Coordinated by Gheorghe STOICA


Princip, Valter, Pejić and the Raja: Elite Domination and Betrayal in Bosnia-Herzegovina



York University


Abstract: This article provides a historical analysis of the tensions between popular mobilization and elite-dominated state-building projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) from the late 19th century to the present. I reject the narrative of “ancient ethnic hatreds” as a relevant factor in the country’s political history, arguing instead that it is the authoritarian and anti-democratic tendencies of BiH’s historic elites that have dominated the country’s development (or lack thereof). Yet by focusing on three pivotal “moments” in 1914, 1945 and 1992, I propose a parallel narrative of organic, popular mobilization and resistance that demonstrates the possibility of an alternative conceptualization of BiH history. This reading places the raja (“the people”) at the heart of a series of attempts to establish BiH as a historically constituted, polycultural space defined by difference and accommodation – a vision of vital importance for the present transitionary moment.

Keywords: Bosnia-Herzegovina, democracy, elites, raja, Yugoslavia.




The Berlin Congress marked the end of the Ottoman Empire’s hold on Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). The various subsequent state-building projects, while almost universally succumbing to one form of authoritarianism or another, nonetheless required a certain degree of popular participation – at least, initially. This observation reveals two contradictory but parallel developments: moments of substantive political mobilization (e.g. insurrection in the name of “national liberation”) have existed and were critical to the initial successes of state projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, these moments were almost in every case “betrayed.” Moreover, the emergence of authentic, popular, organic mobilization(s) was complicated by the self-interested involvement of political elites and the prevalence of “Big Men” in the region as a whole.[1] In other words, the “authenticity” of these moments is problematic; the obscured, nesting hand of would-be elites and their state building aspirations looms large. 

This problematic relationship interests me. I want to suggest that substantive political participation on the part of “the masses” can only truly exist once the state is no longer perceived as a fetishized form of “liberation.” Rather, the state, I argue, is a form of active and deliberate depoliticization. The experience of the competing state building projects in BiH is a paradigmatic case study of this phenomenon. As such, while moments of organic, popular dissatisfaction and moments of genuine revolutionary impetus often exist, they do so in a tense, somewhat symbiotic relationship with the narrow political aspirations of competing political elites. In other words, moments of politicization emerge in the context of transition between periods of depoliticization­ – from one state project to another. The question of how to transform “moments” of politicization into prolonged experiences is of implicit concern in this discussion.



It was the decisive defeat of the Ottomans during the course of the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) that allowed the European imperial powers to convene at the Congress of Berlin and redraw the borders of the Balkan “peninsula.” Amidst the imperial horse-trading, the fate of BiH occupied a central position. The Habsburgs had long lusted after BiH – both as a means to drive the Ottomans from their own doorstep, and to acquire the region as a colonial possession. In the courts of the Dual Monarchy, the anticipation was that Austro-Hungarian troops and administrators would be greeted as liberators – a common trope of would-be empires. After all, this major Christian, properly “European” power was arriving on a civilizing mission to rid the Slavs of the oppressive Ottoman yoke, as well as the vestiges of its false religion. The Austro-Hungarians had read (or at least, claimed) the series of violent insurrections and uprisings that had marked the late Ottoman period in BiH as a sign of the desire of the local population for reincorporation into the body of Europe proper – and what better way to facilitate this transition than through the guiding hand of Austrian imperial administration. That Muslim as much as Christian Bosnians were involved in these uprisings and rebellions, and that the participants usually demanded autonomy and not a swapping of imperial benefactors, does not seem to have influenced the dominant analysis in Vienna (Anscombe 2012).[2]  

Indeed, BiH and its increasingly fragile relationship with the Porte had in the 1870s been something of a hot topic amongst both European statesmen and radicals alike. There is evidence, for instance, that the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta attempted to enter the country (by swimming across a sparsely patrolled river) sometime in 1875 to participate in one of these uprisings.[3] One wonders how the history of the country might have been altered had Malatesta been able to make his presence felt, or rather the presence of his overtly anti-statist, revolutionary anarchist ideals. Nonetheless, diverse Western European ideals would infiltrate the Bosnian space over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century, so that by 1914 and the period that followed, a largely Western-educated intelligentsia and Western-inspired political elite would prove to be instrumental in engineering future developments.[4]

When Austro-Hungarian troops finally entered BiH, the disastrous reality of their miscalculation became clear. As imperial troops approached Sarajevo, revolutionary frenzy gripped the capital: declaring a “People’s Government,” members of the Muslim and Orthodox communities organized aggressively to repel the occupation.[5] For the most part, Bosnian Catholics either remained indifferent or welcomed the occupation, viewing the Austrians as a sympathetic Catholic power. Likewise, the Jewish communities were largely exempt from service in the rebel forces, though expected to contribute to a so-called “war tax.”[6] Nonetheless, while predominantly lower and middle class Muslims along similarly classed members of the Orthodox community made up the brunt of the resistance, consistent attempts were made to form a cross-cultural, multi-religious movement. A declaration by one Muslim commander read: “You fellow Bosnians, Christians and Latins [Orthodox and Catholics], for the honor of the homeland in which you have experienced centuries of tranquility, go with your Islamic countrymen into battle and expel the enemy...Defending the homeland is the duty of all peoples who live in it.”[7]  

The invocation here was to earlier anti-Ottoman struggles, that had by the 1870s become a collective staple of Bosnian life. Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians alike had grown weary of Ottoman rule for a myriad of reasons, though their logics and solutions differed. Even for Bosnia’s Muslims, ostensibly the most sympathetic to Ottoman administration, a figure like Husein-kapetan Gradaščević, the so-called “Dragon of Bosnia,” had become amongst the most venerated of folk heroes. A 19th Century nobleman, Gradaščević led one of the largest anti-Ottoman uprisings in the Empire’s history, seeking to secure an autonomous and independent BiH, for the first time since the collapse of the Medieval Bosnian state in the 15th Century.[8] Local folklore had it that when an Ottoman official threatened the Bosnian with the fury of both the Porte and the heavens, Gradaščević replied “I have little fear of God, of theSultannothing at all, and of theVizierI am afraid of as much as of my own horse.” Though lionized for decades by the country’s Muslims these were hardly the words of a religious martyr, more Garibaldi than Muhammad. As such, the terrestrial politics of these developments meant that the inhabitants of centers like Sarajevo and Mostar would come to jealously guard their autonomy, Muslims and Christians alike. Local nobles, guilds, and ordinary townsfolk conspired to keep Ottoman administration at arm’s length, so much so that Sarajevo was granted special, near “city-state” like status, and the residents of Mostar “kept their city in a state of almost permanent resistance to central government from the 1760s to the 1830s” (Malcolm 1994, 91-92).[9]

Robert Donia refers to those heady days in Sarajevo, anticipating the arrival of Austrian troops, as a “revolution” and the period marked, arguably, the first quasi-democratic “moment” in modern Bosnian history.[10] The resentment felt by the Bosnians was testified to by the fact that despite a rather ramshackle collection of would-be “freedom fighters,” it would take three hundred thousand Austrian troops to pacify the country, and this only after several pitched battles and vicious house-to-house fighting in the capital. Still, this revolution was a parochial movement, beset by a “patriotic” but culturally conservative line and the prejudices of the time, and whose leadership religious elites dominated. Unsurprisingly, after the Bosnians had been subdued, “the Muslim landowning elite and affluent Serb merchants,” along with well-to-do Catholics, generally fared well.[11] This too was a reflection of the classist character of the revolution (the rank-and-file largely comprised of the lower and middle classes) and the perceived “ethnically” constituted character of the occupation (i.e. Catholic Austrians seen as liberating Bosnian Catholics and Croats). The revolution which had been attempted by the raja – a term referring the lower-class, taxed subjects of the Ottoman Empire which has since, in popular Bosnian parlance, come to mean simply “the people” – had in large part been undone by the narrow self-interest of the elites. The merchants and landed gentry understood that there was more profit, privilege and security to be had with the coming Austrians, than with the emergence of some sort of autonomous “Popular Government” – at least as far as they were concerned.  

When the fires in Sarajevo finally smoldered and the Austro-Hungarian administration began to take shape it emerged as something of a curiosity. Concerned about the growing national(ist) aspirations of Bosnia’s immediate neighbors in Zagreb and Belgrade, which had begun to “nationalize” the Catholic and Orthodox populations in the country as Croats and Serbs, respectively, the colonial administrators attempted to offer a counter narrative. They chose to advance explicitly the idea of a polycultural, cross-confessional “Bošnjaštvo” (Bosniakhood or Bosnian nationality), an identity that all Bosnians, regardless of ethnicity or religion could subscribe to.[12] It should be noted that the use of the term “Bosniak” predates its adoption by the Bosnian Muslim community in the 1990s as an ethno-national label. For instance, when the Franciscan priest and agitator Ivan Franjo Jukić wrote in 1851 of a pan-religious conception of Bosnia and the “Bosniak” identity, amidst the increasing stress of essentialist Croatian and Serbian national paradigms, he did so under the pseudonym Slavoljub Bošnjak (“Slavophile Bosniak”).[13] The term anticipated the pan-Slavic “Yugoslavism” of later decades, that would find particular resonance in BiH. Prior to the early 20th Century it was common for the term to be used interchangeably with “Bosnian” by members of all religious communities in the country.

This new nationalizing, imperial administrative project, as promoted by the chief colonial administrator in Bosnia, Benjamin von Kállay, was founded in a particular reading of Bosnian history – it found strong resonance in pre-Ottoman Bosnian statehood, a legacy celebrated by more liberal Bosnian Croats and the Franciscan order, of which Jukić had been a member.[14] This reading also appealed to Bosnian Muslims and their tradition of struggling for Bosnian autonomy within the Ottoman state. Ultimately, von Kállay’s attempt was undone by the level to which exclusivist nationalism(s) had already engendered themselves amongst the Serb and Croat populations of BiH. Segments of these communities resented the project because it was imposed through an “administrative absolutism” and thus viewed as an authoritarian and artificial imposition, even though it was largely rooted in actual historical practice and experience.[15] Much like later ideas of “Yugoslavism,” nationalist critics were able to navigate around the fact that these peoples genuinely shared a history by focusing on the authoritarian manner through which the ideas were promoted (and blithely ignoring the equally authoritarian and despotic manner in which their own supposedly homogenous nationalist identities were enforced). Hence, dissatisfaction with Austro-Hungarian colonialism and later Communist authoritarianism resulted in a rejection of Bošnjaštvo and Jugoslovenstvo amongst segments of the population. Because of the dynamic that had been presented by the Habsburgs (and later the Communists), centering on identity, Balkan and Bosnian opposition to these attempts logically manifested itself predominately in nationalist terms (e.g. “national liberation”). 

These ideological and historic contradictions and tensions would be embodied in the person of the young radical Gavrilo Princip, as they would be replicated later in still other figures and pivotal moments. The young assassin had spent years agitating Habsburg rule as part of a loose organization that has subsequently come to be referred to as “Young Bosnia” (Mlada Bosna).[16] Princip and the “Young Bosnians” were emblematic of the contradictions of their time: they were equal parts radicals and nationalists of various stripes; sometimes Yugoslavs, often Serbs in particular – though there was at least one documented Bosnian Muslim member of Gavrilo’s circle, Muhamed Mehmedbašić.[17] Noel Malcolm refers to them as “idealistic but ill-educated teenagers” who were “fiercely anti-clerical; they wanted social revolution just as much as national liberation.”[18] Bakunin, Herzen and Kropotkin seem to have featured prominently amongst their philosophical influences, while Vladimir Dedijer notes that their “idols were Gorki, Andreyev, Guyot, Whitman, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen.”[19]

When it came time for Princip to give an explanation for his actions in Sarajevo, the young man offered an equally burdened response: “I am a Yugoslav nationalist, aiming for the unification of all Yugoslavs, and I do not care what form of state, but it must be free from Austria.”[20] Complicating matters even further was the role of the so-called “Black Hand,” a secret paramilitary organization of the Kingdom of Serbia, that had been agitating amongst Bosnian Serbs along a “Greater Serbian” nationalist line and was widely speculated to have had a hand in the assassination.[21] Dedijer, however, emphasizes that while the “Archduke was killed by the joint action of the secret revolutionary societies of Bosnia and Belgrade,” the relationship between these respective parts was mired by disagreement and confusion.[22] In many respects, the idealism of the actual assassins stood in marked contrast to the provincial intrigues of their would-be Belgrade sponsors. 

The suggestion of a revolutionary who “does not care” what form of state he would give inspiration to is an almost comical retort to the zealously ideological convictions of 20th century radicals like Lenin, Trotsky and Tito but it speaks to the ambiguity of political life in BiH, and the wider Balkans in 1914. Rather than dismissing Princip as a misguided youth, a more nuanced reading should give weight to the competing ideological projects in currency at the time. After all, Princip and his associates would have been trying to make sense of an environment where anarchist, Marxist, nationalist, monarchist and liberal currents (and bizarre marriages between these tendencies) all seemed legitimate and viable. What these competing beliefs lacked in coherence they shared in a simple, practical conviction: much as in the Ottoman period, it was clear that the imperials had to be expelled. Their presence would negate the possibility of BiH or Yugoslavia or a wider Balkan Federation as a territory constituted through any of the above ideological visions.

While the “Young Bosnians” represented among the first real instances of concentrated “progressive” revolutionary influence on BiH (e.g. anarchism and Marxism – albeit interspersed with nationalism), theirs was a radicalism expressed in all the tensions, contradictions and histories of their homeland. Not surprisingly, their legacy has remained highly controversial. During the socialist years, they were celebrated as heroes. After the war in the 90s, however, and the horrors exacted on BiH, her people and her histories by Serbian nationalists in particular, they were represented by many Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats as Serb nationalist “terrorists” whose attack on the “civilizing” influence of the Habsburgs was mirrored in the “anti-civilizational” attacks on BiH urban and collective life by Karadžić et al.[23] Still, their resistance to Austro-Hungarian rule drew on both a long history of Bosnian anti-imperialism and would foreshadow the later emergence of the anti-fascist resistance during World War II, its far more polycultural character and material success.



April 6th marks another of those bizarre, tragic ironies of Bosnian history. In 1945, the date marked the final liberation of the capital by Yugoslav Partisan forces from fascist occupation. In 1992, it would come to mark the first “official” day of the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history, by nationalist Serb forces and the remnants of the so-called “Yugoslav People’s Army” (JNA) and thus commenced the Bosnian War. Those who had betrayed the promise of “brotherhood and unity” that had been the guiding mantra of the post-war Yugoslav state, had turned their guns on a city and a culture that had since 1945 celebrated its liberation by one Vladimir “Valter” Perić. Valter was a Yugoslav Partisan from Serbia, who had died in the closing hours of the liberation of Sarajevo on April 6th, 1945 and subsequently became a martyr of the Partisan cause.[24] His sacrifice represented everything both the Communist authorities and the people of Sarajevo itself wished to believe of themselves and their new state. He became an icon of the city, commemorated most famously in a 1972 Yugoslav drama film Valter brani Sarajevo (“Valter Defends Sarajevo”).

The period under the first royal Yugoslavia was a cultural and social disaster for BiH. The declaration of a dictatorship under King Alexander on January 6th, 1929 represented merely the natural conclusion of the thrust of political evolution that had begun in the new state in 1918, and perhaps even earlier. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was largely a vehicle for and creation of Serbian nationalism – unsurprisingly spinning Princip’s et al confused politics in a self-serving light – that created as its most natural opposition still further competing nationalisms, of the Croatian variety in particular. The high-water mark of this politics came as a result of the so-called Cvetković-Maček Agreement (sporazum) of 1939 which re-organized the internal territorial divisions of the Kingdom and, specifically, divided BiH along explicitly Serbian and Croatian lines – ignoring completely the desires and objections of its Muslim, Jewish and otherwise “Yugoslav” communities, as well as those of Bosnian Serbs and Croats, proper, who viewed BiH and not Serbia or Croatia as their homeland.[25] It was the first time since the 10th century that the name and entity of “Bosnia” had disappeared from world maps. While BiH’s “disappearance” would be short lived (by 1945 Bosnia-Herzegovina had been restored as a socialist republic within the new Yugoslav federation), the sporazum was one of the first coherent expressions of the symbiotic relationship between Serbian and Croatian nationalisms and their mutual desire to eliminate BiH as both a physical place and philosophical ideal. BiH’s inherently polycultural identity represented an uncomfortable rebuke to ideas that held that Serbs and Croats were homogenous and separate wholes – and attempted to appropriate Bosnian Muslims as merely Islamized Serbs or Croats. As this latter policy became increasingly unviable, extermination became the preferred policy, especially amongst Serbian nationalists, resulting in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims during both World War II and the 1990s. The sporazum would be reincarnated during the so-called Karađorđevo Agreement (1991) and later Graz Agreement (1992), both which again sought to carve up BiH between exclusively Serb(ian) and Croat(ian) nationalists.[26]

The fascist occupation of Yugoslavia, beginning in 1941, was a cataclysm for BiH especially. Accordingly, the Partisans who fought the occupation represented many of the contradictory tendencies that marked the Yugoslav and Bosnian experience. It is important then that the brunt of the anti-fascist campaign in Yugoslavia took place on the territory of BiH.[27] The country’s rough terrain and central position made it an ideal locale for guerrilla organizing. Cities like Bihać and Jajce were the de facto capitals of the liberated Yugoslav territories and would host the two inaugural sessions of the Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) in 1942 and 1943. The AVNOJ meetings significantly outlined the future institutional structure of Tito’s Yugoslavia and gained corresponding lore in the state’s future political and social mythology. Yet BiH was important to the Partisans for more than its geography, as its social character represented much of what the Communists strived for their movement to become: a polycultural, people’s republic that bridged the revolutionary spirit of urban working classes with the insurrectionary histories of the rural peasantry, to birth a brand of socialism of a uniquely Yugoslav variety. The execution of these attempts, however, was marked by contradiction and tension.

While years of underground organizing and agitating had ably prepared the young Communist cadres for a guerrilla campaign against the fascist occupation, in the end it was not the Partisans who first rose to oppose the invaders. Instead, it was predominately a Serb peasant insurrection which first took up arms, responding to the attempted genocide of Serbs on the part of the Croatian fascist quislings that occupied the majority of BiH territory – the so-called Ustaša at helm of the newly dubbed Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Thus, from the onset, Communist theorists, who had waited for the “ideal” moment to begin their planned uprising, were forced to adapt to the more organic character of the Bosnian peoples. Marko Attila Hoare writes that as the “Serb peasants arose spontaneously to defend the Communists were dragged in and placed at the forefront of a popular rebellion, one over which they had only limited control. In this way, a traditional Serb peasant rebellion arose hand-in-hand with a modern Communist insurgency.”[28] 

The war-time experience in BiH would irrevocably mould the country’s social and political trajectory. The fascist occupation polarized the traditional social cleavages within BiH and created a situation whereby one extremist excess was answered by another. The resistance of Serb peasants to the genocidal intensions of the Croatian Ustaša was responded to by the attempted genocide of Muslim peasants by the Serbian Četniks – monarchist and nationalist guerrillas from Serbia proper who began attempting to ethnically cleanse Bosnian territories for eventual incorporation into a Greater Serbian state. The Ustaša and Četniks would openly collaborate, however, in efforts to curb the advances of the Partisans and shortly after having provided nominal resistance to the fascist occupiers, the Četniks became an exclusively collaborationist movement.[29] Both, however, represented the most extremist expression of historic tensions between Serbs and Croats, animated in particular by the experience of the competing nationalisms during the royal period, and between Serb peasants and Muslim landowners, engendered during the long Ottoman episode. In an attempt to defend themselves from their own prospective genocide, some Muslims embraced the fascists as saviours. There was even an ostensibly Muslim SS troop, the so-called Handschar Division, though its leadership remained exclusively German and Croatian.[30] The fact that ordinary Muslim peasants had been as badly off as their Christian neighbours under Ottoman, Habsburg, monarchist and Axis administrations mattered little to the extremist ideologues who used the chaos of the war years to advance their megalomaniacal political visions at the expense of traditional polycultural social bonds. While their respective projects failed, they did significant harm to these traditional bonds and subsequent generations of nationalists have constructed elaborate victimization complexes based on this and earlier periods to justify their ongoing oppression and discrimination of the “others.”

The eventual liberation of Yugoslavia was, likewise, coloured by this process, evidenced in the contradictory results of the “popular front” approach by Partisans. Their success was ensured by the genuinely polycultural character of the liberation movement’s participants, women and men alike from all ethnic groups and classes. However, it also meant the embrace of significant numbers of defeated Ustaša and Četniks, who ostensibly switched sides to join the Communist cause while maintaining many of their existing fascist, racist and nationalist prejudices, albeit with far more guarded tones. After the war, the new Communist regime went to great lengths to celebrate the Partisan liberation effort as an endeavour of all the Yugoslav peoples, as organized and expertly executed by the Communist leadership. Yet, such a neat, holistic account was complicated by the difficult realities of the war. Hoare contends that it is “ambiguous just who the revolutionaries and who the conservatives were in the war of the 1940s. For all their desire to break down communal barriers, wipe out superstition, emancipate women and build a modern society, the Communists were the ones fighting to preserve [BiH’s] centuries old multi-ethnic coexistence and restore [BiH’s] traditional internal and external borders; both the coexistence and the borders having come under massive assault under the Yugoslav kingdom and the NDH.”[31] He notes that in this respect, it was precisely the forces of nationalism and fascism that represented the “revolution” as the “Ustashas and Chetniks [sic] were each aiming to create totally new borders and a totally unprecedented ethnically ‘pure’ society.”[32] His conclusion is in line with an important dimension of my own thesis: BiH as a political and social space where traditional and historic communal practices strongly anticipated and informed the development of modern emancipatory political struggles, the clearest and best expression of which were most certainly the Partisans. This fusion of traditional practices and modern socialist aspirations would come to be a dominant line within the ideological framework of the Yugoslav Communists. Unfortunately, the “purity” of revolutionary idealism and peasant communalism were compromised by the experience of an elite-dominated authoritarian state.

Unsurprisingly, the Yugoslavia that emerged after World War II was a state beset by contradictory and competing values. Debates on broad organizational and political questions (e.g. authoritarian vs. reformist tendencies within the Party) manifested one definitive set of tensions in the new polity. Residual ethnic tensions from the war and the first Yugoslav experience, that had so polarized the various communities while simultaneously bringing them together into previously unanticipated bonds of solidarity, characterized the other major fault line of the state. Tito’s break with Stalin, the transition from forced collectivization to so-called “worker’s self-management,” and the expulsion of reformers like Milovan Đilas were emblematic of contradictory tendencies of the former.  Meanwhile, the reemergence of BiH as a sovereign republic within the Yugoslav federation, continued tensions between Croatia and Serbia (especially after the 1974 Constitutional reforms)[33] and the question of BiH’s Muslims (whether considered as a distinct ethnic group, a religious minority, or Islamized Croats or Serbs) were demonstrative of the poignancy of the latter set of issues.  The increasing power of the military within the state and the disproportionately Serb character of its command structures fused both problems into a volatile package.[34]

Despite this, Tito’s Yugoslavia was mostly an overwhelming success story for average Yugoslavs. It was the fruition of a project that had begun to envelop the imagination of local progressives and radicals in the 19th century – a self-organized, mutual-aid oriented union of South Slavs.[35] The persistency of this idea, and its “indigenous” roots within the Balkans themselves, is demonstrative of the fact that despite the currency that nationalist mythologies had gained during the same period, large segments of the population still found “Yugoslavism” palatable precisely because of its organic character. The notion of pan-Slavism, as a sort of rudimentary internationalism, required little Marxist proselytizing as in many cases, and certainly in BiH, it was already the lived experience of generations of common people.

Nonetheless, the failure of this “organic” Yugoslavism to offer a coherent alternative to the rising tide of ethno-chauvinist nationalism in the late 1980s and early 90s may seem like a rebuke of its popular appeal. Such an argument, however, leaves unaccounted for the elite-driven nature of the Yugoslav collapse.



If there were sad ironies in the experience of April 6th 1945 and April 6th 1992, then the period leading up to the latter date shared more than a passing resemblance to the weeks leading up the Austro-Hungarian occupation of BiH in 1878.  Unlike 1878 however, the frenzied energy pulsating through the streets of Sarajevo was not geared towards the raising of arms and barricades but rather to the prevention thereof. With Slovenia and Croatia already engulfed in war[36], Bosnians held out hope in early 1992 that a similar pattern would not emerge in their republic. After all, even as tensions between the western republics and Milošević’s Serbia escalated towards war, and even after the first multi-party elections had brought to power a crop of nationalist republican leaders, the dominant sentiment continued to hold out for a peaceful solution of some sort. However, as JNA artillery and snipers began taking positions around the capital and Serb militias in eastern BiH began ransacking villages and towns on the border with Serbia, a pronounced sense of panic set in. Disbelief gave way to mobilization and a desperate, citizen-led movement attempted to avert what the political class had seemingly made all but inevitable.

Late March and early April of 1992  marked the “month of Valter” – a series of massive month-long demonstrations and actions, drawing crowds of fifty thousand and more, that appealed for peace, and the preservation of “brotherhood and unity” in BiH.[37] On April 4th a small, spontaneous protest by 40 some-odd students “demanding the resignation of all political parties” grew overnight to a protest of a hundred thousand people (Pejic 2012).[38] The crowds were being encouraged by the production crew, staff, and reporters of Radio Televizija Sarajevo (RTS) who much to the chagrin of the entire political establishment, had begun airing a live, uninterrupted feed of the convergences. At the center of the decision to air this coverage was the production director of RTS, Nenad Pejić, who had decided that the moment for “objective journalism” had long passed; the only opportunity to avert bloodshed now rested with the people of BiH, rising up against their political masters. “For Bosnia’s political parties,” Pejić writes in retrospect, “this was the greatest threat ever posed to them. An organic movement was spontaneously demanding their wholesale resignation.”[39]  

Aggressive and direct phone calls from both the leader of the nationalist Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadžić, and the Muslim/Bosniak nationalists, Alija Izetbegović, followed with both accusing Pejić of attempting to orchestrate a coup d’état. Instead of terminating the broadcast as demanded, Pejić managed to have both men agree to a debate in the RTS studios, along with the presence of a European mediator, the leader of the main Croat nationalist bloc, Miljenko Brkić, as well as General Milutin Kukanjac of the JNA. The subsequent negotiations were not broadcast, instead another Yugoslav-era Partisan film was aired, the classic Neretva. “Never in my life have I witnessed negotiations that were so important,” Pejić describes, “and were being conducted by individuals that were so irresponsible. Their bigotry, verbal traps, accusations, threats, and half-truths were appalling. They immediately dived into accusing and attacking each other while hundreds of thousands of citizens demanded peace on the streets of Sarajevo.”[40] Pejić’s desperation only increased: “At one point [Karadžić] wanted to leave the studio...I held him by his suit as he stood up from the chair. Shortly afterward, [Izetbegović]...wanted to leave as well, so I grabbed him too. I held onto their suit jackets and implored them not to leave. By this point, their security details were on full alert and, like faithful dogs, they were ready to defend their masters. But both...sat down and my sweaty palms released their suit jackets, leaving a little wrinkle on each.”[41]

Like Princip and Valter before him, Nenad Pejić was a single individual in a moment in time, but representative of far larger historical and social forces. He was the “everyman” [sic] at odds with “his” leaders, the elites of his society in a moment of crisis. While Princip shot Ferdinand in the name of a still nascent and confused conception of Yugoslavia, Valter Perić charged at the fascist occupation under the banner of “brotherhood and unity.” In the streets of Sarajevo, in April of 1992, the chants of “brotherhood and unity” were loud and clear. In a now heartbreaking scene from the live feed of RTS’ coverage, the actor and writer Josip Pejaković is seen, microphone in hand, in a large crowd, imploring the viewers at home to come into the streets. “We have been left to ourselves,” he declares, “...we must show them that we can come to an agreement...we must come to an agreement, as we always have. Come to the government buildings, do not be afraid. You hungry masses, come! We won’t give up Bosnia! We won’t!” (Radio Televizija Sarajevo 1992).[42] Now, the crowd has picked up Pejaković’s invocation and is chanting with him. A by-stander is seen leaning into the microphone, shouting “Long live the Partisans!” This was Pejić’s moment; his environment and his politics were the politics of the raja in the streets, friends, neighbors, workers, seniors, and students.

These scenes ought to demonstrate that the dissolution of Yugoslavia did not come about because of inevitable “ancient ethnic hatreds” bubbling to the top, from the depths of some primordial soup. Rather, it came about through the concentrated efforts of unaccountable elites, primarily in Belgrade, seeking to preserve their political power in a society in economic and social crisis. By replacing the Titoist ideological social framework with an aggressively Serbian nationalist one, Milošević, in particular, was able maintain the essential authoritarian character of the Communist regime while channelling popular dissatisfaction in Serbia not into political reform but rather ethno-nationalism. The “anti-bureaucratic revolution” that Milošević subsequently led, installing sympathetic nationalist hardliners in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro under the guise of a popular insurrection from 1988 to 1989, in order to secure his grip on the Yugoslav presidency, was emblematic of this process. Any serious investigation of this process clearly demonstrates that when actual violence finally did break out, it was not the result of some latent inter-communal animosity but rather elite orchestrated propaganda and economic dispossession.[43]  Karadžić’s and Izetbegović’s phone calls to Pejić are indicative of what these elites thought of genuine popular mobilization.

If the crisis that led to the country’s fracturing had been a years-long process, the opposition to this had been as well. Lacking the opportunity and experience of a substantive democratic culture, however, this opposition took on a particular character. This was most readily evident in the popular Yugoslav cultural discourse, and BiH in particular became the epicentre of these new movements. In the 1970s and 80s there emerged in Yugoslavia a vibrant popular music scene, whose embrace of the rock and roll ethos was not merely isolated to a love of power chords but also to lyrics infused with social critique. The so-called New Partisans and New Primitives represented two faces of this musical turn.[44]Commenting on a collection of bands whose biggest hits continue enjoy regular airplay across the Balkans and whose concerts attract massive audiences in the Yugoslav diaspora, Dalibor Mišina writes that “the socio-cultural praxis of New Partisans was animated by militant Yugoslavism as a counter-logic to the nationalist dissolution of a distinctly Yugoslav fabric of the socialist community in crisis. Thus, the movement’s revolutionary ‘spirit of reconstruction’ permeating its poetics of the patriotic was a mechanism of socio-cultural resistance to political, cultural and moral-ethical de-Yugoslavization of Yugoslav society.”[45] By fusing both the themes and melodies of Partisan revolutionary songs, rock ‘n roll ballads and traditional Yugoslav folk music, these bands attempted a “conscious and deliberate integration of the folkloric and revolutionary stylistic and musical idioms into the rock music template as a strategy for evoking and mobilizing the broadly appealing patriotic sentiments among their audiences.”[46] It was a youthful reworking of the marriage between working class militancy and the traditions of peasant insurrections that had guided the original Partisans during the guerilla years.

Mišina notes that emergence of the New Partisans, specifically, in Sarajevo was a reflection of the important historic and cultural position the city enjoyed within Yugoslavia as a whole. This is not coincidental, he writes, “and has to do with Sarajevo’s reputation at the time as the most Yugoslav city of Yugoslavia. Just as [BiH] was, for a variety of cultural and ideological reasons, considered the most Yugoslav republic in a sense that it was perceived as the most harmoniously multicultural and, in that, a model of what the whole country was supposed to be like, Sarajevo, as the most Bosnian city of all (meaning the most multicultural, open, and unsuspecting of the ‘others’), enjoyed the reputation of being the epicentre of a specifically Yugoslav brand of socio-cultural arrangement.”[47] “In other words,” he concludes, “Sarajevo was in many respects thought of as Yugoslavia condensed into one city.”[48] 

In contrast to the New Partisans “militant Yugoslavism”, Sarajevo also gave birth to the so called New Primitives, an “authentic Yugoslav answer to punk.”[49] The Primitives were a loose association of young comedians, musicians and entertainers who, beginning in 1981, introduced into Yugoslav popular culture, arguably for the first time, a genuine, Bosnian, specifically Sarajevan voice. Almost invariably, their skits and songs dealt with the misadventures of street kids, petty crooks, corrupt politicians, bamboozled workers, and uneducated peasants. The absurdist character of their work, however, was underlined by serious political messages. The now infamous Top Lista Nadrealista (Top List of Surrealists) program gained popularity and notoriety for the scathing nature of its comedy: a typical skit featured a visit to a “factory for the production of nothing”; another portrayed the hiring of new University grandaunts as statutes in government offices as a measure to deal with chronic unemployment. Today, the program is perhaps best remembered for the almost (appropriately) surreal prognostic qualities of many of the troops’ sketches: one classic example featured a news report on “rising ethnic tensions in northern Sweden between Eskimos and penguins,” fuelled by the desire of the region to secede and join with its “motherland, the Arctic”.[50]

This sort of grim, bitter-sweet satire represented the fears and efforts of BiH’s “street intellectuals” to offer a counter narrative to the increasingly dominant discourse of “ethnic tensions” and economic instability that threatened to tear apart the unique polycultural and cosmopolitan space that Sarajevo had become. While the supposed “backwardness” of Bosnians and Yugoslavs as a whole was a frequent point of mockery, in the overall narrative, the picture the group presented of their society was one of a well-meaning, simple people betrayed by corrupt and duplicitous politicians. The role of the New Primitives in this process was to act as the voice of a disillusioned youth, who while exposing the grime beneath the idealism of their parent’s generation, nonetheless strived to preserve BiH and Yugoslavia in their own way.[51] It was the voice of the raja and voices such as these formed the chorus to the hopeful pleading and cajoling of Nenad Pejić and the masses that had gathered in Sarajevo under the banner of Valter.  


This discussion was framed as a selection of “moments” embodied in the persons of Princip, Perić and Pejić – yet they are but representatives. On the one hand, all three individuals represent the organic, mobilized and political character of the Bosnian people throughout their modern history. Yet all three also represent moments or perhaps rather periods of betrayal. Princip’s confused idealism was preceded by revolutionary indignation on the part of the raja, but ultimately gave way to Serb nationalist monarchism. Perić’s valiant anti-fascism and sacrifice under the flag of “brotherhood and unity” rejected the monarchy but much like Princip embraced the ideal of Yugoslavia. However, it too gave way to authoritarianism of a different sort – albeit one far more benevolent and preferable to any that had preceded or followed it. At best, the cultural values that Perić came to symbolize allowed for the likes of Pejić and the citizens of Sarajevo to stage their last ditch effort at preserving the country and the peace, and for the decade of youthful criticism that had preceded them.

It is what occurred in between these moments, however, that tells us more about BiH’s and, of course, Yugoslavia’s fate in the 20th and now the 21st century. The states that emerged in the wake of all these potential “openings,” all devoted themselves, foremost, to a depoliticization of the masses. The consolidation of state authority meant that politics would not and could not be a popular exercise and as such, beyond all their ideological differences, what all these regimes shared was a profound suspicion and resentment of genuine democratic participation. In the end, this was to be their undoing. Moments when it became apparent that these state projects were in dire need of reform or transition were ignored. Worse still, the popular energy calling for change(s) was channelled and re-engineered to reactionary ends – to buttress one elite clique against another.

Nonetheless, the relatively open political culture that existed in Yugoslavia and BiH by the 1980s meant that the memory and the promise of past revolutions, insurrections, popular uprisings and, most importantly, the lived experience of polycultural life in urban centers like Sarajevo informed what could have been a genuine movement of popular resistance. Ironically, precisely in that moment in which one most clearly saw elites trying to direct the course of events, one saw ordinary citizens cutting their strings and refusing to be led into the maelstrom of war. That their effort failed should not be seen as a vindication of the tepid cry of “too little, too late” or worse still, a supposed reflection of the still greater power of “ancient ethnic hatreds.” When we look at the fractured, apartheid-like “peace” that reigns in BiH today, that has left the same political class and their chauvinistic ideals in power that led the region into war in the first place, we would do well to recall those heady days in the streets of Sarajevo – in 1878, 1914, 1945 and 1992. Because it is genuine, popular, democratic politics that has been betrayed and denied to the Bosnian people, to the raja, it is this fact, above all others, that explains the imprisoned “state” in which they find themselves in still. Meaningful “stability,” regardless of its ideological veneer, must be cemented in popular political participation. Recognizing and implementing this fact remains the central challenge of Bosnian political life – then as now.



ANSCOMBE, Frederick F., “The Balkan Revolutionary Age”, The Journal of Modern History, 2012, pp. 572-606.

BANAC, Ivo, The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics, Cornell University Press, London & Ithaca, 1988.

BOUGAREL, Xavier, “Yugoslav Wars: The ‘Revenge of the Countryside’ Between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth”, East European Quarterly, 1999, pp. 157-175.

DEDIJER, Vladimir, “Sarajevo Fifty Years After”, Foreign Affairs, 1964, pp. 569-584.

DONIA, Robert J., Sarajevo: A Biography, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2006.

GAGNON, V.P., The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s, Cornell University Press, Ithaca & London, 2004.

GLAURDIĆ, Josip, The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011.

HOARE, Marko Attila, “The Chetniks and the Jews”, Greater Surbiton, September 24, 2010. [].

HOARE, Marko Attila, The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Saqi Books, London, 2007.

KANIN, David B., “Big Men, Corruption and Crime”, International Politics, 2003, pp. 491-526.

LOVRENOVIĆ, Ivan, Bosnia: A Cultural History, New York University Press, New York, 2001.

MAHMUTĆEHAJIĆ, Rasmir, The Denial of Bosnia, University of Pennsylvania Press, University Park, 2000.

MALCOLM, Noel, Bosnia: A Short History, Macmillian London Limited, London, 1994.

MIŠINA, Dalibor, “’Spit and Sing, My Yugoslavia’: New Partisans, social critique and Bosnian poetics of the patriotic”, Nationalities Papers, 2010, pp. 265-289.

PEJIC, Nenad, “How I Failed To Stop The War In Bosnia”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty . April 4, 2012. [].

RADIO TELEVIZIJA SARAJEVO, “Dnevnik”. Sarajevo, SR Bosnia-Herzegovina, [].

STAVRIANOS, Letften S., Balkan Federation: A History of the Movement Toward Balkan Unity in Modern Times, Department of History of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1942.

STEFFANSON, Anders, “Urban Exile: Locals, Newcomers and the Cultural Transformation of Sarajevo”, in Xavier BOUGAREL, Elissa HELMS and Gerlachlus DUIJZING, The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-war Society, Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, 2007.

TELIBEČIROVIĆ, Amir, “Sarajevska verzija Montija Pajtona”,, February 19, 2011. [].

UDOVIČKI, Jasminka, James RIDGEWAY, Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, Duke University Press, Durham, 2000.

VELIKONJA, Mitja, Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Texas A&M University Press, College Station, 2003.

WOODCOCK, George, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, Meridian Books, Cleveland & New York, 1962.

[1] David B. KANIN, “Big Men, Corruption and Crime”, International Politics , 2003, pp. 491-526.

[2] Frederick F. ANSCOMBE, “The Balkan Revolutionary Age”, The Journal of Modern History, 2012, pp. 572-606.

[3] George WOODCOCK, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements, Meridian Books, Cleveland & New York, 1962, p. 236.

[4] Leften S. STAVRIANOS, Balkan Federation: A History of the Movement Toward Balkan Unity in Modern Times, Department of History of Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1942.

[5] Robert J. DONIA, Sarajevo: A Biography, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2006, pp. 37-59.

[6] Ibidem, p. 51. 

[7] Ibidem, p. 52.

[8] Ivan LOVRENOVIĆ, Bosnia: A Cultural History, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 105.

[9] Noel MALCOLM, Bosnia: A Short History, Macmillian London Limited, London, 1994, pp. 91-92. 

[10] Robert J. DONIA, Sarajevo...cit., p. 54.

[11] Ibidem, p. 54. 

[12] Mitja VELIKONJA, Religious Separation and Political Intolerance in Bosnia-Herzegovina, College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2003, p. 134.

[13] Marko Attila HOARE, The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day, Saqi Books, London, 2007, p. 59.

[14] Ivo BANAC, The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics, Cornell University Press, London & Ithaca, 1988, p. 360.

[15] Mitja VELIKONJA, Religious Separation...cit., p. 134. 

[16] Robert J. DONIA, Sarajevo...cit., pp. 109-114.

[17] Ibidem, p. 114.

[18] Noel MALCOLM, Bosnia...cit., p. 153.

[19] Vladimir DEDIJER, “Sarajevo Fifty Years After”, Foreign Affairs, 1964, p. 576.

[20] Ibidem.

[21] Xavier BOUGAREL, “Yugoslav Wars: The ‘Revenge of the Countryside’ Between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth”, East European Quarterly, 1999, p. 169.

[22] Vladimir DEDIJER, “Sarajevo...cit.”, p. 584.

[23] Anders STEFFANSON, “Urban Exile: Locals, Newcomers and the Cultural Transformation of Sarajevo”, in Xavier BOUGAREL, Elissa HELMS and Gerlachlus DUJZING (eds.), The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-war Society (pp. 59-78), Ashgate Publishing Company, Burlington, 2007, pp. 63-65.

[24] Robert J. DONIA, Sarajevo...cit., p. 200.

[25] Ibidem, p. 166.

[26] Rasmir MAHMUTĆEHAJIĆ, The Denial of Bosnia, University Park, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. xiii.

[27] Marko Attila HOARE, The History of Bosnia...cit., p. 256.   

[28] Ibidem, p. 250.

[29] Idem, “The Chetniks and the Jews”, Greater Surbiton, September 24, 2010, []. 

[30] Marko Attila HOARE, The History of Bosnia...cit., p. 273.   

[31] Ibidem, p. 308.

[32] Ibidem.

[33] Josip GLAURDIĆ, The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011, pp. 15-18. 

[34] Jasminka UDOVIČKI and James RIDGEWAY, Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, Duke University Press, Durham, 2000, p. 137.

[35] Leften S. STAVRIANOS, Balkan Federation...cit.

[36] While the Slovenian conflict had lasted a mere ten days, the situation in Croatia had by the summer of 1992 escalated into full-blown war. 

[37] Robert J. DONIA, Sarajevo...cit., pp. 279-286.

[38] Nenad PEJIC, “How I Failed To Stop The War In Bosnia”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 4, 2012, [].

[39] Ibidem.

[40] Ibidem.

[41] Ibidem.

[42] RADIO TELEVIZIJA SARAJEVO, “Dnevnik”, Sarajevo, SR Bosnia-Herzegovina, April 5, 1992, [].

[43] V.P. GAGNON, The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s, Ithaca & London, Cornell University Press, 2004.

[44] Dalibor MIŠINA,“Spit and Sing, My Yugoslavia: New Partisans, social critique and Bosnian poetics of the patriotic”, Nationalities Papers, 2010, p. 266. 

[45] Ibidem.

[46] Ibidem, p. 268.

[47] Ibidem, p. 266.

[48] Ibidem.

[49] Amir TELIBEČIROVIĆ, “Sarajevska verzija Montija Pajtona”,, February 19, 2011, [].

[50] Ibidem.

[51]Gramscian “organic intellectuals” of a sort.