A “Bosnian Spring”

Do Recent Reforms Signal Hope for the Beleaguered Country?

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#sarajevo #bosnia protests 2014
A “Bosnian Spring” : Do Recent Reforms Signal Hope for the Beleaguered Country? - Madeleine Holland

Violent protests in early February returned Bosnia and Herzegovina to the international spotlight, in what was arguably the greatest instability to emerge from the country since the Balkan Wars ended in 1995.

Beginning in Tuzla and moving swiftly onto dozens of cities across the country, government buildings blazed as Bosnians assembled to protest political corruption and a general ineptitude for addressing the poor socioeconomic conditions of the last 20 years. Participation was widespread, including workers, pensioners, youth, veterans, and other groups. Hundreds were injured in clashes with riot police.

The movement has been dubbed by many a “Bosnian Spring”: a long-awaited people’s defiance of a broken and negligent political system. Indeed, the movement has already brought about several reforms. Local governments have fallen in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac, and Zenica, and cantonal assemblies there have abolished certain perks for state officials. While riots have ceased, citizens’ forums, or “plenums”, continue to assemble throughout the country to voice their grievances. In Sarajevo, hundreds have been lining up daily to participate.

In many ways, Bosnia’s struggles are not dissimilar to those affronting other European countries. The 2008 financial crisis certainly hurt the Bosnian economy, but not much more so than others on the continent. While Bosnia’s unemployment rate is staggering (40% overall, and 58% among youth), Greece, Spain, and neighboring Croatia also struggle with endemic levels of unemployment. Bosnia’s battle with brain drain is also widely shared, as youth flood out of Southern Europe in search of greener economic pastures.

Yet Bosnia’s current struggles cannot be separated from the country’s history with nationalism. Ethnic divisions between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Serbs, aggravated during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, are an ongoing handicap for the country, even 20 years later.

The 1995 Dayton Accords, while instrumental to ending the war, created territorial and political arrangements that codified Bosnia’s ethnic divisions into law. The agreement divided the country into three semi-autonomous parts: Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (now primarily inhabited by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats), Republika Srbska (primarily Bosnian Serbs), and the small Brčko District (ethnically mixed and formally a part of both entities). It also established power-sharing arrangements between the three “constituent peoples”: along with a three-member presidency at the national level, each territory functions as its own autonomous republic, and the Federation is further divided into 10 cantons.

The result was to create a decentralized, bloated state, which has proven highly susceptible to inefficiency, wastefulness, and nepotism along ethnic lines. Above all, Bosnia lacks a cohesive political vision. Political divisions undermine economic development, and jeopardize the country’s hopes for EU accession. Efforts towards post-conflict reconstruction are also impaired. A UNHCR housing project seeking to facilitate post-war housing reconstruction for the country’s “most vulnerable” has been continually stalled due to requirements that funding be distributed evenly amongst the constituent peoples (irrespective of the fact that the population living without housing is not).

Although minor progress may be made through improved political management, the country requires more fundamental – and, ideally, constitutional – changes. Segregated education systems have ensured that nationalistic competition endures, and with vigour, among Bosnian youth. The political apparatus facilitates ethnic competition, while discriminating against ethnic minorities not categorized as “constituent peoples”. Bosnia’s failure to implement the 2009 opinion of the European Court of Human Rights in the Sejdic-Finci case further suggests that constitutional change will not come easily.

And yet, participation in protests and plenums may indicate that malcontent with the status quo has permeated (and in some cases superseded) ethnic lines. While Bosniaks almost exclusively spearheaded early protests in the Federation, a gathering of 2000 in Republika Srbska’s capital, Banja Luka, indicates increasingly diverse involvement. Participation of both Bosniaks and Croats in plenums in Mostar (the emblematic divided city) provides further hope. Graffiti on the walls of a destroyed canton building in Tuzla reads, “You all must resign! Death to nationalism!”

If the Bosnian Spring is to engender true change, it must be pan-Bosnian in nature. The political and historical climate might inspire little hope for the chances of fundamental reform. But the current efforts of Bosnians to secure a better future for their country should be duly recognized as a step in the right direction.