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Demanding radical hope for peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Article by Dr Giulia Carabelli

July 19, 2022

Demanding radical hope for peacebuilding in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The concepts of sectarianism and ethno-nationalism are used to describe not only the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-H) but also to qualify issues emerging from decades of failed attempts at post-war reconciliation, which are understood in terms of religious and ethnic antagonisms. This means that the process of settling the conflict aims at ‘fostering dialogue’ between actors whose identities are perceived as always conflictual. Clearly, once group identities are normalised as homogeneous, stable, and threatened/ing the demand for peacebuilding centres on a system capable of ensuring equal and fair representation. Consociationalism has become the preferred choice in such post-conflict scenarios because of how it empowers communities across ethnic lines, and thus guaranteeing that political power and decision-making is equally distributed (on consociationalism in B-H, see Merdzanovic).[1]


Yet consociationalism presents at least two major problems. Firstly, it distributes power among representatives of majority groups only. In the case of B-H, this means that individuals who are not (or do not want to identify as) Bosnian-Croat and Catholic, Bosnian-Serb and Orthodox or Bosniak and Muslim are deprived of political representation falling into the loose category of ‘others’.[2] Secondly, the power-sharing infrastructure (designed to prevent/settle ethnic tensions) strengthens the very borders between communities that peacebuilding projects aim at making porous.[3] This is because political power depends on the strengthening of divisive lines. More so, there is little incentive for those in power to transition to a different political system based on rules that won’t benefit careers built on ethnic antagonism. According to Merdzanovic, the imposed consociational democracy in B-H ‘promotes extremist rather than accommodative behaviour’.[4]


A cursory glance at official documents released by the High Representative (the European Union official leading the process of peace- and state-building in B-H) reveals anger and frustration at a political class unable to engage in dialogue, compromise, and negotiation across ethnic lines.[5] This lack of dialogue translates into political stagnancy, which interferes with desired plans for peacebuilding, democracy, EU membership and full independence from the international protectorate.


If peacebuilding seems to have failed with consociationalism at the state level, myriad initiatives targeting ‘the people’ of B-H explore the potential of bottom-up processes to encourage peace. Because peacebuilding works within the parameters of sectarianism, it cannot but promote the coming together of individuals who are always accounted for as members of ethnic communities. Thus, peacebuilding encourages inter-ethnic understanding, collaboration, and coexistence but it cannot deviate from an understanding of identities as sectarian and thus inherently antagonistic. So, for instance, these programmes often require that participants declare their ethnic belonging so that fair representation can be ensured with the aim of building bridges across ethnic divides.[6] Much critique of these peacebuilding programmes, largely sponsored by international organisations and foreign governments, highlights the limits of projects that cannot and are not interested in changing the system.[7] This type of peacebuilding is not driven by the vision of a shared future but rather as the process of learning to navigate sectarianism, or, at the very least, avoiding violent conflict. We can interpret this as mode of ‘resiliency’, or a coping stratagem for dealing with the reality of ethnic divisions. Yet, to coexist is not the same as to share, as it maintains those divisive lines that encircles homogeneous, stable ethno-national groups always imagined as conflictual.


In this essay, I look at peacebuilding from the grassroots to discuss the ways in which sectarianism is challenged within a system that perpetuates division. Firstly, I account for scholarship that focuses on the everyday to conceptualise how people make sense of ethnic division and enable spaces of coexistence that challenge understandings of ‘divided societies’ as hopelessly fragmented. Secondly, I account for grassroots attempts to reframe political conversations outside sectarianism. Specifically, I look at the 2014 mass protests in B-H and their legacy to comment on efforts to build peace on different terms. The aim of this essay is to discuss the potential of spaces where new ways of being together have emerged from re-configured identities that resist the automaticity of ethnic division. Instead, what is shared – including frustration, hope, and the desire to change the status quo – shapes ways of being/doing peace. I conclude this essay by asking whether we could envision peacebuilding as a more radical act, whose goal is to nurture hope for change rather than resilience.


Everyday life in ‘divided B-H’

The interest in everyday life stems from the desire to explore how people make sense of ethnic divisions in their most mundane activities. Everyday encounters cannot be fully predicted, thus the everyday is also a space for inconsistencies, or how contingency affects the ways we relate to each other and to politics. Azra Hromadzic’s book, Citizens of an empty nation, for example, dives in the lives of high schoolers in Mostar to observe and discuss the ways in which ethno-national belonging becomes divisive (or not).[8] She finds that young people date and mingle across ethnic lines but they know that, outside the safe space of the schools’ bathrooms, these relationships won’t survive. This shows how people navigate sectarianism across ethnic lines without openly challenging them and yet downplaying their normative value. In her ethnography of social spaces where people ‘mix’ in Mostar, Renata Summa explains how, once we stop privileging ethnic divisions as a framework to study ‘divided societies’, we begin to appreciate other ways of organising social life.[9] In fact, she finds that people in the everyday seem more concerned with differences between politicians and ordinary people, native and newcomers, and those who abide to sectarianism or do not. These lines of divisions tell us a lot about class, for example, with the old urban elites refusing to engage with sectarianism in the name of a cherished multicultural past. By exposing different lines of division, as Palmberger argues, we can ‘show complexities [but also] commonalities, shared past and presents that transcend ethno-national lines’.[10] In the everyday, sectarian boundaries are negotiated in ways that exceed ideological positioning, or, what Piacentini calls, ‘opportunistic alignments’.[11]


The everyday is also the space in which to study the dynamics between internationally led peacebuilding projects and local understandings of peace. Björkdahl and Gusic theorise these spaces as frictional peacebuilding.[12] In the everyday, international peacebuilding meets local practices in unpredictable ways, giving rise to resistance but also co-option. Friction, they write, creates ‘messy dynamics [..] unexpected coalitions built on “awkwardly linked incompatibles”’.[13] This is to say that top-down and bottom-up peacebuilding projects and practices co-exist and re-shape each other. To study the everyday allows us to appreciate the spontaneity of collaborative and inclusive practices that testify to the possibility of life together despite sectarianism.


Peacebuilding in grassroots activism

Whereas peace in the everyday is discussed in terms of how people adjust to make sense of the present depending on contingencies, grassroots activism reclaims politics from corruption and stalemate, forging a space energised by the hope of radical change. In other words, everyday offers potential for a space that enables coexistence mediated by contingency. From this angle, I look at activist spaces in which anti-sectarianism is intentionally (rather than accidentally) political. In exploring peacebuilding from the grassroots, my aim is also to highlight what other problems become apparent once we question sectarianism as the main problem of ‘divided societies’.


2013 and 2014 are remembered as the years of mass mobilisation in B-H. From February 2014, for two consecutive months, angry citizens occupied streets, squares and administrative buildings in cities and towns across B-H demanding change from corrupt political elites.[14] Global media described the protests as the moment in which people from B-H came together across ethnic lines against the ruling class: the common enemy.[15] After years of international peacebuilding with no definite sign of peace, these protests showed that people could descend into the streets together, moved by anger, frustration, and hope. The protests also demonstrated that people are not apathetic, as often argued, but rather that they lack spaces to engage meaningfully in political conversations overshadowed by sectarianism.


Off the streets, protesters gathered in the plenums – assemblies where horizontal modes of democratic participation were tested. This provided a space for people to voice their concerns – small or big – and for a diverse crowd to vote in order to prioritise the work of the collective. It wasn’t easy, and not without tensions, but, for many, it felt like finally someone was listening.[16]


These protests cannot be understood without accounting for the unrelenting work of activist networks that never ceased to nurture hope in liminal spaces outside mainstream political outlets. They cultivated the hope that things could change radically in a country often addressed as hopeless.[17] It is within these circles that people most strongly condemn how the hyper-focus on sectarianism has disincentivised political participation and thus the possibility for peacebuilding and reconciliation. This is because peace in these circles is not only understood as a matter of inter-ethnic dialogue but also as welfare and wellbeing. In Tuzla, where violent protests began in February 2014, factory workers had been long trying to gain attention after been made redundant by the privatisation of factories once owned by the Socialist state.[18] The protests showed that problems are not ‘ethnic’ but rather that of unemployment, gender discrimination, racism, nepotism, bullying… As Majstorović, Vučkovac and Pepić write, the legacy of the 2014 protests is that now ‘the divisiveness of ethno-national rhetoric is less successful at demobilising political opposition [because] the impoverishment of the people has politicised the economic restructuring [and] issues of social justice have become a constant presence in public discourse’.[19] In this sense, peacebuilding cannot be limited to preventing violent confrontation, or vague notions of ‘power sharing’, but must include a demand for a better life where flourishment is the goal and not survival.



What’s the use of sectarianism? Demanding radical hope for peacebuilding

In this essay, I looked at practices of peacebuilding that exceed planned intervention. I discussed how, in the everyday, people make sense of, downplay, or enact divisions that contingently reveal other, equally important, lines of division such as class. I also introduced the 2014 mass protests in B-H to account for grassroots activism as the space where hope for radical change is nurtured. By refusing to accept ethnicity as the only marker of one’s identity, grassroots activism can support conversations about poverty, unemployment, corruption, or mental health that are obscured by a hyper-focus on ethnic identity. In doing so, they reject discourses about resilience as the default mode to navigate immutable ‘divided societies’, and instead inhabit and cultivate spaces of hope: a more radical way to imagine the future. Thus, peacebuilding can also become more courageous and instead of building bridges between ethnic others, it can work with people to nurture dreams beyond sectarianism.


Giulia Carabelli is an urban and cultural sociologist interested in affect theory, grassroots activism, and everyday life. She is lecturer in social theory in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Giulia’s extensive ethnographic work in the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, has resulted in various publications on the possibility of social change in places of contestation and political stalemate. Her first book, The Divided City and the Grassroots, was published in 2018 by Palgrave.


[1] Merdzanovic, Adis. 2015. Democracy by decree. Prospects and limits of imposed consociational democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ibidem Press.

[2] Hromadžić, Azra. “Once we had a house” Invisible citizens and consociational democracy in post-war Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Social Analysis 63, no. 3, (2012): 30-48. Bell, Jared O. Dayton and the Political Rights of Minorities: Considering constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the acceptance of its membership application to the European Union. Journal of Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe 17, no. 2, (2018): 17-46.

[3] Aitken, Rob. Cementing divisions? An assessment of the impact of international interventions and peace-building policies on ethnic identities and divisions. Policy Studies 28, no. 3, (2007): 247-267.

[4] Merdzanovic, Azra. “Imposed consociationalism”: external intervention and power sharing in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Peacebuilding 5, no. 1, (2017): 22-35.

[5] European Commission, Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina Progress Report, October 2014,; European Commission, Bosnia and Herzegovina Progress Report, October 2020,

[6] Carabelli, Giulia. 2018. The divided city and the grassroots. The (un)making of ethnic divisions in Mostar. Singapore: Palgrave.

[7] Kappler, Stefanie and Richmond, Oliver. Peacebuilding and culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina: resistance or emancipation?. Security Dialogue 42, no. 3, (2011): 261-278.

[8] Hromadžić, A. 2015. Citizens of an Empty Nation: Youth and State-making in Postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[9] Summa, Renata. Inventing places: disrupting the “divided city”. Space and Polity 23, no. 2, (2019): 140-153. Summa, Renata. 2021. Everyday boundaries, borders and post-conflict societies. Cham: Palgrave.

[10] Palmberger, Monika. Why alternative memory and place-making practices in divided cities matter. Space and Polity 23, no. 2, (2019): 243-249.

[11] Piacentini, Arianna. Making an identity choice: “opportunistic alignment” in and beyond consociational systems: evidence from South Tyrol and Bosnia Herzegovina. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics 27, no. 4, (2021): 439-455.

[12] Björkdahl, Annika. Precarious peacebuilding: friction in global-local encounters. Peacebuilding 1, no. 3, (2013): 289-299.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Kurtović, Larisa. Conjuring “the people”. The 2013 Babylution protests and desire for political transformation in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 80, (2018): 43-62.

[15] Economist, Protests in Bosnia: On Fire, February 2014,; Aleksandar Hemon and Jasmin Mujanović, Stray Dogs and Stateless Babies, New York Times, February 2014,; Soeren Keil, Whatever Happened to the Plenums in Bosnia?, Balkaninsight, June 2014,

[16] Arsenijević, Damir. 2014. Unbribable Bosnia Herzegovina. Baden-Baden (ed.), Germany: Nomos.

[17] Carabelli, Giulia. Love, activism, and the possibility of radical social change in Mostar. Space and Polity 23, no. 2, (2019): 182-196

[18] Emin Eminagić, Protests and Plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina, CITSEE BLOG, March 2004,; Milan, Chiara. 2017. Reshaping Citizenship through Collective Action: Performative and Prefigurative Practices in the 2013-2014 Cycle of Contention in Bosnia & Hercegovina. Europe Asia Studies 69, no. 9, (2017): 1346-1361. Milan, Chiara. 2020. Social mobilization beyond ethnicity. Civic activism and grassroots movements in Bosnia and Herzegovina. New York, US: Routledge.

[19] Majstorović, Danijela, Vučkovac, Zoran & Pepić, Aandela. From Dayton to Brussels via Tuzla: post-2014 economic restructuring as europeanization discourse/practice in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 15, no. 4, (2015): 661-68.

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