bosnia report
New Series No: 55-56 January - July 2007
Bosnia and its symbols
by Ivan Lovrenovic

The history of postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina can be viewed also as the chronicle of an unceasing struggle for domination on the symbolic field. That the struggle over symbols reflects key political aims, and that it is no less dramatic than the struggle in other fields, is well illustrated by a recent statement by the Serb member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina presidency, Borisav Paravac [replaced after the October 2006 elections by Nebojša Radmanović]. The immediate cause of his declaration was a much-delayed decision by the constitutional court on the laws regulating the symbols - emblems, flags and anthems - of the two entities. The court has established - and its decision is final and irrevocable - that the relevant articles of these laws are not in accordance with the country’s constitutions, in the parts where they depart from the international convention against all forms of racial discrimination. This means that the symbols it has named must be removed from official use.

The emblem of Republika Srpska is essentially that of Serbia: a white double-headed eagle with three Cs between the arms of a red cross, i.e. elements belonging to the Byzantine tradition. (It was first used in the modern national sense by one Hristofer Žefarović, who took it with some modifications from the work Stemmatographia written by the 18th-century advocate of Croatian nationalism Pavao Ritter Vitezović.) The flag of RS is the traditional Serbian tricolour, and its anthem the monarchical ‘God of Justice’ (written by Jovan Đorđević in 1872 and set to music by Davorin Jenko). These became the symbols of Republika Srpska at a time of war and during the reign of Radovan Karadžić. This was enough for Paravac to cast doubt on the credibility of the constitutional court, and to describe its decision as ‘cutting through living flesh’. He added ominously: ‘I fear that the citizens of Republika Srpska may transform their love for the entity’s symbols into a hatred of the symbols of Bosnia-Herzegovina.’

What was the legal foundation of the constitutional court’s clear decision, so unlike the usual rickety and indecisive behaviour of our central institutions? It was provided by the famous decision of a few years ago on the legal equality of all three national groups, a decision that was accompanied by much contestation and which almost failed to be passed, thanks among other factors to strong resistance on the part of the HDZ. The decision [initiated in fact by the Serb Civic Council] established the principle that members of the three nations enjoyed the same rights throughout the state’s territory, thus removing any basis for discrimination on a national basis in either of the two entities.

A temporary expedient

The Federation symbols used hitherto discriminate against Serb citizens, because they contain only Bosniak and Croat heraldic elements (apart from an optimistic circle of EU stars), while those of Republika Srpska discriminate against Bosniaks and Croats, because they are exclusively Serb. The latter, in addition, are inevitably experienced as symbols under which, at the time of Karadžić and Mladić, mass crimes were being perpetrated on an unquestionably ethnic basis. Public attention has focussed exclusively on the fate of the RS symbols, so that an impression has been created that the decision of the constitutional court affects only the symbols of that entity, rather than - equally and on principle - also those of the Federation. One should not be surprised by this, since such indifference speaks volumes about the genesis of the whole phenomenon, reflecting accurately the real, intimate political attitude of Federation citizens towards their entity.

The Federation, it should be recalled, was created in the spring of 1994, when Bosniak and Croat political leaders, strongly encouraged by the Americans, ended their war and created a political provisorium to which the Bosniak leaders brought the legacy of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Croat leaders that of the Croat Republic of Herzeg-Bosna, with the obligation for both sides to give up these legacies, which in any case were subject to mutual recrimination and described as illegitimate and arbitrary. It was not clear at first whether the federation would be made up of cantons, or of the Bosniak and Croat peoples. The cantonal option reflected the aspiration for a multi-ethnic community that would negate and rectify the enforced ethnic territorialisation created by the war, while the other - ethnically based - sought to preserve war gains, with the federation and its institutions serving merely as a fig leaf. This second option was upheld equally by the SDA and the HDZ, the two parties which have dominated the politics of this part of Bosnia-Herzegovina for over a decade. This decided the matter: everything was divided quietly and efficiently between the two ethnically based oligarchies.

This deal also determined the new heraldic signs which passed into law in 1996. The symbols of the two peoples were represented in the Federation’s emblem and flag (an anthem was never chosen). The Croats are represented on the flag by a red vertical bar, and in the emblem by the chequerboard - albeit not in the shape used by Herzeg-Bosna. Informally, at all Croat public ceremonies the Croatian anthem ‘Our beautiful homeland’ is played. The Bosniaks are represented on the flag by a vertical green bar, and in the emblem by the golden lily of the Kotromanić dynasty against a green background. The recently created song ‘Bosnia, I am your son’ is sometimes performed as an unofficial anthem of the Bosniak people.

Contested symbols

These federal symbols never gained public affection, either among the citizenry as a whole or within the individual peoples. On the contrary, the dispute over them has continued. Many Bosniaks continue to view the Croatian chequerboard as politically suspect, and ‘Our beautiful homeland’ as the anthem of neighbouring Croatia. They see in them, in other words, not parts of the Croat national identity but separatist or expansionist aspirations. The Croats, on the other hand, see in the Bosniak choice of the lily an usurpation on the part of the Bosniaks of the medieval Bosnian kingdom’s history and state tradition. They have forgotten that it was they who in the first instance rejected the flag and emblem of the post-Communist Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose symbols were indeed derived from the emblem of King Tvrtko Kotromanić, a clever and elegant design under which the Republic became a member of the United Nations. (Which Bosniak or Croat, indeed, still recalls the talented Sarajevo artist Zvonko Bebek, who in 1992 amid the Sarajevo inferno produced not only the designs for them, but also a whole series of applications, without ever receiving public recognition! Our wartime comrade Zvonko Bebek now lives on one of the five continents, and I am sure that he is happy, since he is a wonderful man and a great craftsman.)

Strictly speaking, then, these symbols became Bosniak not because the Bosniaks usurped them, but because the others did not want them. It is necessary, however, to add here that the lily, reduced to its Bosniak dimension, acquired a powerful emotional force as a collective identification during the war. This is particularly interesting because, due to the specific path of their national emancipation, the Bosniaks had never had a national emblem. During the Ottoman period, such needs were met by religious signs: thus, for example, Husein Kapitan Gradaščević led his rebellion in the 1830s against the central government in Istanbul under a green flag with golden star and crescent. Austria-Hungary imposed its own solution based on the medieval Bosnian emblem and flag, wholly excluding all ethnic or confessional particularities. In the first Yugoslavia Bosnia-Herzegovina had no symbols, since its political identity was totally obliterated. This happened also under the NDH, when only Croatian symbols were used. Bosnia became a republic in socialist Yugoslavia, but the ambiguous content of this status was reflected also in its heraldic symbols: its emblem, composed wholly in the Soviet tradition and consisting of a wheat-sheaf with factory chimneys, disregarded any particular tradition, while its flag had a small Yugoslav flag with five-pointed star against a red background.

The European way

Since then a true ‘lily mythology’ has grown and developed among the Bosniaks, which treats the lily as a purely endemic - Bosnian and Bosniak - phenomenon, not only in regard to history and heraldry but also in the botanical sense. This overlooks and negates the great history of this symbol, which perhaps more than anything else integrates Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Western European civilisational sphere. The Anjou (and not only Anjou) lily, embedded in the Bible (‘What is the lily among thorns is my friend among girls’: Song of Solomon), which began its miraculous path in the 12th and 13th centuries, became an unavoidable element in numerous emblems and signs throughout Europe, from Florence to Poland and from Spain to England, and adorns even the official flag of the Canadian province of Quebec.

It is likely that the Federation symbols will disappear quietly and imperceptibly, as they should. But there will be trouble with the symbols of Republika Srpska. Apart from Paravac’s pain of living flesh, there is also the noisy declaration by RS premier Milorad Dodik that he would just like to see anybody remove the RS flag and emblem from his office. Dodik’s bluster is clearly designed for domestic consumption; it is addressed to his party’s supporters, who are overwhelmingly Serb despite the social-democratic element of the party name. But this is not where the true problem lies. First, this Bosnian official shows in this way that he neither knows about - nor, if he does know, cares about - the nature of the authority of the constitutional court. Secondly, despite his professed advocacy of a ‘European road’, he shows that he cares little for the equality of all citizens within the entity over which he presides.

As with many other unresolved questions of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s formation, here too we see a conflict between two principles: the right of each people to its traditional signs, and the right not to be discriminated against on an ethnic basis. Until the will is found to satisfy all, the link between the symbols and the living flesh will continue to hold.

Translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 14 April 2006


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