Former Bosnian prime minister calls for new brand of multiculturalism

By Nicole M. Ang

Haris Silajdzic
Haris Silajdžić spoke at Cornell on November 20.

To former Prime Minister Haris Silajdžić, Bosnia and Herzegovina stands for multiculturalism. But living together by no means equates to tolerance and understanding. The Bosnian War of the 1990s, where neighbors of different ethnicities turned on each other despite years of coexistence, provides harsh proof of this distinction. This, he explained in a lecture on November 20, 2017, is the “Bosnian paradigm.”

Silajdžić, who was prime minister from 1993 to 1996 and a member of the rotating presidency in the 2000s, led the audience through Bosnia and Herzegovina’s long history of violence and struggle, from religious divides and the establishment of the Bosnian Church to the conversion of many Bosnians to Islam during the Ottoman era.

The country’s strategic position contributes to these tensions, he explained, as it makes it an appealing target for acquisition by neighboring states. The Bosnian War, for instance, was not so much a civil war as a consequence of Bosnia and Herzegovina sitting on regional fault lines that made it a target for land grabs and ethnic cleansing.

Silajdžić argued that the push-and-pull of Eastern European territories by Western Europe results from a form of passivity that has allowed the West to construct the historical narrative of the East.

He drew on the work of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in rejecting the dualism of the West as subject and the East as object, hoping to replace it with a new paradigm in which Eastern European states are no longer passive objects in relation to Western Europe, as they were in the age of European imperialism. This requires an institutionalized respect for dignity and personhood so eastern and western nations can coexist as equal and interacting subjects, no matter the religious and ethnic affiliations of their citizens.

Bosnians are resilient, Silajdžić said, but the war nonetheless set the country back hundreds of years. He characterized the current political system as “democratic feudalism,” in which Bosnians are expected to cast their votes along ethnic lines. He said he hopes to see the country collectively recoup and protect its lost multiculturalism. To do so, the young, educated generation must be empowered to share the world media stage and actively engage in the country’s politics. This applies not just to Bosnians at home, but also to those around the world.

After years of evidence gathering and trial proceedings, the time of reckoning has come for several high-ranking officials accused of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. But guilty verdicts alone are not enough, Silajdžić said. The war may be over, but he wants the rest of Europe to remember what happened. The continent must acknowledge Bosnia’s complicated, multiethnic history as a part of its own heritage.

Silajdžić’s visit was organized by the Cornell Institute for European Studies in collaboration with Professor of History Emeritus John Hubbel Weiss, with additional support provided by the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies.

Nicole M. Ang is a student at Cornell Law School and graduate student administrative assistant at the Einaudi Center.

Related content: Can There Be ‘Progress Without War’? Former Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Asks (Cornell Daily Sun)