Two days ago, all major news portals exploded with announcement of “Bosnian Spring”, thus showing the perpetual misunderstanding of local geopolitics. Country’s triple identity, the same issue that’s keeping it in decades long economic and political limbo and on the bottom of every continent’s living standard poll, is the same thing that is keeping it from going through longly overdue and necessary reforms on all government levels.
Seventh of February, the day on which locals were preparing ceremonial opening of 30-year Winter Olympics Sarajevo anniversary, saw the worst civil unrest since the end of 1992-1995 war. Government building of Sarajevo Canton, dating from Austro-Hungarian times, went up in flames, as well as Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina, housed in the same building. The documents that survived the bloodiest conflict on European soil since WW2, met their end in the time of peace. Peace and 40% unemployment, the highest one in Europe.
Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of two entities, three constitutional nationalities and three religions. Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is populated with Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, while Republic of Srpska is over 90% Serb. This complicated structure, crafted by international forces to pacify tendencies of three nationalities towards independent ethnic states, solved none of the original problems, but brought 20 year long political deadlock upon the country and double administration among the ethnic lines. The deadlock situation created partitocratic system, with politicians and warmongers as privileged citizens, holding multiple government positions with recorded highest salary rates in the region, feeding the nation’s trauma of a new violent ethnic conflict under ‘divide and conquer’ parole, using it as an excuse not to change enormous and useless administration.
The civil unrest started in Tuzla, industrial city from a socialist Yugoslavia era, now plundered by unlawful privatization of local factories and corruption. What started as one of many workers protest across the country, demanding action over jobs, unpaid salaries and pensions, escalated solely because of unseen arrogant behavior of local government, refusing to talk with the protest leaders and subsequently sending the riot police to violently disperse the gathered crowd. Resentment, poverty, cynicism and depression that plagued the country for years, reached it’s culmination at this moment, resulting in gathering of more than 6.000 people Tuzla the next day, demanding new elections and liberation of arrested protest leaders.
Support protests sparked across all major cities of Federation- Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar, Bihac, taking a violent turn and being ransacked by hooligans and dissatisfied youth. Tuzla and Sarajevo saw unparalleled peace-time violence, with scenes matching the ones from the war. Aftermath of protest escalation is following: government buildings of Tuzla and Sarajevo Cantons burned, shops in the center looted, historical documents lost, over two hundred police officers injured, and dozens of citizens seeking medical help. After the initial shock because of the violent turn of the protests and media silence, government officials went out with the surprising patronizing rhetoric: they are completely supporting the protesters. In the bizarre turn of events, this just might be the first case in history where government is supporting the protesters trying to bring them down, all the blame being passed down on previous government and rival parties.
Not surprisingly, the tone of reporting about the situation went from catastrophic situation in society, hunger and deeply rooted poverty towards more mundane topics as hooliganism, looters, and damaged buildings. With record unemployment, war invalids, retirees, students and most of population living on the verge of poverty, the critical mass of resented people reached the tipping point, scaring the privileged government, as well as protesters themselves, associating the violence and anger with very fresh war memories. Like after a wild night out, Sarajevo awoke with devastation and sobering smell of arson, realizing it only injured policemen, firefighters and journalists, people from it’s own lines, with a big bill for reparations to be paid from it’s own pocket.
In Tuzla and Zenica, after heavy clashes, police sided with the protesters, deciding: “not to beat it’s own people”. Presidents of Tuzla and Sarajevo Cantons resigned. Protesters gathered around the demolished buildings and started cleaning their town. Protests seem to have had reached their boiling point, now continuing in a slow but steady simmer.
The story of “Bosnian Spring” is false in a simple fact: the up-rise is not happening in entire Bosnia and Herzegovina, only in the Federation, thus making the construct of “Bosniak Spring” more viable. But why are protest not spreading in Republic of Srpska? They are content with their lives and standard, situation is so much better than in Federation?
In the first days of the protests, their tone was everything but nationalistic, reminding of peaceful times of “brotherhood and unity” of former Yugoslavia. In the city of Jajce, protesters sewn together flags of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia; people of Banjaluka (capital city of Republic of Srpska) went out on the streets in peaceful demonstrations in support of Tuzla; social networks buzzed with support groups and plans for gatherings all around Srpska. People in both entities are dissatisfied, on the verge of existence and feeling close for the first time since the war. Exactly the right time for the good old propaganda to come in. Somehow, politicians have succeeded to spin the riots in Federation as another attack of Entity of Srpska. With tears in their eyes, local politicians are calling for people not to fall for another one of Federation’s diabolical schemes, trying to export violence into Srpska and destabilizing it from the inside. To be honest, nobody believes them, but the fear of another ethnic conflict, followed by the pictures of destruction Sarajevo protest caused, is just too high. In the meantime, Facebook groups administrators and eager commentators are being brought into local police stations for preventive questioning.
The main problem with Bosnian unrest seems to be a lack of structure, request and goals. The people erupted after 20 years long apathy, but the nature of apathy by default does not allow solving problems. This might be just an uncontrolled tremor of a terminally ill country. As one 55 year old passer by has put it: “Today, voting for elections, means voting against yourself. If you are not a prominent party member, you can not get employed. By voting for any party, you are giving it power to employ it’s protege on a place you are applying for. Voting means holding yourself back.“
Vedrana Puhalo, architect in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Reviewed by Mihaela Biolan