Citizens are rising up in cities across Bosnia-Herzegovina, demanding more out of their democracy, especially accountability among officials and improved standards of living.
BRUSSELS — Thousands of people have taken to the streets in several cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina to protest the country’s political and economic stagnation. Amid what is said to be the worst civil unrest since the end of the civil war in 1995, they are demanding the resignation of the government.
The protests began spontaneously in the northern industrial town of Tuzla on Feb. 5, when impoverished workers gathered in front of the regional government building. They demanded their unpaid salaries and pensions after the sudden collapses of four formerly state-run companies that employed thousands of people. The companies were privatized, but the new owners sold the assets, laid off the staff and filed for bankruptcy.
The workers were joined by students and political activists, and demonstrations quickly turned violent when protesters stoned and torched the seat of the local authority and clashed with police. Fury then rapidly spread to the capital, Sarajevo, and other large urban areas, drawing in workers, students and war veterans with a wide range of grievances.
In Sarajevo, protesters also set fire to the presidency building and hurled rocks and stones at police.
There has been a variety of responses from authorities. In Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica, senior officials have resigned. In other places, like Mostar, there has been a firm clampdown on protesters.
The demonstrations are the result of long-held discontent with the sluggish economy, mismanagement, corruption and unemployment – which stands at almost 30 percent. The Bosnian population is expressing its dissatisfaction with an entire political class widely believed to be ruling in the interests of the elite, not the people, and with the country’s cumbersome, dysfunctional and disproportionally expensive government structure.
“If the representatives in power in the local government are not capable of fulfilling the demands of their citizens, we believe that there is no reason for them to continue working in their position and in that case we ask for their unconditional resignations,” the citizens of Prijedor wrote in an open letter.
The unrest is unprecedented in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the war years (1992-1995) were so traumatic that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – formerly known as Bosnian Muslims – have tolerated a situation in which politicians have prospered as standards of living have declined rather than risk a return to conflict.
Legacy of Dayton Agreement
The world was grateful when Richard Holbrooke and Carl Bildt gathered Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks together at an American air force base in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, chivvying them into a deal that ended years of blood bath. But the truth is that the Dayton Agreement contained the seeds of future problems.
The problem with the Dayton Agreement was that, in order to get the participation of the three warring parties, Holbrooke and Bildt essentially endorsed the ethnic partition of the country and created an unwieldy federal structure and a weak, ethnically-based central government.
The agreement divided the country into two entities, each with its own president, government, parliament and police: the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska – or Serb Republic; and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, comprised of 10 federal cantons, each with its own cabinet. On top sat a weak Bosnian national government supposed to coordinate all the layers below it, with a system that involved a rotating presidency between Bosnia’s Serb, Croat and Bosniak communities.
The result was that the ethno-nationalist elites who were primarily responsible for the war, were rewarded by ethnic partition, and the mess of overlapping and competing administrations became a hunting ground for ethnically-based politicians. Bosnia-Herzegovina has been in a state of paralysis ever since, and Bosnians realize that the cumbersome political structure is, to a large extent, responsible for this.
“I don’t want ministers. I don’t want cantons. I don’t want 15 governments. Ministers are morons,” a banner at the Sarajevo demonstrators stated. “There is far too much government, but no salaries, no jobs and no health insurance,” another sign declared.
The system has been extremely inefficient at creating a well-functioning economy. Dodgy privatizations have led to the closure of factories, particularly in the once-thriving town of Tuzla. For years, external assistance, mainly from the European Union, continued to pour in, staving off a major outburst. But then, the EU cut its aid and life started getting worse for ordinary people.
“I think what happened there was a wake-up call for the European Union and to the international community,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told reporters in Brussels on Feb. 10.
Hague said there is a need to focus more efforts on helping Bosnia-Herzegovina toward gaining European Union membership, which would end the stagnation in Bosnian politics and government. “I think this will become a more important issue over the coming months,” he added.
It is not clear, though, whether EU membership would improve the situation. Bosnian leaders are once again trying to portray the unrest as ethnically rooted. They claim to be defending their own people against another ethnic group: Bosniak political elites claim the protests are orchestrated by Serbs to destabilize the country and bring about the secession of the Serb entity; Serb and Croat elites claim the protests are organized by Bosniaks to destroy the country’s federal organization.
Lessons from the Bosnian protests
In Bosnia, people are not arguing about national identity, religion or linguistic differences. The protests are markedly non-nationalistic and rest on the principle that all Bosnians are the victims of a cumbersome system. “This is a socio-economic rebellion. There is no story here of ethnic divisions,” activist Emir Hodžić said in an interview with Radio Slobodna Europe.
This means that the solution likely lies in creating a more integrated system. The first lesson to be taken away from the Bosnian protests may be this: the time has come to review the ethnic-based system created by the Dayton Agreement.
The second lesson is about the meaning of democracy. Certain media have presented the people in the streets as hooligans and vandals. “This is simply not true,” Emir Hodžić stressed.
In other words, in a clear attempt to discredit them and discredit their demands, protesters in Bosnia have been portrayed as rioters, not as citizens dissatisfied with the way they are being governed.
This is exactly what has been happening is other countries in Europe, like Spain and Greece, and in the United States, where protesters with legitimate demands are often portrayed as vandals or criminals by the authorities.
The disdain showed by representatives of the international community for the Bosnian people’s demands is significant. The High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, warned citizens that if unrest continues, EU military forces could arrive in Bosnia to maintain peace. There has not been a single expression of sympathy for the demands of the Bosnian citizens.
Unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina has exposed the more critical question of what democracy is about. By all standards, this is a democratic country: there have been free elections; there is freedom of speech; there is no institutional violence against citizens. Most citizens appear free to live their lives as they deem fit. Many leaders in Europe and in the United States claim this is what democracy is about, and as a result, any protest can only be illegitimate.
Can there be real democracy when the political elite is unaccountable? When elected representatives do not care about the needs of the citizens? When there are striking levels of inequality? When public policies are poor? When citizens feel that their voices are not being heard because the situation doesn’t change, no matter who they vote for?
In other words, is democracy about elections, merely a formal procedure that citizens are supposed to take at face value? Or does it mean something more substantial, something more fundamental, like having elected representatives who actually care about the people who voted for them?
What Bosnia is confronted with is the rebellion of an entire population that has been subjected to economic impoverishment, social devastation and political unaccountability. In this, it is a reflection of what has happened elsewhere in Europe: populations are exhausted by austerity measures and left to their own devices after the collapse of the welfare state, a state that deploys heavily armed police to protect themselves against ordinary citizens.
In this sense, Bosnian protesters are part of a growing movement across Europe and the United States comprised of people who are fed up with the way their leaders govern, who want more accountability, who want better social standards and services.
In other words, they want better democratic outcomes. The rise in popular unrest shows that there is a problem with the minimalist, strictly formal way our leaders have come to define democracy.