Can Europe Make It?

Bosnia-Herzegovina: protests, problems and solutions

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the protests and plenums have been the best thing people have witnessed since the end of armed hostilities in 1995. What’s next? Can democracy be restored?

Kemal Pervanic
1 April 2014

Nearly twenty years after the war, Bosnia is in the world’s headlines once again. No, the Bosnian national football team has not won the World Cup. But protests, raging fires and violence once more dominate the headlines.

When a group of factory workers from the former industrial powerbase of Tuzla went to seek the protection of their employment rights from a local politician, instead of sympathy, he confronted them with police brutality. The powder keg exploded with a bang, causing tremors in the circles of power. In other cities, people brimming with anger joined the revolt against corruption and nepotism. The political elite, caught by surprise, went into their hideouts to regroup and plan how to hit back.

 Banitza/Juliet Walker. Some rights reserved.

Credit: Banitza/Juliet Walker. Some rights reserved.

This display of anger resulted in several buildings being raided and set fire to, but the violence was gradually tempered by the opening up of a series of democratic forums called ‘plenums’ in several large cities in Bosnia. Their basic goal has been to speak truth to power. Their demands range from the formation of so-called ‘governments of experts’, to cuts in politicians’ salaries and government expenses.

In Tuzla, where it all first exploded, politicians have agreed to give up one year of the annual salary they are entitled to after leaving office. Even though they often show a serious lack of political acumen, the protests and plenums have been the best thing that Bosnia has witnessed since the end of armed hostilities in 1995.

Those taking part in street protests and plenums have been described as demonstrators, activists, protesters, dissatisfied workers, hooligans, drug addicts, and criminals, whereas in reality they are all ordinary citizens fighting to regain a sense of dignity, glaringly absent from their lives hitherto. The older ones remember a time when they could provide for their families: the young ones only have experiences of neglect and the arrogance of the ruling elites and their ‘we don’t give a damn’ attitude!

Twenty years of stillborn democracy: enough

The protesters all want their lives to have meaning and they want to have a sense of belonging. If anyone is to be blamed for the current volatile situation, it is those individuals who have created such circumstances, namely the kleptocrats who have run our country for more than two decades, or since the country’s first multiparty elections in 1990.

I purposefully do not acknowledge them as free elections, as that still remains a distant dream to be fulfilled. Casting a vote by itself does not represent democracy. Democracy is our right to demand constant change for a better society. It equally requires our duty to take responsibility for our own lives, and I would argue that this is what the protesters have done, perhaps without thinking about it in such a way.

The current Bosnian political system has been instrumentalised in the service of resisting change. The so-called international community has been the main supporter of such a system. It first created and then cemented it. So today, the international community has a duty to assist the Bosnian citizenry and help it break away from this status quo.

In the absence of democracy, the political vacuum left behind by the former Communist party is still present in Bosnia. Twenty years of nepotism, brazen corruption, and open theft have shown that these politicians are only interested in serving themselves and their loyal entourage. They have not and cannot create a prosperous and inclusive society. They can only continue to delay their demise at the expense of the disfranchised Bosnian youth.

 Paralysis by analysis

The spoils of war were divided in Dayton, Ohio and each political class of kleptocrats continues desperately to cling to its spoils. And what about the people in whose name the war was supposedly fought? Well, that is best summed up by Radovan Karadzic, the Commander-in-Chief of the Serbian war looting machine, who in the pursuit of profit committed genocide.

When asked by his first henchwoman Biljana Plavsic: ‘And what will happen to the Serb people?’ Karadzic answered succinctly: ‘Nek se nosi narod u pizdu materinu’, which roughly translates as: ‘the people may go back to their mother’s womb.’

After the guns fell silent, and as a means of averting the people’s eyes from the nepotism and corruption, the war moved to the confined spaces of schools, homes, and people’s minds. Twenty years later it’s still here.

While numerous analyses of the current situation abound, no one seems to know what the short-term, let alone the long-term, solution is. In the short-term Bosnia urgently needs to get rid of the current political elite and pass the necessary constitutional reforms to provide the breathing space for a rapid acceleration out of the current limbo.

In the long-term it needs to overhaul its education system and create jobs to kick-start the economy. How can these short-term changes be facilitated? The two most obvious courses of action are staging a general strike and boycotting the forthcoming general election. Dissatisfied citizens cannot achieve these changes by burning down buildings or through chaos and anarchy. Even if they could, the question that pops up is ‘and then what?’

Bosnia has no oil, diamonds, earth metals or car manufacturers. What Bosnia does have is a rich pool of human resources (doctors, lawyers, jurists, academics, scholars, teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs, civil servants, artists, writers, engineers) currently working in Britain, America, Germany, Australia, France, etc. Bosnia has to invite them to go back with open arms and provide them with the best possible conditions in order to create a new and more equal society, where all can enjoy a sense of belonging. They will bring with them a much-needed knowledge, skills, experience, connections, investments and trust.

When civil servants send their kids abroad and advise them to stay there, you know that there is something rotten at the core of the system. For decades now Bosnia has haemorrhaged talent; individuals whose active involvement in society forms the basis for stability and security. They are the heartbeat of every successful society. They represent the creative forces and critical voices.

Why is it that my neighbour Nisad is good enough to work as an engineer on the largest development project in the UK and not good enough to work in Bosnia? Why is it that my friend Kanita has been good enough to work for a number of world-renowned banks and not good enough to work in Bosnia? Why is it that my friend Sakiba is good enough to be the head of planning and policy within a London borough planning department, and not good enough to work in Bosnia? Why is Eldar good enough to use his hard earned knowledge to teach in New York but not in Bosnia? Why are the majority of our best and brightest abroad?

Certainly not because our political elites want them back home. Several of my acquaintances who have returned have been told to go back to where they came from. This attitude has been clearly articulated by Eldar, the talented young scholar whom I mentioned above. As he put it so succinctly, he has only one life and he doesn’t intend to spend the rest of it fighting a revolution. In spite of his disappointment I still want to believe that Eldar and many others would go back if the change was imminent. Bosnia has infamously been the number one country in the world in terms of its brain drain[1] numbers. It is time for the reversal of this process.


What Bosnia needs is not new bloodletting, but rather an injection of fresh blood: young people who received their education abroad, who have lived in tolerant societies and developed their capacities; people hungry for knowledge, hungry for work, hungry for making personal sacrifices for their society.

Bosnia needs forward-looking people with passion, creativity, vision, imagination, and above all, morality. Bosnia does not need another set of elitists, another set of Savile Row suits. What it needs is people made of a strong moral fibre. Social values don’t change by replacing one set of elites with another. Systematic change begins when each individual looks inward first, with self-criticism, and then outward through self-sacrifice for other human beings, sharing acts of kindness, rather than the pursuit of instant self-gratification.

[1] The Economist’s Pocket World in Figures” 2011 Edition

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