"We are hungry in three languages": citizens protest in Bosnia

Demonstrations have spread rapidly across Bosnia, with citizens organizing popular assemblies to voice their frustration with the country’s institutional paralysis.  Through the adamantly non-ethnic nature of the demonstrations, the protesters are taking aim at the entire political elite. Valerie Hopkins reports from Sarajevo.

Valerie Hopkins
13 February 2014

On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours after a Sarajevo canton’s premier declared that the people of Sarajevo would not riot because there was “no hunger” in Bosnia’s capital, his administrative building was in flames. So was the presidency and 16 other government buildings across the country, in what has been the worst episode of violence since Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war.

The politician, Suad Zeljkovic, had been responding to protests that began on Wednesday in the northern city of Tuzla after those laid off from several formerly successful factories took to the streets.  His remark was reviled by citizens in a country with an official unemployment rate of 27.5 percent (estimated to climb into the 40s with the grey economy included.)

“They should have leveled [the building],” said an old man at the protests, in a video now circulating on youtube.  “These are the people who are burying us…Twenty years they’ve been suffocating us, holding us down.”

The Dayton Peace Agreement, brokered by American Diplomat Richard Holbrooke, ended the war that killed 100,000 people, but also made Bosnia one of the most governed countries in the world.  The accords were an opus on power-sharing that created a bureaucratic quagmire with three presidents, one for each of the predominant ethno-national groups —Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims, now called Bosnjaks— and substantial veto power.  It also created two political entities, Republic of Srpska and the ‘Federation,’ which is sub-divided into a further ten cantons. 

Zeljkovic was the head of the cantonal government of Sarajevo until he tendered his resignation on Saturday morning as the flames of his administration building were still being put out.  Three other cantonal leaders have resigned, including in Tuzla, where the original unrest began, the outgrowth of months of peaceful protests there by laid off or unpaid workers. 

The fate of the Konjuh furniture factory in Tuzla is in many ways a metonymy for Bosnia: founded in the 1880s by the ruling Austro-Hungarians, the business employed more than 5,000 workers during the 40 year reign of Marshal Josip Broz Tito.  After a failed post-war privatization, there were only 400 employees by the end of 2013, and it went bankrupt in January. 

Bosnians are angry about unemployment and hunger, but is is this unwieldy, redundant, blockage-prone ethnic-based power system that is the real target of the protesters’ ire. 

A protest sign reads “we are hungry in three languages,” referring to the country’s three official languages: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, which are more akin to dialects.

Though it is true that protests are drawing more people in the Federation, the protests are adamantly non-ethnic. The protest gatherings, now peaceful, have continued daily in more than 30 cities across the country without violence, but with mounting anger at politicians who have been earning salaries without improving the quality of ordinary citizens’ lives.  

Despite RS president Milorad Dodik’s statements that the protests are an attempt to destroy the entity he leads, people have taken to the streets in the de facto entity capital Banja Luka, where one man was fined 550 BAM, or 280 Euro, and in Prijedor.  Average pensions and salaries in the RS are lower than in the Federation, and there is widespread discontentment there too.

The comprehensive sets of checks and balances afforded to each of the warring parties have made much-needed constitutional reform impossible.  Discord has even stymied a census that would tell the government just how many constituents it has after two decades of war and displacement.

“[One politician’s] salary is 28 times my pension,” said the same old Sarajevan, affectionately referred to as “Dedo,” or “old man.”  “I worked for 40 years, 7 months and 18 days.  My pension is 304 Bosnian Marks (150 Euro).”

Where are the tax dollars going?  After the most recent general elections, in 2010, it took 16 months to form a government.  That coalition fell apart after two months.   The bureaucracy may be dysfunctional, but it is bloated: in a country whose population is 3.8 million, an estimated 1 million jobs are paid for out of government coffers.

“We keep taking loans from the IMF and other granting institutions, but these funds are not used for social programs or give people dignified pensions, they are used to sustain the high salaries of politicians and administrations,” said Sumeja Tulic, a 29 year old human rights lawyer who has been at the protests every day. 

“Why do we need these levels of administration in such a small country?”

In just several days, the assembled have agreed on a set of concrete demands. In Tuzla, ten people representative of the population have been selected to negotiate next steps with those in power.  They include young activists as well as factory workers.  The six demands of the workers in Tuzla consist of the resignations of local government officials and their replacements with expert technical governments who are politically unaffiliated and removal of privileges for those in power.

In Sarajevo, a citizens’ “Plenum” convened on Wednesday, an experiment in direct democracy for a country that still has hundreds of European troops stationed in the country and an international viceroy, called the High Representative, who has the power to impose or revoke laws and fire politicians, now rarely used.  The Plenum is necessary because there is no strong opposition that has widespread support, hence the demand for a temporary government of experts.

Other than a widely criticized statement by High Representative Valentin Inzko that EU troops could be called upon for reinforcement if violence escalated, the international response has been muted. The European Union, in a statement Monday, said they “encourage the continuation of normal public life.”

 But what could be more normal than protesting such deep political paralysis?

In the words of one Plenum organizer, Svjetlana Nedimovic, “Normal life here means so many difficulties in the basics of the basics.”

In recent months, Western diplomats have privately murmured that Bosnians should be out in the streets protesting the sorry state of affairs, saying that they can only work with the politicians the people elect.  It seems they did not have a plan of what to do when the revolt against all elected politicians began.

Perhaps it is best for the international community, which has spent years trying to cut failed deals on constitutional reform with the leaders of six parties who refuse to agree, to take a backseat as disparate groups of citizens organize.  Then they should create an avenue for incorporating ordinary citizens into the negotiations.

Nedimovic and many others have condemned the damage to state institutions, but acknowledge that politicians only responded to Friday’s violence.

“We stood for dogs, for babies, for gay rights, for everything,” says Nedimovic, referring to short-lived protests in the past few years, including one this summer after the government could not agree on a law on identity numbers, resulting in the death of a baby who could not leave the country for medical treatment.

“We stood peacefully for workers, for retired people, but they only responded to us on Friday.”

And anyway, goes the word on the streets of Sarajevo, what are the buildings, when the politicians have been destroying the institutions for so many years?

“I don’t know why people are complaining that this country is falling apart,” said Mirna Kusturica, 25.  “It was, and has been, but Friday everything changed. We are going to put it together again.”

Bosnian-born Yugoslav writer Mesa Selimovic famously wrote of Bosnians, “When they are together they are in trouble, for this they do not like to be together often.” 

The unity shows the depth of Bosnia’s political crisis, and its only solution.


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