Civil Society after the Protests in Bosnia



I had the pleasure to be part of a panel debate yesterday at the foreign ministry in Vienna on civil society. More meaningful than just “another” panel on Bosnia was the fact that it took place at the foreign ministry and was opened by Austria’s foreign minister and included also the head of the EU delegation Sörensen in Bosnia. On the other hand,it included no politicians from Bosnia and this was no coincidence. The message of the panel and the high level engagement by Austria and the EU is that it is no longer enough to talk with the political elites, but rather civil society needs to be engaged. This is a refreshing change from an approach that focuses mostly on the leaders of the main political parties. Similarly, the panel was less about formal and established civil society organizations, but rather activists, two from plena (Ajda Sejdić and Amna Popovac), musician Damir Imamović and Aleksandar Trifunović of independent media platform Buka.  The panel was a useful reminder that civil society is more than NGOs and not just there to providing technical expertise, but articulating voices from society.

The result was a refreshing debate. Yes, the problems are old and there is little disagreement about the responsibility of political elites. Little attention centered on the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci cases, but as the February protests highlighted, the main issues are poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. As Damir Imamović noted, these grievances highlight that Bosnia’s problems are not fundamentally different from elsewhere. Yes, they express themselves differently or are compounded by the government structures, but they are not exotic and do not make the Balkans and Bosnia exceptional.

The key question to which there is no clear answer, is how to achieve change. It seemed clear that the plena have mostly run their course. While they have helped generate ideas and continue to operate, they themselves will not generate change in Bosnia. Yet, as in other countries, protests often require multiple waves and different forms until they become successful. While some politicians resigned and some small legal changes were made,  the main success of the protests and plena was not the number of political demands fulfilled, but rather showing the possibility of citizens to organize outside the formal structures and, if briefly, giving the political elite a real scare. There was a clear sense at the discussion that there is no need for new political parties to achieve change. In essence, the choice is between new political actors emerging within the structures or, I argued, in the ability of the EU and civil society to change the behavior of political elites in power. In fact, nationalist and reluctant reforms from Ivo Sanader, Milo Djukanović and Ivica Dačić or Aleksandar Vučić have been able to switch their political priorities. This was usually based on a rational calculation based on changing demand from below (for EU integration) and pressure from outside. The key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.

The panel suggest that some EU member states and the EU start realizing that the transformative effect of the EU accession depends on allies within the country that scrutinize political elites and thus point out the discrepancy between the talk of EU integration in the country and the reality. However, this dynamic can only become effective if the prospect for EU membership remains real and the support for civil society becomes sustained and extends beyond a few high-level events.




Not making sense of the Bosnian Protests: International reporting

International media have been struggling in covering the protests in Bosnia that began last week. At first, there was silence. It seemed like a few blog posts, including Eric Gordy, Jasmin Mujanovic  and my analysis where the only ones who to comment. The subsequent string of articles in international media, such as the New York Times, CNN and Newsweek, but also others, suggest difficulty to grapple with the protests (the notable exception are journalists who have been regularly reporting on the Balkans, such as Andreas Ernst of the NZZ, Tim Judah of the Economist and Michael Martens for the FAZ). Much of the reporting betrays deep ignorance of Bosnia. For example, the first article by the NYT argued that “The chief American negotiator, Richard C. Holbrooke, who died in 2010, was widely hailed for his diplomatic skill in ending the slaughter. But the Bosnians have since added layers of complexity to the original design that have entrenched the political elite while often hindering economic development.” The idea that Bosnians added complexity to the original design of Dayton is a very silly suggestion–not much was added to the original design that is complex and whatever was added, was added by the High Representative. While probably an innocent mistake, it also (unconsciously) shifts the blame for the institutional complexity from international to local actors. Besides ignorance, international media often resort to the ‘war’ and employ an Orientalist framework, evoking violence and war as a typical part of the exotic Balkans. For example an article in Newsweek (besides quoting competent Velma Saric and Tim Judah), had to evoke the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (“The past has always haunted Bosnia. On June  28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austriaheir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip”). Would an article about mass protests in Berlin mention the Reichskristallnacht or a piece on strikes in France the French revolution and the use of the guillotine for French rulers?

Finally, the article quotes Rebecca West whose travelogue during the interwar period is often used as argument for the Manichean and ancient hatreds in the Balkans (West captured the essence of the cycle of hatred and violence: “Were I to go down into the marketplace…and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’ … I would never hear the word ‘Yes,’ if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years. I would always hear, ‘No, there was fear, there were our enemies without, our rulers within, there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.). Of course, this has little to do with the protests that have been explicitly not nationalist or framed ethnically. The problem with a number of journalists and commentators writing about Bosnia today is that they left off when the war ended (see also Christine Amanpour’s interview with Paddy Ashdown for CNN).

The combination of ignorance and looking at Bosnia exclusive through the lens of the war has produced a fairly weak coverage of the protests over the past week. This has been compounded by the nature of the protests themselves. The organization of plenums (or is it plena) as forms of direct democracy and demands of social economic justice does not fit with many other protests. While democratization is at the core of the protests, the message is also a critique of the Bosnia-type of market economy. The combination of demands for good governance and economic justice is a feature of recent protests, not just in Bosnia (as I have discussed here), but they do not fit into the classic protests of the region for more democracy and against autocratic regimes (as in Ukraine). These two features might actually be difficult to reconcile and the experiments with new forms of democracy might not succeed, but they are an experiment that does not fit an easy matrix of reporting about a land haunted by ethnic hatreds, violence and protestors demanding freedom. It is all just a bit more tricky and maybe time to look a little bit closer.

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.

Protests from Maribor to Istanbul: Looking back at a year of demonstrations

graz 2014 protest FINAL

Here are some answers for an interview on the protests I gave to the Macedonian daily Dnevnik on the occassion of the conference “Rebellion and Protest from Maribor to Taksim. Social Movements in the Balkans” that will be organised this Thursday through Saturday by the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz.

What signal are the Balkans sending through these social movements: are they waking up, finally?

The protests accross the region, from Maribor to Istanbul show, that civil society is alive and well in many countries. Citizens care about public spaces, are concerned about corruption and austerity and resent the close links between business and politics. Of course, there is great variation in the size of the protests, their duration and their success. I would see the protests in Sofia as the most impressive display of public discontent this year. Their duration is spectacular and their participants are sceptical of the entire political elite, both government and opposition. When the target of the protests is so broad, unlike for example the building a shopping centre in a park as in Istanbul, it is often hard to sustain momentum. There are two clear messages that the protests send. First, citizens do not trust elites, they are seen as not representing the citizens, but private interests. Thus, the message is a call for more democracy and rule of law. Second, in some protests, the economic crisis and the difficult situation many citizens have found themselves in was either a central theme, or a trigger, like high electricity prices in Bulgaria. Overall, citizens in the region have endured much greater economic hardship than elsewhere in Europe without protesting. Economic hardship becomes a key trigger is when the difficult situation is combined with a sense of lack of fairness.

What do all this protests, as you described: from Maribor to Taksim, have in common?

Every protest is individual and has different causes and triggers. Yet, there is a larger pattern, that extends of course beyond Maribor and Istanbul: we have probably seen the largest wave of protests over the last two-three years around the world since 1989. These protests have taken place in democracies like Spain or Greece and in dictatorships like Libya and Syria. Most protests have taken place in the European borderlands of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe (see the current protests in Ukraine). The protests share a sense of frustration with being badly governed and having unresponsive elites. The promise of prosperity and better rule of Europe is close and thus seems possible. This has motivated many protests: the comparison of one’s own government with the possibilities close by. The economic crisis might not always be central to the protests, but the crisis has shed light on corruption and patronage—if there is less money to go around in times of crisis, bad governance becomes more obvious.

 Do you, as an expert, think that this is the right way for the Balkans to make their “dreams come true”?

Protests can achieve their own goal and still fail. Individual demands can be met, governments can resign—as was the case in Bulgaria in February—and yet fundamental change might not happen. Thus not addressing the roots of the problem that brought about the situation in the first place. The key is for protests to lead to institutional forms of civic engagement. I don’t just mean NGOs, but rather movements , political parties and also media that will carry the demands along. This is always a tricky moment, as those working through institutions might be accused of  “selling out” and some indeed might become regular politicians and abandon their original goals. On the other hand, the demands or the underlying grievances of the protests are often  too  large to be addressed right away. When change takes time, it cannot be achieved through protests alone and then invariable the question arises of how to pursue change and reform. A protest can have two functions: it can empower citizens, giving them the feeling that they can achieve change , in the words of banner from protests in Banja Luka to save Picin park, “You are not a slave of the system, you are change”

 What if their problems are not solved as they want and insist?

Disappointment is nearly inevitable: Firstly, protests movements include citizens with many different expectations. In fact, to be succesful a protest movement usually has to draw from different social groups with varying hopes and grievances. Observers noted that the protests in Istanbul brought together gays and lesbians, Kurdish activists, environmentalists and citizens who had not been previously active. They will all have different expectations of the protests and some will find their demands not met. The success or failure of protests is thus not only a function of whether the immediate demands are met, but rather whether the political environment changes—if those who went to the streets realise that they can achieve change and that institutions are responsive. This dynamic sometimes takes time to be visible. The protests in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-7 first seemed like a failure—Milosevic met the formal demands, but continued to rule like before. However, the revolution of 2000 was unimaginable without these earlier protests. Similarly, the protests in Taksim have been repressed with force by the Turkish government and at the moment it does not seem like they were successful. However, as a banner in Istanbul read, “This is just the beginning!”, “From now on, nothing will be the same again!” We do not know what the next form of protest will look like in Turkey, but it clear that many citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo and demand not just a different government, but a different style of governing—and this is a common feature across the region.

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.

%d bloggers like this: