Bosnia, seen as Europe's 'powder keg,' is longtime flash point for ethnic tension

October 16, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia -- The republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is perhaps the most dangerous ethnic flash point in the Balkans, epitomizing the reasons for the region's historical reputation as the "powder keg" of Europe.

It was regional struggle for the control of Bosnia, as the republic ,, is known for short, that led to World War I, with the immediate pretext being the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in this lovely city nestled in a valley 1,500 feet above the sea.

During World War II, Bosnia was the site of the worst internecine massacres in the war.

Now trouble looms again, and if Bosnia explodes, there are those who think that the violence could far exceed what has happened in Croatia.

This central republic is the essence of the Balkans. Races and religions coexist within an almost claustrophobic range. They are a mixture of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks and Gypsies.

But what gives Bosnia its uniquely dangerous inflammability is the presence of nearly 2 million Muslims, who account for 44 percent of its population.

The nearly 100 slim minarets that dominate the skyline testify to the fact that Sarajevo, with its 350,000 Muslims, is the largest Islamic city in Europe.

The Bosnian Muslims are ethnic Slavs, but they accepted Islam five centuries ago to retain their privileged positions in the old Turkish Ottoman Empire.

In Yugoslavia, religious divisions -- particularly between Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats -- have been less a doctrinal than a tribal affair. Religion has embraced the values inherent in the traditional way of life. It has been a vessel of tribal existence, the way to maintain identity in the multiethnic world of the Balkans.

With the death of communism, the former Communist leaders have been groping for something to put in its place. They have become nationalists, conveniently underpinning their ambitions with religion.

In Bosnia, church and nation always were one. People were identified by the church they attended. A Croat was a Roman Catholic because he was born into the faith, just as a Serb was Eastern Orthodox. They may look alike, speak alike, play alike and behave alike, but they know that they are different because of their religion. (It is unheard of to switch religious affiliation. A Serb or Croat who leaves his religion forfeits tribal identity.)

Although the Muslims are the largest ethnic group in Bosnia, they have had to accept an uneasy accommodation with any strong government in power -- and thus were compelled to form alliances with either the Serbs or the Croats.

They prospered most under Marshal Tito, the Communist strongman who accorded them status equal to the Serbs and Croats. But with communism now in disrepute, some Bosnian Serbs are bitterly criticizing the Tito regime.

"While we did not build a single church for the past four decades," said Milan Guzina, a longtime Communist who is now a Serbian nationalist, "they did build their mosques. The Muslims are smart, and so are the Croats. We Serbs are stupid; we didn't notice what was going on."

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