Mostar was a key city in the war between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and became an emblem of that terrible war when the iconic Stari Most bridge was destroyed in 1993. The city has been divided for the last decade and there are no indicators of change in the near future, with a boulevard in the centre functioning as a border between the Bosnian-Croat and Bosniak communities. Politically, the two groups share power, but they maintain very poor relations and there is great mistrust between the two sides. Rebuilding projects to restore the city’s once wonderful architecture have been the main focus of reconciliation efforts, with the Stari Most Bridge reopening in 2004. However, segregation remains the norm, with the two communities divided by parallel education systems, cultural institutions, infrastructure and public works, which are planned and carried out to maintain the division (for example, bridges being built to avoid traffic connections between the two sides). These factors have resulted with the two communities living side by side but without interaction.
Mostar is a city and municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the largest and the most important city in the Herzegovina region, and the centre of the Herzegovina‐Neretva Canton of the Federation BiH.
The first written records of the city speak of a small village surrounding a suspension bridge over the Neretva River and can be dated to 1474. During the Ottoman period (15th-19th century), the settlement expanded to become one of the most important administrative and commercial centres in Hezegovina, with the development of the settlement into the more modern city of Mostar and the renovation of the bridge into the single-span masonry arch called the “Stari Most” or the “Old Bridge.” It is from this bridge that the name of the city is derived as “Mostar,” meaning “bridge keeper” in the local language.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire absorbed Mostar in 1878 and ruled there until the end of World War I in 1918. During their rule, the Austro-Hungarians implemented urban policies that modernised the city though development of traffic infrastructure and urbanisation of the city centre.
During the 20th century, the city was affected by wider geopolitical circumstances, becoming first a part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, then the Independent State of Croatia, and finally the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After World War II, under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the city gradually became a major industrial and tourist centre and prospered economically.
Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, and the town was subject to conflicts until the signing of Dayton Agreement in 1995. Mostar was a key city in the war between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, with most of the city – including the iconic Stari Most – being destroyed by constant shelling from all sides. However, the Stari Most and many of the other historical structures destroyed in the war, have been or are in the process of being reconstructed.
Mostar has been a divided city for the last decade and there are no indicators of change in the near future. A street in the centre of the city called the “Boulevard” has functioned as the borderline between the Bosnian-Croat and the Bosniak communities. The city is almost equally divided between Croats and Bosniaks, with the Croats having a slight numerical edge. There are a small number of Serbs living in the city, however most left during the war.
According to the census in 1991, 126,628 people were recorded living in the city area (43,856 of Bosnians, 43,037 of Bosnian Croats, 23,846 of Bosnian Serbs, 12,768 of Yugoslavs and 3,121 of others). According to the census in 2013, 113,186 people live in the city area.
The reopening of the Stari Most bridge in 2004 has failed to bring the Croats and the Bosniaks together, and the city remains divided. The Croats live on the Western side of the river and the Bosniaks reside on the Eastern side. Politically, the Croats and the Bosniaks share power equally, as outlined in the Dayton Accords. Nonetheless, Croats and Bosniaks maintain very poor relations, and there is great mistrust and dislike between the two sides. In fact, it has been noted by some that it is as if there is a wall between the two sides of the river, not a bridge.
Elections across Bosnia and Herzegovina last occurred in Ocotober 2018; however, local elections in Mostar have been suspended due to a need for reform in the electoral law to ensure proportional representation of the population. The mandates for local councillors in Mostar expired in October 2012 and have been left unfilled since their departure. Nationally, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina collapsed in May 2012, after running for only six months. The previous elections were held in October 2010, yet due to the fragility of the political situation, a coalition government did not form until fourteen months later.
Rebuilding projects to restore the city’s once wonderful architecture have been the main reconciliation effort for the city, and much foreign investment has contributed to this cause. Today, the division is supported primarily by:
- parallel education systems divided on national basis
- parallel cultural institutions which glorify nationalist attitudes
- ideologies that have changed throughout the last century and are reflected in architecture
- infrastructure, including the divided water supply system, waste management system, among others
- urban construction works, planned to support and maintain the city as a divided entity, bridges built to avoid traffic connections between the two sides, a street with four traffic lanes along the borderline, etc.
It is important to mention that despite the absence of a physical barrier, the city is clearly divided in terms of everyday life. While there have been attempts to rehabilitate shared spaces, the two communities still live next to each other without interaction. Consensus has so far been reached only in matters regarding the strengthening of urban polarization, discarding any possibility of rehabilitating public spaces.
Mostar has not had local elections since 2008, when the High Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina deemed the system unconstitutional. It is the now the only municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which local elections have not been held in over a decade. Mayor Ljubo Beslic has ran the municipality alone, without a municipal council and the Bosniak-dominated Party for Democratic Action (SDA) and the Croatian Democratic Union party (HDZ) seem no closer to making inroads to reform the voting system to alter this.
In 2017, the country marked twenty-five years since the start of the Bosnian War. That same year the European Parliament wrote in a report to representatives of Bosnia-Herzegovina that “reform efforts are often hampered by ethnic and political divisions, caused by deeply –rooted disintegrative tendencies hindering normal democratic development.” For a country yearning for successful membership into the EU, these tensions are greatly problematic. In August 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination “called on Bosnian authorities to include in its criminal code all grounds for discrimination, to ensure that local laws enable equal rights for all, and end the ‘two schools under one roof’.”
These ethno-nationalistic fissures have created a narrative of a paralyzed Mostar. While the economy is growing, mainly due to international aid, unemployment amongst young adults in 2018 was nearly 60%. This has led to a mass exodus of young leaving Mostar and emigrating to Western Europe. The elderly now outnumbers the youth, and the population in Mostar and Bosnia and Herzegovina looks to decrease by 2050.