Protesting in Bosnia and Herzegovina - voiceless citizens and the breakdown of representation

Protesting in Bosnia and Herzegovina – voiceless citizens and the breakdown of representation

The reasonable and legitimate concerns of the population are today passing through two different bottleneck – the arguably negative reaction of political parties and the dramatic absence of political actors able and willing to structure this discontent.

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By Martino Bianchi 

The recent wave of protests shaking Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has opened an extremely interesting space for discussion and debate. This debate is particularly relevant and challenging because, for once, it is taking place outside the comforting and usual grid of nationalism. The most apparent feature of these protests, in fact, is their spontaneous character, and the fact that they have no link with ethnic discourse. This is good news for BiH, but the evolution of the protests raises a series of concerns. It is good news, because it is clear that people in the streets are expressing genuine grievances about how the country is run and about their own life standards: in two words, these protests are about unemployment and corruption. There is fundamentally no debate about the importance of these two issues: not only it is uncontested that these are the main problems affecting everyday life, but they are also widespread on the whole territory, and not typical of specific areas. It is enough to skim the most widely-used statistics collected by international organisations to see the dramatic situation of BiH in terms of economic development, corruption, and unemployment. In this sense, it would be no surprise to find out that the vast majority of the population support the protests, as it seems according to a poll conducted in the last few days. However, after the first days where observers wrote largely excited and enthusiastic comments about ‘Bosnian Spring’, it is time to try to look at these protests as a specific event within wider political dynamics.

In fact, it is important to point out that these protests have started in an electoral year. The next elections, however, will be quite peculiar, since the current legislature fundamentally never started. At the state level, at the entity level and in many cantons, nothing relevant happened since 2010, except for several reshuffles. The election campaign will officially start in September, but it is apparent that it has already started long ago. In this situation, the supposed victory of the protesters – namely to obtain the resignation of four cantonal governments – might be much less of a victory than it seems. Abandoning the sinking ship just before the elections imply that parties have profited as much as possible from their role in power, and, at the same time, they will be able to run for re-election as the opposition, or, at best, will have room to present themselves as not-responsible for the current situation. In the last days, the only person showing this concern, to my knowledge, was Darko Brkan, leader of an important NGO, ‘Zašto Ne?’ (Why not?).

A second concern is linked to the debate about violence: it must be clearly stated that the protests have not been violent in character. This might be counterintuitive if we look at the dramatic images of burning buildings, but nevertheless violence has been concentrated in space and time, and the number of violent protesters was limited. For these reasons, it seems odd that so much effort has been spent discussing violence: particularly odd, moreover, are the goofy attempts to justify or underplay their effects. The most commonly repeated idea is that violent protesters ‘are the result of this society’ and so, we should conclude, are not the real culprit. This consideration is not only logically slippery, as it can be adapted to any kind of social phenomenon at any point in time and in space, but it also gives a wrong image of the protests, and can be highly-detrimental, since the memory of other violence is particularly vivid in the country.

Other common considerations are related to the impact of Dayton [1]. Again, I personally believe that these criticisms are poorly targeted. It is true that Dayton is highly-dysfunctional and has favoured the leading nationalist elites. However, this seems to have not much to do with the current protests. Unemployment and corruption are not a Bosnian phenomena, as it is not social unrest. It can also be underlined that, largely, Dayton is not functional at the central level, while at lower levels the ethnic quota and power-sharing formulas are much less pervasive. At the same time, these lower levels are responsible for social and economic policies, and the failure in delivering effective services might not be at all related to the legal framework of the country.

These preliminary remarks are useful to clear the discussion from some of the misconceptions that, I believe, have characterised the debate about the protests. These protests are about the failure of Bosnian elites – sometimes supported by the international community, sometimes not – to respond to the needs of the population. Bosnian elites, of course, are not simply parties: parties, intellectuals and civil society organizations all together share the responsibility of not having been able to answer to the genuine concerns of the population. My personal impression is that the great mistake has been, in the end, to confuse political apathy with indifference. Citizens of BiH have surely been apathetic. But their past political behaviour, even more than today’s protests, probably shows that they were more insightful and less prone to nationalistic rhetoric than we were postulating. The steady and sharp decline in electoral turnout, on the one hand, implies that the logic of fear was not able anymore to mobilise Bosnian citizens widely. On the other hand, despite the common image, it is not true that nationalist parties won at every elections: more precisely, if we look at electoral results we see that electors tend to favour parties which are perceived as more moderate, in terms of ethnic discourse. HDZ has been challenged by HDZ-1990 and NHI, who were competing on similar grounds, but surely not as a hard-core nationalist alternative. SDA has been repeatedly beaten by SDP and SzBiH, which were proposing a radically different political message. The SDS lost significance in the Republika Srpska to the supposedly moderate Milorad Dodik. These political dynamics have been largely underplayed by scholars and analysts, and the reason of this is straightforward and perfectly understandable: those parties, once in power, acted just like the one in power before. Dodik’s SNSD is probably the best example, and its current political positions are, if possible, more ethnic-oriented than SDS political platform. Still, electors’ behaviour was quite clear.

In this perspective, a great responsibility falls not only over political parties, but over a civil society unable to produce a valid alternative, to challenge constantly those in power and to create a linkage between state’s authorities and the population. Today’s protests are bluntly showing this: it has been 20 years that intellectuals and scholars complain that there is no civic engagement in the country, because of rapacious ethnic parties dominating the society with fear, but when citizens show that there is room for something new (and this is not the first time), there is no political offer. First, we see that there are no organised groups able to structure the protest. NGOs and political parties are either non-existent or dramatically inadequate to exert any leadership. As a consequence, there is no visible political strategy behind these protests. Even the more active actors are small and lack the capacity to grow fast. In terms of requests and proposals, the situation is not better. One week after the beginning of the protests, the only existing documents are vague, and in large part bottom-up and spontaneous collections of requests. This is clearly a good exercise of democratic participation [2], but probably it is not what is needed now. First, because, if we keep it vague, it is quite clear what is needed to the country: jobs and competent and honest rulers. It is not surprising, in fact, that all these documents tend to be similar. However, the real deal is to define what to do to achieve that. Second, there is no time: in this latter stage of the legislatures, only well-defined policy proposals can be successfully implemented. Moreover, in order to obtain something more durable, it is clear that protesters must be at the center of the future electoral campaign, in whatever form, and this request a continuous, high-profile, professional engagement.

It is no mystery that a high-quality, responsible democracy where citizens hold elected officials accountable needs intermediate actors, able to structure citizens preferences and to make them visible and heard. Until today this has not been the case: Bosnian intellectuals and activists focused fundamentally on meta-political issues. Along with the disarming discussions about Dayton and violence, as we have seen above, we are witnessing a completely futile debate about the difference between demands of the protest and reasons for protesting. While the former are still something that will come in the future, it is said, politicians should focus on people’s despair instead of criminalising protesters. The fact that this observation is true does not hide the fact that this sounds as self-defence more than an attack. The failure of civil society is all in this inability to give a contribution of ‘usable knowledge’ and leadership. The most common and well-defined reform requested, to review the privatisation process, is surely poignant: but still is very likely to have a marginal impact on the reconstruction of a functioning economy. Privatised firms, in fact, were often in catastrophic financial conditions and non competitive, even if we could go back in time before they were privatised, it is questionable what can be done, and no specific idea has come up in these days. Punishing abuses and corruption is equally necessary, but still it is unclear what can be reasonably achieved, and when.

The reasonable and legitimate concerns of the population, and the impressive mobilisation we witnessed in these days, are today passing through two different bottleneck: the arguably negative reaction of political parties, which are trying to exploit some limited episodes of violence to discredit the protests as a whole and, incredibly, to describe protests as an ethnic threat to their groups; and the dramatic absence of political actors able and willing to structure this discontent. In turn, this raises also some concern about the past of BiH: the commonsensical description of the failures of BiH as a result of nationalist politics might be reviewed as the failure of the civil society to produce a much needed and solicited alternative. The risk of having an amateur civil society is huge: if these protests will fail to deliver change, we are likely to witness a new, bigger wave of cynicism and political apathy in Bosnian society. Unfortunately, once more, the Bosnian population seems more advanced that its leaders and intellectuals: at least since the end of the war the demand, in the political market, has been for better life standards, jobs and social protection. The supply, however, has never tried to meet these demands: we dissected the nature of post-Dayton citizenship, but, apparently, nobody has written a feasibility study for a universal health-insurance scheme.

Martino Bianchi is a PhD candidate in Institutions, Politics and Policies at IMT-Institute for Advanced Studies, Lucca.


1) We owe to Zlatko Dizdarević the reference to Dayton as a tool to summon the Devil (Vrag):

2) Nedžad Ibrahimović, a writer from Tuzla, describe the process as a ‘social catharsis’

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