Two months after a federal office in Sarajevo was lit on fire during violent protests, demonstrators again gathered in front of the building April 9. This time, as the Balkan Insight reported, the protests remained peaceful. Demonstrators from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “citizen plenums” read a list of demands — including the resignation of Prime Minister Nermin Nikšić’s government.
Bosnia’s protest movement is at a crossroads. They began February 4 in the northern city of Tuzla with hundreds of workers who had been laid off by a formerly state-owned factory. Touching on a theme of common discontent — Bosnia’s 45 percent unemployment rate and a series of botched privatizations of state assets — the protests quickly spread to other cities in the Balkan nation of 3.8 million.
After a week of sometimes violent upheaval that left more than 200 injured and 38 arrested, demonstrators organized so-called citizen plenums in major cities and towns across the country. Two months later, these citizen legislatures have experienced varying levels of success. The prime ministers of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica-Doboj and Una-Sana cantons, roughly the equivalent of counties in the U.S., resigned. In a country still recovering from the civil war of the 1990s, the protests have not taken on a sectarian tone— something of a victory in and of itself.
“I think the thing is that from this perspective it is sort of a miracle that people actually took to the streets,” said Selma Tobudic, who was involved in the Tuzla protests and plenums. “Just considering this major division and this poverty, not just financial poverty but poverty in sociality and relations.”
Still, there is a perception that the status quo has not changed—and that a largely parasitic government remains in place. Created out of the 1995 U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the brutal war and ethnic-cleansing of the early 1990s that left about 100,000 dead and the country divided, the Bosnian government is massive.
The country is divided into two entities, the Serb majority Republika Srpska and the predominately Muslim Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina —each with its own president, prime minister, ministries and legislature. In addition, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into 10 cantons, each with its own governor, cabinet, legislature and ministries .
“This particular set up engendered a number of problems,” said Larisa Kurtovic, a political anthropologist at DePaul University, in an interview with the Global Journalist. “The first being that it legitimated the ethnic cleansing and in some ways it rewarded the very same political elites who led the country into the war...the second is that it created this very cumbersome, very complicated political structure that promoted political paralysis.”
Consuming about 60 percent of Bosnia’s GDP, the government is by far Bosnia’s largest employer. Politicians and their parties control not only who gets jobs in the administration, but reach as far down to control who teaches in elementary schools. With so many people dependent on state patronage for their livelihood, there is broad resistance to calls for change.
“The entire system is set up to maintain the status-quo,” Kurtovic said.
The country’s politicians have found use in stoking ethnic fears among Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. As Time magazine reported, there are even separate schools, hospitals and utility companies for people of different ethnic groups.
In a study on the post war political system from 1995 to 2009, the National Democracy Institute for International Affairs called Bosnia’s political system a “cycle of stalemate predicated on the defense of ethnic interests perceived to be under threat.” The findings elaborate that campaigning politicians at all levels of government use ethno-nationalist rhetoric to create fear and mistrust in the people. Once in in office, politicians obstruct any attempts at reform, accusing them of being “antithetical to ethnic interests alleged, but not demonstrated, to be under threat.”
In his 2009 campaign for president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik employed such rhetoric. Dodik famously claimed that Bosnia and Herzegovina is an “impossible state” that only exists in the imagination of an international community intent of maintaining Serb guilt for violence perpetrated during the war.
“They use [ethnic rhetoric] to mobilize the people against each other,” said Jasmine Husanovic, another veteran of the Tuzla protests and plenum, in an interview. “This is the mechanism that worked for a long time but it is wearing out. This is why the protests were so frightening to the elites. They actually revealed their own recipe for success might be getting called into question.”
In an effort to head off potential ethnic divisions that could lead to violence, the plenum movement as avoided calling for a new constitution or systemic changes to government. Instead they’ve focused on tackling the issues of corruption and poverty. The first “Declaration of Workers and Citizens” published by the Tuzla plenum called for an end to high salaries for government employees and their “golden parachute” benefits. Some of the highest paid officials in the country earn around 20,000 euros each month, while the average salary in Bosnia is just over 400 euros a month. The plenums have also been united in calling for canton-level governments to resign en masse.
“It’s reduced the ability of the established political elites to play the ethnic card, even though they have still tried it,” said Florian Bieber, of the University of Graz. “And it shines light on the fact that the Dayton structure is not the only problem. The political elites are.”
For its part, the government is hoping the movement just fades away. Prime Minister Nermin Niksic of the Federation referred to the protesters as “hooligans” in an emergency security ministers February 6, and has since ignored demands of the plenums calling for his resignation.
Indeed since the resignation of the four cantonal leaders in February, the plenum movement seems to have stalled in Sarajevo and elsewhere.
“It’s all the same stories, every single day, it’s become boring to the people,” said Darjan Bilic, a 36-year-old employee of Help , a German NGO, involved with the Sarajevo plenum.
Still, even if protesters can’t point to more concrete changes many are optimistic that the ferment has renewed enthusiasm in participatory democracy. Voter turnout in the country’s 2010 presidential and parliamentary elections was just 56 percent—low by European standards.
“In a way it’s quite cathartic for people to be able to speak about what is happening in society,” said Jasmina Husanovic, of the Tuzla plenum. “They couldn’t do that through the usual process, especially when you have such dominant parties.”