SURF Feature: Benjamin Selimotic ’24 Studies Youth Nationalism in Post-Conflict Societies

News Story categories: German Political Science Student Spotlight
Ben Selimotic leaning against a fence with a city and mountains behind him

Benjamin Selimotic ’24’s (Political Science and German double-major) hometown of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, sits on the Neretva River, which bisects the mountainous Balkan city as the James River does Richmond City. As Selimotic describes it, the Neretva River also divides his home along ethnic lines.

“It’s a physical barrier that reinforces an imaginary barrier,” Selimotic explained. 

Selimotic returned to Mostar this summer to gather research for his Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) project, titled “Nationalism and the Youth of the 21st Century.” His research explores how growing up in a post-conflict nation like Bosnia and Herzegovina influences nationalist leanings among youth. Specifically focusing on Mostar, Selimotic’s project incorporates interviews with Bosnian youth and activists, as well as international aid and non-governmental organizations, bringing together diverse perspectives to weigh in on the complicated issue of what unites—and separates—a nation’s youth.

A Nation of Factions

Selimotic said he’s always been drawn to the Neretva River and what it represents. To many people in Mostar, it symbolizes the ethnic tensions that have existed between Bosnian Muslims on one side of the river and Croat Catholics on the other, an implicit border between communities that fought one another during the Bosnian War. Those racial, ethnic, and nationalistic anxieties have only intensified since the war’s end in 1995, underpinning what one journalist described as “the world’s most complicated system of government” in which three constituent nations—Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs—attempt to work together. The resulting effect is one of deeply entrenched ethnic division among the country’s populace.

“In Bosnia, pretty much everything is intertwined with religion and nationality. You can’t separate politics from ethnic identity,” Selimotic explained. “So if you’re Bosnian, you’re Muslim. If you’re a Croat, you’re Catholic. If you’re a Serb, you’re [Eastern] Orthodox. There isn’t much tolerance for mixing and matching here.”

Selimotic remembers his family taking a different approach. His family spoke openly about the importance of building bridges between people from different backgrounds and modeled that belief in their personal life. Many of the other families he knew growing up kept their social circles closed to those from different nationalities. Selimotic said that bias still lives on today and inspired him to devote his nine-week research fellowship to understanding whether people his age and younger share those same prejudices.

“It’s been 26 years since the war ended, but sadly the presence of hateful nationalism among Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats is still very much alive,” said Selimotic. “I’m interested to learn how young people in particular think about what divides and connects us as a nation compared to what the previous generation thought.”

Meeting virtually on a six-hour time difference, Selimotic and his SURF mentor, Professor of Political Science Brian Turner, Ph.D., discussed approaches to shaping interview questions and what scholarly materials would best inform the research process. Selimotic said he appreciated how supportive and accessible Dr. Turner was given the project’s broad scope.

“Not only is Dr. Turner interested in this topic, but he has a great deal of knowledge about former Yugoslavia, Sarajevo, Bosnia, and the surrounding areas,” said Selimotic. “Plus, he’s been great about supporting me while I’ve been abroad. He’s super responsive to emails, no matter when I send them, and is always willing to jump on Zoom for a discussion.”

Dr. Turner elaborated on Selimotic’s SURF project by saying, “It is important to remember that even under conditions of ethnic segregation, most people around the world live at peace with their neighbors most of the time. Benjamin’s research is designed to understand and promote peaceful coexistence in such conditions and to work towards overcoming segregation in his hometown.”

Two Schools Under One Roof

Dvije škole pod jednim krovom. In Bosnian, it translates to “two schools under one roof” and refers to state-sanctioned school segregation following the Bosnian War. Under this policy, students of the same age are divided by ethnicity. Each group uses a different entrance, attends different classes with different curricula, and in some cases is physically separated by fences. Given the fragmentation of the Bosnian educational system, Selimotic encountered complications while gathering young people’s opinions on any given issue.

“The topics of nationalism and identity are subjective to begin with,” he said. “I found that those issues are even more complicated among Bosnian youth, who go to the same schools but learn different histories and different understandings of their national origin.”

To gain an objective look at the Bosnian youth mindset, Selimotic turned to scholarly books and articles carrying international credibility. Selimotic also leaned on contacts he made during previous internships, working closely with members of international organizations like the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union Delegation, as well as journalists and politicians he knows.

However, the main thrust of his research required him to speak directly to Bosnian youth for first-hand accounts of their experience as Bosnians. “It was really important for me to make genuine, in some cases lifelong, connections with the people I was studying, to let them know I care about their experiences and what they have to share with the world,” said Selimotic.

Bringing these wide-ranging perspectives together was no small feat, but Selimotic was up for the challenge. “I’ve led workshops with Bosnian youth, I’ve coordinated youth outreach programs, I’ve worked with international organizations who also care about Bosnian youth, and I’ve lived in Bosnia for 20 years,” he said. “There’s nothing in the world I’m more passionate about.”

Hope for the Future

Selimotic learned that while factional nationalism is still the norm among Bosnians at all ages, several bright spots have appeared in recent years signaling a sea change among younger people. Those issues, he says, bridge young people across ethnic lines precisely because they haven’t yet been coopted for political purposes to turn groups against one another.

One of those bright spots is in the local schools. In his research, Selimotic found several schools that defy the “two schools under one roof” policy. Mostar Rock School, for instance, is a music school founded on common values of cooperation, diversity, and inclusivity. UWC Mostar, Selimotic’s alma mater, has an explicit aim to bring students together in post-conflict and transitional societies. Selimotic says these schools help younger Bosnians get to know one another outside of their group affiliations, and that schools like these curb nationalist leanings through increased exposure to different cultures.

Another is the recent establishment of a city council in Bosnia—the first in 12 years. Though the new local government mirrors many of the nationalistic biases seen among the population, Selimotic is optimistic that this development is a step in the right direction. That same hope was shared by many of the newly politically activated young people Selimotic interviewed.

“Having new mayors in all three major Bosnian cities is taken as a sign of goodwill among Bosnian youth. It shows that politicians are receptive to change and willing to talk about issues young people care about,” Selimotic said.

Finally, Selimotic learned that the Neretva River itself is bringing youth together. Protecting the river and the environment more broadly is an issue that appeared again and again in his research. It’s common today to see new organizations like the New Alliance for the Protection of the Balkan Rivers, a pan-Balkan alliance to protect local rivers, highlighting the collective struggle young people share to preserve their environment and winning support across ethnic divisions.

Taken together, the issues uncovered in Selimotic’s research point toward waning devotion to national identity among Bosnian youth and increased buy-in for unifying measures, several of which are making strides in Mostar. Selimotic said he’s happy his SURF project discovered that young people in his hometown are advocating for change, even if that change is slow and experiences setbacks along the way. One of his interviewees summed it up this way: “It’s going to take a long time, but we’re going to get there.”