Hotspot – Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina paul prescott /
01 Aug
For long-established countries, national identities tend to feel solid and unchanging. But for newer states, the evolution of an identity can be contentious, even violent. Klaus Dodds investigates what arguments in Bosnia tells us about national identities

In June, several hundred people were unwittingly trapped inside Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national parliament in Sarajevo for several hours as a series of protests engulfed the building.

The cause of the protests was, on the face of it, an unusual one. The crowd’s anger was aimed at Bosnian parliamentarians and their inability to formulate a new law on identity documents. In January, the parliament missed a deadline to amend the existing law after a ruling from the Bosnian Constitutional Court in May 2011 rejected geographically tagged ID numbers.

According to press reports, nearly 3,000 people surrounded the parliament, among them women with babies, senior citizens and students, many holding placards proclaiming: ‘We don’t want entities, we want identities.’ In the context of a country, that was torn apart by civil wars and ethnic violence during the 1990s, such demands for ‘identities’ is noteworthy.

The protests draw attention to something fundamental to the modern state – the identification and classification of its citizens. What the crowds recognised was something that citizens in countries such as the UK take for granted – the registration of a birth is essential and indeed a legal requirement for a new life to be invested with citizenship. If one doesn’t have an ID number/birth certificate, then obtaining a passport, for example, becomes problematic.

Bosnia’s parliamentarians stood accused of legislative torpor, having failed to agree on a mechanism for generating the 13-digit identification number given to every citizen. Following the court ruling, the previous legislation lapsed in February, and babies born since then have been left in legal limbo – without access to identification documents and, consequently, without recourse to passports and essential state-sponsored services.

Some parliamentarians wanted the ID numbers to be generated randomly, while others were adamant that they should be generated according to where people lived in the country. The crisis came to a head when it was revealed that a young child had been unable to travel to Germany for urgent medical treatment because of the ID number impasse. A Facebook campaign spread the details of the bureaucratic inertia and stoked popular outrage. 

The blockade around the parliament was eventually broken after several hours of negotiation and all of those inside, including a group of foreign bankers attending a financial conference (armed with their passports and ID numbers, no doubt) were eventually able to leave. And that is the point. The humble ID number is actually fundamental to citizenship. It’s part of the everyday documentary requirements for the citizen not only to gain access to services within a country but also to leave, through an application for a passport.

In a deeply divided country such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, these kinds of bureaucratic structures matter. Without such certification, the lives of some people become difficult – even potentially deadly, as in the case of a person requiring medical treatment that is only available abroad.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was established in 1995 after conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives and witnessed widespread internal and external displacement and ethnic cleansing. Under the terms of the Dayton Accord, the country is divided into two entities – a Muslim–Croatian federation and a Serbian republic. The population of around 3.7 million is made up of about 48 per cent Bosniak Muslims, 38 per cent Serbs and 14 per cent Croats.

The Bosnian government has now established an interim settlement that will allow identification numbers to be re-issued for the next six months. But the issue is unlikely to disappear easily.

Having a nationally agreed ID number system may sound sensible, but to some – mainly Bosnian Serb parliamentarians – that would represent a slippery slope towards long-term unity. Bosnian Serbian representatives want an ID number system that makes a clear distinction between Bosnian Serbs and other Bosnian citizens.

The dispute is taking place against a general backdrop of a country that is struggling economically. The foreign bankers attending the financial conference inside the parliamentary building are a reminder that the country is eager to attract foreign direct investment. Meanwhile, attempts to join the EU and NATO have been mired in controversy and delay as Bosnian parties argue over proposals while war crimes legacies bubble away in the background.

All of this feeds into a wider frustration with political leaders in general. There is a prevailing sense that whether it comes to ID numbers or broader constitutional matters, this small federation is mired in perpetual dispute.

Klaus Dodds is a Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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