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Protests in BiH

One month after protests started in Bosnia and Herzegovina and citizens started voicing their demands in citizens’ plenums, the High Representative of the EU visits Sarajevo.

On the 12th March, Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, met with Bosnia’s political leaders in Sarajevo. In the beginning of February, workers organised a protest in Tuzla to demand their reinstatement following the privatization of Soda So, a salt factory which is the largest employer in the area and provides a vital economic dynamism to the north of Bosnia. The protests expanded quickly, echoing in most of the country’s cities.

Addressing the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, Ashton reported that the youth unemployment rate in Bosnia is currently around 60% high. She also stated that she took note of the demands put forth by demonstrators, during her visit the previous week, and observed that “this is a country that really does need leaders to show leadership and to move forward.”

While at first protesters took to the streets to protest against unemployment, citizens all over the country soon joined in and widened the scope of issues responsible for social dissatisfaction, reaching an unprecedented scale since the end of the war. Marjana Tomas, a citizen of Mostar, looks back at the protests of 7th February noting that “demonstrators themselves were surprised by the massive support they got from the public”.

European Union's mixed signals

At the start of the protests, European Union representatives repeatedly called on the Bosnian government to listen to the demonstrators' demands. Ashton’s visit, little more than one month later, was symbolically significant but its outcome seems rather unclear. The only conclusion drawn from the visit is the need to address economic, social and political challenges in Bosnia, including the necessity to curb corruption. But how this change will be achieved is unknown.

Bosnia was recognized as a potential candidate for EU membership in 2003. Nowadays, many blame the EU for having progressively abandoned the democratic process in Bosnia in the past few years, their position being strengthened by the rather split and confusing responses to the protests coming from within the EU. Ljubica Bajo, a teacher in Bosnia, says that the protests gave her hope, as she saw that many young people “don’t put their trust into an old system anymore, nor into foreign intervention”.

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, stated that he would “continue to call for a renewed effort by the European Union to help the country overcome its problems”. Opposing this encouraging approach, Valentin Inzko, the Austrian High Representative for Bosnia, made clear that there is a need to stress the rule of law in the country and that if the situation were to escalate, it might be necessary for the EU to send in troops to resolve it.

In the beginning of February, citizens set government buildings on fire and were often confronted by the police, who used excessive force. On the day violence escalated, and especially in the morning after, many citizens felt repulsed by these violent actions against the governmental buildings and called for a return to peaceful protesting. Ironically though, it is unlikely that these protests would have received much international attention had it not been for this day of violence.

BiH.jpg "You're human. I'm human. When you take off your uniform, in which way do we differ?" Photo credits: www.colormyemotions.wordpress.com/   

Taking the matter of democratization into their own hands

But how did the process of democratization really take place in Bosnia? Citizens are protesting against a corrupt system that has been chronically inefficient since its implementation. In 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement established two political entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic), and set an electoral legislation that allowed for three presidents to be elected in representation of the different ethnic groups in post-war Bosnia. It is not surprising that citizens have not been seeing much development since.

The presence of free media is a given in any democracy. Therefore, it came as shock to see that the media were corrupted and manipulative during the first days of the protests. The Association of Bosnia-Herzegovina Journalists had to release an appeal to all journalists to provide “objective, fair and balanced reporting of the protests”. Journalists and politicians brought ethnic divisions into play, blaming each other for staging the protests and creating social unrest. In the meantime, protesters took to the streets carrying Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian flags side by side. Following that one day of violence, protests resumed its peaceful character. Most importantly, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina took the matter of political participation directly into their own hands. They organised citizens’ plenums, which gave way to the most direct form of democratic participation and allowing equal involvement for all citizens. These plenums have now been taking place regularly, in most cities.

The demands voiced by the participants in these plenums have many implications, one of the most significant being the creation of an independent Cantonal body of experts that would consult regularly with the citizens’ plenum in each city, without a partisan agenda. Another important point emphasized in several plenums' discussions is the need to review all salaries and benefits that public officials are entitled to, in order to reach a situation of greater equality and transparency. Decisions taken at the level of citizens’ plenums have already achieved some degree of success. In Tuzla, the citizens’ plenum succeeded in putting an end to the practice of “golden parachutes”.

Change is happening in Bosnia, and it is being led by Bosnian citizens themselves. What role will the EU play in this change, whether there is a need for a constitutional revision and whether these protests represent a new chapter in Bosnian politics, with unpredictable consequences, remains to be seen.

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat 

Photo credits: www.colormyemotions.wordpress.com/