Bosnian Spring that Might Not be Only Bosnian

The desperate economic situation and dissatisfaction with the enriching political and bureaucratic elites sparked initial mass demonstrations and unrest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose main problem is a dysfunctional country with probably the most complicated state structure in the world

Posted on 02/17/14
By Hajrudin Somun | Via Today's Zaman
A group of Bosnians protest in Sarajevo against economic stagnation and political corruption. (Photo by stefanogiantin, Creative Commons License)
A group of Bosnians protest in Sarajevo against economic stagnation and political corruption. (Photo by stefanogiantin, Creative Commons License)

Civil unrest that started last week and turned to violent riots and setting fire to government buildings and police cars in the cities of Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar and some other locations in Bosnia and Herzegovina has already been called a “Bosnian Spring.” It was even compared to the current Ukrainian uprising.

Regional countries were alerted that the people’s mass discontent might spread to Bosnia’s borders and become not only Bosnian. Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic immediately rushed to Mostar to soothe the Bosnian Croats. Outgoing Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said the problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be resolved through agreement and without conflict.

 

Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, diverted his return trip from Brussels to Ankara and suddenly came to Sarajevo last Wednesday (Feb 12). He met not only with the Bosniak but also with the Serb and Croat members of the country’s tripartite presidency. “It is good that the protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not ethnically based, but they show the country needs political reforms,” he told the media.

Bosnia is still undergoing the hard transition from a socialist centrally planned economy to a free market economy, which has opened the way for enrichment and corruption on one end of the social strata and poverty and distress on the other
Although there are some common elements to make a spontaneous analogy to the mass uprisings in the Middle East or Ukraine, the situation in Bosnia is something else. Unlike in the Arab “springs,” the popular revolt of workers, pensioners, students and jobless young people in Bosnia was not directed at authoritarian rulers but at corrupt political elites who have used the ethno-nationalist division of the country to stay in power for as long as possible. Those elites became richer and richer while the workers and other social categories remain impoverished. In common with Ukraine and other former communist countries, Bosnia is still undergoing the hard transition from a socialist centrally planned economy to a free market economy, which has opened the way for enrichment and corruption on one end of the social strata and poverty and distress on the other.

 

Yes, Bosnia is different from any transitional country of East and Southeast Europe. The transfer from one economic system to another in the 1990s was almost the same as in other regional countries, particularly those that were part of the former Yugoslavia. Old socialist industries and huge enterprises were exposed to the wild free market. Their privatization was very often corrupt. People connected to the new political leaderships were buying companies just to strip off their assets and make a quick profit. Many of them soon went bankrupt. Many workers believed it was the easiest way for the neoliberal economy to “kill” the old socialist system in which the people belonging to the middle class enjoyed, above all, many social benefits and security.

 

A three-and-a-half-year war

What made Bosnia more vulnerable to that process, when compared to other neighboring countries, was the Serb aggression and war that lasted three-and-a-half years. Dozens of factories were destroyed and thousands of workers became jobless and refugees. Those who managed to return to their previous jobs once the war ended soon became victims of the merciless privatization process and many of them were left on the street again. It was possible to recognize many such embittered workers at the demonstrations in Tuzla, once the large industrial complex, where the current Bosnian turmoil began and immediately spread to Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar and other places.

 

Workers from factories which have now gone bankrupt united to demand that politicians solve their problems concerning jobs, unpaid salaries, social security and pensions. In the meantime, business bosses from Croatia and Slovenia, and in recent years from Russia as well, rushed to Bosnia to buy its remaining factories, assets and land at symbolic prices, filling local politicians’ pockets. Through bribe-taking, selling and reselling industrial units and trade companies Bosnia soon got its very own corrupt elites. Some of the protesters in Sarajevo announced that, according to several foreign reports, 85 multimillionaires live in Bosnia. “They have $9 billion in total, and we can’t afford a 1 euro tram ticket to come to a rally in front of the country’s presidency,” they said.

 

Workers and citizens in Tuzla and other Bosnian cities continue their protests, now mostly peaceful, voicing their demands on streets and at various forums. The review and cancelation of the privatization deals of their companies is among the first of their demands. They request as well the investigation of economic crimes, the confiscation of illegally acquired property and the resignation of local governments.

 

The main problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, is that it is a dysfunctional country with probably the most complicated state structure in the world. It was created at a peace conference in Dayton, US, in 1995. The country is divided along ethnic lines: half is the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, and the other half is the Federation of 10 cantons, dominated by Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats. Each canton has its own government and assembly. The town of Brcko is an autonomous district. The country of less than 4 million people has three presidents, each representing the three main ethnic communities, more than 150 ministers and 14 constitutions. Above all, Bosnia is still a kind of international protectorate headed by the Office of the High Representative.

 

In such a governing arrangement and ethnic divisions it was very often impossible to reach a consensus on any issue of common interest for the whole country. In such a system, only politicians prospered and politics as a profession became the most desired job. The wages of thousands of bureaucrats and elected officials have grown while the standard of living of ordinary people has been on the decline.

 

Political leaders have obstructed every effort to change the country’s constitution, adopted at Dayton, because any change might endanger their privileges. It took 16 months after the 2010 general elections for a state government to be formed. And it collapsed almost immediately thereafter. But no politician lost his job. Declining revenues from poor industrial production and the negative foreign trade balance were compensated for by foreign loans and International Monetary Fund (IMF) injections.

 

Finally, the desperate economic situation and dissatisfaction with the enriching political and bureaucratic elites sparked initial mass demonstrations and unrest. The riots have subsided but protests entered their second week. Citizens are holding meetings and demanding for the formation of a technocratic government composed of experts. Two cantonal governments have already resigned. There are also demands that the general elections planned for October be held earlier. Most politicians are, however, maneuvering to maintain the status quo. It is hard to expect that anything crucial will be changed from within the country, which has, in any case, been created in its present state by the international community.

 

Blaming local politicians for stagnation

Some foreign observers questioned why the Bosniaks are almost exclusively participating in the current demonstrations and riots in Bosnia. First, the impossibly complicated state mechanism is related to the half of the country mostly inhabited by Bosniaks, and most of the industrial enterprises were concentrated there. And, what is perhaps most important, most of the destruction and devastation and the victims of the war against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s belong to the country’s area inhabited by Bosniaks — i.e., Bosnian Muslims
So far foreign officials have blamed the local politicians for Bosnia’s stagnation. Now, seeing the dangerous eruption of people’s distress, there are numerous requests for more active engagement by the international community, especially the European Union, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Here are some such voices: “Creating a different policy in Bosnia that would serve more the people requires a change in the policy of the international community that wakes up from a deep sleep only when there is a critical situation in such countries” (Schwarz Schilling, former German minister and high representative in Bosnia); “It would be good for citizens of Bosnia to hear that the EU shares this frustration and also the realization that these elites have no will to actually have Bosnia join the EU” (Balkan expert Florian Bieber); “Brussels must chuck the ineffective, off-the-shelf ‘Stabilization and Association Process’ in favor of a bespoke, ‘special candidate status’ for Bosnia that requires ‘dual integration’” (Edward P. Joseph, professor at Johns Hopkins School, Washington, D.C., and an expert on the Balkans).

 

British Foreign Secretary William Hague also called for a “renewed effort” by the EU to help Bosnia. Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu spoke in similar terms last Wednesday (Feb 12) in Sarajevo. He reiterated the truth that all of Bosnia’s friends were saying for years that “the Dayton peace agreement was of outmost importance for it helped end the war, but it is obvious that it now hampers the functioning of the country.”

 

We Bosnians are aware that in the present circumstances it is impossible to change the Dayton Accords and the country’s constitution, mostly due to opposition by the Bosnian Serbs and their patrons in Belgrade and Moscow. What we might expect and what might ease tensions in the country is an urgent new Washington and Brussels engagement in reforming the constitutionally based state structure and opening the EU funds by giving it a “special EU candidate status.” And Turkey in particular might help accelerate Bosnia’s accession to NATO at the summits that the alliance will have this year.

 

There is something curious regarding this last visit by Davutoğlu as well as most of his previous visits and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trips to the Balkans. It has almost always been understood by Serb nationalists in Bosnia and Serbia that the Turkish politicians come to the region to support only Bosnian and other Balkan Muslims. These nationalists disregard the fact that Turkey has more investment projects in Serbia than in Bosnia. This time it did not happen, probably due to the extraordinary events. The Serb member of the Presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, who had previously accused Davutoğlu and all of Turkey of interfering in Bosnian internal affairs, shared the views of his collocutor about most of the issues they discussed.

 

Some foreign observers questioned why the Bosniaks are almost exclusively participating in the current demonstrations and riots in Bosnia when the desperate economic situation affects the entire country. It is clear, but they would rather make allusions to the deep division and corruption among Bosnian Muslim politicians than to recall some obvious facts. First, the impossibly complicated state mechanism, described above, is related to the half of the country mostly inhabited by Bosniaks, and most of the industrial enterprises were concentrated there. And, what is perhaps most important, most of the destruction and devastation and the victims of the war against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s belong to the country’s area inhabited by Bosniaks — i.e., Bosnian Muslims.

 

Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey. This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading daily of Turkey.

 

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