What is a nationalist? Some Thoughts on the Question from Bosnia-Herzegovina

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Larisa Kurtović


This short piece offers an ethnographic analysis of political dynamics in a small, divided town in central Bosnia[i], while [s1] also reflecting on some recurrent assumptions about the nature of nationalist politics and belonging in the Balkans.  When it comes to this country, researchers and political reformists face a serious conundrum: despite 16 years of internationally sponsored reconciliation and rebuilding purportedly aimed at creating a unified state, the country's voters continue to give their preference to rival nationalist parties. Subsequently, many analyses suggest that Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks (Muslims) remain convinced of the saliency of nationalism, its categories and the forms of political organization it offers.  The conclusion that seems to follow is that because the majority of country’s citizens choose nationalists as their “legitimate” representatives, they are themselves nationalists.  Even some anthropologists, such as Hayden (2007), argue that electoral numbers in the region reflect the “true” native's point of view—that of a nationalist—which may make us uncomfortable but will also give access to some kind of a "real" that must be a starting point for both analysis and political intervention. On the other hand, international “humanitarians” and liberal reformists in Bosnia will make abundant use of the same conundrum to insist that nationalism is a form of false consciousness that can be eradicated through education, increase in political literacy, and confrontation with cold, hard facts (about corruption, inefficiency, poverty, etc.)

I want to complicate this view of nationalism as a “matter of conviction” by narrating the story of Zlata[ii], a young woman in town who was rumored, despite her repeated rebuttals, to be a member of a nationalist party. In the course of this move, I turn towards the processes whereby people come to enact, reproduce and make real nationalist frameworks irrespective of their values or intentions.  In my analysis, the very figure of the nationalist becomes a theoretical, ethical and political problem rather than an empirical reality.[iii]

[i] Throughout this text, I will use Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bosnia interchangeably.


[ii] The names of informants and other identifying markers have been changed to protect confidentiality.

[iii] The same kind of a claim could be made for the figure out the “antinationalist.” In that sense, I fold mine into Stef Jansen’s argument (2005) that nationalism as well as antinationalism form sets of discursive practices that become enacted by but also remain unevenly available to different people.

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Notes from the Field