Is Change Coming to Bosnia? Reflections on Protests and their Prospects

I want my ID number

When the protests in Turkey began on the 28 May, what struck me was the centrality of the Mediterranean as the focal areas of social movements in the last two years. In addition to the Arab spring (summer and winter), mass protests were held in Spain, Israel and Greece and Italy is experiencing a crisis of confidence in the established party system. While there, the democratic governments either fall or could/had to absorb the grievance of many, the dictatorships in the southern Mediterranean were not able to. While Turkey is closer to the democracies of the northern rim of the Mediterranean, the response of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been more following the authoritarian reflex of its southern neighbors, thereby strengthening the protests.

At first, I was struck who the Balkans had been largely ‘protest-free’ in recent years, unlike neigbouring regions. However, recent protests in Bosnia suggest that the social movements against the status quo are now reaching the region as well. Of course, the protests in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities had other causes as the protests in Turkey or other countries of the Mediterranean, but also share a number of features: the carries are young, urban, feel excluded from politics and government and see now other way to chance the status quo than by protest. What is striking is that the loss of public spaces and parks has been a key feature in small scale protests in the last years in the Balkans: Protests in Banja Luka in June of last year over a park, in Belgrade the cutting down of trees on Bulevar Revolucije earlier and in Tirana also over the destruction of a park. These protests failed to gather the momentum as in Turkey, largely because local politics and national politics had different dynamics, but they highlighted the concern not just for parks, but also for the symbolic loss of public spaces and more broadly a public good to what seems like narrow commercial (and political) interests. Thus the destruction of a park is a symbolic act that carries more significance than “just” an environmental issue, as Orhan Pamuk expressed in his reflections on the protests.

The current protests in Bosnia are not about a park, but over the lack of a decision. In a county that is more characterised by decisions not taken and with a prime minister (officially chair of the council of ministers) who claims in his government’s defense that “I think we are not the worst of the world, nor are we a country like Zimbabwe or Somalia”, it is decisions not taken that create most grief. After the constitutional court ruled in February that the current law on ID numbers is unconstitutional the government has been unable to propose a solution, resulting in newborns not being able to receive official documents. This has meant that newborns can’t get passports and are thus unable to travel. When the small baby Belmina Ibrišević needed to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment, but could not get the documents, the lack of a decision became a life or death issue and galvanized public opinion and led to protests.

The Bosnian government is notorious for not taking decisions as these are caught between competing interests of the entities and ethnopolitics where the substance of decisions is trumped by the question of who is to be in charge. Next to ID numbers, this is nowhere as obvious as the dispute in Bosnia about veterinary and sanitary inspections. As Bosnian politicians have been unable to agree on who is to implement the inspections, thousands of Bosnian farmers are likely to be unable to export their dairy products to Croatia once it joins the EU next month and more rigid controls come into effect. While here, also the economic survival of many hangs in the balance, it has not mobilized protests as the issue over ID numbers.

The response of political elites to the protests has been ugly. While some tried to ingratiate themselves with them, others dismissed the protests as either being anti-Serb or called on citizens to get off the streets and vote in next years elections. This response led Eric Gordy to comment in his blog that “[t]he national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”

While I wish he was right, I am more skeptical in my view. Heleen Touquet in her PhD on new social movements in Bosnia: “Escaping ethnopolis: postethnic mobilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (for the table of contents, see here) looked closely at groups in recent years that sought to mobilization citizens against the status quo. These efforts have largely failed, because they were unable to build a genuine cross-ethnic constituency or a country agenda that would make it difficult for existing elites to dismiss or ignore them. The new protest have this potential. There are, however, two formidable obstacles: First, how to build an agenda for change that all citizens of Bosnia can rally for. Second, how to translate this movement into a political option. While social movements can set the agenda, change has to come from the political system (unless it is overthrown in a revolution). While there are some parties (like Naša stranka) that aspire to pursue different politics than the currently dominant parties, it is at the moment hard to imagine a country-wide political movement that could be successful and transform the way decisions are taken and how the country is governed. The current political set-up encourages parties to run on mono-ethnic platforms and makes it easy of ethnonationalist parties to sow the seeds of doubt in change.

3 Responses to Is Change Coming to Bosnia? Reflections on Protests and their Prospects

  1. Pingback: Bosnia helps itself to a slice of Spring | TerraNullius

  2. Pingback: Vote Now! Blogging Contributions to IR Scholarship » Duck of Minerva

  3. Pingback: Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests | Florian Bieber

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: