No Eurovision act has ever had as dramatic or dangerous a debut as Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1993, while the country was in the middle of a brutal war of independence, six performers crossed an airport runway near the capital, Sarajevo, and crossed over Mount Igman. It had taken Muhamed Fazlagic (aka Fazla) and his band two attempts to escape the besieged city across the runway’s cold and exposed tarmac, and on the night they finally made it, six others were killed making the same journey.
A few weeks later, Fazla’s band arrived in Ireland to perform “Sva Bol Svijeta” (“All the Pain of the World”) at the Eurovision Song Contest. It is an emotional watch: the jury vote from Bosnia and Herzegovina comes in over a screechy satellite phone from Sarajevo, a city that by 1993 was enduring the worst of a siege that was to last a year longer than Leningrad. According to Jonathan Ellen, who is making a film about the subject, a former Bosnian deputy prime minister later remarked it was one of the first times the world saw the country and its flag without it being draped over a coffin.
What Fazla’s band perhaps didn’t know at the time, however, was for just how long the links between music, Eurovision and Bosnian national identity would continue to resonate.
It is now five years since Bosnia and Herzegovina sent anyone to Eurovision, and the country is looking more fragile than at any time since the 1995 peace accords were signed: an uncredited diplomatic note circulated among EU diplomats at the end of April suggested dismembering the nation so that parts of it could be incorporated into both Serbia and Croatia.
The wars and complicated political settlement underpinning the peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina have left a heavily decentralised, dysfunctional and often corrupt system together with rival nationalisms that were never resolved postwar. For example, the current president representing Bosnian Serbs in the three-member presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, believes the country should not exist. The government of the Republika Srpska, the Serb political entity within Bosnia, does not believe in “common institutions, common symbols for Bosnia Herzegovina”, explains Dean Vuletic, a historian at the University of Vienna. “If you go to Republika Srpska you will hardly see flags of Bosnia and Herzegovina being flown. You see the flag of the [Bosnian Serb] entity.”
The Bosnian public TV broadcaster has been at the centre of a related dispute over the future of national institutions. Nationalist Serb and Croat politicians have encouraged citizens not to pay the licence fee, and the complex system of governance means little can be done to enforce payment, Neven Andjelic from Regent’s University London explains. This means the national broadcaster is heavily in debt, and cannot participate in Eurovision until it pays off the debt it has built up with the European Broadcasting Union, which runs the contest.
“The one thing they [Bosnians] can get behind as a nation is their national [football] team,” says Ellen. Popular and unifying events for Bosnia have become a target for rival nationalists to undermine and promote their own nationalist values. For example, there are demands to set up a Croatian-only broadcaster out of the city of Mostar, something Ellen describes as a “power play” by the Croats.
This did not have to be the case. The musical culture of the former Yugoslavia is now largely a shared market. In recent years, several musicians have represented different states of the former Yugoslavia in Eurovision, with Vukašin Brajić competing as part of a band for Serbia in 2009 and then Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2010, and the band Feminnem representing Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005 and Croatia in 2010. Immediately after the peace agreement in 1995, Andjelic explains, Bosnia and Herzegovina would unofficially revolve its Eurovision entry between the three ethnic communities (Bosniak, Serb and Croat) – awkwardly replicating some of the practices of Yugoslavia to ensure ethnic balance and representation.
People in Bosnia are now “genuinely fearing for the future of their country”, says Ellen. The country has continued to function under a set of institutions designed to end the war and not promote the peace, and those are breaking down. However, he feels the most positive development is the election of Joe Biden because the new US president is engaged with the issues in the region.
Still, when Eurovision is broadcast this year, Bosnia and Herzegovina will again be absent, and that is a concerning sign. According to Andjelic: “Giving up on Eurovision reflects the state of state-owned television and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”