The ‘Bosnian Spring’ Starts With a Bang
The Bosnian protests are the result of years of corruption, economic decay and in-fighting among ethno-political elites, but it is far from certain that they can bring real change.
Article published on BalkanInsight from Feb 14
Thousands of disgruntled workers, demobilised soldiers and unemployed youth poured onto the streets across Bosnia and Herzegovina as angry protests continued on Friday. The long-awaited wave of demonstrations – the biggest and most violent in years – has already been dubbed ‘Bosnian Spring’, but experts and media disagree over how they will develop and what might be their impact.
“They [police] started firing tear gas and flash-bang grenades,” one of the demonstrators reported in a Twitter message on Friday from Tuzla, where the situation quickly ran out control after thousands of protesters surrounded the cantonal government building. After a brief clash with demonstrators, police special forces retreated and a number of protesters entered the abandoned government building and started ransacking and burning it.
These were already among the biggest and most violent public protests in the country since the end of the war. The momentum was spreading in other places across the country like wildfire, with hundreds of people gathering in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Bihac and Brcko.
“Enough is enough! Politicians have been drinking our blood long enough and now it is time for people to bring them down. If we shed some of their blood in the process, so be it,” said a young protester joining the thousands who gathered in front of the Sarajevo Canton government building on Friday.
His statement fully reflected the anger and desperation many citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina share, regardless of their ethnic, religious or political affiliation, after years of political elites’ petty, zero-sum games have ravaged country’s economy and social services.
The first reactions from local authorities indicated that, in most cases, they were oblivious to the growing public dissatisfaction. The Tuzla Canton government missed an opportunity to open talks with demonstrators on the first day of rallies on Wednesday and when they offered to meet representatives of protestors on Friday, they were rejected. Many civic activists also protested against what they said was excessive force used by police in the first three days of protests.
The premier of the Sarajevo cantonal government, Suad Zeljkovic, drew many angry comments with his statement that the people of the capital should not be dissatisfied.
“In Sarajevo, no one has reasons for unrest and actions like this. There is not a single unpaid salary, nor has any sector of society have reasons for dissatisfaction,” he told media on Thursday.
Such political ignorance led to the growing public frustration which was evident in the first two days of demonstrations, during which more than 100 people were injured and 20 detained in the northern town of Tuzla on Wednesday and Thursday alone. Protests in Sarajevo and Zenica also turned violent, with several people injured and detained.
The ‘Bosnian Spring’ started with a massive gathering of disgruntled workers on Tuesday in Tuzla, where more than 10,000 people who worked at the Dita detergent factory, the Konjuh furniture factory, the Resod-Guming motor parts firm and the Polihem and Poliolchem chemical plants gathered in front of the cantonal government building to protest against what they said was the catastrophe that has hit their companies.
These companies, former business giants, were weakened or ruined in the privatisation process in the early 2000s like many other Bosnian state firms. Workers demanded the reassessment of the privatisation process or the initiation of bankruptcy procedures so that they either receive years of unpaid salaries or are allowed to go back to work. The Tuzla cantonal government tried to explain that it had no authority to interfere with private companies, but this was ignored by the demonstrators.
The protests have been long in coming and politicians, experts and journalists are now locked in debate about where they will go and what impact they will have.
Some politicians, such as Sarajevo cantonal premier Zeljkovic, tried to explain the protests as the political manipulations of opposition parties, part of their campaigns ahead of Bosnia’s general elections that are due to take place in October this year.
“We have noticed that protests are run by the same people who are running politics from the streets for the past ten years,” Zeljkovic said.
Yet local experts and international officials mostly dismiss such claims. A senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that international organisations and Western embassies have so far failed to notice that any political group has been controlling the protests.
“Such claims are preposterous. First because the towns where protests are taking place are governed by different parties. Second because after all the political chaos which we have witnessed in the past years, neither the local nor international community really understands who is in power on which level,” the diplomat said.
The political crisis which has escalated in Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2006, degenerated after the 2010 elections into an all-out political war in which each and every party – or even party faction – fought each other in various combinations, making and breaking alliances on almost daily level.
This situation blocked the country’s reform agenda and forced the EU to halt the accession process, suspend 47 million euro of pre-accession funds for 2013 and postpone preparations for a new pre-accession package that was supposed to provide hundreds of millions of euros in grants for the period 2014-2020. Political chaos was also directly reflected in the economic and social situation, with rampant unemployment rates and rising poverty levels.
“I have been envisaging such protests for the past two years already,” Bosnia’s leading political and social analyst Zarko Papic told media.
Banja Luka economist Svetlana Cenic said meanwhile that the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be united “by hunger”.
“It is the nightmare of political elites that people unite in protests. They will do everything so that people do not unite; they will be telling those in Banja Luka that they cannot support those in Sarajevo and vice versa,” she told media.
Yet none of these experts could envisage how the protests will develop, how long they will last and what they can achieve, especially bearing in mind that the biggest protest in Tuzla quickly turned violent and destructive.
“The protests cannot succeed; BiH does not have Vitali Klitschko and has many Yanukoviches,” read the title of an article published in Mostar daily Dnevni List on Friday, referring to the Ukrainian opposition leader Klitschko and his nemesis in the current protests in Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovich, who is accused by demonstrators of heading a corrupt regime.
The article reflects the opinions of some experts who fear that Bosnia and Herzegovina has become too divided into three ethno-political blocks and requires three almost parallel civic processes, while at the same time lacking good opposition or civic leaders who could use these protests to initiate genuinely positive reforms.
“The situation is very difficult and dangerous. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a powder keg with pressure increasing for years, but local politicians and the international community ignored it. Now this has to run its course and we can only hope for the best,” the Western diplomat said.
Srecko Latal is an analyst at the Social Overview Service (SOS) think tank.