Bosnian presidency, the day after
Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević
The protests that have erupted across Bosnia in recent days were in some ways no surprise. While the JMBG protests fizzled out last year , nothing was resolved and it was clear that new protests would occur, just when and how remained unclear (this also clearly emerged from the discussion at the conference on protests we organized in Graz in December, see here, here and here). What was a surprise was the extent to which they quickly spread from the first protests in Tuzla across Bosnia and the degree to which the occupation and burning down of government buildings became a central feature. Here are some features that have struck me in following the debates and the protests themselves in recent days:
In an interview for the Austrian daily Kurier, the current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted that the protests were primarily carried by Bosniaks, the Muslims (‘Die Träger der Proteste sind hauptsächlich Bosniaken, die Muslime’). Similarly, Tim Judah pointed out that the protests primarily took place in the Federation and in areas with a Bosniak majority. While these are not wrong observation, they do emphasize ethnicity when the protests had nothing to do with ethnicity at all. Of course, in Bosnia everything becomes easily an ethnic issue, but one has to be careful not to contribute to this. In fact, what is more remarkable that the protests took place in regions of Bosnia with a Bosniak majority, they also took place in Brčko and Mostar, two cities that are multiethnic, although in very different manners. The fact that violence in Mostar against the city and cantonal administration and the HQs of the two dominant ethnonationalist parties SDA and HDZ is particularly significant. A place where the threat of violence has been closer to the surface than elsewhere in Bosnia and the divisions are particularly tangible, such a protests is more significant than in less divided settings. So why are there protests in Tuzla, Zenica, Bihać, Sarajevo, Mostar and Brčko and not in Banja Luka, Bijelina (although some protests took place in the RS, just with a low turn out, including a bizarre counter-protest against protests in Bijelina) etc.? From the perspective of the RS leadership, it is the dysfunctional nature of the Federation and another piece of evidence that Bosnia is not in the interest of the RS. While the argument is clearly self-serving, there is no doubt that the institutions of the Federation are more dysfunctional than the RS with its cantons, a largely superfluous layer of government. This does not capture the entire situation.
In the RS, the government has been more successful in buying social peace and controlling the public space through reducing the media and accusing potential protestors of being against the RS. It is also telling that the protests began in Tuzla against predominantly Socialdemocratic authorities. First, these protests are not about Dayton or nationalism, but they are about a much broader disappointment with the political class.
The epicentre is in a former working class city that also bucked the ethnonationalist trend during the war and reflects the disappointment with the Socialdemocrats who were the winners of the 2010 elections and have since squandered all their political capital by acting indistinguishable from the ethnonationalist parties. As a result, the protests express a sense of lack of alternatives, no party that can represent the grievances. Here, this might explain the location of protests, the lack of alternatives has been a characteristic in the RS for longer and thus holds less mobilizing potential. Furthermore, in Tuzla, Zenica and Bihać the protests could demonstrate that they were about badly governed towns and cantons, not about large questions where parties can give them an ethnic spin (as some are already doing).
The main reason for the international muted response was probably the use of violence during the protests. The burning of buildings and finally of a part of the archives of Bosnia in the presidency building have led to media and politicians in and outside Bosnia using the term “hooligans” in the context of the protests.
Of course, the fact that historical buildings were damaged and parts of the archives stored in the presidency is a tragedy. While initial reports of the damage might have been exaggerated (intentionally or unintentionally due the obvious parallels to the destruction of the national library in 1992), it also seems wrong, as director Jasmila Žbanić argued, to suggest that the destruction of part of the archives was a “lie”. Again, she probably meant reports that the complete archives were destroyed, but the formulation seems to downplay this doubtlessly tragic loss. Photos from the site show documents destroyed. However, does this make the protestors ‘hooligans’? I have not seen any reports indicating that the archives were deliberately targeted. Instead, it seems the tragedy lies in them being stored in the same building as the presidency.
Ditched Cars in Zenica, presumably from local politicians
Source: Twitter @YourAnonCentral
The term hooligans on the other hand is very loaded and authoritarian regimes like to use it again protestors (I remember this being used with some frequency by the Milošević regime) and it raises a difficult question: What level of violence is legitimate during protests? In democracies, the answer is usually none, as there are legal means of changing government not necessitating the use of force. In dictatorships, the use of violence is generally considered acceptable, while of course the scale and target of violence remains open for discussion. Nobody seriously considered the protestors in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 hooligans because they set fire to the Serbian radio and television station or ransacked the Federal parliament. Bosnia is a tricky case. While it is no dictatorship, many citizens who went to the streets feel that they cannot change the government through elections. This is true to a large extent, as the multiple layers of government mean that everybody is in power somewhere and at the entity and state level we witness complex and fluid coalitions that blur the line between government and opposition beyond recognition. The use of ethnonational mobilization has also systematically undermined the organization and articulation of other political concerns. As a consequence, the use of violence against buildings representing the current elite became a target. Statements that citizens destroyed their own property ring hollow (unless of course, we acknowledge that the limousines of politicians thrown into canals in Zenica where paid for by Bosnian taxpayers). The use of fear was a reflection of the anger of the citizens, as Elvira Jukić describes vividly in her blog. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, an observation made by many on Facebook and Twitter as cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country.
In addition, the violence of the protests was fairly systematically directed at buildings of the government, in particular cantonal administrations, the state presidency and some political party offices. Despite conflict reports, there seems to have not been wide-spread looting (a la Patike za Kosovo or the London riots) and the violence was targeted. While it is hard to condone the destruction of buildings, it is easy to understand.
Besides the unwanton damage, there are other risks with violence. It was striking when Al Jazeera Balkans, who had the best reporting on the events, described the scenes in Sarajevo as a ‘war zone’. This unfortunate comparison illustrates the risks: the one risk is that mass violence threatens the structures of the state and that this void is filled not by those originally protesting, but others who seek benefit from the use of force. Second danger is demobilizing citizens: Afraid of a new war or even images that remind of the war might mean that they will not attend protests for the fear of a fall back to the war. Third, there is the risk of Chekhov‘s principle for plays: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
The International Response
The international response to the protests has been confused, displaying the gap between international actors and the reality on the ground. The EU and EU foreign ministers either officially or on twitter (see Carl Bildt, Štefan Füle) repeated the phrase that citizens should have the right to protest, but that they should remain peaceful. The current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted in the aforementioned interview for the Austrian daily Kurier that “if the situation escalates, we might have to think about EU-troops (“Wenn die Lage eskaliert, werden wir eventuell an EU-Truppen denken müssen.”). Although he also calls the protests legitimate, the mention of EU troops triggered alarm bells , as it is unclear for or against whom this intervention would take place (later, the statement was clarified). Such talk risks additional securitizing the protests, and thus playing in the hands of those who would like to see the protests reduced to a violent threat to the status quo. Instead, the protests should be welcomed and not just treated as the expression of the right of citizens.
The protests, as in the Ukraine or in Bulgaria, should be understood as a clear message that citizens do not want corrupt elites that have in essence captured the state and govern it for their private good. This is all the EU should be about and the unwillingness and inability of elites to strike a compromise over recent years to move the country closer to the EU are a clear message that was unfortunately not reflected in the international response.
What is next?
In the middle of the protests, and they are far from over, it is impossible to guess the outcome. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. Whether this can lead to early elections is unclear. Bosnia has only had early elections once, in the RS in 1997, and early elections might just benefit the incumbents, while the demonstrators don’t have a political platform yet (there are demands of citizens from Tuzla and Sarajevo, however). It might be better to have an interim government, composed of “technocrats” to govern until elections to give the protestors time to organize and to also initiate some reforms.
Graffiti on government building in Tuzla says “Resign all and Death To Nationalism” Source: Twitter @RadioNightwatch
Another defining feature of the protests is the combination of social grievances with dissatisfaction with government and corruption (see here how this fits into the larger picture). It is thus not just about opposition to the particular form of economic transition that Bosnia experienced, but also about the state capture. Now, a question that will not be easily settled is the degree to which the Dayton superstructure is to blame. I have been generally skeptical about scapegoating Dayton (here I disagree with Eric Gordy’s otherwise very insightful remarks on Bosnia), not because it is good, but because there are other causes. Many cities in Bosnia are badly governed, including Sarajevo, but Dayton has nothing to do with the functioning of the cities. The reasons that the cities (and cantons) are mismanaged, is less their institutional set-up, but the political elite that governs them. Of course, the complex power-sharing system that governs Bosnia is co-contributing to this elite, but it is simply too easy to blame for all of it (as a counter factual, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region where there is no Dayton-like institutional system). It thus seems important at this point not to focus on constitutional reform or other issues related to the organization of the state. While the Dayton constitution is far from ideal, talking of changing it is different from actually changing it (I am thus sympathetic to the argument Jasmin Mujanovic makes, but worry that it would not help the protests to achieve change and rather get bogged down in constitutional debates a la Sejdić-Finci, I have written more about this earlier). Constitutional reform has been the third rail of Bosnian politics since the war, it is divisive and will risk bringing ethnicity into the debate.
Finally, international actors will need to tread carefully as well. Sometimes, silence is golden and if any message should be clear, the strategy of talking to six party leaders and thinking that this is the way to change Bosnia for the better has failed and should be over. Before designing a new grand strategy for Bosnia, it would be better to ensure that citizens get a better say in how the country is governed, a new strategy–certainly needed–should come then.