The evolution of the protests over the school in Konjević Polje seems to be the product of more profound social and political dynamics in Bratunac municipality, and indeed in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By Martino Bianchi
Protests over the school in Konjević Polje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are gaining momentum. Led by the capable Muhizin Omerović, a civil servant of Srebrenica municipality, Bosniaks parents are protesting fiercely since the beginning of this year over a number of issues related to the management of the school. Three issues are officially at stake. The first, and initial catalyst of grievances, is a problem with water supply: due to technical problems, the school has remained without water for a long time. Today there is running water, but it is not drinkable. The second grievance pertains to the composition of the school board, a quite relevant decision-making body, both in the day-to-day management of the school and in the process of selecting the school director. The third issue is the introduction of ‘national subjects’ (formally ‘national group of subjects’, nacionalna grupa predmeta) at all levels. In brief, these are subjects with different curricula for each ethnic group: history, geography, “mother tongue”, nature and society, along with religion. In this respect, parents also complain that teachers in the school are fundamentally all Serbs. Today national subjects are taught according to the Bosnian curricula only in the last four years, while for the first five years pupils follow the Serbian curricula.
Intended to solve these issues, the protests in Konjević Polje started in February 2013, when a group of parents sent a letter of complaint to the relevant institutions, international organizations and embassies. In September, at the beginning of the new school year, they refused to send their children to school unless their requests were met. After several weeks, they decided to move to the capital, Sarajevo, and to build a small camp in front of the Office of the High Representative, the international governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Finally, on October 28th they were joined by a second group of parents and children coming from Vrbanjci, a village in Kotor Varoš municipality, which is facing similar problems, and a couple of days later by parents and children from Kamenice, a village in Zvornik municipality.
Konjević Polje is a village in Eastern Bosnia, in Bratunac municipality. Its inhabitants are mainly Bosniak returnees, but the municipality, since the war, has a strong Serbian majority, and is located in the Serb-ruled Republika Srpska, one of the two entities constituting Bosnia and Herzegovina. The school in Konjević Polje is a branch of Petar Kočić osnovna škola (elementary school), based in a nearby village, Kravica. While in Konjević Polje branch all pupils are Bosniaks, in Kravica they are all Serbs. The physical separation of the two branches, however, does not create de facto two schools: not only there is a single director and one school board, but also virtually all teachers teach in both schools, creating a strange example of two roofs over one school, an informal and less strict version of the infamous two schools under one roof model existing in mixed Croat-Bosniak areas of the country.
As is often the case, however, it is not easy to disentangle these apparently reasonable requests from the real agendas of the actors involved on all sides. In fact, water supply in the school has been restored so that toilets and hand-basins can work properly: the quality of running water remains poor, so the school installed also a container of drinkable water. Concerning the school board, Bosniaks have a minority of seats but still they control 3 places out of 7 (one appointed by parents, one by workers of the school and one by municipal assembly). Moreover, no Bosniak participated in the competitive selection, held by the Ministry of Education of Republika Srpska regarding the two seats appointed by the Ministry. The most sensitive issue, of course, pertains to national subjects, which, are taught with different curricula throughout the country, tuned to ethnic differences. Parents require that these national subjects are taught from the first year onwards according to their national (hence Bosnian) curriculum. This appears to be a fundamentally reasonable request, since the school is, today, a mono-ethnic school. However, the agreement between Ministries of Education implemented to regulate this kind of situation is not clear on this point: it simply imposes national subjects for classes where 18 or more students belong to a national group other than the one which is majority in the area. Up to the 6th grade, this is not the case in Konjević Polje, except for religion. This is not a casual circumstance: the number of Bosniak pupils, around 140 of a total of around 250, is increased by the fact that many Bosniak pupils go to Konjević Polje School from neighbouring municipalities, Milići, Zvornik and Vlasenica. This phenomenon is particularly apparent for elder children, more able to cope with long daily transfers, and is the reason why only the last grades have 18 or more pupils – and therefore the Bosnian curricula.
According to the agreement, however, it is not forbidden to find a different solution, more in favour of minorities. And in fact a different solution has been found by the Minister of Education: two additional hours per week are devoted to the teaching of national subjects according to the Tuzla Canton (in sum: Bosnian) curricula. This solution has been considered unsatisfactory by the protesters, but, and that is apparent, the main problem for them is that even the Bosnian curricula are taught by non-Bosniak teachers: on this point, the problem is that parents fear that despite the formal adoption of the Tuzla Canton curricula, the actual content of classes will be the curricula of the Republika Srpska. Whether this is the real motivation of the protests or whether this is the motivation used in order to impede a solution and reach a stalemate will never be clear: what is certain is that this cannot be solved overnight. A fast solution, in fact, would imply firing some Serbs in order to hire Bosniak teachers, and there is, obviously and luckily, no legal basis for firing teachers because of their ethnic background.
The protester started asking for a safe water supply, moved to academic discussions about school boards and curricula, and ended up questioning the names and surnames of teachers. The evolution of this protest, in the end, seems to be the product of more profound social and political dynamics in Bratunac municipality and in the whole country. The 2010 elections, in fact, marked the beginning of possibly the most feeble legislatures since the end of the war, at the central and entity level. At the central level, the new government was formed more than one year after the elections and has never been really stable due to internal fights among the Bosniak parties initially, and among Serb parties later on. At all levels, political confrontation has been coupled with huge financial problems. Tensions grew even more when, in the 2012 local elections, opposition parties had good results compared to those in power, stressing even more the stability of central and entity governments.
What is interesting is that, due to the power-sharing arrangement in place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the ethnic structuring of voting options, political tensions tend to appear very often among parties representing the same ethnic group. Konjević Polje is no exception. The local Bosniak community, in fact, is divided between SDA (Party for Democratic Action) and SDP (Social Democrats) supporters. At the last local elections, SDA and its ally, SBIH (Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina), were the first list in the municipality, with 4 seats and more than 15% of the votes, while SDP got 5.5% of the votes and only 1 seat. However, SDP got both the position of deputy Mayor and the position of speaker of the local assembly, due to post-election arrangements with the ruling Serb parties. The current fight over Konjević Polje is not simply a fight of Bosniaks parents against the Ministry of Education of Republika Srpska, Goran Mutabdžija, and its supposed discriminatory practices: it is also an attempt of SDA supporter, and potential future candidates, to show how the ruling SDP is not able to protect the rights of Bosniak people and to make institutions work.
It is not possible to say what motivation is predominant: the genuine concerns of the parents in a returnees’ community or the ‘behind the scenes’ political confrontation within Bosniak parties and organizations. The fuzziness of the situation is heavily increased by the role played by other actors. The Minister of Education, for instance, appears ready to solve some of the issues raised by the parents, but also to close the door to any further change, depending on the audience he is addressing – and, we can assume, the pressure he receives from his political principals. Vocal organizations, like Prvi Mart (March 1st), stress the ethnic component of this confrontation and try to describe this situation as merely a fight of Bosniaks against ethnic discrimination in Republika Srpska.
In this complex situation, where a long electoral campaign is mixed with so many elements, the irrelevant role played by OHR and OSCE is quite telling: stuck in an unclear exit-strategy these two institutions are losing political legitimacy and influence over local institutions. The risks of no action, however, seem severe. A local and technical problem, water supply in the Konjević Polje branch of Petar Kočić school, might undermine years of the quasi-ordered return process and integration in Bratunac, and impact the return process in the rest of Republika Srpska. The real failure, however, seems to be the complete ineffectiveness of Bosnian politics during the legislature started in 2010: the current stalemate opened the door to an incredibly long electoral campaign, since political actors are already focused on the future legislature and are positioning themselves accordingly: nobody is working today to solve today’s problems.
Martino Bianchi is a PhD candidate in Institutions, Politics and Policies at IMT-Institute for Advanced Studies, Lucca.