Bosnia protests set to continue as rage at economy, elites boils over

By bne IntelliNews February 10, 2014

Andrew MacDowall in Belgrade -

The Presidency Building set alight, a regional government building razed, politicians' cars torched and hurled into the river: the remarkable scenes in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the past few days have startled many outside the country. But to many observers, the events are a long-supressed outpouring of visceral rage at a venal and incompetent political elite, a system that serves the few rather than the many, and a wretched economy with unemployment hovering around 40%. Insiders suggest the protests have also been fuelled by political machinations ahead of hotly contested elections due in October.

Bosnia was calmer this weekend after three days of escalating demonstrations that left hundreds - mostly police - injured, saw rubber bullets and tear gas fired at protestors, and brought this beleaguered and divided nation back into international headlines for the first time in years.

Few doubt the protests are set to continue this week, despite the resignation of four local governments, including those of the capital Sarajevo and Tuzla, where the demonstrations began on February 5. Those protests were sparked by fury over job losses and unpaid wages at failing privatised companies, including three chemicals firms, a salt manufacturer and a wood processor. After privatisation, the enterprises went bankrupt, fuelling anger both at official incompetence and corruption, and at unemployment and poverty. On February 7, those protests spread to Sarajevo and turned into riots, in what some have portrayed as a Bosnian equivalent of the Arab Spring - though others as mindless thuggery by hooligans.

Elite problems

The consensus is that there are real grounds for anger at the political and business elite, as well as at the chaotic political system. Kurt Bassuener, Sarajevo-based senior associate at the Democratisation Policy Council, tells bne that "the fuel for the recent unrest has been building-up for many, many years."

One diplomatic source in Bosnia agrees. "That Bosnia should witness such protests comes as no great surprise given the persistence of unemployment, corruption and deep-seated dissatisfaction with governance structures."

Unemployment in Bosnia is variously estimated at between 25% and 45%, with the proportion of young jobless generally regarded as being over 50%. The average monthly net wage is just 828KM (€423), according to the most recent official figures, with the minimum wage less that half that. Real GDP growth was around 0.5% in 2013 and expected to rise to just 1.5-2.0% this year, a far cry from the rate of 5%-plus in 2003-2008, and possibly not enough to translate into real income growth.

In a grim economic environment, it has become harder to paper over the cracks in Bosnia's unwieldy political system, bequeathed after the 1992-1995 war. This divides the country into two ethnically-defined entities - the Bosnian Serbian Republic (Republika Sprksa, or RS) and the largely Muslim and Croat Bosnian Federation, with the latter further divided into 10 cantons. Conflict between the RS and the Federation has often led to legislative hold-ups, including the so-called "babylution" last year when it was for a period impossible to register newly-born children for healthcare. The country's tripartite presidency (to take into count the three main ethnic groups) also complicates matters, and has led to the EU suspending funding for the way that it excludes minorities such as Jews and Roma.

Disagreements between Croats and Muslims in the Federation, and between largely Muslim-backed parties in shape-shifting coalitions, have exacerbated the political confusion and further delayed legislative progress, while multiple layers of government staffed by unhelpful bureaucrats mean that decision-making at administrative level is poor. One long-term observer says the country is "marginally less viable than Lebanon" - another post-conflict society with an ethnically-defined constitution.

A senior opposition figure tells bne that the current unrest is a combination of two main things. "First, social dissatisfaction with the lack of progress since the Dayton peace accord from 1995... Second, the political parties that abused the veto powers in the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially in the last five years have ensured the social ticking bomb to go off right at the time of someone else's choosing."

He adds that privatisation imposed by the UN High Representative has led to the "disintegration of Bosnia's economic system." Though some might respond that it is difficult to see how the country could continue to support top-heavy state enterprises, the process of privatisation, as elsewhere in the region, can legitimately be called into question.

Hard to contain

Both the diplomat and the opposition figure question whether the protests are as spontaneous as they seem - but both warn that, now momentum is gaining, they will be hard to control. "The key questions therefore are why now, with elections scheduled for October, and why only in the Federation?" says the diplomat. "One possibility is that certain political factions - particularly those that have sort to distance themselves from government - have helped orchestrate the demonstrations to put pressure on the incumbent parties. The extent of anger is such, however, that such events cannot necessarily be curtailed or controlled, taking on a dynamic of their own on the back of Ministerial resignations and a heavy-handed police response. What is clear is that the dysfunctional Federation is in need of urgent reform."

The Democratisation Policy Council's Bassuener warns that the protests seem "to be hijacked by hooligans, riding on a wave of legitimate public discontent", and adds that the Republika Sprksa may not remain immune from the demonstrations for much longer.

Despite the weekend calm, there are more demonstrations scheduled for February 10, and so the crisis seems likely to continue. Hopes have been raised that the outpouring of anger could lead to real change in Bosnia at last. Early elections are a possibility. On February 9, around 1,000 people gathered in front of Bosnia's tripartite presidency building in Sarajevo, demanding the resignation of the government and calling for new elections.

The problem with this, point out some, is that governments have been toppled through street protests in Romania and Bulgaria in recent years, but few citizens of either country would argue the system has been transformed as a result.

The difference in Bosnia, perhaps, is the remaining role of the international community, which may now look to press for talks on constitutional reform. "But Bosnia has always been unpredictable and no one can be sure what the outcome of the unrest, or any future conference on Bosnia, is going to be," says the opposition figure.

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