Bosnia Burning

Is the war-traumatized, fractured, and corrupt Balkan state finally experiencing a political revolution?    

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

SARAJEVO — Nearly 20 years after the end of brutal ethnic conflicts surrounding the collapse of Yugoslavia, black smoke billowed across the Sarajevo skyline in early February, as hooded youths attacked administrative buildings and burned police cars. "The city smelled like it smelled in 1992," says Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a journalist and activist, the day after some of the most significant unrest in Bosnia since the country’s war.

Unlike in the 1990s, however, people are not fighting one another. Instead, they’re taking aim at their corrupt and ineffective government, which is rooted in the U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords of 1995. The agreement ended the Bosnian War and divided the country into two entities: Republika Srpska, dominated by Serbs, and the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats.

"In the end, Dayton has entrenched exactly that which it was meant to call bad. It has cemented in place an unaccountable political oligarchy," says Jasmin Mujanovic, a Balkans researcher at York University. "Much of the responsibility for this [situation] has to be on the shoulders of the European Union and international community."

Now, the question on everyone’s mind is whether the protests can usher in much-needed, constructive change — or whether things will slide quickly back to the status quo. The stakes are high. "It has been the same for 20 years now, politicians putting the money in their own pockets. I believe violence is the last resort, but now it is our only option," says schoolteacher Alisa Kavac, who brought her 8-year-old daughter along to the protests in Sarajevo. "It’s impossible to raise children in this country."

The demonstrations began on Feb. 5 in the city of Tuzla after the closure of a number of formerly state-run factories due to botched privatization plans. After three days, the peaceful protests descended into street violence, when crowds were held back from entering the local courthouse. Some 600 protesters, including factory workers demanding 50 months of back pay and the return of pension and health insurance contributions, hurled rocks and eggs before setting government buildings on fire. Later that day, the crowd swelled to around 5,000. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, arresting 23 people. Twenty-seven people were reportedly injured in the clashes.

Parallel demonstrations quickly appeared in more than 30 cities and towns across the country. Many were small-scale and relatively peaceful, but protesters in several major cities, including Mostar, Zenica, and Sarajevo, followed in the footsteps of Tuzla, clashing with police and vandalizing or burning administrative buildings. According local media sources, Sarajevo’s Kosevo hospital said it treated more than 100 people on Feb. 7. Three police officers were described as seriously injured. Overall, several hundred people are thought to have been hurt, with more than 44 arrested since the outbreak of the unrest.

The protests precipitated a wave of politicians, mainly at the local level, quitting their posts, including entire administrations in Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Zenica. On Sunday, Bosnia’s police coordination chief resigned amid claims of police brutality against detained activists, including minors. (Photos posted on Twitter reportedly show other law enforcement officials removing their riot gear and joining the protests.) Demonstrators are still demanding the wholesale resignation of Bosnia’s government.

Ostensibly, the protests can be linked to widespread public discontent over Bosnia’s rampant unemployment and beleaguered economy. Nationwide, joblessness stands at 44.5 percent; it is a staggering 60 percent in the 15-to-24-year-old age bracket. The average wage is around $545 per month — one of the lowest in Europe.

But these economic woes are fueled by a much more deep-seated problem: a political system mired in corruption and nepotism. In the aftermath of the Bosnian War, dodgy backroom deals to dole out businesses nationalized during the socialist era — including the Tuzla factories — were some of the first examples of the long list of dubious tactics deployed by the political elite to line their own pockets. Often sold under favorable conditions to the cronies of politicians, the businesses had new bosses who were frequently either incompetent or outright crooked. The resulting combination of inefficient management, skimming, and the state turning a blind eye to it all drove several vitally important local industries to the point of collapse.

Alongside the Tuzla cases, the high-profile foundering of furniture producer Krivaja and the looming bankruptcy of aluminium producer Aluminij Mostar capture how poorly managed privatization is crippling the economy. "There are many examples of this kind of practice everywhere," says Darko Brkan, a Sarajevo-based political analyst. "For 15 years, the state has ignored these problems, thousands of people have lost their jobs, and, as we now clearly see, the consequences have been devastating."

But raiding the coffers of factories and other businesses through privatization schemes is just the tip of iceberg. According to Transparency International, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, ranking 72 out of 177 on the NGO’s world index.

In a high-profile case of alleged corruption, in late April 2013, Zivko Budimir, the president of the Federation, was arrested on suspicion of involvement in organized crime, abuse of office, and accepting bribes for pardoning convicted criminals. But, after just one month in custody, Budimir was back in his post — released due to an apparent lack of evidence against him.

Many blame these problems — or at least their foundations — on the Dayton Accords. By inscribing ethnic divisions into governing structures, the argument goes, Dayton has served to stifle political diversity, competition, and accountability. Voters perpetually cast their ballot along ethnic lines regardless of the results produced by their politicians. The complex and cumbersome administrative system established under Dayton has also provided a convenient mask for the ineffectiveness of corrupt and squabbling politicians.

Last year, political bickering over the assignment of ethnicity on official document cards left thousands of newborn babies without identification. Infighting among authorities also meant they missed July 2013 deadlines set by the European Union (E.U.) — which Bosnia aspires to join — to bring laws governing agricultural exports up to regional standards; farmers lost millions as a result. In addition, more than $60 million of much-needed E.U. funding was suspended in October after the Bosnian government failed to comply with a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights, regarding the country’s prohibitions on minority groups (such as Roma and Jews) holding some political positions.

Faced with these problems, public discontent has been building for many years. Yet because civil society in war-traumatized Bosnia has recovered only slowly, it has taken a long time for frustration to tip over into action. "People are afraid of each other. So even though nearly everyone has agreed for a long time that the political establishment as a whole is hopelessly corrupt and profits from stove-piping conflict, when it comes time to actually organize a response to this, it has previously been timid," says Mujanovic.

Some optimistic analysts are dubbing the protests as a "Bosnian Spring," characterized by multiethnic opposition to the state. "This is not just a flash in the pan," says Mujanovic. "This is the Bosnian people waking up. We can see that the people have really had enough of this situation, of these politicians."

"Now people are fed up…. We don’t want to think about ethnic differences any more," says Emir Hozdic, a civil rights activist in Sarajevo, standing outside the city’s main government building that is now scarred by fire. "When people are hungry, they don’t ask what your ethnic background is."

Yet the rallying cry of a multiethnic "Bosnian Spring" should be treated with a healthy dose of caution. There are many people with a vested interested in maintaining the status quo — not least the politicians whose popular support relies on it. And perhaps no one is more invested than Milorad Dodik, the long-time leader of Republika Srpksa. "We are ready to prevent any attempts to import protests and violence from the Federation," he announced in a barbed statement that implicitly labeled the recent demonstrations as an unwanted Bosniak disruption in the country. Dodik, a Serb nationalist, also warned that anyone who attempted to protest in Republika Srpska would face "criminal prosecution."

Thus far, demonstrations outside the Federation have remained limited. On Sunday, in the town of Bijeljina in Republika Srpska, there were two rival protests held: one against the local government, the other in support of Serb authorities.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear. In the short term, the void left by the wave of resignations in local government will need to be addressed, but the vacancies won’t be filled easily. "I don’t think many people will be stepping forward to take these positions. Either there aren’t realistic local options for alternative leaders, or people won’t want to do the job in these circumstances," says Brkan, the political analyst in Sarajevo.

Protesters are demanding that the government hold elections scheduled for October early, a move now seemingly backed by two parties in the country’s ruling coalition. But while this could certainly help diffuse tensions and fill abandoned seats, it would first require an amendment to the electoral laws in Bosnia’s constitution, as there are currently no legal provisions for holding a snap vote.

Something needs to be done quickly, Brkan says, as a prolonged absence of local authorities in some areas "will likely spark more unrest."

The long-term future is even more uncertain. Many protesters are calling for an end to the Dayton regime, but how that can be achieved is unclear. Dayton affords each of the country’s three major ethnic groups veto power on proposals to change the government — and the groups don’t agree on what a reformed political system would look like. For its part, the international community has tried both economic sanctions and cajoling to push the country toward political and economic progress. But nothing seems to work. "Even using these potent weapons, it has not been possible to force amendments to the constitution," says Matthew Parish, a former legal advisor to the international supervisor of Bosnia’s Brcko District. (Such supervision was provided for in Dayton.) "And this is because, in the end, the animosity between the three groups in sufficiently strong, at least at a political level, to override both the international community’s efforts and the good of the country."

In the last few days, the demonstrations have calmed down, but thousands of people continue to protest in cities across the Federation. Those still in the street are adamant that they have little choice but to be there. "If our politicians cannot do this for our country, then we must do it for ourselves," says 24-year-old Adin Muratovic, who has been active in the protests since they started in Sarajevo. "If we cannot change something now, then it seems we have no future at all here in Bosnia. It has been like this my whole life…. This can be our chance for something better."

With additional reporting by Mitra Nazar in Sarajevo.


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