadžić’s assertion that BiH cannot resist the vacuous pull of its own emptiness forever.

Ultimately, Hromadžić’s book provides an insightful, important, and at times intimate glimpse into a generation that was born into a broken country and has come of age on the receiving end of an experiment in peacebuilding whose effects are not yet fully understood. Hromadžić succeeds in her goal of illustrating how peacebuilding works in practice. This is a vital contribution to a body of literature that all too often focuses on the macro-level effects of peacebuilding programs, while losing sight of the human and social elements that are truly the cornerstone of sustained—and sustainable—peace.

Reviewed by Mary Kate Schneider, University Maryland

Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-Making in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina
by Azra Hromadžić
University of Pennsylvania Press
Hardcover / 248 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780812247008


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