Mostar: the case of a political deadlock in a divided society

The city of Mostar emerged from the war as a divided city with unresolved ethno-nationalistic conflicts. Still nowadays, even though war might appear as a distant memory, it still affects daily life of almost 114,000 individuals.

The city suffered the presence of two conflicts. In the first one, from April 1992 to February 1994, local population, united in the idea of contrasting Serbian elements of the Yugoslav People’s Army for gaining independence, fought together. It is estimated 1,600 people died in the conflict, sacred buildings were particularly targeted and industrial capacities were completely destroyed. However, only one year after Serbian withdrawal, local society reached again high tension and became extremely polarised: Croat and Bosniak communities started a violent conflict against each other. At first, the confrontation line corresponded to Neretva River, later the frontline was established along the Austro-Hungarian Boulevard in west Mostar. The second conflict between fellow citizens provoked the death of about 2,000 individuals and consequently, forced displacement on the basis of ethnic segregation. As a result of all the events, the demographic profile of the city radically changed as well as it favoured the persistence of hostile attitudes between the two communities and the impossibility to overcome them.[1]

The city of Mostar has become a space where it is possible to analyse frictions: how ethno-national differences are negotiated and peace mediated.[2] As a matter of facts, the “war within the war” between Croats and Bosniaks split the city into two autonomous halves, the Eastern and the Western parts. Each side has its own separate life: from schools to sport activities, from hospitals to electricity providers. The only and most important attempt in creating interaction between the two communities is given by semi-integrated schools. The idea designed as a peacebuilding practice, however, is still far from solving ethnic segregation. As matter of facts, children belonging to different ethnic groups enter the same building but do not attend the same classes. Plus, families seem to be not ready yet for accepting their children even to share the same roof with the opposite community. The mere idea of sharing education is deeply stigmatised and only a few parents enrol their children to such institutions.

As a consequence of the deep division, it is not rare for people not to cross the river and, therefore, to reach the so-called “others”. Since all the educational institutions, shops, bars and other social activities are placed in the two respective areas, most of locals feel threatened to enter an area in which there is no a majoritarian percentage of people belonging to the same ethno-national group.

Unfortunately, frictions do not just end at a social level.

Mostar is the only municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which no local elections have been held since 2008. As a matter of facts, Bosnia’s Constitutional Court sentenced the city’s electoral statute to be unconstitutional and from that point on, it has been impossible to come out from the impasse. After the establishment of the ethnic separation line between Croats and Bosniaks, six electoral constituencies elected the same number of representatives to the city council on the basis of pre-war 1991 census and despite having different number of voters.[3] In addition to this, power-sharing mechanisms for local administration included election regulations for the city council, indirect election of the mayor and the principle that public servants were to be appointed according to ethno-national proportions.[4] Even though the political framework established in this context was to support a democratic governance system and equal access to public services, soon vetoes and political stalemates paralysed the decision-making process. As a consequence, Mostar’s two main parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica – HDZ) and the Party of Democratic Action (Stranka Demokratske AkcijeSDA) have not been able to find a compromise for reforming the law. Both of them are right-wing parties but reflect opposite nationalistic aims: on one side Croat and Catholicism, on the other Bosniak and Islam.

For all these reasons, Mostar still remains one of the most critical and unstable cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina which needs, apart from peacebuilding practices addressed to peaceful integration, a monitoring of democracy indexes.

In the picture, graffitti on a bridge connecting the two parts of the city saying “Borders are in your head”.




[1] Scott A. Bollens, City and Soul in Divided Societies, Oxford, Routledge, 2012, p. 98

[2] Annika Björkdahl, Urban Peacebuilding, in “Peacebuilding” 1, no.2, 2013, p. 207-221

[3] ECHR Lawsuit Awaits Bosnia Over Mostar Elections, available at: 

[4] Annika Björkdahl, Ivan Gusic, The divided city: a space for frictional peacebuilding, in “Peacebuilding”, Routledge, Vol. 1, No. 3, 2013,  p. 323

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