Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests

Bosnian presidency Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

Bosnian presidency, the day after
Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

The protests that have erupted across Bosnia in recent days were in some ways no surprise. While the JMBG protests fizzled out last year , nothing was resolved and it was clear that new protests would occur, just when and how remained unclear (this also clearly emerged from the discussion at the conference on protests we organized in Graz in December, see here, here and here). What was a surprise was the extent to which they quickly spread from the first protests in Tuzla across Bosnia and the degree to which the occupation and burning down of government buildings became a central feature. Here are some features that have struck me in following the debates and the protests themselves in recent days:

Who protests?

In an interview for the Austrian daily Kurier, the current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted that the protests were primarily carried by Bosniaks, the Muslims (‘Die Träger der Proteste sind hauptsächlich Bosniaken, die Muslime’). Similarly, Tim Judah pointed out that the protests primarily took place in the Federation and in areas with a Bosniak majority. While these are not wrong observation, they do emphasize ethnicity when the protests had nothing to do with ethnicity at all. Of course, in Bosnia everything becomes easily an ethnic issue, but one has to be careful not to contribute to this. In fact, what is more remarkable that the protests took place in regions of Bosnia with a Bosniak majority, they also took place in Brčko and Mostar, two cities that are multiethnic, although in very different manners. The fact that violence in Mostar against the city and cantonal administration and the HQs of the two dominant ethnonationalist parties SDA and HDZ is particularly significant. A place where the threat of violence has been closer to the surface than elsewhere in Bosnia and the divisions are particularly tangible, such a protests is more significant than in less divided settings. So why are there protests in Tuzla, Zenica, Bihać, Sarajevo, Mostar and Brčko and not in Banja Luka, Bijelina (although some protests took place in the RS, just with a low turn out, including a bizarre counter-protest against protests in Bijelina) etc.? From the  perspective of the RS leadership, it is the dysfunctional nature of the Federation and another piece of evidence that Bosnia is not in the interest of the RS. While the argument is clearly self-serving, there is no doubt that the institutions of the Federation are more dysfunctional than the RS with its cantons, a largely superfluous layer of government. This does not capture the entire situation.

In the RS, the government has been more successful in buying social peace and controlling the public space through reducing the media and accusing potential protestors of being against the RS. It is also telling that the protests began in Tuzla against predominantly Socialdemocratic authorities. First, these protests are not about Dayton or nationalism, but they are about a much broader disappointment with the political class.

The epicentre is in a former working class city that also bucked the ethnonationalist trend during the war and reflects the disappointment with the Socialdemocrats who were the winners of the 2010 elections and have since squandered all their political capital by acting indistinguishable from the ethnonationalist parties. As a result, the protests express a sense of lack of alternatives, no party that can represent the grievances. Here, this might explain the location of protests, the lack of alternatives has been a characteristic in the RS for longer and thus holds less mobilizing potential. Furthermore, in Tuzla, Zenica and Bihać the protests could demonstrate that they were about badly governed towns and cantons, not about large questions where parties can give them an ethnic spin (as some are already doing).


The main reason for the international muted response was probably the use of violence during the protests. The burning of buildings and finally of a part of the archives of Bosnia in the presidency building have led to media and politicians in and outside Bosnia using the term “hooligans” in the context of the protests.

Of course, the fact that historical buildings were damaged  and parts of the archives stored in the presidency is a tragedy. While initial reports of the damage might have been exaggerated (intentionally or unintentionally due the obvious parallels to the destruction of the national library in 1992), it also seems wrong, as director Jasmila Žbanić argued, to suggest that the destruction of part of the archives was a “lie”. Again, she probably meant reports that the complete archives were destroyed, but the formulation seems to downplay this doubtlessly tragic loss. Photos from the site show documents destroyed. However, does this make the protestors ‘hooligans’? I have not seen any reports indicating that the archives were deliberately targeted. Instead, it seems the tragedy lies in them being stored in the same building as the presidency.

Ditched Cars in Zenica, presumably from local politicians
Source: Twitter @YourAnonCentral

The term hooligans on the other hand is very loaded and authoritarian regimes like to use it again protestors (I remember this being used with some frequency by the Milošević regime) and it raises a difficult question: What level of violence is legitimate during protests? In democracies, the answer is usually none, as there are legal means of changing government not necessitating the use of force. In dictatorships, the use of violence is generally considered acceptable, while of course the scale and target of violence remains open for discussion. Nobody seriously considered the protestors in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 hooligans because they set fire to the Serbian radio and television station or ransacked the Federal parliament. Bosnia is a tricky case. While it is no dictatorship, many citizens who went to the streets feel that they cannot change the government through elections. This is true to a large extent, as the multiple layers of government mean that everybody is in power somewhere and at the entity and state level we witness complex and fluid coalitions that blur the line between government and opposition beyond recognition. The use of ethnonational mobilization has also systematically undermined the organization and articulation of other political concerns. As a consequence, the use of violence against buildings representing the current elite became a target. Statements that citizens destroyed their own property ring hollow (unless of course, we acknowledge that the limousines of politicians thrown into canals in Zenica where paid for by Bosnian taxpayers). The use of fear was a reflection of the anger of the citizens, as Elvira Jukić describes vividly in her blog. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, an observation made by many on Facebook and Twitter as cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country.

In addition, the violence of the protests was fairly systematically directed at buildings of the government, in particular cantonal administrations, the state presidency and some political party offices. Despite conflict reports, there seems to have not been wide-spread looting (a la Patike za Kosovo or the London riots) and the violence was targeted. While it is hard to condone the destruction of buildings, it is easy to understand.

Besides the unwanton damage, there are other risks with violence. It was striking when Al Jazeera Balkans, who had the best reporting on the events, described the scenes in Sarajevo as a ‘war zone’. This unfortunate comparison illustrates the risks: the one risk is that mass violence threatens the structures of the state and that this void is filled not by those originally protesting, but others who seek benefit from the use of force. Second danger is demobilizing citizens: Afraid of a new war or even images that remind of the war might mean that they will not attend protests for the fear of a fall back to the war. Third, there is the risk of Chekhov‘s principle for plays: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The International Response

The international response to the protests has been confused, displaying the gap between international actors and the reality on the ground. The EU and EU foreign ministers either officially or on twitter (see Carl Bildt, Štefan Füle) repeated the phrase that citizens should have the right to protest, but that they should remain peaceful. The current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted in the aforementioned  interview for the Austrian daily Kurier that “if the situation escalates, we might have to think about EU-troops (“Wenn die Lage eskaliert, werden wir eventuell an EU-Truppen denken müssen.”). Although he also calls the protests legitimate, the mention of EU troops triggered alarm bells , as it is unclear for or against whom this intervention would take place (later, the statement was clarified). Such talk risks additional securitizing the protests, and thus playing in the hands of those who would like to see the protests reduced to a violent threat to the status quo. Instead, the protests should be welcomed and not just treated as the expression of the right of citizens.

The protests, as in the Ukraine or in Bulgaria, should be understood as a clear message that citizens do not want corrupt elites that have in essence captured the state and govern it for their private good. This is all the EU should be about and the unwillingness and inability of elites to strike a compromise over recent years to move the country closer to the EU are a clear message that was unfortunately not reflected in the international response.

What is next?

In the middle of the protests, and they are far from over, it is impossible to guess the outcome. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. Whether this can lead to early elections is unclear. Bosnia has only had early elections once, in the RS in 1997, and early elections might just benefit the incumbents, while the demonstrators don’t have a political platform yet (there are demands of citizens from Tuzla and Sarajevo, however). It might be better to have an interim government, composed of “technocrats” to govern until elections to give the protestors time to organize and to also initiate some reforms.

Graffiti on government building in ‎Tuzla says “Resign all and Death To Nationalism” Source: Twitter @RadioNightwatch

Another defining feature of the protests is the combination of social grievances with dissatisfaction with government and corruption (see here how this fits into the larger picture). It is thus not just about opposition to the particular form of economic transition that Bosnia experienced, but also about the state capture. Now, a question that will not be easily settled is the degree to which the Dayton superstructure is to blame. I have been generally skeptical about scapegoating Dayton (here I disagree with Eric Gordy’s otherwise very insightful remarks on Bosnia), not because it is good, but because there are other causes. Many cities in Bosnia are badly governed, including Sarajevo, but Dayton has nothing to do with the functioning of the cities. The reasons that the cities (and cantons) are mismanaged, is less their institutional set-up, but the political elite that governs them. Of course, the complex power-sharing system that governs Bosnia is co-contributing to this elite, but it is simply too easy to blame for all of it (as a counter factual, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region where there is no Dayton-like institutional system).  It thus seems important at this point not to focus on constitutional reform or other issues related to the organization of the state. While the Dayton constitution is far from ideal, talking of changing it is different from actually changing it (I am thus sympathetic to the argument Jasmin Mujanovic makes, but worry that it would not help the protests to achieve change and rather get bogged down in constitutional debates a la Sejdić-Finci, I have written more about this earlier). Constitutional reform has been the third rail of Bosnian politics since the war, it is divisive and will risk bringing ethnicity into the debate.

Finally, international actors will need to tread carefully as well. Sometimes, silence is golden and if any message should be clear, the strategy of talking to six party leaders and thinking that this is the way to change Bosnia for the better has failed and should be over. Before designing a new grand strategy for Bosnia, it would be better to ensure that citizens get a better say in how the country is governed, a new strategy–certainly needed–should come then.

23 Responses to Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests

  1. Pingback: Protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina: LIVE BLOGS AND UPDATES


      I was working in BIH altogether 14 years, through the war and after the war, on behalf of UN and EU, My last appointement it was Senior Security Officer of a EU organization for 10 years.

      I lived together a Bosniak Fammilly and I can speak Bosnian quite fine. It means that I know very well the IC political undersatnding about BiH and I was also inside the normal way of living of a common Bosniak familly, and I went through all their problems, concerns and thinking about politics.and their rel life.

      First of all and regarding this article it is a quite normal IC perspecive of BiH politics, which is always insisting on how much confused is the local political organization with all those Cantonal Governments plus RS, bla, bla….bla.

      It is true the political organization is too complex but only on the Federation side, not in the RS side…. but let us be honest…. the problem of the Bosnian people,including muslims, serbs and croats, not only Bosniaks (muslims), it is not the political organization, or if there are enough or not enough political parties…. it is not…

      Those inefficient IC organizations like OHR and EC Delagation…are full of theoretical people, the most of them having no clue about where they are…. except Inzo he knows very well… and a few some others…

      EU has to assume its full responsabilities on the present BIH situation… be honest and assume full responsabilities… don,t blame the local politicians because they are corrupt or whatever… only EU and IC are to be blamed… nobody else… it is disgusting how IC is always washing its hands blaming the local saying Bosnians are ethnic enmies among them, or stupid, or incompetent, or corrupted… they are not…there is some corruption yes… but nothing compared with some EU countries. I know what I am speaking about, i was doing for 10 years the EU security assessemts there.

      It is time for EU and all IC to be honest and fair with the Bosnians and not to look at the most of them like a kind of not developped people, ignorant, stupid, corrupted, criminals, etc…

      Regarding the political organization, there is no way to make it simpler than it is now… in a democratic way… it simply reflects a political reality in the ground… very simple… the serbs and the croats are inside BIH against their free will… that is it. Both of them would like to join Serbja and Croatia with their territory. To deny or ignore thi, it is stupid and not realistic.

      So, the present political organization it is the way those three ethnic communities found to be able to live together in a country imposed to Serbs and Croats by the IC. Those are the reasons why there is a rotating BIH President between the 3 ethnic groups and also the reasons of the Cantonal Governments, which have diferent ethnic majorities. To change such political organization will make more conflicts than solve.

      Regarding the party system that is ok, there more than enough political parties.

      Whatever changes will be made either in the political organization or party system will not solve nothing. To change the constitution only migth create more problems.

      These protests were not organized neither by any political pary, any ethnic faction or any kind of NGO.

      These protests were just the common people spontaneously coming together, and for the first time before the war, the protesters wereethnically together serbs, croats and muslims… and theses protests were the most serious after the war…. so if the IC is not stupi needs to stop and to thing, if they are able with the poors brains they have there.


      Please stop with high intelectaulaized and politicized interpretations of the protests.

      The problem is :- BIH PEOPLE NEEDS TO EAT, NEEDS JOBS… that is it, nothing else.

      As far as I read, INZO the IC Representative, said that the IC will respond to BIH people begging BREAD sending them NATO, EU Troops, ….. really SIR stupidity has its own limits…

      What after troops… they will not have food and jobs…

      I know police was instructed from now on to shoot protesters with real bullets if necessary… is it the democracy EU wants for BIH???? I was on BIH TV´s…

      I EU wants to stop theses protesters give them jobs and bread, or at least, bread… that what they need and what they request….

      Any other interpretation of what is going on is just for those wonderfull meetings, where akll the international met together to have intelectaul orgasms… listening each other… speaking stupidities and not realities…

      I hope EU to have a strategic view of this case in a correct human perspective, to solve it with NATO, EU Troops and bullets… maybe with concentration camps where to detains all protesters is not a civilized way to solve it…

      • I can understand your frustration with international organisations, I have observed their inefficiency big time whilst I lived there with the locals (like you), and I was there for far less time than you did. I can also understand where you come from when you talk about jobs and bread. Professionals in the field should well know that the root causes of issues in such contexts lies within the very basic needs of the people, and the way to solve problems is to get to the bottom of everything and satisfy needs. However, things are not as easy as just giving food as charity or sending gift wrapped jobs to the locals, because the Easter bunny can’t bring jobs this year instead of cream eggs. I believe we have to take into consideration very complex issues, look at different alternatives, different possibilities, have as much theoretical analysis as possible, discuss and then get down to earth and see how these possibilities might work or not work in practice. I don’t even know why I say we, I mean possibly a combination of locals/technocrats/experts (real ones). There is definitely a need for leadership to send messages across, and leadership to advise on practical methods to initiate a change process. I don’t think the latter should be people who have no clue where they landed though as you mentioned. I’m not even going to get started on how some think the locals are stupid, uncivilised, etc. I know sometimes I may come across as overly optimistic, but I just feel that it’s far more productive to focus on potential and those that are capable, smart and civilised and value them and their efforts instead of just painting a general negative picture.

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  3. Bruce Hitchner says:

    This is an excellent assessment. Thank you for posting it. I think its important to note that, however dysfunctional the Federation is, it is still a more open political environment than the RS. I suspect that discontent runs deep there as well, but there is too much risk associated with protest for the discontented to speak out, as you observe. Likewise, the HDZ in Mostar has been very vocal in its opposition to the protests. As regards the Dayton superstructure, I agree that it cannot carry the full weight of blame for the events that have transpired, but it is the Dayton superstructure with its build-in and redundant protections of ethnic interests which mitigates against an effective government response at all levels to the genuine grievances of the demonstrators. Bosnia’s current problems are not predominantly ethnic, but economic and social, but its constitutional structure is deeply ill-suited to responding effectively to the problems the country now faces. Perhaps events will drive governments at all levels in Bosnia to become more responsive and even proactive to the interests and concerns of the people, but it is hard to imagine that happening in any sustained as the pull of the system works against it. Finally, I agree that the international community should be more watchful at this stage. The space for top-down reform involving the IC and local political elites has closed. The time has come for a real dialogue between the citizens of Bosnia and their elected leaders about the country’s future.

    • Florian Bieber says:

      Thanks, Bruce. I agree that the Dayton structure is of course is problematic and far from ideal. My concern about Dayton-bashing is that even if Dayton were reformed along the lines of the 2006 April package, there would still be the possibility for vetos and blockages (even if reduced), thus political elites who seek to block decisions will still be able to do so. On the other hand, anything abandoning protection of national interests entirely is not realistic and potentially dangerous. Thus, the structure can provide greater incentives for cooperation, but cannot provide a complete safeguard against abuse.

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  5. Gena Kozak says:

    Thanks for photo “Death to nationalism”. In Ukraine, we have protests led by nationalists, but people protest against corruption and an impossiblity to survive, the declining standard of living.

  6. Elaine M Manwaring says:

    Thank you for the excellent explanation of the Bosnian situation. I have a Bosnian daughter-in-law who doesn’t vote in the elections as she is convinced her vote won’t count, and that it is so difficult to know who to vote for anyway. I now understand the situation better.

  7. costamagna says:

    Reblogged this on dr. costamagna.

  8. tamara says:

    Reblogged this on dysgraphic squirrel and commented:
    Florian Bieber on Bosnian protests

  9. Sasha Kvakic says:

    Excellent analysis. I am particularly interested in the degree to which these protests are reflective of a broader trans national discontent with neoliberal “democratic” political structures’ inability to deliver fundamental economic reforms. On this level these protests are just one more manifestation of the same grievances that drive antiausterity protest movements everywhere.

    The Bosnian economic situation is particularly acute and complicated by the history of ethnic violence. My own observations of the generations who lived through the 90s is that they are more or less traumatized and have a phobia of mass political action. Bosnian elites have been able to exploit this political fatigue and the unweildy nature of the decentralized state comfortable in the knowledge that the masses won’t challenge them. With the rise of a new generation of young workers who have unmet expectations of a Western European lifestyle and didn’t directly experience the horrors of the 90s there is finally the possibility of mass direct action for fundamental change.

  10. Dirk Reinermann says:

    Excellent analysis. Also agree with Bruce Hitchner’s reply.
    Blaming Dayton would be grossly unfair to Holbrooke and team, and – worse – it would be misleading, because it would lead us to look for yet another externally imposed solution when what is needed now is greater domestic accountability.
    The Dayton Peace Agreement was never intended to be a lasting Constitution for BiH, it was a peace agreement, and as such it was incredibly successful. BIH has had nearly 2 decades of peace and in the first decade after the war even made very good and rapid economic and social progress. “The international community” has made some of the highest financial investments per capita in BiH compared to other post conflict situations around the world. Frankly, if you had predicted this scenario in late 1995 it would have sounded like paradise.
    What has been missing since the immediate reconstruction phase is domestic leadership, leadership that is accountable to the citizens and not to the High Rep or to the EU. The ridiculoulsy cumbersone and expensive governance structure that was acceptable as the lowest common denominator to the warring factions at Dayton as the basis to stop the killing has long run its course. Everybody knows that. It has been said, written, acted and sung a million times. OHR, the EU, the USA, the PIC etc. have never tired to stress that ‘Dayton’ can and must be changed by local leaders. But instead, Bosnian politicians have been hiding behind ‘the international community’ and subtly or openly deepened the ethno-religious divides. Leaders in Banja Luka have been unwilling to accept that the road to Brussels goes through Sarajevo. Leaders in the Federation have been unwilling to address some of the key economic and social reform issues. The result is stagnation, high unemployment and a lack of perspective for young people.
    Vocal protests are welcome, in fact they are at least one decade overdue. And I hope they will manifest themselves in political parties with younger, more dynamic pro-European leaders. Let this be the beginning of the Bosnian Spring !

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  13. Thank you for writing this, unlike other articles I’ve been reading it’s clear and has great insights. I’d be interested to know, do you think that the visibility of public discontent manifested in action is a result of an organic development of civil society (without sticks and carrots from abroad) or a result of the civil society strategy for post-Dayton Bosnia? (the one that was “established” to keep the political structure of the agreement from not straying in the wrong direction).

  14. Pingback: Not making sense of the Bosnian Protests: International reporting | Florian Bieber

  15. Great words. I’d just like to say that while a lot of people I have encountered think that Bosnia has gone too far with these protests, I completely disagree. They say “peaceful protests” should have been executed. Would that bring change?

    Well, is it necessary to burn buildings for change? Of course it is. These people have NOTHING. Living in the highest unemployment rate in Europe means exactly that; almost no one is working. These people are barely living. EVERYTHING they have is being taken away from them. Why is it worse 22 years AFTER the war than it was DURING the war? All I heard when I visited this past summer is how terrible the politicians are and how corrupt the government is. If you execute peaceful protests and don’t make a statement, you think that will change anything? Definitely not in this country. Nothing is ever going to be solved with three presidents, by the way.

  16. Pingback: Bosnians demand a change | space for transparency

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  19. Aldin Siranovic says:

    Lot of things in this post are truth and lot of are not. I am Organisator of this protests and they started from my house. Tuzla is multietnic town and all what you have written lot of People know. But there are some deeper things about Bosnia that noone of you know. Bosnia is Private land of 5 criminal familiys and they are ready to kill People to save their chairs. I was beaten and in prison for 30 hours with no Food and water. And they tryed to buy me. When they couldnt they start do come to my home and threating to kill my son . So i escaped and now i am under protection of Austria. It is good to know that someone knows Situation in Bosnia as it is but there are more deeper things that only we who had clashes with System knows. All the best Aldin Siranovic Leader of “UDAR” movment from Tuzla.

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