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Feature 06 Dec 17

Bosnia’s ‘Foreign’ Flag Still Draws Mixed Feelings

Some 17 years after post-war Bosnia got its official flag, many Bosnian citizens still refuse to recognise it.

Mladen Lakic
East Sarajevo
The large flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been unvelied in Sarajevo in late November. Photo: Samir Jordanovic/Anadolu

Sarajevo city authorities recently proudly presented what they said was the biggest flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina ever created, which was then erected on the TV tower overlooking the capital from Hum hill.

The occasion marked one of Bosnia’s historic days, November 25, the day in 1943, in the middle of World War II, when the decision was made to recreate Bosnia and Herzegovina as a constituent part of a new Yugoslav federation.

Yet, 74 years on, many Bosnian citizens, especially those living in Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, do not observe the date as a national day.

Furthermore, many other Bosnians still have mixed feelings about their national symbols.

Some Bosnian Croats, as well as Serbs, prefer to rally either behind their entities’ flags, or behind the national flags and anthems of Serbia and Croatia.

These divergent attitudes towards Bosnia’s national symbols show that - 22 years after the 1992-5 war ended – Bosnians are still struggling to build a common national identity.

This situation is reflected in legislation; the current law does not specify when, or where, flags can be displayed that are not official.

This has led to awkward situations. One occurred last week, when a Bosniak [Muslim] café owner in Janja, in Serb-dominated northeast Bosnia, placed the Bosnian national flag in the window of his café to mark November 25.

Communal inspectors soon arrived and told him to take it down, saying that day was marked only in Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation, not in Republika Srpska.

A flag imposed by foreigners

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia on April 6, 1992.

A new Bosnian flag was immediately unveiled, consisting of a blue shield with six gold fleur-de lys.

But as warfare between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs erupted immediately, the new flag was only really displayed in territory held by the mainly Bosniak Bosnian army.

Most Croats and Serbs rallied behind their respective Croatian and Serbian flags.

Bosnia’s current national flag, in use since 1998, then appeared when the country’s then international governor, High Representative Carlos Westendrop, imposed the design of a new national flag after Bosnian leaders failed to agree on one.

The design of the flag, the coat-of-arms as well as the tune of the national anthem, were produced through an international tender run by the Office of the High Representative, who then imposed a law declaring the selected options as Bosnia's national symbols.

Unsurprisingly, many people have little emotional connection to them.

The official flag comprises a medium blue field with seven full five-pointed white stars and two half-stars lined along the hypotenuse of the yellow triangle.

The three points of the triangle stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.

But Edin Topic, aged 27, from Sarajevo told BIRN, that few people identify with it.

“That flag just doesn’t make any sense. It looks like some EU flag and for sure we are not in the EU. If you have three nations, it is hard to hope they will respect only one flag,” he added.

“I am not saying that I like or dislike the flag … but we can see that this flag isn’t that popular.”

Vedad Nezirovic, a taxi driver from Sarajevo, was of a similar opinion.

“I respect the official flag in the way I respect all laws, but for me this flag has no meaning,” he told BIRN.

“I am not sure what those stars and colours are representing at all, and I preferred the old one that we used with the lilies.”

Others flags are more in use

When it comes to the entities, Republika Srpska’s official flag is a rectangular tricolour with three equal horizontal bands of red, blue and white. It resembles the Serbian national flag and, as such, is respected by the mostly Serb residents of the RS.

It is omnipresent across Republika Srpska, where state flags can rarely be seen, except on official sites in front of institutions.

“I am not sure I know anyone here who likes the state flag enough to use it on cars on wedding days or similar,” Milica Tolj, aged 30, from East Sarajevo in the RS, said.

"In most such cases, the Republika Srpska flag is used or sometimes Serbia’s flag,” she added, noting that she can understand why Bosnia’s national flag is often unwanted.

“We didn’t choose this flag. Someone just decided that we need to use it, and I believe this is why we are in this situation,” she said.

“I am not sure what the colours or the stars on the flag mean, probably something connected with the EU,” she concluded.

Unlike the RS, the mainly Bosniak and Croat-populated Federation entity has no official flag. The one that was in use previously was declared unconstitutional.

The Brcko District uses only the national flag.

Meanwhile, long after the Yugoslav federation, the SFRY, ceased to exist, its flag still commands a good deal of respect among some older Bosnians.

“This was my flag,” pensioner Obren Zivadinovic, aged 68, from East Sarajevo told BIRN, nostalgically.

“Under that flag we were respected all over the world, while all of these new ones can’t be even compared with SFRY flag.

“Back then, you wouldn’t even ask questions about the national flag, but today I can understand that for many people the flag has no meaning at all since we devaluated everything” Obren concluded.

Regulation of ‘flags question’ needed

 Ahmed Musija, 30, a peace activist from Sarajevo, told BIRN that finding common symbols that everyone can identify with is not easy in Bosnia.

“In a country where most of the population see themselves as Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs it is hard to find a flag that all of them can relate to,” he said.

“Politicians, who often use this problem to promote Bosnia's ethnic divisions, only make the situation worse.”

Many experts and some politicians believe the controversies over Bosnia’s different flags and symbols need to be resolved.

Sasa Magazinovic, an MP in the state parliament, from the opposition Social Democratic Party, recently launched an initiative to regulate this area.

He decided to launch this initiative while travelling through the town of Zenica, where he saw a big Swedish flag displayed over one of the houses.

“My aim is not to forbid flags … but we need to have proper regulations," he told BIRN.

“It is not normal that someone can put every flag in a public space just because he likes it. I hope that we will resolve this.”

For some Bosnian citizens, however, the Bosnian flag has become their national symbol and they need no law to confirm that.

In May, the main town of Republika Srpska, Banja Luka, hosted a marathon in which one participant, Nudzejma Softic, decided to run wearing a hijab and Bosnia’s national flag.

"Some people told me that I shouldn’t have the flag with me in Banja Luka because it might be seen as a provocation but I told them – this is a flag for all of us. Why should I make exception here?” she told regional TV station N1.

“Carrying the national flag meant a lot to me. I feel like I am doing something for my country, and I have a flag with me whether I am abroad or in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” she concluded.

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