BELGRADE, Feb 22 2014 (IPS) - Thousands of people have rallied in streets of major Bosnian cities since last week, demanding social justice, decent living conditions and resignation of top officials who they openly blame for unprecedented poverty and the country’s economic decline.
The first protest rallies since the end of the bloody 1992-95 war began earlier this month in the north-eastern town of Tuzla, where thousands of workers from five major privatised companies had received no payments in years. They were joined in following weeks by thousands of unemployed young people and pensioners.
"The biggest fear of ruling elites all over and their nightmare is for ordinary people (of all ethnicities) to unite."
Backed by social networks and informal groups, the protests spread to capital Sarajevo and to Zenica, Kakanj, Travnik, Jajce, Brcko, Bihac, Mostar and several other towns. International media immediately dubbed the protests, some of them turning violent, the “Bosnian spring”. Some call it “the winter of Bosnian discontent”.
“It’s still winter here and we’d rather describe the events as an expression of widespread discontent and an introduction to ending the arrogant, unemotional and even scornful behaviour of authorities towards most people, who live in poverty,” Kemal Kurspahic, co-founder of the Media in Democracy Institute in Bosnia, told IPS.
Data from the central Bosnian statistics office puts the unemployment rate at 44 percent. It says that one in five out of 3.8 million people in Bosnia live below the poverty line. For the employed, the average monthly salary is 570 dollars.
“More and more people live in misery and poverty. They are hungry,” Vahid Sehic from the NGO Forum of Tuzla Citizens told IPS.
After the bloody war of the nineties ended with the loss of some 100,000 lives, the country’s industry came to a standstill. It seemed at first that recovery could be at hand, but the slow transition into a market economy entailed a complete change from what used to be former Yugoslavia with its deeply rooted social benefits.
“There are practically two decades of economic devastation, where private interests of the ruling elite, masked as ‘protection of national interest’ served as an excuse for unfair distribution of wealth among the privileged,” said Kurspahic.
The complicated regulation of the internationally sponsored Dayton Peace Accords, that defined the power structure for former warring ethnicities – Bosniak Muslims, Croats and Serbs – had a devastating effect on any possibility of creating an efficient state with a positive investment climate.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into two entities – the Bosnian Serb Republic of Srpska (RS) and the Muslim-Croat Federation, both topped with a Sarajevo-based central authority. Vetoing decisions at the central level have often blocked any initiatives for reforms.
Both entities have their own governments and parliaments, plus a central one in Sarajevo. The Federation is divided into 11 cantons created on ethnic lines for areas with a Muslim or Croat majority. This in practice means that the Muslim-Croat Federation area has 11 local governments with 11 prime ministers.
Most political leaders now are those who were leaders of major national parties during the 1992-95 war. That is “about 80 percent,” said Kurspahic. “Approximately half of Bosnia’s budget goes to salaries in administration.”
Privatisation of major industrial complexes was mostly hasty. It enabled newly born tycoons, close to people in power, to size down or even shut dozens of companies and make quick profits by selling their assets before declaring bankruptcy. Bosnian media has widely reported that new owners often failed to comply with privatisation contracts and failed to pay workers for years.
One of the worst instances is the Sodaso factory in Tuzla. It produced 80 percent of the table salt consumed in former Yugoslavia, amounting to 208,000 tonnes in 1991. In 1999, it produced 21,000 tonnes.
Besides, Tuzla had an additional burden to cope with. After the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces executed some 7,000 men and boys, their family members adding up to some 35,000 children, women and the elderly were transported to Tuzla.
Since protests began, several cantonal prime ministers, including Tuzla’s, have resigned. Sarajevo protestors have been offered negotiations by authorities over the modifications of certain laws, and new elections. The authorities have agreed to create ‘plenums’ in major cities such as Sarajevo that include representatives of political parties and leading civil society organisations in order to negotiate possibilities of fresh elections or other peaceful means for ending the protests.
“This is the first time we saw fear in people in power,” Sehic said. “They worry that the social unrest will spread, and that the story of ‘endangered ethnicity’ will go down the drain; this means they go down the drain as well.”
Several analysts point out that the protests in Bosnia carried no ethnic dimension. “It was more solidarity of people with no rights, the poor and unemployed, regardless of their nation,” said Zarko Papic from the Sarajevo-based NGO, the Initiative for Better and Humane Inclusion.
Svetlana Cenic who teaches economics at the University of Banjaluka in the Republic of Srpska says there can be no serious changes in Bosnia Herzegovina without the social unity of all ethnicities.
“The hungry belly is mine as well as yours, it does not differ between ethnicities,” she said. “The biggest fear of ruling elites all over and their nightmare is for ordinary people (of all ethnicities) to unite.”
That does not seem very likely. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik visited Belgrade almost immediately after the unrest in the Federation began, and told journalists after his meeting with first Vice Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic that there were no reasons for Bosnian Serbs to join the protest, claiming that “the RS will remain calm” as “some forces from the Federation want escalation of unrest into the RS.”