Bosnia’s conditional democracy

Bosnian protests are now challenging normative assumptions about “democracy development”.

Bosnian citizens are used to having their political situation qualified with numerous conditional clauses, writes Hajdarpasic [EPA]

Two weeks ago, thousands of protesters stormed government buildings across Bosnia. The massive outpouring of anger in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities – followed by the creation of plenums, or citizen assemblies- briefly attracted worldwide attention. While major newspapers scrambled to find reporters on the scene, editorials by Slavoj Zizek and open letters by thinkers like Tariq Ali expressed enthusiastic support for the Bosnian demonstrations.

Amid these debates, the general consensus – especially in the mainstream media and government cabinets in Europe and America – is a familiar one when it comes to protests in troubled countries (be it Bosnia, Ukraine, Greece, or Tunisia): Endorsement of citizens’ basic democratic rights coupled with a condemnation of corrupt local politicians.


However, such endorsements of protests almost always come with a few telling qualifications. Tim Judah’s assessment of the Bosnian protests in The Economist presents a good example of this kind of commentary.

The piece concisely identifies the immediate factors leading to the Bosnian demonstrations, which are then endorsed for being “anti-nationalists” and liberal-minded. Yet by the report’s end, the endorsement shifts to a series of conditional clauses: “If the plenums take root, if new leaders emerge and if they focus on realistic demands, something might really change.”

Citizens of Bosnia are used to having their political situation qualified with numerous conditional clauses.

If the situation escalates, we will possibly have to think about EU troops. But not right now,” said Valentin Inzko, High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia, immediately after the February 7 protests.

“If [the international officials] don’t act now, I greatly fear that a situation where secessionism will take hold and could easily become unstoppable as we approach elections,” added Paddy Ashdown, a former High Representative, in an interview with CNN.

Such “if” clauses invoke fears and threats of violence; other conditionals are there to fuel hope in Bosnia’s many “leaders”. “The leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina should consider taking courageous and decisive steps if they want their country to catch up,” said Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, during the June 2013 protests in Sarajevo. He underscored the same message on February 17.

The protests themselves, however, remain saddled with more “ifs” in popular reporting. The headline of “US News and World Report” summed up the situation with a familiar conditional clause: “Bosnians clean up rubble after violent protests, but unclear if anything will change.”

Taken altogether, these reactions illustrate what one could call “democracy in the conditional tense”: General endorsement of protest, yes, but also a little lesson about what counts as proper “democracy development”.

What does this peculiar political grammar reveal? A bit of structuralist analysis helps clarify its assumptions and appeal. First, political commentary in the conditional mood usually assumes a passive, naturalised voice of reason, appearing as a set of purportedly self-evident syllogisms (“If the protests produce new leaders, things might change”) rather than directives that prescribe desirable and undesirable behaviour (“Protesters need to name new leaders in order to change the situation”).

Having posited the voice of generic reason, the conditional tense then cautions and inoculates against the dangers of excess, not only the excess of force (“protests are good, but not if they are violent”), but also the excess of political imagination (“protests are good, but not if they have excessively idealistic demands”).

To speak of revolution in Bosnia seems foolish, of course; the situation is relatively calm and the existing regimes have not been toppled and replaced by new governments.

Finally, endorsement of democracy in the conditional tense usually explicitly invokes outside observers and local leaders, naming them as the real political actors capable of channeling the protesters’ rage into more constructive uses (“If the political leaders do not listen to the protesters, no real change will happen”).

In this discourse, what is ultimately endorsed is not democracy as a difficult and broad struggle for social justice, but rather – to quote the official letter of the High Representative in Bosnia after the protests – “A Reasonable and Constructive Response to Dissatisfaction of Citizens”.

This political grammar pervades not only current reports on the Bosnian demonstrations, but also wider commentary on related social justice efforts, from the Occupy movements to the protests in Turkey, Egypt, or Ukraine. It provides a way for commentators to preserve their democratic credentials by endorsing the idea of protest in principle, but also allows them to mask their disapproval – of leaderless structures, unrealistic demands, and so on – with seemingly “logical” conditions imposed on the protests. In these ways, one can both endorse the protests and preemptively qualify them as inevitable failures.

Final taboo

What is truly refreshing about the Bosnian protests so far is that they operate largely oblivious to the logic of democracy in the conditional tense. The demonstrations – which have continued peacefully –  after the first days of violent clashes with the police – have resulted in the formation of many plenums, or direct democracy assemblies led by local citizens.

These are extraordinary developments. Every day since the protests, thousands of citizens in Tuzla, Mostar, Sarajevo, Travnik, Zenica, and other towns meet in public places, where they take turns to address the gathered citizens. At the end of each meeting, a list of concrete demands is drawn up and voted on. Each person gets one vote; there is no option to abstain. So far, government officials have resigned in four cantons while new citizen-led structures are developing in plenums.

These direct democracy procedures openly reverse the familiar discourse of politics in the conditional tense. As the Tuzla assembly reminded the international public: “If [the EU officials] Ashton and Fule arrive, they can freely join the citizens’ assembly, but with the same rules as for us all: Raising your hand, asking to speak. You get two minutes.”

In all this, there is a taboo that is circled in the current commentary: The taboo of revolution. To speak of revolution in Bosnia seems foolish, of course; the situation is relatively calm and the existing regimes have not been toppled and replaced by new governments. So why does revolution remain a taboo word in Bosnia today?

One reason is that the ongoing citizen assemblies have a deeply subversive daily quality, something that has revolutionary potential, but does not fit with the conventional image of a violent revolution. Every day, people gather across Bosnia to speak to each other, to create new agendas, to call for more changes even as the political structures remain the same, at least on paper. Writing about such events is always challenging and risky, especially amid the changing circumstances in Bosnia.

Roland Barthes once remarked: “Revolutionary writings have always scantily and poorly represented the daily finality of the revolution, the way it suggests we shall live tomorrow, either because this representation risks sweetening or trivialising the present struggle, or because, more precisely, political theory aims only at setting up the real freedom of the human question, without prefiguring any of its answers.”

The events in Bosnia are important precisely for raising difficult questions of freedom and democracy without conditions or prefigured answers. The ongoing plenums may not fit the conventional image of revolution, but they are undeniably subversive in proclaiming that the “citizens’ assembly is a protest for the production of possibility”.

Edin Hajdarpasic teaches history at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of a forthcoming book titled Whose Bosnia? Political Imagination and Nation-Formation in the Modern Balkans.