Bosnia’s civilian unrest, mobs and protests – much ado about nothing?

Bosnia’s civilian unrest, mobs and protests – much ado about nothing?

The current protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina will bring few results, especially not positive ones, and – as has already been seen – will be interpreted by various sides to suit their own needs and interests, whatever the final outcome.

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By Dražen Pehar

George Orwell once wondered if a political joke serves the purpose of a tiny revolution or a safety valve for undemocratic and totalitarian regimes. In other words, is a political joke a truly revolutionary act that may inspire citizens and prompt them to attempt to remove an oppressive or unjust regime? Or, is it simply a safety valve that provides temporary, but illusionary, satisfaction to an oppressed citizen, and thus helps an oppressive regime survive longer than expected or desired? The same question can be pertinently raised about the current civilian unrest, with a far from moderate degree of mob violence, and protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course, expectations are high; especially among those who have decided, or were persuaded by some bounty, to take their social or political dissatisfaction to the streets. The current protests, however, will bring few results, especially not positive ones, and – as has already been seen – will be interpreted by various sides to suit their own needs and interests, whatever the final outcome.

Margaret Atwood, a famous Canadian fiction writer, stated once through one of her characters that war is what happens when language fails. The same can be said about the protests currently taking place in Bosnia. Those protests simply indicate that the major problems of today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina have for too long been suppressed. Such problems have also never been sufficiently or satisfactorily tackled through the medium of reasoned discourse including legal and judicial venues as a key to democratic polity. The cluster of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s problems is, of course, enormous, and often it is hardly possible to distinguish between social, political, legal, or constitutional ones. As a result, the goals of current protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina are couched in all kinds of vocabulary: some refer to the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, some to corruption, and some even to ‘the economic model that empowers the rich at the expense of the poor.’ Furthermore, despite the fact that many have tried to present the demonstrations as purely socio-economic in nature, the truth is that they are very much ethnically marked, and many have rightly pointed to both the political and ethnic aspects of the demonstrators’ agenda.

It is an undeniable fact, for instance, that demonstrations are taking place in predominantly Bosniak-Muslim parts of the state, more specifically in the parts of the Federation with a Bosniak-Muslim majority. Both Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs tend to view the protests as a marker of ethnic identification, as a merely Bosniak-Muslim problem, and choose to stay away or distance themselves from them. The city of Mostar is a clear case in point – as soon as the demonstrations have threatened to cause a higher level of inter-ethnic animosity, local police was ordered to apply more radical measures against more violent of demonstrators. On the Serb side, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has already used the demonstrations as proof that, if something is rotten in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is within the Federation, a Bosniak-Croat entity, where obviously a large amount of frustration has built-up.

In terms of its policy-guidelines or agenda, the demonstrations are poorly-planned and amateurishly executed. Apart from asking for the dismissal or resignation of elected cantonal government’s officials, and for renewed ‘efforts’ at investigating privatization cases, the demonstrators obviously have no clear or universally valid political points to make, and more importantly, have no means at present to change anything. For instance, the demonstrators in some cases put up banners like ‘This is Bosnia’, or ‘For a functional and unified Bosnia’, which cannot carry substantive political weight. Such banners are not welcome among Croats and Serbs, and, having in mind the Dayton constitutional structure of the state, the banners carry no tangible political meaning. Also, it is clear that those protesters who applied more violent means (and in the process set several buildings alight, including the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency building and the recently refurbished city-council building in Mostar, and expectedly clashed with the police) actually had no political message or declared goals. They simply aimed at both real and symbolic destruction of property under their own interpretation of the political significance of the property. Perhaps they oppose the parties in power, and perhaps they oppose the current constitutional structure of the Federation? Nobody really knows the answer to such questions, and nobody can expect an answer from those involved in these violent and obviously criminal attacks.

Everyone who cared to follow recent developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina – starting at least with the 2011 anti-constitutional formation of the Federation government, under the so-called ‘Platform’ policy by a number of parties, which the High Representative, Valentin Inzko, supported and even brought to power – knows that Bosnia-Herzegovina is in a deep crisis. Everyone also knows that this crisis is not only a crisis of the state structures or institutions, but also one of morality, legality, education, public media efficiency, and a sign of both economic malaise and social alienation and atomization in general. It is impossible to start untying the main knots of the crisis without getting answers to some perplexing issues.

Since the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina plays a highly important role, perhaps some of the questions should be addressed to them. For instance, why was the six-month provision of the Dayton peace agreement concerning the deal on the precise division of powers between the entity and the state-levels never agreed, let alone implemented? Why did the international community, at least at the European level, take so long to identify the dangers of centralizing, or anti-Dayton, ‘forces’ for which the Bosniak-Muslim political elite is primarily to blame? Or, more specifically, what has the anti-fraud unit of the Office of the High Representative achieved over the last fifteen years? Or, what role has the international ‘element’ (for instance, through unethical banking practices) played in enormous gathering of financial wealth by some political leaders and representatives? Or, is ‘Sejdic-Finci’ problem soluble at all under the existing constitutional arrangement?

Such questions cannot be answered by protests, or mob violence. And, more importantly, no public demonstration or protest can raise such questions effectively. At their best, the current developments in Bosnia, of which protests and mob-violence are just a part (because, there may be some developments also behind the screen of public visibility), can lead to the resignation of a number of MPs or governments. At their worst, they may contribute to the country’s further financial and economic demise, and to the spread of fear and insecurity amongst ordinary citizens. Perhaps they could motivate some of the politicians in power to start getting more serious about their own political responsibilities, and more moderate and prudent in their political rhetoric and agenda. However, if Bosnian politicians need such lessons or promptings, then this speaks unfavourably of both the politicians and the electorate who voted them to the power positions constitutionally-engineered, and often supervised, by international protectors.

Dražen Pehar has a PhD in politics and international relations from Keele University (SPIRE 2006), holds an assistant professorship (BiH) in the philosophy of law and in politics with sociology. Dražen is a DiploFoundation Associate, and previously served as Chief of Staff to the BiH Federation President (1996) and as a media analyst to the OHR (1999/2000). Dražen is currently teaching at the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy in Mostar.

If you are interested in writing for TransConflict about protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, please do not hesitate to contact us with your ideas and suggestions!

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55 Responses

  1. I have to say this article baffled me a bit, and I spent about an hour this morning trying to make sense of it, and trying so hard to understand where the author is coming from with some arguments.

    Transconflict is a source that I have used for information since it was first established. I believe it is crucial to have a platform that shares news and information from the field. Since I am currently not living in Bosnia, and being to a certain extent worried, I rely on information from friends who are activists and work in local ngos, as well as, of course, transconflict, because people who post here have a certain level of expertise and can provide me with critical, and sometimes academic insights and perspectives.

    I am writing this comment solely because the article is controversial in nature, and I believe big statements should be backed up by evidence. At least now, I do not see major evidence of this being neither journalism nor academic. Please also note, that this comes from me personally, and no organisations or institutions I may be affiliated with.

    Given the fact that Dr Pehar is an academic himself, I found the reference to fictional works (which some of us have read and respect) a bit curious.

    To the author:
    1) could you please provide evidence for this line: “The current protests, however, will bring few results, especially not positive ones, and – as has already been seen – will be interpreted by various sides to suit their own needs and interests, whatever the final outcome.” . -> You argue that this is the future (negative), because “as has already been seen” (which i agree with) the various political parties can turn things in their favour, but my worry here is that the scale of these protests has not happened in Bosnia before (post 1995), and I would be grateful if you could clarify why this context will make no difference. I assume you didn’t just assume this, right?

    2) you say: “….problems have also never been sufficiently or satisfactorily tackled through the medium of reasoned discourse including legal and judicial venues as a key to democratic polity.” -> From what I understand in the context of your article you might mean tackled by protesters? If this is the case, then does that mean that you expect people who work in factories, the unemployed, those who are hit the hardest by social and economic problems, who before the corrupt government came in power, had little knowledge of a liberal democracy or weren’t even born, to know how to use legal, judicial venues as a way to bring about positive change?

    3) “Furthermore, despite the fact that many have tried to present the demonstrations as purely socio-economic in nature, the truth is that they are very much ethnically marked, and many have rightly pointed to both the political and ethnic aspects of the demonstrators’ agenda.” -> can you give me some references doe the truth? is there evidence? did you get this evidence yourself or did you hear it from someone else. What indicates the fact that there is an ethnic agenda in this?

    4) “Both Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs tend to view the protests as a marker of ethnic identification, as a merely Bosniak-Muslim problem, and choose to stay away or distance themselves from them. ” -> this statement implies all Bosnian Serbs and all Bosnian Croats tend to say this. Is there an opinion poll? How large was the sample? If not all but the majority then what is the approximate percentage? How did you calculate it to result in all, or the majority?

    5) “The city of Mostar is a clear case in point – as soon as the demonstrations have threatened to cause a higher level of inter-ethnic animosity, local police was ordered to apply more radical measures against more violent of demonstrators.” -> Now you are in Mostar so I can imagine you were present at the protests. Could you please give me a few examples of what indicated the violence was based on ethnic grounds?

    6) “On the Serb side, the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has already used the demonstrations as proof that, if something is rotten in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is within the Federation, a Bosniak-Croat entity, where obviously a large amount of frustration has built-up.” -> can i get a reference for this please? Date, time, and exact quote in the local language? Why is it obvious that frustration has built up in the Federation?

    7) “Apart from asking for the dismissal or resignation of elected cantonal government’s officials, and for renewed ‘efforts’ at investigating privatization cases, the demonstrators obviously have no clear or universally valid political points to make” -> can you give evidence there are no initiatives to draft clearly structured, official requests with valid political points at all, in any part of Bosnia and Hercegovina? What makes it obvious? (also, the first to points you mentioned, in my humble opinion, makes a huge step considering a period of almost 20 years of no such thing)

    8) “Such banners are not welcome among Croats and Serbs” -> Opinion polls? Research? Interviews? Focus groups? Surveys?

    9) “Also, it is clear that those protesters who applied more violent means actually had no political message or declared goals” – what makes it clear? have you spoken to them and they were not able to give you answers? has someone else asked everyone or the majority involved in violence? if not, could I borrow your crystal ball, please?

    10) “Perhaps….perhaps…Nobody really knows the answer to such questions, and nobody can expect an answer from those involved in these violent and obviously criminal attacks.” -> Again have you asked them what the purpose behind their actions is? Have you even tried? [is it that sort of information i expect from transconflict not a sentence involving 2 x perhaps, I can easily make assumptions from here).

    11) “Such questions cannot be answered by protests, or mob violence.” -> Well, to be fair the people who protest and organise mob violence voted politicians in power to handle these things. This is why we elect representatives to take care of us right? And they vow to do it. It’s because they know better, it;s what they are experts in. This is why I don’t attempt to fix my car, I pay someone else to do because they are the experts. The people are asking questions to their representatives who are accountable to them. They are not asking the questions you mentioned, but they are reduced to more simple forms such as: why do we not have jobs? why do we not have food? why do we not have justice? why are you so corrupt? Also those are a lot of questions Dr Paher, and since you are also an expert, I do not understand why you ask them? Since you mention them, are you planning on doing research on the topics and do something about it, since they obviously carry meaning for you? Or have you done any research and can also give us the answers? I would love to hear more about it. (with evidence of course).

    12) “spread of fear and insecurity amongst ordinary citizens” -> who are the ordinary citizens? I thought they were on the streets? Maybe I’m wrong. What do you mean by ordinary citizens? Those who are normal? What does a normal citizen do in a democratic country?

    To conclude my annoying comment, by publishing these arguments, and being so certain that what is happening is useless, and it will lead to no significant change, or perhaps a negative change (in your expert opinion), my opinion is that you undermine the efforts of so many passionate people who work to advance positive social change in Bosnia. Those efforts, I have witnessed as an outsider. They are small, but then again my humble experience and my humble studies of the field, as well as the principles of conflict transformation say that significant social change is a very long term process. Just the fact that people in Bosnia have a visible attempt at holding the government accountable for their actions and are on the streets in “un-expert and amateur-ish” ways for their human needs to matter in policy and decision-making, to ask for their human rights, makes a big difference. Having an actively democratic society (or part of it) is better than having an ignorant one that closes their eyes and moves on as if they had no power. If there is something that I learnt from Bosnia is that whatever positive change happens, it comes from very small, local places, and it is slow, but it continues, and again, in my opinion, it can only get stronger. [I have actually been there, witnessed, observed, interviewed, surveyed]. Have you looked there Dr Paher? Perhaps…perhaps, if you looked, you might find that those efforts happening there, right now, undermine your arguments. But I don’t know, I am not from there, I am not there now, and obviously I cannot be so certain to make that argument here.

    I am eagerly waiting for your response.

    1. felix

      very sad that until now, Dr. Praher refused to answer any of your well-made points! but I guess this could be the answer as well.. obviously, it is not in his interest to engage in scientific discussions about his article/opinion, which for me brands his ‘expertise’ populist and manipulative nonsense!

      1. Drazen Pehar

        why should I? You say it’s nonsense. However, two-and-half months later, developments have exactly taken the direction I predicted in this article. Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry somebody has invested so much effort in tearing apart my otherwise extremely simple argument.

        1. Dr Pehar, my response was not a well planned effort to tearing apart your argument. It was an instinctive reaction to it, as it pretty much contradicted most of the information I got from people I knew were involved in the protests. I assumed you weren’t, at least not all over the country where protests took place. I was very sad to see how you used the words “obviously” and “perhaps”. From this end, it looked very precipitated, and unfounded on what I was told was happening at the time from people who witnessed it. I also felt disappointed seeing that you were an academic with a lot of experience and found the article’s arguments poor, a tiny bit unprofessional, and giving a bit of a mystical flair, as it was an incident that hadn’t happened before and it was unclear and still relatively new to give it such a simplistic diagnosis. I realise it was an opinion, but I thought it was a disappointing presentation coming from you. What is more, I am serious about taking lessons from the past on board and I could not be silent and condone someone saying it was clearly just one side of Bosnians that were “deluded” (not your exact words, just how it came across). You also said that the protests were clearly ethnically marked. I believe now more than then, they were almost entirely not. I’d be careful with such statements because they can prove dangerous. I thought the protests gave people hope, your statement (which you didn’t give evidence for) would make people fear. If you however could give me clear evidence, then I might reconsider its validity. But in the absence of such evidence, and the presence of evidence that says the contrary, I stick to the latter.

          Lastly, if you thought people were “silly” enough to believe that the protests were going to lead to a prosperous, peaceful and fully democratic state, with change happening suddenly, then you didn’t understand my message which I have heard resonates with a lot of other people. We were hoping for people to stop being passive about issues, to reconsider their support for the current system, ethnic parties and corruption, and for the foreign institutions operating in Bosnia and politicians to wake up a bit and realise that the structure and government are not accountable to a large number of people and they need to actively try and do something about it. I don’t think this is “nothing” given the context. This is not something that will necessarily happen in two months and I think you either rush to conclusions or are a very arrogant man. We have learnt by now I hope that quick change is often unsustainable and that positive change takes a very long time.

          Just so you know, I put hardly any effort into writing these comments, so you shouldn’t feel sorry about me.

          1. Drazen Pehar

            Most importantly, you have fully misrepresented both my argument and the tenor of my article. Secondly, and less importantly, the protests were and remain ethnically marked and emphatically so. Thirdly, you obviously concede that your objections were based on a hear-say kind of information you ‘gathered’ from protesters themselves. Fourthly, please do not use those nicknames, introduce yourself, and then your argument will perhaps be given more consideration or attention. My case rests with this reply. As I emphasized, those protests, amateurishly planned and executed, came to nothing, exactly as I predicted (based on the brief considerations presented in my essay), which speaks a lot about both your argument and your a priori unwillingness to engage seriously with my text.

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