The Bosnian Spring: The citizens take action

By Jørn Holm-Hansen
26 February 2014

The Bosnia unrest started peacefully in Tuzla early February but turned violent as former workers of the city’s large enterprises clashed with police. They had lost their jobs as a result of a row of dubious privatisations. The protest spread to other cities and some official buildings were set on fire.
The Tuzla Canton Government building in flames, 8 February 2014. Photo credit: Juniki San

Soon, however, the unrest went indoors. Street fights with the police were replaced by the organization of plenary meetings, where everyone can show up and have a say. All over the country such plenums have been set up, so far more so in the Bosniak-Croat Federation than in the Republika Srpska, though.

Those of us who witnessed the changes in East and Central Europe at close range 25 years ago have some moments of flashback now. Just like in Bosnia today, citizen committees and forums took over after a first stage of street protests.
Demonstration in Berlin 4 November 1989. Photo credit: Bernd Settnik

Later, what happened in 1989 has been hailed as the big victory of civil society. This may have proved to be a qualified truth since the civil society post-1989 has been weak. Nonetheless the international community has had a strong belief in the practice of promoting civil society development to promote politically accountable regimes all over the world. Bosnia is no exception to this.

Quite a few euros have been spent by international donors to promote civil society in Bosnia. Having conducted evaluations of some of these projects in the past, I must admit I find it difficult to conclude that they had deep impacts. Most of the “civil society” set up as a result of aid efforts had few roots in the remnants of pre-war civil society. Although manned by excellent people these new NGOs seldom were able to be more than “commissioned activists”. When doing projects the local population served a role as “target groups”, not a pool from where local NGOs could recruit new members or activists.

On the other hand, if we look at Bosnia’s vibrant civil society this spring, it would be interesting to check out in what ways skills and insights from the numerous “capacity-building” workshops of the late ’90s and early 2000s turn out to be of use. I don’t think the answer is given. But the answer would be highly interesting. Why? Because Bosnia probably is the first country ever that has been subject to massive aid and democracy-building, and then actually after a while have entered into a phase of popular mobilization for what aid parlance terms good governance.

What has happened in Bosnia now is far from work shop exercises. At last, we observe a genuine initiative from below. The protests are driven by commitment and anger, not a vague wish to strengthen civil society as such. The social discontent is directed against some of the core traits of post-1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina, like shady privatisation, corruption and lack of industrial policies.

The unrest started in Tuzla, which was the centre of the large-scale industrialization of Bosnia after 1945. The city is traditionally a trade union stronghold. The inhabitants were to large degree immune to the ethnic hatred that destroyed Bosnia in the 1990s.
Burned down Tuzla Canton Government building, 8 February 2014. Photo credit: Juniki San

What is now at times called the Bosnian Spring – bosansko proljeće – was initiated by workers at five enterprises in Tuzla. They protested against privatisation, reduction of workplaces and wage arrears. They demanded a halt to privatisation and strict public control of enterprises. The entire privatisation process was to be scrutinized to assess it accordance with law. Also the salaries of the politicians were to be harmonized with ordinary salaries, the protested demanded. And for sure, Bosnia has a lot of well-paid and otherwise privileged politicians.

The complex state structure that followed from the Dayton Agreement in 1995 was a compromise between three nationalisms, Bosniak, Serb and Croat. The power sharing structure of central state, entities, federation and cantons requires no less than 14 prime ministers at various levels in the small country with no more than 3.8 million inhabitants. The number of ministers is 150 and all have high salaries, nice cars and expensive privileges.
Political division of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, after the Dayton Agreement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Bosnian unrest has spread to a large number of cities and towns all over the country and all now have their own citizens’ forums. They formulate political demands to the regular city councils or cantonal authorities. The demands are directed against the privileges of the politicians, in particular the lucrative “golden handshakes” offered to politicians when they resign. Another demand is for political leaders without party affiliation. Several cantonal governments have resigned as a result of the protests. Political parties are associated with patron-client structures, just like elsewhere in the Balkans.

Some of the citizen forums take a step further, demanding that the privatisation of former state owned enterprises are examined to check the lawfulness of the processes. Before the 1992–95 wars these enterprises were mainly owned cooperatively according to the particular Yugoslav system of socialist self-management, but after 1995 they were made state owned in order to be made ready for privatisation.

Some core traits of the protest is Bosnia remind of what happened in Poland 1980–81. Then the united trade union movement under the banners of Solidarność forced the authorities to sit down and negotiate. Similar to Bosnia today, the Polish unrest had its deep roots in the large industrial enterprises. During the summer of 1980 Solidarność quickly established a counter-power that followed up implementation of agreement. The Polish movement made sure divisions between industrial branches, professions or administrative regions were not allowed to develop into a split-up of the unity.

Today, in Bosnia one of the great questions is whether the protest movement is able to avoid going ethnic. This, of course, may prove difficult in a country that is structured politically and administratively around ethnic categories. Nonetheless, the civilized style of the Bosnians forums is in stark contrast to what we have been witnessing in Ukraine lately. This bodes well for Bosnia and the Bosnia, who finally have started to move after 19 years of political passivity.
Winter landscape of Holy Trinity church in Banja Luka, Republika Srpska, Bosnia. Photo credit: 123RF.com

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