Ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ethnic map of BIH before Bosnian War, 1991. Bosnian Croats - Blue, Bosnian Muslims - Green, Bosnian Serbs - Red.

More than 95% of population of Bosnia and Herzegovina belongs to one of its three constitutive ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats . The term constitutive refers to the fact that these three ethnic groups are explicitly mentioned in the constitution, and that none of them can be considered a minority or immigrant.

While each have their own standard language variant and a name for it, they speak mutually intelligible languages. On a dialectal level, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks speak a variety of Štokavian dialects: Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats "southern" neo-Štokavian; Croats and Bosniaks "western" neo-Štokavian and Bosniaks and Croats "eastern-Bosnian" old-Štokavian. These dialects are mutually intelligible, but have fixed phonetic, morphological and lexical differences. The question of standard language of Bosnia and Herzegovina is resolved in such a way that three constituent ethnic groups have their educational and cultural institutions in their respective native or mother tongue languages: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

The most easily recognizable feature that distinguishes the three ethnic groups is their religion, with Bosniaks predominantly Muslim, Serbs predominantly Orthodox Christians, and Croats Catholic Christians.

This has led some to believe that these ethnic groups emerged from religious groups in a process that occurred in 19th century. On the other hand, numerous historians, culturologists and ethnologists consider that Croats and Serbs have merely completed their ethnic integration in the 19th century (like, for instance, Norwegians or Slovaks), while Bosniaks crystallized into a separate ethnic group only at the end of the 20th century. A Y chromosome haplogroups study published in 2005 found that "three main groups of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in spite of some quantitative differences, share a large fraction of the same ancient gene pool distinctive for the Balkan area".[1]


Decision of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina

On 12 February 1998, Mr. Alija Izetbegović, at the time Chair of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, instituted proceedings before the Constitutional Court for an evaluation of the consistency of the Constitution of the Republika Srpska and the Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The request was supplemented on 30 March 1998 when the applicant specified which provisions of the Entities’ Constitutions he considered to be unconstitutional. The four partial decisions were made in a year 2000, by which many of articles of the constitutions of entities were found to be unconstitutional, which had a great impact on politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, because there was a need to adjust the current state in the country with the decision of the Court. There was a narrow majority (5-4), in the favour of the applicant. In its decision, among other things, the Court stated:

Elements of a democratic state and society as well as underlying assumptions – pluralism, just procedures, peaceful relations that arise out of the Constitution – must serve as a guideline for further elaboration of the issue of the structure of BiH as a multi-national state. Territorial division (of Entities) must not serve as an instrument of ethnic segregation – on the contrary –it must accommodate ethnic groups by preserving linguistic pluralism and peace in order to contribute to the integration of the state and society as such. Constitutional principle of collective equality of constituent peoples, arising out of designation of Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs as constituent peoples, prohibits any special privileges for one or two constituent peoples, any domination in governmental structures and any ethnic homogenisation by segregation based on territorial separation. Despite the territorial division of BiH by establishment of two Entities, this territorial division cannot serve as a constitutional legitimacy for ethnic domination, national homogenisation or the right to maintain results of ethnic cleansing. Designation of Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs as constituent peoples in the Preamble of the Constitution of BiH must be understood as an all-inclusive principle of the Constitution of BiH to which the Entities must fully adhere, pursuant to Article III.3 (b) of the Constitution of BiH.[2]

The formal name of this item is U-5/98, but it is widely known as the "Decision on the constituency of peoples" (Bosnian: Odluka o konstitutivnosti naroda), referring to the Court's interpretation of the significance of the phrase "constituent peoples" used in the Preamble of the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The decision was also the basis for other notable cases that came before the court.

Ethnic background of Bosnia and Herzegovina

During the Bronze Age, Bosnia was inhabited by people of supposed Indo-European stock, commonly referred to by ancient Greeks and later Romans by a single name, Illyrians. They were finally conquered by Roman Empire in A.D. 10. Illyrians defended their homeland from various conquerors for hundreds of years, before they were finally subdued by Rome after the Augustus managed to crush the last Great Illyrian Revolt (Bellum Batonianum or Pannonian Revolt), organised and led by Bato(n), the chieftain of the Daesitiates. Following this historical event that was carved deeply into the history of Rome, which suffered great losses in army, Illyrians were gradually Romanized and by the 4th century they spoke Latin language and their pagan religion was replaced by corresponding Roman myths and later they became Christians. However, numerous material remains indicate that a significant amount of Illyrian material culture not only survived the Roman era, but the subsequent Slavic invasions as well, as indicated in the traditional rituals, dance and singing, costumes, jewelry and tattoos in some parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina (spiral and zig-zag decorations), identical to those of North Albania and Kosovo. Many scholars believe that ancient Illyrian language is a predecessor of modern Albanian, although this theory has its serious opponents.[3]

The turmoil after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 was followed by settlement of Slavs in the 7th century. Even though modern languages of this area are almost purely Slavic with very little Illyrian influence, it is believed that, genetically speaking, the present population of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mixture of Slavs and Illyrians with influences of other ethnic groups such as Avars and Goths.

There are many theories regarding the ethnic structure of a medieval Bosnian state; however, evidence is inconclusive. Claims that medieval Bosnians declared themselves Croats or Serbs have been disputed: evidence shows many instances of them calling themselves Bosnians (Bošnjani); however, some historians believe that these indicate regional rather than ethnic identity.

Brief history of religions in Bosnia and Herzegovina

South Slavs were Christianized in 9th century. Until the Ottoman conquest of Bosnia, there is evidence of three Christian denominations in Bosnia: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and an indigenous church known as the Bosnian Church. Some scholars believe it was a dualist church related to the Bogomils of Bulgaria, while others dispute this claim, citing lack of historical evidence. Both Orthodox and Roman Catholic officials declared this church to be a heresy. Apart from testimonies of inquisitors and a few excerpts from allegedly apocryphal texts, we have very little knowledge of the Bosnian Church. Its connection with Bogomils is spurious, however. Discussion about how numerous each of these denominations was is impossible with the amount of historical documents presently available.

The arrival of the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic state, resulted in a thorough realignment of religious groups. The Bosnian Church vanished, apparently because its leaders were either killed or converted. Many members of all three denominations converted to Islam. Other members of the Bosnian Church converted to either Catholicism or Orthodoxy. There are also evidence of big part of the Catholic population converting to Orthodoxy. The effect of the so-called devşirme or blood tax on the presence of Muslims in Bosnia is negligible. The presence of large Muslim population in contemporary Bosnia is due to many factors, with motives ranging from effective propaganda to religious persecution of Catholics in the 15th to 18th centuries (Catholics being viewed as a sort of "fifth column" of the Ottoman arch-enemy, the Habsburg Empire) and understandable motive to improve one's social standing in the theocratic Ottoman empire.

It is known that during the 16th and 17th century numerous Catholics left Bosnia. Much of the population of the coastal regions of Croatia and the Adriatic islands has origins in Bosnia.

Transformation of ethnicity to religion, its cause and course

Originally, the Islamic Ottoman Empire didn't have a concept of private ownership of land. Rights to till the land (tapija) were given to deserving military commanders (spahi), and after their death this right was delegated to another person. However, considering the special circumstances of the border-line province of Bosnia, the Ottoman sultan made an exception allowing for tapijas to be hereditary. This resulted in a de facto feudal system. Bosnian landlords (begs) quickly acquired more land than they could possibly till themselves, therefore they allowed Christian peasants to settle and till the land, giving a percentage (usually one third) to their beg.

This system worked reasonably well until mid-18th century when, following several major military defeats, general economic situation in Ottoman Empire declined. Impoverished begs and widows hired čifluk sahibijas, persons that had the authority to collect taxes on a certain part of a begs land while keeping a portion for themselves. Sahibijas didn't feel any obligation towards peasants and treated them badly, often enforcing taxes and confiscating property. This combined with growing taxes that the Empire required for itself and several bad years for crops resulted in a series of uprisings of Christian peasants in Bosnia, Serbia and other European provinces. In Bosnia this meant a very deep chasm between Muslims and Christians of both denominations.

In the times following the Ottoman conquest, the name «Bošnjanin» was turkified into «Bošnjak» (Bosh-nyak, Bosniak in English).During early Ottoman rule, the term «Bošnjak» was applied exclusively to the Christian population, while islamized natives were referred to as «Bosnalu». However, in following centuries (16th to 19th), this name, under various hyphenated forms («Bošnjak-milleti», «Bošnjak-taifesi») had acquired additional nuances of meaning: it became the common term for all the inhabitants of Bosnian Turkish pashaluk/military province. However, it is just one regional reference. The bureaucracy of the theocratic Ottoman empire couldn't even imagine that Muslims and Christians in one of the provinces of the vast Islamic polity would constitute a separated, supradenominational community. Nor was it thinkable to the Bosnian Christians and Muslims.

This has left Bosnian Muslims in a sort of vacuum. When Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1878, Muslims saw it as their arch-enemy and many left Bosnia for territories still under Ottoman rule. Therefore, Austria-Hungarian project of a Bosnian nation was accepted only among Bosniak intellectual elite and a small number of Catholics. Serbs formed a resistance organization that grew into an opposition party named Serb Peoples1 Organization. A corresponding Muslim Peoples1 Organization was organized in 1906, and immediately entered into alliance with Serb Peoples1 Organization. These two parties combined with Croat Peoples1 Community won the 1910 elections by a large margin. This gave birth to the well-known concept of three natio-religions that we still see alive today.

The origins of the three nations now present in Bosnia and Herzegovina can be traced back to the period (ca. 1500. to ca. 1800.) of intense islamization when "triple" ethnic-denominational differentiation served as the focal point for growth of modern national individualities based on ancient ethnic loyalties: as Camus has said, people become what they already are - notwithstanding the fact that they may not yet be aware of it. Bosnian Croats and Serbs have definitely crystallized into modern nations during the 19th century, simultaneously retaining their regional Bosnian and Herzegovinian identities rooted in history and conjoining with their compatriots in Croatia and Serbia. Bosnian Muslims, on the other hand, have set out on the trek for self-identity. Feeling in their bones the unbridgeable separateness and distance from both Croats and Serbs, these "Turkey's abandoned children" found themselves in an uneasy position: being a cultural/denominational transplant from Asia Minor grafted onto South Slavic ethnicities whose nascent Croat and Serb identities melted away in the process of Islamization, they vacillated between a few national and semi-national individualities: Turkish, Croat, Serb, supranational Yugoslav and quasidenominational ethnic Muslim designation - Bosnian Muslims were officially recognized as a nation under the name of Muslims in the 1971 Yugoslav census. Finally, this identity crisis was resolved in an abrupt way: the Bosniak designation (a word meaning Bosnian Muslim) was adopted in 1993 as a sign of differentiating ethnic identity from denominational loyalties. Although circumstances of the procedure may look somewhat weird (it was unanimously accepted on September 28, 1993, at the 2nd Bosniak Congress - an institution of Bosnian Muslim intellectuals and ideologues), it seems that, in all likelihood, Bosnian Muslims have definitively reached the goal in their quest for national identity.

1 This word can also be translated as "National" or even "Ethnic".


  1. ^ Marjanovic, D; Fornarino, S, Montagna, S, Primorac, D, Hadziselimovic, R, Vidovic, S, Pojskic, N, Battaglia, V, Achilli, A, Drobnic, K, Andjelinovic, S, Torroni, A, Santachiara-Benerecetti, AS, Semino, O (2005). "The peopling of modern Bosnia-Herzegovina: Y-chromosome haplogroups in the three main ethnic groups". Annals of Human Genetics 69 (6): 757–763. doi:10.1111/j.1529-8817.2005.00190.x. PMID 16266413. 
  2. ^ Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, U-5/98 (Partial Decision Part 3), p. 36, Sarajevo, 01 July 2000
  3. ^ Stipčević, Aleksandar, "The Illyrians", Noyes Pubns, 1977, ISBN 0815550529 ISBN 978-0815550525

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