Who is behind Bosnia’s riots?

Dissatisfaction with the economic and political system in the country has pushed diverse groups to unite in protest.

Protesters have demanded government resignations and salary reductions for state officials [EPA]

On February 7, Sarajevo was preparing to mark 30 years of the Winter Olympic Games, which it hosted in 1984. However, instead of celebrating the Olympic flame, Bosnians cheered to the flames that engulfed government buildings.

Citizens in Sarajevo gathered in front of the cantonal government building to show support to the workers, youth and citizens in Tuzla, who have been protesting against corrupt privatisation processes and dismissals of employees from former state companies. Throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina[Ba], in Bugojno, Visoko, Velika Kladusa, Bosanska Krupa, Cazin, Sanski Most, Banja Luka, Kljucu, Tesanj, Gracanica, Travnik, Maglaj, Brcko, and Gora, citizens gathered in front of government offices, demanding changes.

Who is protesting and why?

The protests began in Tuzla, organised by the workers of former state companies, who protested against not only the closure of companies, but also corrupt privatisation processes. These groups  voiced their grievances as early as January, demanding resignations and broader changes within the economic and social system. However, the protests gained momentum on February 4 when other societal groups joined them. Workers, citizen’s associations, youth, pensioners and war veterans came out on the streets of Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica and other cities, to express their grievances.

Al Jazeera World – Sarajevo My Love

The events that many refer to as “Bosnian spring” involve many different groups of people, and are not centrally organised. Additionally, even though some peaceful protests in Banja Luka took place on February 7, the entity of Republika Srpska has not experienced the same level of citizen activism, or demands for resignations. The protests are largely taking place within the Bosniak-Croat Federation, and are aimed at, not only federal, but also cantonal structures. The Bosniak-Croat Federation consists of 10 cantons, producing a bloated, inefficient and expensive public administration.

The groups in each of the cities that witnessed protests are organised differently, led by the informal groups, citizen associations, labour movements or youth. Yet, their demands are very similar: government resignations, reduction of salaries for high-ranking government officials, free and good quality health services, and others.

In Tuzla, informal citizens’ groups “Revolt” and “Udar” (“coup d’etat”) have been the most vocal supporters behind the protests. The leader of “Udar”[Ba] and informal leader of the protests, Aldin Siranovic, was arrested and beaten, which sparked more outrage among citizens and brought some 6,000 citizens on the streets the next day. Both associations have a strong social media presence and use it to inform, invite and organise their supporters.

In Sarajevo and other cities, on the other hand, citizens have not yet organised around any associations or labour unions.

Hijacking the protest movement

Although the protests are led by the non-political groups, political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina have in the first days attempted to hijack the protests by blaming “others” for the country’s social and economic ills. Fahrudin Radoncic, leader of the Party for the Better Future, stated [Sr] that protests are a result of years of bad governance. Similarly, Zlatko Lagumdzija, of the Social Democratic Party, added that the accumulated frustrations and anger have brought citizens on the streets. Bakir Izetbegovic, a member of the Bosnian three-person presidency insisted [Sr] that he does not feel responsible for the protests, and that the system needs to change.Yet, all of these political parties are part of the same government. They themselves have, if not created, at least supported, perpetuated, and had benefitted from the current system.

Protesters throughout the Federation insist that no political party [Sr] was behind the riots and that they do not want any political involvement in the protest movement.

As the destruction of public property and acts of violence escalated during the protests, the focus of the media moved from the reasons behind the riots to the “hooligans” involved in the rampage. Yet, these young people are also the citizens, who have come out in the streets demanding changes and voicing their grievances. Facing an unemployment rate of 58 percent, Bosnian youth have been brought up in a state of chaos, corruption, hate speech, constitutional and institutional disarray and hopelessness, which have certainly left psychological consequences on them and on society at large.

Since the 1990s, all levels of government have shown utmost insensitivity to the social and economic destitution of citizens, youth, and particularly marginalised social categories. This kind of systemic institutional violence, political abuse of power, incompetence and neglect has planted seeds of anger and frustration. And in the context where 20 years of transition have brought nothing more than poverty, corruption and neglect, these repressed frustrations among young people have exploded, targeting the symbols of political power.

Talk to Al Jazeera – Is another conflict looming in the Balkans?

Although there might be small groups who have come out to burn and loot, as is the case with every large gathering anywhere in the world, the majority of young people called “hooligans” are just angry and frustrated youth, wanting broader structural changes.

Demands and motivations

The workers, citizen’s associations and youth joined by the pensioners, war veterans and rapidly disappearing members of the middle class, employed and unemployed, have the same grievances against the corrupt, bloated public administration system. While the average salary in the country is 400 euros[Ba], the government officials receive more than 3,000 euros[Ba]. Citizens are motivated by these political and social injustices, unbearable poverty, growing inequality and unsustainable constitutional order.

Although initiated by the workers’ protests against privatisation and corruption, protesters’ demands have evolved over the past few days. In each canton, a list of demands has been presented. In Sarajevo [Ba/Sr/Hr], citizens’ groups have demanded resignation of both, federal and cantonal governments. Among the Most organised protests was that of Tuzla, where protesters produced a “Manifesto for New Bosnia and Herzegovina“[Ba], which contains 37 demands and points.

The Manifesto calls for the reduction of politicians’ salaries, revision of budget, independent anti-corruption committee, free health care and commitment to youth employment, among other points. It invites state-level politicians to resign and insists that nationalist and religious-based political parties should be banned. High on the agenda is also the restructuring of the country, and abolition of cantons and entities, in order to reduce the enormous costs of public administration. In 2010, 500 million euros were spent on maintaining country’s bureaucracy – that’s 150 euros per second!

So far, governments of three cantons within the Federation have resigned: Tuzla, Zenica and Sarajevo[Ba/Sr/Hr]. The Prime Minster of the Federation, Nermin Niksic, stated[Sr] that if he is asked to resign, he will do so. Yet, this is not the end, but only the beginning.

Although it was expected that after the January 7 riots, protests would calm down during the weekend, protesters across the country continue to gather in front of government buildings. The organised and unorganised, formal and informal groups continue to assemble, demanding more resignations and tangible changes. 

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.