February 13, 2014
Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) is an artificial administrative creature made by foreign powers in Dayton agreement on 1995. It has two political semi-independent entities (federal units) – Serb dominated Republika Srpska (RS) and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) inhabited mainly by Croats and Bosniacs. The 2014 unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina began in the northern town of Tuzla on 3 February 2014, but quickly spread to multiple cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including Sarajevo, for social reasons with the aim of overthrowing the government. The riots are the most violent scenes the country has seen since the end of the Bosnian War.
- The three points of the triangle represent the nation’s three ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. The triangle itself represents the geographic shape of the nation itself. The colors represent neutrality and peace, whereas the stars represent Europe.
Over the last several days Bosnia and Herzegovina saw widespread unrest as protesters clashed with police and burn government buildings, leaving scores injured and arrested, mainly in the ethnically mixed parts of Bosnia that are governed by the Muslim-Croat Federation (FBiH), while minor protests took place also in the Republika Srpska (RS) towns of Banja Luka and Bijeljina. 30 years ago Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympic Games, now however instead of the Olympic flame Bosnians cheered to the flames that engulfed government buildings.
Cumbersome system without national identity
Despite international community’s state building efforts in Bosnia the country is splitting parts, Since war foreign aid has exceed USD 90 bn for this artificial creature designed in Dayton agreement aiming multi-ethnic state with EU perspective. As a result Bosnia is now even more divided, with less national identity, 20 percent of population living under the poverty line, with a nightmare triple administration plus international supervising making the country one of the worst place in Europe to do business west of Ukraine (according WB ease of doing business index), even as it seeks to join the European Union. The EU has demanded that if Bosnia wishes to join to EU, it must create a stronger central government. Negotiations – led by EU and U.S over constitutional changes to strengthen the central government have been long and unsuccessful.
The 10 cantons of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina serve as the second-level units of local autonomy and federal units of the of FBiH while the other political entity of BiH, the Republika Srpska (RS), has a centralized government and is divided directly into 63 municipalities. In addition the ethnically diverse Br?ko District is a division of its own under the direct jurisdiction of BiH. One peculiar aspect in BiH administration is discriminatory election process based to Dayton scribble. Bosnia’s constitution allows only the members of the Constituent Peoples – ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) – to stand for election to either the three-member Presidency or the House of Peoples. Non-constituent Peoples – defined in the Constitution as ‘Others’ like Jewish and Roma people – can only stand for election to the lower house, being denied their right to full participation in the political process.
The political crisis which has escalated in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2006, degenerated after the 2010 elections into an all-out political war in which each and every party – or even party faction – fought each other in various combinations, making and breaking alliances on almost daily level. This situation blocked the country’s reform agenda and forced the EU to halt the accession process, suspend 47 million euro of pre-accession funds for 2013 and postpone preparations for a new pre-accession package that was supposed to provide hundreds of millions of euros in grants for the period 2014-2020. Political chaos was also directly reflected in the economic and social situation, with rampant unemployment rates and rising poverty levels.
Roots of protests
Can any country survive without some minimal mutual self-identification across its citizens as a whole? If the shared non-ethnic Bosnian identity is taking steps backwards does this not mean that this artificial western desk-drawer plan is doomed to fail? I am afraid so but maybe it is loss only for those top-level designers not for local population. (More e.g. in Bosnia on the road to the EU, sorry to Dissolution )
Some sights about anger among ordinary Bosnian citizens have been seen during last couple of years. The tragic massacre in Srebrenica on July 11th1995, has ever since been traditionally used by the Bosniac and Serb leaders as a valuable propaganda resource for promoting religious and national divisions between the Bosniac and Serb population. In 2012, the rulers and their foreign sponsors were in for another surprise from the masses – and on the day of their perfect end-of-history-type ceremony, of all places. This July 11th, at the Srebrenica massacre commemoration in the Poto?ari Memorial Centre, the victims’ families demanded that no politicians give speeches. When that was ignored, the masses reacted with loud whistles and curses directed at the leaders of Bosnian parties. The loudest whistle was reportedly received by none other than the American ambassador to Bosnia.
The Bosnian government is notorious for not taking decisions partly due competing interests of the entities. In 2013 some protests started after the constitutional court ruled that the current law on ID numbers is unconstitutional and the government was unable to propose a solution, resulting in newborns not being able to receive official documents like passports and are thus unable to travel even when for example in one case there was need to get urgent medical treatment abroad. Also similar case was the dispute in Bosnia about veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians were unable to agree on who is to carry out the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers could not export their dairy products to Croatia once it came EU-member with more rigid controls.
The Bosnian Spring turned violent
Since the 1990s, all levels of government have shown utmost insensitivity to the social and economic destitution of citizens, youth, and particularly marginalised social categories. This kind of systemic institutional violence, political abuse of power, incompetence and neglect has planted seeds of anger and frustration. For nearly twenty years people of BiH have suffered under the administration of a vicious cabal of political oligarchs who have used ethno-nationalist rhetoric to obscure the plunder of BiH’s public coffers. (More eg from Al Jazeera Balkans, who maybe has the the best reporting on the events)
Whatever the roots of protests are it seems clear that now people say out loud that they have had enough of poverty, indifferent authorities, rotten values in society, bad governance and outside masterminding. Dissatisfaction with the economic and political system in the country has pushed diverse groups to unite in protest.
The protests began in Tuzla, organised by the workers of former state companies, who protested against not only the closure of companies, but also corrupt privatisation processes. These groups voiced their grievances already January 2014, demanding resignations and broader changes within the economic and social system.
On February 4th 2014 protests gained momentum when other societal groups like citizen’s associations, youth, pensioners and war veterans came out on the streets with workers in Tuzla and later in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica and other cities too. The events were similar like earlier during “Arab Spring” as the demonstrations involved many different groups of people and were not centrally organised. While organizations differed their demands were similar: government resignations, reduction of salaries for high-ranking government officials, free and quality social services, etc.
Thousands of disgruntled workers, demobilized soldiers and unemployed youth poured onto the streets as angry protests were spreading from Tuzla to other parts of FBiH. In Tuzla the situation quickly ran out control after thousands of protesters surrounded the cantonal government building. Police started firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades but after a brief clash with demonstrators, police special forces retreated and a number of protesters entered the abandoned government building and started ransacking and burning it. So far heads or governments in four cantons have resigned. Large amounts of historical documents were lost when sections of the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina were set on fire.
Dissatisfaction with a political system that does not work for the people of the country is vast and growing. Eighteen years of evidence has demonstrated that the constitutional and electoral systems put into place to end the war have worked well for the political elites for and their elaborate systems of patronage. But the rest of the country – the overwhelming majority of citizens of all national persuasions – has been left out. Public opinion polls conducted in 2013 show a clear foundation for reform, and show that all citizens – Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and the oft-neglected “others” – want constitutional reforms based on real issues and interests, which break the stranglehold of the parties that dominate political and economic life.
Class struggle instead of ethnic one
The roots of the present protests in Bosnia-Hercegovina are more based on social questions than ethnic intolerance like before. After bloodshed in the country in the 1990s there was some violence for example between Croats and Bosniacs. Beside this ethnic tension there has been now nearly two decades of privatisation, plunder and peripheral gangster capitalism, as well as the constant humiliation by the structures of the Western guidance – Office of the High Representative (OHR).
The younger generations took to the streets in the manner of protesters of “Arab Spring” a couple of years ago demanding some form of change in their living conditions and ousting the ruling elite. After Tuzla the feeling of empowerment spread throughout Bosnia like wildfire, mostly with the help of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, like in “Twitter or Color revolutions” seen earlier in Iran, Moldova etc. Although the movement originated in the workers’ protests in Tuzla, organised labour has so far not taken a lead nor any political party. Demonstrations started as spontaneous outbursts of popular anger without clear class or ethnic line.
After Tuzla people in more than 30 Bosnian cities protested demanding better living standards and government resignations. The widespread unrest saw protesters clash with police and burn government buildings, leaving scores injured and arrested. (More e.g in BalkanInsight )
Earlier dispute was between Serbs and Bosniaks as well between Bosniaks and Croats and ethnic divisions are deepening at time when Bosnia-Herzegovina is on the stage of transition from an international protectorate to one responsible for its own reform dynamics. The recent unrest is making new more severe division between the ruling elite and the rest of population. Instead of developing its “European perspective”, Bosnia-Herzegovina going backwards remaining an unwelcome, dysfunctional and divided country, with an aggrieved Bosniak (Muslim) plurality, a frustrated, increasingly defensive Serb entity, and an anxious, existentially threatened Croat population. (More about Dayton and situation in BiH e.g. in my article “Bosnia Collapsing”)
The protests were primarily carried by Bosniaks, the Muslims and took place in the Federation and in areas with a Bosniak majority. With this overall observation one should note that the protests also took place in Br?ko and Mostar, two cities that are multiethnic.Violence in Mostar against the city and cantonal administration and the HQs of the two dominant ethnonationalist parties SDA and HDZ is significant. There is no doubt that the institutions of the Croat-Bosnian FBiH are more dysfunctional than the Serbian RS with its cantons. In the RS, the government has been more successful in buying social peace and controlling the public space.
Demonstration from demonstrators perspective can be followed from their FB-site .
Avoiding the “Arab Spring” failure
After spontaneous uprising the masses managed to formulate at least in Tuzla common demands to express their fundamental interests as seen in Declaration of Workers and Citizens of the Tuzla Canton:
“1) Maintaining public order and peace in cooperation with citizens, the police and civil protection, in order to avoid any criminalization, politicization, and any manipulation of the protests.
“2) The establishment of a technical government, composed of expert, non-political, uncompromised members. [They should be people] who have held no position at any level of government and would lead the Canton of Tuzla until the 2014 elections. This government should be required to submit weekly plans and reports about its work and to fulfil its proclaimed goals. The work of the government will be followed by all interested citizens.
“3) Resolving, through an expedited procedure, all questions relating to the privatization of the following firms: Dita, Polihem, Poliolhem, Gumara, and Konjuh. The [government] should:
+ Recognize seniority and secure health insurance of the workers.
+ Process instances of economic crimes and all those involved in it.
+ Confiscate illegally obtained property.
+ Annul the privatization agreements [for these firms].
+ Prepare a revision of the privatization.
+ Return the factories to the workers and put everything under the control of the public government in order to protect the public interest, and to start production in those factories where it is possible.
“4) Equalizing the pay of government representatives with the pay of workers in the public and private sector.
“5) Eliminating additional payments to government representatives, in addition to their income, as a result of their participation in commissions, committees and other bodies, as well as other irrational and unjustified forms of compensation beyond those that all employees have a right to.
“6) Eliminating salaries for ministers and eventually other state employees following the termination of their mandates.
“This declaration is put forward by the workers and citizens of the Tuzla Canton, for the good of all of us.”
To save the achieved results of uprising and to keep the dynamic of the movement alive on grassroots there is some guidelines made by Tuzla activists:
In order to achieve this, it is of upmost importance and urgency to take the following steps:
1. Do not leave the streets! Do not go back to your homes, because in all likelihood you will find new formations of armed forces on the streets when you wake up tomorrow. Stay in touch with each other and do not let yourselves get arrested and isolated as individuals!
2. Enforce order and discipline on the streets yourselves. Violence is only useful if it is not mindless and when it is utilised for the defence of the people against government despotism. Don’t allow small-time thugs and police provocateurs to sabotage the protests by looting or by causing mayhem and fear. The city is yours – let it function under your supervision and for your own benefit.
3. Organize popular councils in your neighbourhoods, based on direct democracy and the imperative mandate of delegates. Establish a democracy that you deserve! The existing parliamentary structures have shown themselves as a cesspool of corruption and nepotism and as a springboard for the personal enrichment for the oligarchs and those politicians on their payroll. Your struggle has above all else shown that it is only the organized masses of working people who can establish order in the interest of the majority. So establish that order and do not let anyone impose someone else’s patronage over you again!
4. Demand the return of economic power into the hands of the people and democratic control over the economy! The oligarchs, who flatter themselves as “job creators” – although it was because of them that tens of thousands lost their jobs – have already shown what happens when you leave the economy in their hands. Demand the annulment of all privatizations of big industry and the financial sector, as well as the placing of factories, mines and banks under democratic control of the popular councils! Should the federal government refuse to comply, enforce these demands yourselves – you’ve already shown that you can!
5. Do not buy into the politicians’ ruses such as their “patriotic” slogans! Do not allow the social revolt to turn into an ethnic conflict! The political and economic elite now counts on a conflict between the protests within the two entities and between the cantons that have a Bosniak and Croatian majorities. Do not let yourselves be deceived! The question of the cantons and entities has to be settled as the result of a democratic decision of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such a resolution is only possible after a people’s government, led by the masses of all Bosnian peoples, has been established.
Surely, the recent events must have terrified the ruling elite, as well as the foreign occupation structures, neighbours too are shaken as similar problems are reality in Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia (FYROM) too. The current EU’s High Representative Valentin Inzko has even threatened to send EU-troops (EUFOR) to calm situation.Use of violence during the protests, the burning of buildings and finally of a part of the archives of Bosnia in the presidency building have led to media and politicians in and outside Bosnia label protestors as “hooligans”. This underestimates protestors as many citizens who went to the streets feel that they cannot change the government through elections and they have good arguments to think so. There was not looting and violence of the protests was directed at buildings of the government, in particular cantonal administrations, the state presidency and some political party offices.
Serbian government vice president Aleksandar Vucic held a meeting in Belgrade with Milorad Dodik, president of RS to discus the ongoing unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Serbia as a signatory country of the Dayton Agreement is interested in the stability of the region and is advocating resolving conflicts peacefully and in a democratic way,” Vucic said at a joint press conference held after the meeting. “There is no need to resolve problems by setting fire to public buildings and beating police officers,” Vucic added. According to the president of Repubika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, the aim of the protests is “also to destabilize Repubika Srpska and further involve the international community” in the country’s politics.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic visited Mostar, a town in Herzegovina, where Croats are in the majority, saying that he came to call for the peaceful resolution of the unrest. “I came here to calm the situation,” said Milanovic, adding that the protests are result of the incoherent policy of European Union, which doesn’t know what to do with Bosnia. Meanwhile most Bosnian Croats see Mostar as their “capital” and many of them have a vision about forming a third, Croat-dominated, entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Both Serbia and Croatia are signatories of 1995 Dayton Agreement which ended the 1990s war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The international response to the protests has been confused, displaying the gap between international actors and the reality on the ground. The EU, its officials and EU’s foreign ministers repeated the phrase that citizens should have the right to protest, but that they should remain peaceful.
The country’s asymmetric entity structure has left one entity, Republika Srpska, with a unitary structure and a strong notion of statehood, while Bosniaks and Croats are forced together into the other entity, FBiH, an unwieldy improvisation governed by hundreds of ministers. As result the systemic gap between the two entities renders the country disintegrated and administratively dysfunctional. A radical way out from situation could be dissolution of the whole BiH, integrate RS with Serbia, FBiH’s Croat dominated cantons with Croatia while Bosniac dominated cantons could seek their national identity from the rest of Bosnia.
From my point of view the protests which indeed have succeed to change rulers at regional level I see, opposing EU’s centralized dreams, now possibilities to create a new “lighter” administrative system, based to cantons in FBiH and stronger local level administration in RS. So Bosnian Spring in best case may give a boost to more decentralized and administrative easier Bosnia, which also can be kept less corrupted and more democratic.
It is impossible to guess the outcome but from my perspective Bosnia is now between changes. People in many towns have demonstrated that together they can have influence at local level. Together without ethnic or religious tensions they can avoid failure like it happened with “Arab Spring”. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, some cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country. A wider impact might be that the ruling class in Zagreb and Belgrade, fearing what this might mean for Croatia and Serbia respectively, immediately took political action. The reactionaries will try to undermine the impact of recent events, but the wheels of history cannot be driven backwards. There is real change for progress by creating new power-structures at local level.
On the opposite there is also change that counter-move by centralized establishment will win with help of EU and US. Bosnia has struggled under the most cumbersome political system in Europe created by the American-brokered and EU-backed Dayton peace accords. Constitutional reforms are needed and apparent political stability should be replaced by a new long-term strategy. However, if they are again conducted by the same power elite than before, the results will again lack the democratic legitimacy and nothing will change. In my opinion a new kind of engagement by both the US and the European Union is needed to replace the failed policies and approaches in Bosnia. EU and US should take new approach with Bosnia, the protests should be welcomed, old power structures and elite ousted and real implementation and progress led by masses at local grassroots level facilitated. By this way I think that “Bosnian Spring” could be flowering.