Should Bosnians Be Recognized as a Minority in Austria?

As long ago as 1976, with the passage of the Status of Ethnic Minorities Act, Austria has been publicly committed to respecting the rights of its largest resident ethnic groups and providing for official representation. Initially applied to the Hungarian minority in Burgenland and the Czechs in Vienna, it has since been expanded to include Croatian, Slovak, and Slovene minorities, and later the Roma.

In the summer of 2020, a group of Austrian academics from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the GBAÖ (Gesellschaft Bosnischer Akademiker in Österreich), launched an initiative to extend similar recognition to the Bosnian minority. “We Austrians with Bosnian heritage believe that the time will soon be ripe for the recognition of the Bosnians as an ethnic group in Austria,” they wrote on their website. The goal is to become an officially recognized ethnic group of Bosnians in Austria, furthering their active participation in the history, culture, and politics of Austria, they wrote. 

Bosnians Living in Austria

People from Bosnia and Herzegovina have been living in the Austrian Republic for generations, often with ties going back centuries. From the days of the Empire, Bosnians have been woven into Austria’s history, and are among the five largest ethnic groups in Austria and one of the best integrated. So as part of Austria for hundreds of years, you would think their presence would be taken for granted. Yet, unlike their Croatian and Hungarian and Slovene neighbors, they are not entitled to official recognition or public representation. 

In June 2013 the city of Wels has unveiled its Platz der Bosniaken – Trg Bošnjaka square in front of the Bosnian Austrian Cultural Center, as a symbol of recognition and appreciation of the Bosnian people living in Austria. Just seven years later in 2020 the first woman of Bosnian descent, Alma Zadić, a laywer and politician of the Green party, was sworn in as the Minister of Justice of Austria. 

Their biggest supporter is Circle 99, an independent association of intellectuals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who believe that recognition would strengthen the community’s position and protect them from discrimination,  and could be a factor in the revitalization of the Bosnian state, with benefits not only for Bosnian in Austria, but also for Bosnians living in Bosnia. 

The Bosnian constitution, drawn up by European and American experts as part of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, privileges the three largest ethnic groups – Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats and Serbs – and identifies them as “constitutive ethnic groups.” The constitutional text also refers to 17 national minorities, including Jews and Roma. These groups are defined as “Others.” According to the constitution, these minorities, around 12 percent of the population, have neither the right to run for the presidency nor a seat in the parliament because of their religion, ethnicity or where they live. 

The constitution also forbids people who do not want to indicate ethnic identity to run for the highest office. Bosnia is still considered to be the only country in the world with a constitution that describes some of its citizens as “Others.” In 2009 the internationally famous case of
Dervo Sejdić, a Bosnian Roma, and Jakob Finci, a Bosnian Jew shed light on the discriminatory nature of Bosnia’s electoral system, which has not been changed since its landmark ruling. 

The special legal protection of minorities is one of the central pillars of the Austrian constitution. Like the long-established tradition of the Habsburgs, members of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other minorities are to be recognized and protected from discrimination. So, over time, as described above, six groups have been recognized, groups whose rights were initially enshrined under independent states in the Peace Treaty of Saint Germain, after the First World War. 

However, it had nothing to do with their rights within Austria, which was established with the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, which recognized Croat and Slovene as additional official languages in Burgenland, Carinthia, and Styria – including the requirement for bilingual road signs – and banned acts of discrimination. 

Some of the most important safeguards involve language, which is the living vessel of a minority culture. It can be next to impossible for a minority to survive as a group in a society where one language dominates teaching, administration, media, and the public. So, one of the most important rights is that a group can use its mother tongue in official settings. There are also special measures for bi-lingual education, as well as bilingual or multilingual place-name signs in the areas where large numbers of minorities live. 

None of this is easy, and the actual implementation of ethnic group rights has been a difficult topic in Austria for a long time. In particular, the question of putting up bilingual place-name signs has repeatedly given rise to conflicts in the past. 

These rights, however, only protect those minorities who are recognized as ethnic groups and who have Austrian citizenship. People who have come to Austria from other countries and live here cannot make use of these rights, even if they are already citizens.

So, the question remains whether Austria is ready to officially recognize another ethnic group, in this case. one that has been linked to the Republic for so long historically, politically, and culturally? Or rather, is this recognition even viable for an ethnic group, which still battles with its own past?