6 Things You Need To Know About Recent Protests in Bosnia

by Heather McRobie

5 March 2014

1.These are protests for social justice and against corruption, privatisation, and the political status quo.

The 2014 protests are born of a frustration which takes aim in particular at those politicians who have exploited the post-war structure to further their own interests. The specific catalyst for recent unrest has been botched and unaccountable privatisations, and it was these which triggered the first wave of protests in Tuzla.

As the protests have developed and spread throughout the country the demands of protesters have seemingly coalesced into the following: a rejection of the Dayton Constitution and with it the false promises of the EU and the ‘international community’; an assertion of social justice concerns such as an end to employment discrimination; and, finally, an assertion of anti-corruption concerns with solutions such as audits of privatisations being touted as a way forward. It is those kinds of demands, and solutions, that have been developed further in ‘plenums’ – directly democratic assemblies – which are now being held across Bosnia on a weekly basis and in which groups of citizens are beginning to deliberate alternatives to the status quo.

2.There are parallels with the 2011 Arab uprisings in the grievances of the protesters, but the EU is important.

Protesters are angry at the self-preserving political elites whose incomes are ten times that of most Bosnians. Just as was the case in those countries which experienced the uprisings of 2011, there is a cripplingly high unemployment rate – youth unemployment is currently in excess of over 50% – and the abiding sense among young people is that they have no future within the present political settlement. Next door to their EU counterparts, they have faced the humiliation of travel restrictions and remain trapped – often educated but frequently jobless – at the edge of ‘Fortress Europe’.

The protests differ from the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world in that there is no authoritarian figure-head upon which blame can be entirely laid – instead there’s the ‘three-headed monster’ of the triumvirate Presidency. Although young Bosnians are often as alienated by their political system as their Arab counterparts were in 2011, there are important regional differences – most notably the ethno-nationalist discourse which has corroded press freedom in Bosnia perhaps more than Egyptian-style direct press censorship.

Although EU accession is offered by politicians of all stripes as a panacea to domestic problems those calls are increasingly dissonant for the public. Croatia’s accession in 2013 illustrated to Bosnians that jumping through all the hoops may make little difference in resolving long-term economic problems and the ongoing Eurozone crisis has changed perceptions of what the EU can deliver, one need only look at unemployment in Spain and Greece to know that.

3.The protests are also against the Dayton Constitution.

The 1995 Dayton Constitution is a paradigmatic example of how not to write a constitution. Drafted in a politically turbulent moment still marked by the tragedy of violent conflict, in a foreign language, and with war criminals for its signatories, Dayton is an unjust, self-contradictory and unworkable document. Furthermore the structures it has helped set up has made it almost impossible to amend and this has meant that Bosnia has been unable to move on despite almost twenty years of repeatedly failed attempts at constitutional reform.

The constitution froze the country at the height of its war, stopping the mass killings yet not creating a meaningful peace. It divided the country into two ‘entities’ and locked-in the physical battle-lines of 1995, with one presidential seat for each ethnic ‘group’; that is a settlement that almost certainly can’t endure. To compound all of that the political parties have become largely ethnicised in the post-war period meaning that before each election ethno-nationalist sentiment must be stirred up. Any successful electoral ‘groundwar’ for these parties is based upon generating animosity and emphasising ‘ethnic difference’. What is meant to be a democratic and associative practice is defined by discord and difference.

4. Because the Dayton Constitution is racist.

The ECHR declared the Dayton Constitution incompatible with human rights law in 2009, as it prevented Bosnian Jews, Bosnian Roma, and those who identify as ‘ostali’ (or ‘other’) from running for President. The ECHR ruling was also an indirect criticism of compulsory ethnic identification. Despite that ongoing political deadlock has meant the constitution has still not been properly amended – an inertia that is emblematic of the ‘Dayton purgatory’ that protesters are denouncing.

5. Nationalist politicians have tried to hijack the protests.

Bosnian philosopher Asim Mujkic has described Dayton Bosnia as an ‘ethnopolis’, where people are not citizens with rights but badges of an ethnicity – nothing more than a surname that signifies a background. It is within that context that the conflict is kept alive in what is nominally peace-time with ethnically segregated schools (a sign of how far the war ruptured Bosnian society) teaching children three exclusive narratives of the last war, and in three languages: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian.

After one of the protests last month, the slogan ‘we are hungry in three languages’ began to spread through social media. This slogan is a retort to the politicians who have attempted to claim that the protests run on ethnic lines, a logic they deploy because it affirms and legitimizes their social roles and power.

Initially some politicians minimised the protests as ‘only’ happening in the Federation (making them only Bosniak or Croat protests) but in time they have come to spread to every part of Bosnia. When that happened, Milorad Dodik, President of Republika Srpska, tried to use the protests to ‘prove’ that the country was not functioning and that it must disintegrate along ethnic lines. However, like the ‘Baby revolution’ protests of 2013, the message from the protests run counter to this: they assert that Dayton Bosnia, with its corruption and botched privatisation, must be replaced with a socially just order in which the needs of citizens, of all ‘identifications’, are finally addressed. Grievances are primarily economic and aimed at the powerful.

6.Bosnian citizens are organising in plenums. That is direct democracy in action.

Bosnians are accustomed to western representatives preaching to them about ‘democracy’ – despite the fact it was the international community who stuck Bosnia with the undemocratic Dayton Constitution. Yet in 2014, Bosnian citizens are experiencing democracy in plenums across the country. Here people deliberate problems, politics and solutions. Instructive perhaps is the first Sarajevo plenum which demanded an audit of the salaries and benefits of public officials and an audit into the privatisation deals of the Canton.

For all the attempts to lecture Bosnia, it seems that it is Bosnians who are practising democracy among themselves amid the Byzantine and racist framework of Dayton. It is now the turn of others to listen.

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