It’s spring at last in Bosnia and Herzegovina

An anti-privatisation protest in the city of Tuzla has exploded into general social insurrection.

Protests erupted in the town of Tuzla over high unemployment and corrupt privatisation practices [AFP/Getty Images]

Whatever little semblance of legitimacy the constitutional order in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) may have enjoyed at the beginning of this week went up in flames on Friday night. BiH’s three Presidents, two entities, one special district, ten cantons and internationally appointed High Representative – the entirety of its bloated bureaucracy – witnessed the storming of their government offices in the cities of Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica, Bihac and Mostar.

As a result, at least two regional governments have collapsed, in the Tuzla and Zenica-Doboj cantons. What began as a local, anti-privatisation protest on Wednesday in Tuzla had grown by Friday into a general social insurrection.

Two years ago, I wrote that a “Bosnian Spring” was this country’s only hope for a brighter future. Now, the spring has come, and with it, the storms.

For nearly twenty years, Bosnians and Herzegovinians have suffered under the administration of a vicious cabal of political oligarchs who have used ethno-nationalist rhetoric to obscure the plunder of BiH’s public coffers. The official unemployment rate has remained frozen for years at around 40 percent, while the number is above  57 percent among youth. Shady privatisation schemes have dismantled what were once flourishing industries in Tuzla and Zenica, sold them off for parts, and left thousands of workers destitute, with many still owed thousands of dollars in back-pay. Pensions are miserly too; the sight of seniors digging through waste bins[Ba] is a regular one in every part of the country, while the wages of BiH’s armies of bureaucrats and elected officials have only grown[Sr].

Pervasive corruption

After the general elections in 2010, it took sixteen months for a state government to be formed, one which collapsed almost immediately thereafter. Since then, on the rare occasion that Parliamentary sessions have actually been held, the members of this body have mostly concerned themselves with calling for the ouster of their political opponents. ZivkoBudimir, for instance, the president of the Federation entity, was arrested in April of last year on suspicions of corruption and bribery. He was released shortly thereafter for “lack of evidence” and has since returned to his post. As Sarajevo burnt on Friday, Budimir declared[Sr/Ba/Hr] that he would resign if the people insisted – apparently refusing to look out his window as he spoke.

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Several major elected official in BiH have been under investigation for corruption. In the Federation, the squabbling of Bosniak and Croat nationalists has immobilised government institutions. In the Republika Srpska(RS) entity, President Milorad Dodik has attempted to make himself synonymous with the Serb nation itself – hounding the few independent journalists and activists who dared challenge him.

But the ethno-nationalist rhetoric of these elites betrays the realities of BiH’s true political economy: accumulation through dispossession. The graffiti on the walls of the burnt out husk of the Tuzla canton government now offers a stark rebuke to these policies: “You must all resign! Death to nationalism!”

The international community has, meanwhile, allowed this sordid state of affairs to fester since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. An initial period of reform between 1996 and 2006 has all but completely ceased and since then the country has jerked from one constitutional crisis to the next. All the while, seething public anger has repeatedly threatened to boil over, as it did this past summer during the so-called “Baby Revolution“.

The reasons for this rage are simple: At no point have the international architects of peace in BiH expended any serious energy to include ordinary citizens, students, workers or pensioners in the reforms which European and American diplomats insist the country requires. Instead, by engaging exclusively with members of BiH’s obstructionist and recalcitrant political establishment, they have only cemented the oligarchs in their posts while the pleas and demands of ordinary citizens, students, workers and civil rights activists have been ignored.

A transformed society

Now, the entire structure of the Dayton system, precisely because of the arrogant and ignorant practices of its local and international representatives, has all but collapsed in a single night. Attempts to shore up this system will be made, of course, but the psychological transformation we have witnessed in the people of BiH is now irreversible.

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A substantive parliamentary democracy fundamentally requires the autonomy of the citizenry and the expectation on the part of the ruling establishment that, unless they fulfil the needs and demands of their electors, they will be toppled – at the polls or in the streets. For twenty years this expectation has been absent in BiH. And for twenty years the ruling establishment has plundered freely. They have wrought so much misery that the speed with which the entire structure appeared to collapse on Friday left many citizens in utter disbelief.

In this mayhem, no small degree of confusion and fear will prevail. Many have already expressed anger towards the militants who torched the government buildings, claiming that the costs of the repairs will once again come out of the pockets of ordinary citizens. Such analysis, however, ignores the far more massive debts already incurred by all levels of government in BiH. 

The  Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PAIC), noted that the public sector debt with commercial banks doubled in the past four years and that: “A big part of corrupted activities stem from relations of government officials and commercial banks.” The PAIC report suggested that the billions that have been borrowed have mostly ended up lining the pockets of individual politicians,they are, nonetheless, being paid back through the further gutting of BiH’s few remaining social services. This popular uprising, however, has the potential to reverse this course. 

There is also news of damage to part of the National Archives, rightfully eliciting anger in some quarters. Yet the National Museum of BiH has sat closed since October of 2012 and the country’s other main cultural institutions are also struggling, to the dismay of a global network of activists and artists. Despite the existence of four separate levels of government, not one of them considers the preservation and financing of BiH’s cultural monuments a priority. An institution that has survived three wars and has been operated continuously for a hundred and twenty four years is on the brink of collapse, not because of these protests, but because of these governments.

In the next few days, BiH will find itself a society transformed. Genuine change will require that those who have previously been excluded from power now have an opportunity to reshape their communities. The key organisers in Tuzla – more effective and popular than the current leaders, if this week’s events are any indication – already form the basis for an interim government[Ba], one composed of the representatives of students and workers. Elsewhere, the situation is still evolving, but all foreseeable solutions include the same first step: The existing authorities must step down.

More broadly, there seems to be widespread support for the abolition or, at least, the reorganisation of the cantons: in short, a rationalisation of the state apparatus. The protestors realise that the country’s dire economic situation is not merely the result of corrupt officials, but rather of the constitutional order itself. The changes they demand likewise address the system directly.

The fury on display in the streets of BiH over the past few days was an ugly sight. But what is still more hideous has been the past twenty years of corruption, thieving and manipulating on the part of the entirety of the BiH political establishment. Already, they have attempted to deny any personal responsibility and to offer duplicitous temporary solutions. It is much too late for them.

For the people of BiH, however, this is merely the beginning. Tumultuous days are no doubt ahead, but as long as the citizens of this little land do not forget the fear they inspired in their rulers tonight and continue to press their demands, together, they may yet usher in a truly democratic Spring.

Jasmin Mujanovic is a PhD candidate at York University and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Originally from Sarajevo, he is a regular Balkan affairs analyst. His Twitter handle is @JasminMuj.