The evolution of Bosnia’s protest movement: an interview with Jasmin Mujanović

Bosnia’s protest movement is already receiving less media coverage, with some declaring the end of the ‘Bosnian spring’.  But the causes behind the ongoing protests are complex, and neither the causes nor the protests have disappeared.  Heather McRobie interviews Jasmin Mujanović.

Jasmin Mujanović Heather McRobie
7 May 2014

The protests that swept across Bosnia earlier this year, and then transformed into citizens' 'plenums', briefly made international headlines, but were soon after declared by some Balkan analysts to be 'over' almost as soon as they had begun.  Jasmin Mujanović explains the protests and citizens' discontent in the country, and that the citizens' demands for 'accountability and dignity' is ongoing.

Heather McRobie: What have the main demands of the protests been? Why have people been attending the plenums?

Jasmin Mujanović: The demands have varied and have often had particular, local concerns, as we have chronicled on our BH Protest Files blog. But I think the general tenor can be summed up as “accountability and dignity.” The politicians have promised voters the sun and the moon for two decades and yet, in practice, little has changed and many things have become worse since the war. It’s not usual to hear people actually remark that life was easier during the war—one can scarcely imagine a more scathing indictment of a political establishment. The unemployment rate is somewhere around 40%, 60% among youth, 80% want to leave BiH, seniors can barely survive on their meagre pensions and yet are often forced to support their adult children on these funds because the kids can’t find any work. Something like a quarter of the GDP comes from remittances.

Meanwhile, in comparison to the local average wage, Bosnian officials are the highest paid politicians in Europe. And there’s certainly no lack of government largess to employ them either; there are thousands of legislators and even more staff and bureaucrats. They drive Audis and BMWs, are shuttled to and fro between Sarajevo and Brussels for meetings at which they agree to nothing and when they do agree to anything, they rarely implement it. The richest 85 people in BiH, many of them politicians or their close associates, have fortunes equal to about 50% of the GDP. So, there’s tremendous anger at these political oligarchs, because people can clearly see that these individuals have done nothing but loot the public’s coffers, sold off the remnants of the country’s industrial capital in pieces, and taken on obscene debts to keep their Potemkin administrations afloat for another year or two. And of course, it’s the already impoverished public that’s on the hook to pay these debts off.

So, it’s quite remarkable that rather than demanding much more extreme measures, most of the demands made by the plena have focused on things like public audits, resignations and, in a sense, the mere opportunity for ordinary citizens to participate in meaningful political dialogue. Given the circumstances, and the general sense of resentment at the ruling establishment, the plena organizers should be commended for being a genuinely moderating influence. They are a space where people create actual policy demands, engaged in dialogue and see that reform is possible. They really just want their elected officials to do the same now. 

Unfortunately, I don’t think most of the BiH political establishment or their interlocutors in the international community understand that this moderation and patience is not an inexhaustible resource. Especially now that people have had a taste of their own power—both in the streets and in winning a handful of concessions through the plena.      

Heather McRobie: The protests have happened all over the country since Feburary, in Federacija, Republika Srpska, and Brcko – do you think this is significant, in a country that is in many senses very divided?

Jasmin Mujanović: Absolutely, I think the importance of the “all-Bosnian and Herzegovinian” character of these protests cannot be overstated. In places like Mostar, we are seeing the hard work of organizing taking place, across ethnic and political lines. This is slow, sensitive and taxing work but it’s critical for BiH’s future social development and there is, ultimately, no alternative but to talk to and work with one another. And, moreover, there is no alternative to citizens accepting that politics is a participatory, full-contact, no-off-season sport.

The meetings we’ve seen in Mostar have not always been very large but they’ve been persistent and there is a particular kind of vitality in this. Keep in mind, this is a city completely devastated by the cynical political wrangling of the SDA and HDZ—everything from the phone company to the city itself is split in two, between the Croat and Bosniak communities. Or more precisely, between those who claim to represent the supposedly mutually incompatible interests of these collectives. All the while, Croat and Bosniak residents are in equal parts impoverished, unemployed and destitute.

These parties have even managed to blockade the one meagre accountability mechanism available to the citizens of BiH: elections. So the argument I often hear about “well, people voted for this” doesn’t even work in places like Mostar. People haven’t had an opportunity to vote in years. Moreover, these parties have embedded themselves so deeply into the government bureaucracy, into public firms and have established such wide client networks that, in the short term, even elections are severely compromised in a structural sense.   

In this short term then, until you can create the space for those new “establishment actors” (e.g. parties) to emerge, you need a bedrock of consensus that things cannot continue as they have or, at least, you need these two processes to happen congruently. That consensus, though, can only be struck among the citizens themselves and in a country as a small as BiH, those agreements may require that we all sit down in one hall or in one public square, together, and clear the air. We don’t have to love one another, we don’t even have to like each other but we do need to accept that we have at least some basic common interests. The rest will come and will be decided collectively, in time.  

HM: Does this current movement build upon 2013’s ‘Baby revolution’?  That seemed to be a moment of optimism for civic protest but then dissipated – are the 2014 protests qualitatively different from last summer’s demonstrations?

JM: Earlier I mentioned how patient the citizens of BiH have been with their politicians. Well, since at least year, since the “Baby revolution” you mention, we’ve seen that this patience has its limits. The protests last summer were peaceful and were largely attended by families with children. But there was that moment when people formed a human chain around the parliament, demanding that legislation be passed to provide the new born with basic state documentation and in response the MPs and various other officials began sneaking out basement windows and fleeing to their cars.

The scene was as inspiring as it was disgusting. On the one hand, you had this incredible act of solidarity on the part of the assembled citizens in the streets, pleading with their representatives to only do their jobs. Don’t let our children die because you can’t be bothered to pass a law that exists in every other country in Europe, lest I say the world. Please don’t make every single, mundane event in this society an opportunity for you to perform your farcical nationalist antics. Just pass, at least, this one law and we’ll go home.

But the politicians wouldn’t even do that. A law was eventually passed but at least one child died in the process and the whole episode left everyone with a very bitter taste in their mouth. It seemed like a moment of radicalization. Lacking real movement building experience, there was nothing but for that anger to build and build. What happened in February was that anger boiling over—but only a fraction of it. The root causes of the violence in February remain unaddressed and now we are starting to see the period between protests decreasing. The elections in October may suck some of the energy to protest out, but not for long if the new governments don’t act quickly to make immediate improvements in people’s daily lives. And, of course, all along we’re going to be told again and again how protests don’t work and how they accomplished nothing and all the rest, all up until the streets ignite again.         

HM:  Many protesters have expressed their frustration at living under the Dayton constitution.  Is this a key factor of the current discontent? 

JM: There’s likely no country on Earth where constitutional reform is more frequently a topic of conversation than BiH. This obsession is the result of the fact that the question of constitutional reform has been instrumentalized in such a way by the political class so as to ensure that actual reform can never take place. Why? Because all that plunder I described earlier, this economy of dispossession, that is the direct result of Dayton’s absurd “apartheid cartography,” as David Campbell called it. But so long as you keep insisting that the constitution is on the verge of being changed and that this change will adversely affect “your” ethnic group, you actually keep people immobilized and afraid of reaching out to one another. It is the performance of politics as anti-politics, in a sense.

So, Dayton is both at the heart of the current crisis but also entirely beside the point. Yes, Dayton needs to be replaced with an actual democratic constitution, with robust minority protections and accountability mechanisms. But a new constitution means nothing if you don’t have an organic, democratic political culture because that’s how legal documents become social realities. You’re never going to replace the Dayton constitution until you actually build movements that are capable of addressing the issues Dayton was itself meant to address, however problematically. Ultimately, that’s going to require participating in something like the plena or some sort of civic association and movement building.

HM: There is, of course, the argument that Dayton was necessary in 1995 to ‘stop the war’.  Is it just that it has now out-lived its original purpose? Or was it never an appropriate constitution?

I’m personally of the school that Dayton was a mistake from the onset. People like Josip Glaurdic and David Campbell, who I cited earlier, have clearly established that from the beginning, the international community was only ever prepared to “buy into” the nationalist argument about the need for partition. It just made sense in their banal realpolitik view of the world. Of course, rather than preventing conflict, this logic only encouraged it. With each new map proposing to segment communities into homogenous ethnic wholes, they just created the blueprints for further waves of ethnic cleansing.

In the process, they systematically marginalized all those peace activists, civil society activists, feminists, students, workers and ordinary citizens who, in 1990, voted for reforms not for war. That’s the thing: very few people talk about the actual platforms that the nationalist parties in BiH ran on. But if you read what they were actually promising at the time, it wasn’t war, it wasn’t genocide—Marko Attila Hoare makes this point in one of his books. But by the time they did begin talking about that, they’d made sure that any possibility of democratic dissent had been all but crushed.

Still, Dayton is our current reality though I emphasize current. Dayton has come to be treated as the last step in the peace process in BiH rather than the first and this former position is advocated not only by people like Milorad Dodik but also, in practice, by large segments of the international community. This is an absurd proposition, however, if one takes seriously the idea of development and democratization. Unfortunately, it is nevertheless a popular narrative as it plays to both the fundamental disinterest of the international community in BiH but also to the belief among the worst elements in the region that they can simply “wait out” the EU and US. And occasionally, these two positions intersect when former Western government officials end up continuing their careers as lobbyists for these local tin-pot, chauvinist regimes. Or when the popular desire for democratic reforms is hijacked as a call for further ethno-territorial fracturing, as with the current talk of “federalizing” BiH which in practice means nothing more than giving the HDZ their own fiefdom, which is otherwise mistakenly referred to as a “Croat entity,” again usually by more of the abovementioned lobbyists.               

HM: The protests in February, starting in Tuzla, partly came out of anger at the mishandling of privatisation processes.  Is this a key factor in the protests?  If so, how does it tie in to the other grievances expressed by the protesters, against ethno-nationalism and against the constitution?

JM: The political-economy angle of all of this is the story. The ethno-national question(s), the constitutional question(s) are all tools used by the elites to obscure the realities of an economy fundamentally premised on plunder. Namely, their plunder of the citizens.  

There was a terrific paper I read the other day over on the LSSEE blog, concerning the role of microcredit in the post-war Bosnian economy. Among other things, the text shows how little discussion there has actually been of the question(s) of development and economic renewal in BiH. And, moreover, how few attempts there have been to describe the post-war political economy of the country in terms that are actually able to convey the realities confronting people. Once we attempt to do this, though, I think even terms like “neoliberalism” begin to reach their conceptual limits. Perhaps “accumulation through dispossession” is still more accurate but “plunder” has a more emphatic quality to it that I think at least sounds like the ferocity of poverty confronting BiH’s citizens and is still a useful analytical category.    

This is why I don’t always like to use the term “corruption” because it implies that there is some functioning system that is being corrupted. I think this was always going to be the result of the Dayton system, left to its own devices. There is an inherent reactionary inertia to its institutional design, as it grew out of the plunder of war in the first place and was cemented through these ethno-territorial divisions.     

HM:  How do you feel the media have portrayed the protests, both in Bosnia and the international media?  Has the coverage been problematic?

JM: There are two separate problems, one local and one international. Locally, significant elements of the media are in league with the various political party establishments—this is especially true of the RS. Though, I hasten to add, the RS also likely has some of the best critical, independent media in the country. Moreover, as anywhere, mainstream media struggle to report on movements that challenge pre-existing political norms or biases. We saw a lot of, ostensibly sympathetic, reports on the plena that spent most of their time attempting to explain what a plenum is, in the first place. Mind you, this is not entirely the media’s fault. Sadly, politics as a participatory exercise is still a largely novel concept in much of the Balkans. Still, it’s not that difficult to explain the concept a public assembly and the longer they insisted on supposedly explaining this “strange” phenomenon, the more it appeared as though this was something quite esoteric, naïve and hopeless. This, of course, tends to very quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As for the international media, with a handful of exceptions again, what we saw was largely a display of ignorance. A great many people had covered the war in BiH and then post-1996 never picked up the story again. When the country suddenly became news in 2014, they thought they could just recycle though 90s by-lines. This was part of the reason why we created the BH Protest Files blog, to educate the English-speaking audience about this little country that though peripheral was nevertheless going through a political transformation that should be recognizable and for which we wanted their support.

HM: Are the protests inspired by popular uprisings since 2011, particularly in the Arab world and Turkey? Is that a self-conscious point of reference?

JM: All politics is, first and foremost, local. There are, however, also global currents we need to talk about especially as national economies have increasingly become embedded within international power structures. I made the argument the other day, that there were useful affinities between the protests in BiH, Ukraine and Taiwan and that the various movement organizers in these countries had a great deal to learn from one another.

On the other hand, I think we should be careful about drawing too many comparisons. Yes, the basic strategies for organizing a protest may be as applicable in Cairo as they are in Tuzla or Taipei. But the actual politics of those movements, the establishment and international response, the associations and networks required to create meaningful, lasting change, all of these factors can and do vary radically.

Ultimately, I don’t think people in Tuzla or Sarajevo saw themselves in Tahrir and I don’t think they saw themselves in Gezi Park. I think the process right now is one of just attempting to just see ourselves as citizens and as human beings again, with agency and power. The online memes people started spreading in the days after the protests, I think, show this too. With most the punch line was essentially: we may not protest often but when we do, watch out! This is also a syndrome of being in a country that is so out of the way seemingly, that has such a bloody reputation. People don’t want to be compared, they want to be recognized as individuals—especially by our local leaders but also the international community. People want to be able to say: we did this, we accomplished this, we threw these people out and we are proud of ourselves.   

HM:  How have Bosnian authorities and political elites responded to the protests and now to the plenums?  Have the grievances of the protesters been properly acknowledged? 

JM: There was a report the other day that though the Sarajevo canton government resigned over two months ago, a new one has yet to be reformed. So, we’ve reached a point now where governments resign but no one can tell the difference because the system is so dysfunctional. At least, dysfunctional when there is no persistent popular pressure forcing legislators to enact policy that they would never enact without this pressure.

In Tuzla, the government resigned, a new one was formed and there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic as the authorities have expressed their willingness to meet regularly with the plenum representatives. Elsewhere, like in Mostar and the RS, we’ve seen tremendous violence, intimidation and harassment of organizers and activists and it’s really very worrying. It shows us, once again, that bringing change to BiH will require a persistent campaign of agitation, protest and organizing.

HM: Do you feel the ‘international community’ – however problematic a term that may be – has acknowledged the grievances of the protesters?  Or perhaps their role in contributing to the problems of ‘Dayton Bosnia’?

JM: Not really. A few days after the initial protests had died down, Štefan Füle flew into Sarajevo and the first thing he did was to meet with exactly the same, discredited party leaders that he’d been meeting with for years to no avail. It was brutal indication of how absolutely divorced, in particular, the EU is from the concerns of ordinary citizens in BiH. Or, indeed, what their responsibility as the benefactors of these same local elites is in the catastrophic socio-economic situation in the country. 

Imagine if Füle had first met with representatives of the plenums or travelled to Tuzla first, met with the unemployed workers’ representatives, and then gone to Sarajevo. He wouldn’t even have needed to make a statement—the photo-op alone would have been the statement. We have heard the people of BiH; let their leaders know that even if they have not heard the citizens, we have. Some meetings took place later but that crucial initial moment had passed and, besides, we haven’t seen any real signs that the EU is ready to make any changes in their policy towards BiH, as a result of these meetings.

In fact, it appears the EU’s policy towards BiH has become even more idealess. At one point, the line was that if the Sejdić-Finci decision was not implemented before October, the EU would not recognize the results of the elections. Now it seems like no one even knows what the official line is anymore and Sejdić-Finci has all but fallen off the map. We’ll see if anything changes after the EU Parliament elections but I’m not very optimistic.

Meanwhile, the US has essentially taken the line that BiH is a “European problem” and so, again, there is very little concrete policy debate happening even among the Western stakeholders as Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener recently argued. In fact, there isn’t even a US ambassador to BiH in the country right now, only a chargé d'affaires. These are the kinds of signals local reactionary elements find very encouraging, in short.  

HM. Will this movement – or protests – work when earlier social justice movements such as Dosta! and last year’s ‘Baby revolution’ did not work?

JM: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Politics is a process, it a process of continuous education and failure. Every previous movement in BiH, from Dosta! to Picin Park to the JMBG protests to the plenums has been one of education. We have no alternatives but to be the agents of our own change because no one else will do it for us, no one else ever has and every promise to the contrary has always been and likely always will be betrayed.

HM:  How do you see the future course of this movement and the role of the plenums within it, from this point?

JM: I’m not sure that my speculation is particularly useful at this point. I will, however, cite what a friend from Banja Luka told me the other day. For the first time since the war, she said, I feel hopeful for the future, I’m actually looking forward to the next year because I want to see where we are going to go with this. At this moment, that optimism, that energy is the most important thing because that’s what’s going to expand our collective, political and social horizons. 

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