In Ethnic Mobilization, Violence and the Politics of Affect: The Serb Democratic Party and the Bosnian WarAdis Maksić offers a comprehensive and insightful account of the processes through which Bosnian Serbs became ethnically mobilised around the Serb Democratic Party. In taking a processual approach to questions of identity, this is an essential book for anyone studying the Bosnian war, the dynamics of ethnic conflict and nation formation, recommends Sarah Correia

Ethnic Mobilization, Violence and the Politics of Affect: The Serb Democratic Party and the Bosnian War. Adis Maksić. Palgrave. 2017.

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The Bosnian war and its enduring impact have been of great interest to many scholars, but also to the informed public: 25 years later, the war’s tragic legacy still makes headlines. Serb nationalists played a prominent role in triggering the war, through which they succeeded in creating their own, largely ethnically homogeneous, territory. Short of achieving independence, Republika Srpska was nevertheless recognised by the Dayton Peace Agreement that put an end to the war, and became one of the two largely autonomous political ‘entities’ in which Bosnia-Herzegovina is now divided. Paradoxically, however, nationalism among Bosnian Serbs and the creation of Republika Srpska have received very little attention within the scholar community.

Against this trend, Adis Maksić has produced an important book, which offers the most complete and insightful account written so far of the process of ethnic mobilisation among Bosnian Serbs around the Serb Democratic Party (Srpska demokratska stranka, or SDS) since its creation to the onset of the Bosnian war. The author is part of a generation of scholars who experienced the war as children or teenagers, such as Sebina Sivac-Bryant, Jasmin Mujanović and others, and who are now providing a much more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of nationalism and the long-term impact of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina than previously available. Maksić reveals his positionality in the prologue, reflecting on how the dynamics of ethnic mobilisation prior to the war fundamentally changed his and his family’s identity. This story provides a powerful illustration of how fast and deep were the changes that Bosnian society experienced even before the war, highlighting the need for a processual approach to identity.

Ethnic Mobilization, Violence and the Politics of Affect: The Serb Democratic Party and the Bosnian War represents an outstanding contribution to the literature about Bosnia-Herzegovina, but its value goes much beyond its empirical contribution. Theoretically, too, the book is highly innovative in the way it brings together discourse analysis, insights from cognitive science and psychology and carefully researched empirical data to produce an account of how the SDS, led by Radovan Karadžić, was able to attract the bulk of Serb votes, and to a great extent the loyalty of the Bosnian Serb population. Whilst focusing on ‘the nation as narration’ (in reference to Homi Bhabha’s seminal work), Maksić also gives great attention to historical detail, offering a rigorous analysis not only of what SDS leaders said, but also of what they did, as well as how they organised themselves, politically, logistically and militarily, to lead the Bosnian Serbs into war. This makes the book an important read for anyone exploring the dynamics of ethnic conflict, but also for readers more generally interested in nation formation and the idea of nation as discourse.

In the absence of a proper introduction, Chapter One situates the book within the literature on national identity and ethnicity and introduces the key concepts guiding the analysis. Inspired by Rogers Brubaker’s Ethnicity without Groups, the author rejects what he calls the ‘paradigm of ethnic conflict’, which treats ethnic identity as largely static and, the author contends, ‘utilizes the sedimentation and politicization of ethnic identities that occur prior to and during conflicts as evidence of a conflict’s cause’. Instead, Maksić offers a processual approach, seeking to ‘expose the role of nationalist agency in the politicization of ethnicity and the homogenization of people around an ethnic axis of collective identification’ (3).

Image Credit: Bijeljina: Commemoration of the Day of Republika Srpska (9 January). Officials lay wreaths to the Fallen Soldiers and Civilian Victims of the Defence-Liberation War, as the Bosnian war is officially labelled by the government of Republika Srpska. The controversy surrounding this day is further discussed in this LSE Europp blog post (Sarah Correia)

Rather than labelling the Bosnian war of 1992-95 as an ethnic conflict, the author prefers to present it as an ‘ethnicized conflict’, possible only after a process of ‘ethno-politicization’ in which ‘political agents introduce new, or intensify existing, ethnic grievances, potentially sidelining other, non-ethnical issues’ (3). Discourse plays a key role in the mutual constitution of ethno-politicisation and ethnicisation. The author analyses the evolving SDS discourse and its effects among Bosnian Serbs through two key concepts – the notion of performativity, inspired by Judith Butler, and the idea of ‘semiotic commonplaces’, borrowing from Patrick Jackson’s ‘rhetorical commonplaces’ – to explore the relationship between the structuring properties of discourse and political agency.

Chapter Two introduces the book’s central concept, affect, so as to overcome the bias towards rational thinking usually present in analyses of ethnic, or ethnicised, conflict. Affects are presented as both social and embodied – ‘experienced through external encounters and transmitted through bodies’ (28) – producing particular feelings and triggering particular emotions. The concept of affect is the tool with which Maksić explores how discourse is received by its audiences to understand the experiences that underlie the process of ethno‑politicisation. Discourse becomes a vehicle for the circulation of affect, with semiotic commonplaces as the basic elements linking the affective and the discursive, to potentially generate an array of axes of collective solidarity, whilst performativity contributes to determine which of these will become politically relevant. Thus performativity is closely connected to agency, here presented as intersubjectively generated. This allows the author to frame political parties as ‘discourse coalitions’ that bring together and transform ‘the organization’s heterogeneous members into a unique agent’ (42).

Readers less interested in the book’s theoretical contribution may feel tempted to skim through or skip altogether the first two chapters. I would like to encourage them to resist such temptation. Once applied to the empirical findings, the theoretical framework will not only make much more sense, but, above all, it will provide a deeper understanding of the dynamics at stake. The empirical chapters make extensive use of the jargon defined in the theoretical chapters, since these are the tools that make Maksić’s sophisticated analysis of the historical events leading up to the Bosnian war original and relevant. But the reading nevertheless flows, even if densely packed with historic details as well as analytical insights.

It is clear the author has spared no efforts in his data collection, and the book includes an array of information not previously known or adequately explored. Drawing from social movements literature to establish a threefold approach, Maksić starts by exploring opportunity structures to offer an account of how SDS emerged (Chapter Three) and how the dramatic evolution of the wider political context both in Yugoslavia and in Bosnia influenced the party (Chapter Four). The following two chapters explore resource mobilisation, focusing on the organisational resources available (Chapter Five), as well as the material resources, including funding, access to media technologies and to weaponry (Chapter Six). Finally, the author examines cultural framings to analyse the performative structure of SDS discourse before and after the 1990 election campaign through an exploration of its master frames (Chapter Seven) and collective action frames (Chapters Eight and Nine).

Maksić is at his best in his exploration of the SDS master and voter mobilisation frames. The author shows how the commonplaces present in historical myths and traumatic experiences were skillfully employed by the SDS leadership to denounce the civic-minded as ‘estranged Serbs’ and present themselves as ‘real Serbs’ engaged in the national reawakening of the Serb people and endowed with the mission to ‘teach Serbs how to be Serbs’ (176). The attachment of an important part of the Bosnian Serb population to the partisan legacy and the civic identity (jugoslovenstvo) promoted by the communist regime posed a significant problem for the SDS, given that its main electoral rivals were not the other ethnic parties but the SDP, the Social Democratic Party that succeeded the Bosnian communist party, and the newly formed Union of Reform Forces, led by the Yugoslav Prime Minister Ante Marković, both of which ran on a civic platform involving people from all ethnic backgrounds. As Maksić highlights:

the task of ethno-homogenization required that the non-ethnic sentiments be acknowledged rather than outright dismissed. (…) SDS’s tactic here was to ethnicize the Partisans by appropriating their anti-fascist virtues while discrediting their communist agenda (200-201).

This also allowed them to overcome the fundamental division between the Partisan and the Chetnik legacies, dating back to the civil war fought between the two movements during the Second World War. Maksić quotes from Radovan Karadžić’s speech in September 1990 at a political event in the town of Gradina, where during the Second World War part of the infamous Jasenovac extermination complex was located:

the question of Chetnik and Partisan movements is not a political but a historical one. From a political perspective, there are no Chetniks or Partisans, there is only a united Srpski narod [Serb people] who got unified to protect itself (201).

As for the communists, the SDS accused them of ‘not only suppressing the Serb national spirit, but also producing economic inferiority that impoverished many individual Serbs’ (201). As Maksić highlights, the ‘SDS exploited all negative by-products of the communist-led urbanisation and industrialisation as evidence of the anti-Serb conspiracy’ (201), while the moral code of the Kosovo myth was employed to label activists from the civic-based parties as Serb traitors, and to dismiss promises of material wellbeing that these parties made as temptations that a true Serb was morally bound to reject (203).

Crucially:

much of the SDS’s discourse during the election campaign was structured to diffuse the fear that the three ethno-national parties [the SDS, the SDA (Party of Democratic Action, a Muslim nationalist party) and the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union)] would produce ethnic conflict […] SDS’s self-frame included the claim that the party was the harbinger of genuine peace, in opposition to the fake and artificial peace of the communist era (203).

It was only after the elections that the SDS engaged in ‘othering’ Bosnian Croats as fascists and Bosnian Muslims as Islamic extremists, so as to create a climate of existential fear among the Bosnian Serb population. These are points that authors have previously referred to, but which have never been fully explored until now.

This is an essential book for anyone interested in the Bosnian war, but also important for anyone studying the dynamics of ethnic conflict, nation formation and the idea of nation as discourse. Adis Maksić takes the reader by the hand in a trip into the recent past, to provide insight into the process of ethno-politicisation through which a society which for almost half a century had lived peacefully, united by a widely shared civic-based identity (jugoslovenstvo) and an everyday experience as defined by the principles of ‘common life’ (zajednički život), was pushed into war and ethnic division. In the current international climate, marked by the success of populist politics, with Brexit, Donald Trump’s election and the rise of the far-right in many European countries, this book may also inspire readers to draw lessons relevant for the present context by looking back into pre-war Bosnia‑Herzegovina.


Sarah Correia is a final-year PhD student in the Department of Government at LSE. Her thesis focuses on collective memory, national identity and the experience of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Read more by Sarah Correia.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. Thank you to Sarah Correia for providing the image for this review. 

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