Listen to Bosnia's plenums

After almost twenty years of stagnant purgatory under the Dayton constitution, it is Bosnians themselves who are building democracy, from the ground up.

Heather McRobie
25 March 2014

Reflective of a certain sardonic sense of humour is a Youtube video clip which began circulating amongst Bosnians on social media in recent weeks – a re-working of Pharrell Williams’ 2014 hit ‘Happy’ that has been set to accompanying scenes of Bosnian riots, protests, and clashes with police.  ‘Happy – Bosnian style’ is the gist of the comments underneath the images of burning cars and young male protesters squaring off with police.  This self-awareness by many young Bosnians on social media of how Bosnia is viewed by others is indicative of the fact that Bosnians are used to being lectured by others about democracy. 

Yet although the images of the ‘Happy – Bosnian style’ Youtube video showed scenes of instability and political violence, they were not interchangeable images coming from any time during the twenty years of brittle Dayton peace – they specifically showed footage from the protests that have swept the country in the past two months.  They were, despite the instability they reflected, a cause to be ‘happy’ to many of those viewing it, as a sign that something new was happening – Bosnia’s ‘spring’, and an end to the deadlock in which almost a whole generation has grown up neglected and ignored.

As much as ethno-nationalist politicians have tried to hijack the protests for divisive ends, it is clear from looking at the demands of the Bosnian protesters, as articulated in popular ‘plenums’, that the large-scale demonstrations of the past two months have been based on demands for social justice and meaningful democracy and citizenship.   In a general sense, the protests have come from frustration at the unworkable political structure of post-war Bosnia and how it chews into the daily lives of Bosnian citizens, as well as anger at politicians who have capitalised on the post-war structure to further their own interests.  The more specific factor that became a conduit for these frustrations is the botched and un-transparent privatisation processes, which triggered the first wave of protests in Tuzla.

In the two months since the demonstrations and protests began, new Bosnian voices have begun to take shape in political discourse, clearly articulating frustration at living under Dayton and the ethno-nationalist politicians who have capitalised on the post-war framework for their own ends.  There is little love expressed in the plenums or in the protesters' new free newspapers for the false promises of the EU and the international community, represented principally by the so-called ‘Bosnian Viceroy’ of the role of the Office of the High Representative – a role that has not only meant that Bosnia and Herzegovina is, in reality, not a sovereign state, but has also contributed to political deadlock. 

But the plenums, for the most part, address the most pressing needs in the eyes of Bosnians themselves.  As such, their very existence is significant, and impressive.  The weekly meetings organised by citizens take place around the country and, each week, issue a statement on what has been agreed upon as the demands of the group.  There have been several Kanton-level resignations across the country as a result of the plenums, and the news of which Kanton (district-level) government has accepted demands from its corresponding ‘people’s plenum’ is frequently updated.  And the plenums themselves work as both medium and message – as the way in which self-organising groups of citizens have begun drafting their alternatives to the current political system, their existence is also a reply to the Dayton structure, an assertion that politics can operate differently to the ethno-nationalist stagnation and institutional deadlock of the last twenty years. Like the re-working of the Pharrell Williams song, they offer the promise of democracy ‘Bosnian style’.

The protests also build upon earlier civic movements such as the Dosta movement and upon 2013’s ‘Baby revolution’ citizen protests, which took aim at both government corruption and the poor quality of living and public services for Bosnians.  The country’s cripplingly high unemployment rate – with youth unemployment over 50% -- has compounded the frustration amongst young people that there is no future in the current political system.  Meanwhile, next door to their EU counterparts, Bosnians have faced the humiliation of travel restrictions unimaginable in the Yugoslav era, leaving young people trapped – educated and un- or under-employed – outside a seemingly increasingly hostile ‘Fortress Europe’.    

Although the EU accession has long been offered by politicians as a panacea to all domestic problems – and ‘who will best help achieve accession’ is one of the few times Bosnian political discourse trades on currency other than ethno-nationalist fear-mongering –since the recession there is an increasing sense that the focus on joining the EU will be “like arriving at the party when all the wine and food is gone”.  Croatia’s accession in 2013 showed neighbouring Bosnians that jumping through all the hoops may make little difference to economic difficulties.  Hence the tinderbox situation that has finally erupted in protests – Bosnians are cornered in by the outside world on the one hand, by their political elite on the other (whose parliamentarians’ salaries have been proportionally amongst the highest in Europe, a source of much frustration amongst protesters), and by the stagnation of the Dayton framework.

Dayton was a dead peace

It is hard to convey the strangling nature of the Dayton framework, as it manifests in everything from the unwieldy and unresponsive political system to the contested internal boundaries of the divided country which severs the land in two.  ‘Purgatory’ is perhaps the best way to explain its impact, as the constitution froze the country at the height of its war, stopping the mass killings without creating meaningful peace, and almost freezing the mentality of war by entrenching a system that rewarded the war mindset and the world-view of ethno-nationalists. The constitution divided the country into two ‘entities’ – the Federation with its Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat majority, and the Republika Srpska with a Bosnian Serb majority (with an extra ‘neutral, self-governing’ district in Brčko). The constitution locked the physical battle-lines of 1995 into place in the realm of the political order, with one Presidency seat for each ethnic ‘group’.

The post-war political parties have been largely ethnicised, even the self-proclaimed non-nationalist SDP. Inevitably, this means before each election ethno-nationalist sentiment must be stirred up to ensure each party gets ‘their’ votes.  But it is crucial to bear in mind that the two work in tandem – the last twenty years have been dominated by ethno-nationalist parties because these are the parties, and the way of doing politics, rewarded by the political structure of Dayton, and Dayton cannot be overthrown because the elite have a vested interest in maintaining this purgatory, from which they are the only beneficiaries.  The argument that Dayton was ‘necessary’ in 1995 to end the horrors of the brutal post-Yugoslav conflicts does not negate the fact it has prevented those living in the country from experiencing a meaningful peace.  The Washington Consensus-tinged ‘foreign policy experts’ now weighing in on ‘what must be done about Bosnia?’ in light of the protests might do well to read the statements from the regional plenums saying that the international community’s use of Bosnia as a geopolitical guinea-pig has been part of the problem.

The European Court of Human Rights declared the Dayton constitution incompatible with human rights law in 2009, as it prevented Bosnian Jews, Bosnian Roma, and those who identify as ‘ostali’ (literally meaning ‘other’, this means those who choose not to identify as one of the three 'constituent groups') from running for President. Although this was important in itself to combat the structural discrimination of specific ethnic groups within the Dayton framework, more broadly the ECHR ruling was an indirect criticism of compulsory ethnic identification as a whole – the logic on which post-war Bosnia operates.  However, the political deadlock – particularly the stalemate that left Bosnia partly government-less after the 2010 elections – meant the constitution has not been properly amended since; this is the Dayton purgatory that the protesters in 2014 are denouncing and resisting.

Bosnia as ethnopolis: no transitional justice, no social justice

The daily lives of Bosnian citizens have been a more painful kind of purgatory. Bosnian philosopher Asim Mujkic has described Dayton Bosnia as an ‘ethnopolis’, where people are not citizens able to exercise their rights but merely components of their constituent ethnicity – nothing more than a surname that signifies your background.  The Byzantine and unworkable nature of the Dayton structure not only impedes political process and political discourse, it impedes daily life – civic concerns from clearing the landmines that still cover Bosnia’s landscape to improving the country’s transport system are sidelined in favour of ethno-nationalist politicians stirring up hate-speech and playing upon politicised and contested ‘memoralisation war’ of the 1990s conflicts to perpetuate their status.

Nowhere is the corrosive impact of this purgatory more painful than in the segregated education system, and the way it is worming the poison of the twentieth-century into the lives of children who do not even remember the last conflict itself.  Ethnically segregated schools teach children three exclusivist narratives of the last war, and three languages – Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian.  Whilst memories of the hell of war may be fresh – necessarily so, when they remain raw with denialism and those who suffered during the conflict not given the necessary support to rebuild their lives – a generation has grown up in this purgatory of dead peace, and memories of the war’s hell should not lessen the fact that this, in itself, is a tragedy of lost potential. 

In his 2012 book ‘The War Is Dead, Long Live The War’, journalist Ed Vulliamy returned to Bosnia, where he had reported extensively during the conflict, and documented the atrophying of ‘peace’ in the lives of Bosnians, through the genocide-denialism of Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik to the political and administrative corruption, to hate speech and the very unfinished nature of post-war reconstruction from the physical landscape to the political system.

The lack of a cohesive, ground-level transitional justice process left raw wounds for opportunistic politicians to press upon for a reaction.  Bosnia’s transition in the late 1990s and 2000s was a ‘double’ transition – out of war, and out of Communist Yugoslavia – but the two transitions interplayed messily.  Despite the excellent regional attempts such as the RECOM initiative to produce a regional-level ‘truth and reconciliation’ process, there has been little meaningful justice for the crimes of the 1990s with the ICTY at the Hague so far away, so focused solely on high-level figures, and so warped by the political discourse in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia in the immediately post-war years.  

In her 2004 book on the war crimes tribunals ‘They Would Never Hurt A Fly’, journalist Slavenka Drakulic outlined the way in which the post-war ethno-nationalist politicians effectively constructed a rhetoric which equated defiance of the ICTY with nationalist ‘pride’ and compliance as an act of ‘betrayal’. 

For its part, the ICTY's mishandling of procedures and a litany of errors – most problematically, ‘losing’ key evidence of enormous personal value to those who had lost loved ones in the war – alienated many post-war citizens from the transitional justice process.  The absence of regional women's voices and civil society voices from the 1995 peace settlement is indicative of the broader sense in which this was not a meaningful peace that reflected the concerns of those most hurt by the war.

The Dayton constitution’s framework – and the ethno-nationalist politicians who have exploited it to their own ends – has compounded the failure of the ICTY to facilitate reconciliation, with the effect that there is neither transitional (post-conflict) justice, nor social (democratic) justice in post-1995 Bosnia.   The Dayton constitution was an ‘imported’ peace of the most toxic kind, an Annex of a peace-treaty that was literally translated (so that words like ‘narod’ do not appropriately convey a concept of civic identity) and freezing the country on the physical and psychological fault-lines of war, which the failure of adequate, meaningful transitional justice compounded. 

Listen to the plenums

It is in this context that the demonstrations and the ‘plenums’ of the past two months are so significant – building upon the work of earlier Bosnian post-war civic movements and last year’s ‘Baby revolution’ protests, but more fundamental in not merely calling for but – in effect – practicing the democracy that has been denied to Bosnians by the post-war framework.  Its link with worker’s movements and the initial protests in Tuzla hints at the Yugoslav social legacy, but what is most striking – and fragile, and easily manipulated – is the rejection of the ethno-nationalist discourse that has dominated the last generation of the country’s politics.  Indicative of this is the slogan ‘we are hungry in three languages’, which began to spread through the protests and social media as the protests developed – a retort to the politicians who have tried to argue that the protests are on ethnic lines, the logic of their power – as politicians attempted in February to minimise the protests as ‘only’ happening in the Federation (making them only Bosniak or Croat protests) although they happened in every part of Bosnia. 

When this was no longer an effective strategy, Milorad Dodik (whose squirming in the face of the new realities of Bosnians campaigning for social justice is well-documented in an in-depth report at The Balkanist) tried to use the protests to ‘prove’ that the country was not functioning, and so must break up on ethnic lines, as he has always argued.  However, the message from the protests, rather, refute and reply to the exclusivist identity-lines of Dodik: they assert that Dayton Bosnia, with its corruption, botched privatisation, political stalemate and purgatorial framework, must be replaced with a socially just framework which serves the (pressing) needs of the long-neglected population, of all 'identities'.

Attempts to hijack that message of the protests – presumably after the failure, in February, to brand the protesters ‘terrorists’, and then silence them with police brutality – shows the old order unable to offer a vision of Bosnia’s future.  Many of the demands of the plenums have focused on privatisation processes and positions against political corruption – for instance, the first Sarajevo plenum demanded an audit of the salaries and benefits of public officials and an audit into the privatisation deals of the Canton – concerns which do not operate on the logic of the Dayton rubric and its beneficiaries.  Aside from the specific demands which the plenums articulate, their very existence – in the face of the deadening Dayton structure and its twenty-year stagnation – are an assertion, in their own way, of a vision of social justice, just as the space of Tahrir Square in 2011 was both site of specific anti-authoritarian demands and loaded symbol, itself, of the demand for change.

The plenums also have a social function – for Bosnian citizens, so often lectured about ‘democracy’ by the west and so often silenced or ignored – to also voice their experiences of unemployment, poverty, and painful post-conflict realities of lives lived in purgatory.  This is the democracy so long ‘promoted’ by others – in lived reality, directly and vividly, coming from Bosnians themselves.

You can follow the Bosnian protests and plenums in English at: bhprotestfiles.wordpress.com

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData