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Anger boils over in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Guest post by Suada

Over the past several days, the largest and most violent demonstrations since 1992 have erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The protests began in the city of Tuzla on 5 February, a city with a long left-wing working class tradition (in the 1980s it demonstrated in support of British coal miners against Margret Thatcher, and inter-ethnic relations remained relatively good even during the 1992-1995 war), by workers from privatized companies which went bankrupt after they were asset-stripped, and thus had not been paid for 26 months.

Soon workers, unemployed people, pensioners, war veterans, students and other civic activists besieged the seat of the cantonal government, demanding resignations and formulating a range of socio-economic demands. Protesters produced a “Manifesto for New Bosnia and Herzegovina”, which contains 37 demands such as government resignations and salary reductions for state officials (who are the best-paid in the region). Since the initial protests in Tuzla, street protests have been organised in many towns across Bosnia-Herzegovina, mainly in the federation, but with some in Republika Srpska as well.

Public sympathy for the aims of the protests has been widespread in both entities. By 8 February the protests had spread and violence had broken out. Governmental offices across Bosnia-Herzegovina have been systematically attacked, including the Presidency building and federal parliament in Sarajevo, the former of which was set on fire. Perhaps most symbolically, in Zenica the cars of local politicians (the highest paid in the region) were thrown into the canals. Over the week there were protests in more than 30 Bosnian cities and towns, demanding better living standards and government resignations. So far four cantonal governments have resigned and the government of the Federation has called for early elections. Protesters have formed citizen forums in recent days. to formulate key demands to local and national politicians.

I was initially shocked by the scale and speed with which the protests spread across the country, but in retrospect I really should not have been. Public anger and frustration has been simmering in Bosnia-Herzegovina for many years and has boiled over on a number of occasions. In June of last year there were widespread protests in Sarajevo over a lack of citizen ID cards for newborns, after a three-month old girl urgently requiring a bone marrow operation that is only available abroad was unable to travel (and eventually died) because the representatives of the two entities have been unable to agree over control of the issuance of identity documents to new citizens. Dissatisfaction with politicians has become so great that one of the main demands of the Tuzla protesters is the formation of a government of non-party technocrats.

Normally, when Bosnia-Herzegovina appears in the news, it is due to the country’s well known ethnic divisions, yet her biggest problems today are social, economic and constitutional. What is particularly notable is that these protests are not nationalist; rather they are about a much broader disappointment with the political class.

The privatization process during the 1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina was notoriously corrupt and mismanaged, with much of the state’s assets falling conveniently falling into the hands of local nationalist elites and their supporters. Many formerly state-owned enterprises were stripped of their assets for quick profit and then declared bankrupt, leaving many unemployed. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s once flourishing industries have been turned into a shambles. The unemployment rate has remained around 40% for several years, and youth unemployment is almost 60%. Utter lack of governmental transparency means that corruption and nepotism is absolutely rampant, ranking alongside Tunisia, Kuwait, Liberia and Sri Lanka. An average monthly salary in Bosnia-Herzegovina is less than 350 Euros, with one in five citizens living below the poverty line. Across all ethnic groups of Bosnia-Herzegovina, disaffection at the political elites is widespread and an atmosphere of depression, despair and hopelessness is prevalent.

Many of the problems and grievances are present across the wider region, but these are exacerbated in Bosnia-Herzegovina by the country’s dysfunctional political system imposed by the Dayton Accords of 1995, which has been allowed problems to fester for many years and have prevented effective action being taken to address them.

Following the end of the war in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was burdened with a short-sighted and unworkable constitutional structure. The current constitutional structure encourages parties to run on mono-ethnic platforms and makes it easy for ethno-nationalist parties to obstruct any change. Many elected posts are specifically reserved for Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats. This is like having a law stating that only ethnic English, Scots or Welsh can be elected to senior positions in Britain. These laws have been successfully challenged by the European Court of Human rights, but remain in force.

The Bosniak-Croat Federation consists of 10 cantons, producing a bloated, inefficient and expensive public administration. The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina is notorious for not taking decisions as these are caught between competing interests of nationalist elites where their substance is trumped by (often extremely petty) ethno-nationalist politics. One particularly striking example of this was the dispute in Bosnia over whether the central government or the entity governments should carry out veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians have been unable to agree on who is to carry out the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers have been unable to export their dairy products to Croatia after it joined the EU last year.

Bosnia-Herzegovina lacks the minimal level of internal administrative and political integration to implement even pre-accession EU criteria that have been vital to the transition of other Western Balkan countries. Although the absurdity and unworkability of the Dayton constitution is evident to everyone in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is not the only source of problems. As Florian Bieber has pointed out, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region without a similar constitutional structure. In the long term, constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina is necessary and this has been recognised by most major political groups in the Federation for some time, but it is a controversial issue and risks bringing ethnic issues to the fore.

Some analysts have declared that the protests have resulted in a “Bosnian Spring”. This is may be an exaggeration, but it is clear that William Hague was correct when he referred to the protests as a “wakeup call”. It’s clear that the political class in the Federation has widely lost legitimacy. New leaders are required and they should be supported by the international community. The protests have shown that the problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been ignored for too long, by both her local politicians and the international community.

Suada is a resident of Sarajevo