Sarajevo (Photo credit: Putovati Balkanom)
12 February Wednesday, 2014
Thousands of disgruntled workers, students, and unemployed youth without any ethnic ties have poured onto streets across Bosnia and Herzegovina since the start of angry protests last Tuesday. The long-awaited wave of demonstrations—the biggest and most violent of its kind since the end of the war in 1995—has already been dubbed the “Bosnian Spring”. However, media analysts and experts are still not sure how those demonstrations will develop and what impact they will have on the country.
Demonstrations started in Tuzla and spread over the country
Demonstrations began after Tuzla’s massive gathering of over 10,000 angry workers from the Dita detergent factory, the Konjuh furniture factory, the Resod-Guming motor parts firm, and the Polihem and Poliolchem chemical plants on Tuesday. Demonstrators gathered in front of the cantonal government building to protest against what they said was a catastrophe that had hit their companies.
Police started to fire tear gas and flash-bang grenades at demonstrators at the behest of the cantonal government. After the police interfered and clashed with the demonstrators the situation quickly got out of control and some protestors entered the government buildings and started burning it. The Tuzla demonstrations triggered demonstrations in the capital, Sarajevo, in Mostar, in Zenica, and in the autonomous region of Brcko, where similar demonstrations have been witnessed. On Friday afternoon demonstrators started stoning and burning the presidential building in Sarajevo. During the Bosnian war thousands of Bosniaks were killed defending the presidential building in Sarajevo, but now protesters burned the building and its remarkable library within hours.
Hundreds of people were injured in the demonstrations, including police officers, and hundreds of people have been detained or arrested. According to the Bosnia Times, just on Friday 18 buildings were ruined, 131 police officers injured and more than 300 protestors detained. Recently, the people of Bosnia have demonstrated in more than 30 cities and the prime ministers and governments of the Tuzla Canton—where the first demonstrations occurred—and the Zenica Canton resigned. On Sunday morning the prime minister of the Canton of Sarajevo followed them and announced his resignation due to the demonstrations.
The demonstrations rising over the country have been long in coming but none were able to predict how and when they would start. Politicians, the international community, experts, and the media are now locked in debate and pondering where they will go and what impact they will have on the country.
A dysfunctional state, bankruptcies, and a desperate economy: Bosnians are not happy
Bosnia’s four-year war ended in 1995 and there have been few protests over social issues. However, this time, it seems that the Bosnian people have enough reasons to take to the streets. There are many reasons why the Bosnian people have gathered in angst but three of them stand out: the dysfunctional state, bankruptcies, and the desperate economy.
Bosnia’s most important and basic political problem is the dysfunctional state system that was imposed on it from an air base in Dayton. The country is divided into two entities. 49% of the country belongs to the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska ruled by Milorad Dodik, who wants it to become an independent state or annexed by Serbia.
The other entity of Bosnia, called the Federation, was divided in ten cantons that are either dominated by Bosniaks (also called Bosnian Muslims) or Bosnian Croats. Each canton has its own government, parliament, and own policies in addition to local, city, and town councils. Also, there is the autonomous town of Brcko in the northern part of the country. As Tim Judah says, a distinguished Balkan Expert, Dayton created a country as an administrative giant and these demonstrations seems directly against the state system that is created by Dayton.
The bureaucracy, hundreds of MPs, tens of ministers and their privileges have tried the patience of the Bosnian people. Many people in the country complain about the MP’s wages: a MP’s wage is approximately 3,000 euros. In contrast, the retirement pension of the country is 150-170 euros, and the minimum wage is 158 euros in Republika Srpska and 177 euros in the Federation.
In the socialist era most of the industries belonged to the state. After the war, however, the old socialist-era industries, which dominated towns like Tuzla, were often left as shells. Like many other Bosnian state firms these companies, former business giants, were weakened or ruined in the privatisation process of the early 2000s. The process was often corrupt, with well-connected people buying companies to strip of them of their assets and make a quick profit before declaring them bankrupt. Thousands of workers demanded that the privatisation process be reassessed or bankruptcy procedures be initiated so that they either receive years of unpaid salaries or are allowed to go back to work.
The people of Bosnia have demonstrated and united due to a very basic and vital reason: hunger. The unemployment rate is rather high and those who are employed complain of low salaries. The official unemployment rate is running at 28%, but local experts claim that the real unemployment rate is 45% and none of the experts expect any improvement.
All of Yugoslavia’s successors, including Croatia, which became an EU member last year, have been hit by the economic crisis and share many of the same problems. In Bosnia, however, the results of the war—the most destructive war in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse—mean that few hold out hope for positive change anymore. Because of this reason, anger simmering for almost 20 years has now boiled over.
The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be united by “hunger”
The Bosnian economist Svetlana Cenic from Banja Luka, the capital city of Republika Srpska, said that the people of Bosnia will be united by hunger. However, this is not yet the case. Firstly, demonstrations have mostly been observed in Bosniak-dominated cities. Though the protesters have been avowedly anti-nationalist, so far they have not spread to the Republika Srpska or to predominantly Croat cantons despite the economic and political problems facing everyone in the country. Secondly, according to Bosnia’s media and Oslobodenje’s Turkey Reporter Amina Şeçeroviç, the protestors are mostly 18-25 years old and none of them know the war and its consequences. People who lived the war prefer to stay home. These two facts mean that the demonstrations are still not supported by all Bosnian people and therefore are currently not strong enough to bring about a fundamental change in the country.
Despite the current situation, political elites fear that all the Bosnian communities will unite in protest. That would obviously be a nightmare for the political elites and they have been doing all that they can to stop people from uniting; they will be telling those in Banja Luka that they cannot support those in Sarajevo and vice versa.
Demonstrations can stimulate “reforms”
As I said before, politicians, the international community, experts, and the media are now locked in debate, pondering where the protests will go and what impact they will have on the country as there are upcoming general elections this year.
According to Prof. Dr. Sacir Fiandra, Dean of the Faculty of Political Science in the University of Sarajevo, those demonstrations are just beginning and more are coming. “More people will join the demonstrations and the demonstrations will spread to other cities of Bosnia” he added. If the people of Bosnia unite on the eve of elections the demonstrations can be the stimulus for the reforms the country has needed for many years. If the people of Bosnia unite and the demonstrations spread the politicians will have to listen to the voice of the streets. Prof. Dr. Slavo Kukic, University of Mostar, told Anadolu Agency that the current miserable situation in Bosnia can be changed only through huge demonstrations. Politicians have tried—particularly after the 2006 elections—to change the state system and work on some reforms but they failed in every attempt because of the divided, complicated, and weak state system.
In these demonstrations, the Bosnian people’s first, most prominent condition should be a list of demands that is ratified by the three ethnic communities of Bosnia—and not only by the youth. Otherwise, expecting a fundamental economic or political change would be unrealistic