In Box

Brand War

Visitors to Bosnia and Herzegovina need not ask whether a local is Serb, Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian), or Croat. Such information is easily ascertained by observing a person’s choice in cigarettes, beer, or cellular telephones. Ten years after the war in Bosnia ended, almost all commercial brands in the country are exclusive to one ethnicity or ...

Visitors to Bosnia and Herzegovina need not ask whether a local is Serb, Bosniak (Muslim Bosnian), or Croat. Such information is easily ascertained by observing a person’s choice in cigarettes, beer, or cellular telephones. Ten years after the war in Bosnia ended, almost all commercial brands in the country are exclusive to one ethnicity or another.

Consider the ethnic loyalties among Bosnia’s three mobile telephone service providers. The prices the three operators charge are nearly identical, as is the quality of service each provides. Yet, almost without exception, Bosniaks use the company from Sarajevo, Serbs the one from Banja Luka, and Croats the service provider based in Mostar. "There is an element of ongoing war here," says Asim Metiljevic, a writer for Sarajevo’s weekly newsmagazine Slobodna Bosna. "People do not want to contribute to the economic prosperity of those who were on the other side during the war."

Are free markets no match for entrenched ethnic hatred? It’s too early to tell. The government only recently passed laws aimed at breaking the monopoly positions of cell phone providers. But nobody knows if free-market forces will prevail. "Perhaps the generation that has been through the war needs to disappear," suggests Metiljevic. Or perhaps all they need is a price war. Pocketbooks, after all, have a way of trumping prejudice.

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