The protest that began last Wednesday as a result of a factory closing in Tulza, Bosnia has set off a chain of anti-government protests in other major cities and towns in the country, including the capital Sarajevo. Protesters have blocked off the main streets of Sarajevo and set fire to government buildings in the most violent course of events that the nation has seen since the Bosnian War in 1995. Although the protests have become more peaceful in recent days, the movement has not lost its momentum. More than a thousand people took to the streets this past Monday chanting against “criminal” government leaders.

The Tuzla Canton government Building in flames
The Tuzla Canton government building in flames

The stagnation of Bosnian politics is a result of the electoral system that was created in the US-negotiated Dayton Peace Accords of 1995. The accords created a system in which the three warring ethnic groups, Croats, Serbs, and Bosniack Muslims, had proportional representation in the government. Although this was a successful step towards ending the ethnic conflict, it created a divided government that has since largely failed to deliver basic services or promote economic growth.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, said that “what [has] happened in Bosnia is a wake-up call”, and called for a focus on “more efforts on helping Bosnia towards the EU, towards NATO membership, so that the stagnation in Bosnian politics and government can come to an end”.

The European Union has provided Bosnia with monetary aid over the years to encourage reform and support stability so that the nation may move forward in its candidacy to join the EU. However, a 2009 EU-Bosnia progress report stated that the country had made only “limited progress” in areas such as the enforcement of the rule of law and the protection of human rights.

Alongside an inefficient political system, Bosnia has a 27 to 40 percent unemployment rate and corruption is rampant in both the public and private sectors. Many have lost their livelihoods because of the widespread practice of privatization in which individuals purchase public companies that they can then use for illicit personal gain.

Tulza citizens expressed their wish “to direct the anger and rage into the building of a productive and useful system of government” in a document sent to the Tulza cantonal government. Similar lists of demands have been sent to local governments across Bosnia demanding the resignation of the current office, an increase in employment, and the achievement of EU standards of progress.

Government officials have responded to the people’s demands for change with disdain, and have worked to delegitimize the “hooligan” protestors and their cause. One reason for this response is the violent nature of the first protests, which resulted in the destruction of Ottoman-era national archives and damage to government buildings.

Suad Zeljkovic, prime minister of the Saravejo regional government, ignited anger with his statements to reporters Thursday: “In Sarajevo, no one has reasons for unrest and actions like this. There is not a single unpaid salary, nor does any sector of society have reasons for dissatisfaction.”

Bosnians, both young and old, have a different opinion. Dzenita Hodzic, a 23-year-old student said: “Older generations perhaps remember better times, or worse times during the war, but for us this is a situation that cannot get any worse.” Another activist, Lejla Kusturica, said: “I think the biggest fear of our politicians is a united people.”

Bosnians of all ethnicities have been unified so far in proclaiming their frustration with the current state of affairs. Images and statements by protesters have sprung up on social media sites over the past week and some political analysts are predicting that this may be the beginning of a ‘Bosnian spring’.

However, there is a large amount of mistrust between the three groups and the protests have the potential to disrupt the fragile semblance of peace that Bosnia has sustained for 15 years.

Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister of Croatia and the former Yugoslav republic, emphasized the importance of protests remaining neutral and urged politicians to avoid adopting a “national tone” that could move the issue in an ethnic direction.

Jasmin Mujanovic, a Balkan affairs analyst, wrote that there has been a fundamental change in mindset of Bosnians since the protests began: “The protesters realise that the country’s dire economic situation is not merely the result of corrupt officials, but rather of the constitutional order itself… for the people of Bosnia, this is merely the beginning.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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