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Fueling the Bosnian Protests

By Caroline Hopper

Earlier this month, government buildings in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s four largest cities stood engulfed in flames. As the world watched, the sight evoked memories of the country’s 1992-95 civil war, where this type of destruction was an all-too-familiar occurrence. Political analysts have long categorized conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter called Bosnia) as largely ethnically-driven wars. But this misses the international scope of Bosnia's problem.

While focused on the smoke-filled skies, many have missed the true spectacle on the ground. Citizens across Bosnia have taken to the streets in what are the largest anti-government protests since the war. Unprecedented, not only in size, but also in their very nature, these protests offer a real sense of optimism that is so uncommon for the suffering state. The international community is inherently invested in these events because of its distinct role in the formation of the very government in question. Therefore it's crucial to reach a true understanding of what is really at stake in Bosnia's protests.

Uproar over fraudulent privatization practices triggered the first of these mass protests, which spread because of extensive and overall disapproval of both Bosnia’s structure of government and the politicians who inhabit it. Unemployment has been estimated to be as high as 45 percent of the overall workforce, and up to 70 percent in young generations. Recklessly self-interested politicians and a systematically ineffective government further compound these dire economic conditions. For decades, Bosnians have suffered under the ethno-nationalist rhetoric of so-called leaders who make up a bulky system of ethnic quotas.

Institutional paralysis, rampant corruption, nepotism, and entrenched ethnic divides have left Bosnia in a fragile state. These qualities are severe, unintended consequences of the country’s political system. This system is a product of an internationally brokered peace treaty, the 1995 Dayton Accords. In hopes of maintaining peace, international actors undermined the state’s authority with a cumbersome, decentralized government. The resulting system is a bloated, deadlocked, and ethnically dependent. Sowing the seeds of instability by encouraging fragmentation, the patchwork resolution should never have been considered a permanent solution. As former high representative Miroslav Lajcak has asserted, Bosnia is “a prisoner of Dayton.”    

A common problem with post-war analysis of Bosnia’s condition is that the mere avoidance of violence has been weighted too heavily as an indication of success. This type of measurement is insensitive to the dangers of the passive violence that occurs when neither politicians nor the system of government itself addresses the population’s needs. Keeping in mind the present threat of a failing economy, attention must now be turned to avoiding permanent stagnation, a situation that is all too plausible if current affairs should continue. Though it is conceivable, and in fact, likely, that the three former-warring factions may never again turn violent, the country still faces the threat of crippling dysfunction.

It is the need to challenge this current status quo that has driven this month’s protests. Masses have organized themselves behind universal grievances regarding severe economic woes that are the fault of both individual politicians as well as the system of government as a whole. Resolutely non-ethnic, these protests have crossed both social and physical boundaries, occurring in both the Federation and in Republika Srpska, and in rural and urban areas alike. Fires lit around the country should not be seen as signals of pending warfare, but if anything, as an embodiment of the universal rejection of embedded nationalism, and with it stagnation, corruption, and nepotism.

At the heart of Bosnia’s challenge are the mutually reinforcing ailments of backwards politicians and a political structure that encourages them. Despite formal efforts, constitutional reform has not been realized because such change would demand an impossible compromise among self-serving politicians who benefit greatly from the current status quo. Since change is so unlikely to occur from within the system, it seems it must happen from the outside. With this idea in mind, some have argued that non-ethnic and anti-government uprisings may in fact be the only option for change.

This type of demonstration has never been out of the question for Bosnia. The factors that would have to drive that kind of rage in a population have long been present. Always simmering, tensions have become especially hot within the last year, first with the so-called "Baby Revolution" and again with anti-nationalist frustrations surrounding October’s census. Perhaps the Tuzla protests are the boiling point for which some observers have been waiting. The tangible results of these protests have supported this possibility. Far more relevant than burning buildings are the two regional governments that have already collapsed, and the plenums that have been created. Whether or not the current protests will ultimately yield vital revolutionary changes is of course still unknown. It is certain, however, that an irreversible power shift has occurred. For the first time in Bosnia, neither government nor governance can survive without accountability.

This rejection of fractured politics is not trending because there are no longer any real ethnic divisions among the Bosnian population. There are many different divisions. These deeply rooted tensions will remain as long as the current institution stands, and will exist long after reforms are made. In the case of Bosnia, resolution must be regarded as separate than peace building. The present opportunity for Bosnia is not necessarily to repair the past, but to move beyond it. The largely unified demands vocalized by protesters are much louder than lingering divisions, and are a platform on which to start building together.         

If Bosnia is to survive, both its legislation and leaders must account for the needs of its population. The international community must help to ensure that this demand is met and support Bosnian citizens as they lead their own transition. Successful support depends first and foremost on the ability to understand Bosnia’s condition. By betraying the needs of ordinary citizens through flawed interpretations, the international community risks a further cementation of today’s dangerous status quo, and the abandonment of what could be very well be the first genuine opportunity for unified progress in Bosnia. 

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Caroline Hopper is a human rights and social justice advocate. She has lived and worked in Sarajevo, Bosnia and is currently based in Washington, D.C.

[Photos courtesy of stefanogiantin]

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