Why Bosnians Are Protesting

Nearly two decades after the Dayton Peace Accords ended the Bosnian Civil War, Bosnia is back in international headlines after three days of violent protests engulfed the country last week. What started as a peaceful protest against the privatization and closure of state industries in Tuzla on February 4 soon turned violent as protesters clashed with police the following day. Protests held both in solidarity with Tuzla and against local politicians spread to Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica and Bihac on February 6 where the growing crowds continued to clash with police. By the fourth day of protests, people gathered in every major city in the country with rioting breaking out in several, leading to hundreds hurt.

In many ways, understanding last week’s protests starts with understanding the system the Dayton Accords put in place in 1995. While the agreement ended the war, it also set up a fractured government with the establishment of two autonomous regions – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska (RS) – which are further divided into local political units. A third semi-autonomous region, Brčko, was formed in 2000 and is ruled by a local government but is located both within the Federation and the RS. The Accords also set up a limited national government headed by a three-person presidency and a proportionally divided parliament based on the country’s three major ethnic groups. In other words, “the most over-governed country in the world” is a bureaucratic nightmare. This system established by the Accords has successfully maintained peace but also encourages a bloated and corrupt civil service, ethnically based politics and a lot of political infighting.

This infighting has crippled the country, both politically and economically. The inherent dysfunction came to a head when it took the country nearly 14 months to form a national coalition government following the 2010 elections. Even then, the infighting within the Federation caused that entity’s coalition government to collapse in early 2013. Meanwhile,nationalistic rhetoric is still common, particularly in the RS where some politicians still threaten to secede from Bosnia altogether. As politicians continue to bicker over their differences and bring most legislation to a halt, Bosnia suffers from one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe with an estimated 1 in 5 citizens living in poverty. Plans to join NATO and the EU, possible tickets to better connections and more attention within the international community, have largely stalled in recent years as successive political crises took their toll.

It is this combination of factors that brought people across the country into the streets last week and this deeply fueled frustration with government elites that saw several government buildings torched in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica. However, these are not the first protests to come to Bosnia recently. Weeks of protests engulfed Bosnia’s second largest city Banja Luka in 2012 over the planned development of a city park before they developed into more overtly political protests against government corruption and a stagnant economy. Former soldiers have been protesting the lack of their promised pensions since 2011, culminating in an attempt to storm the parliament building last year. Parliament also came under assault in June when thousands of people formed a human chain around the building, blocking in MPs and civil service workers, over the lack of a new national ID law that effectively denied babies official papers needed for travel. But what is different about these new protests is not just their size but also their scope; in such a highly divided country, it would appear that there are a shared set of grievances that unite both the Federation and the RS.

It also serves as a wake-up call for the international community. Like the ongoing protests in Ukraine, the political, economic and social pressures erupting here are deeply rooted and they will likely not disappear soon. While the international community still has a formal presence in Bosnia with the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina that continues to oversee implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, it is otherwise largely disengaged from developments in the country. Since many of these problems stem from the institutional gridlocked caused by the internationally negotiated Dayton Accords, it is likely it will take another international effort to peacefully unravel these problems and give Bosnia a second chance. Already there is talk from the High Representative of possible EU troops if the protests continue to escalate, but hopefully that level of action will not be needed.

Some are calling this a “Bosnian Spring.” But as the last 3 years has shown us, what starts as a political spring will not necessarily end that way. What is clear is this has been a long time coming and many hope it will serve as a turning point for Bosnia, and perhaps the region as a whole. However, in a country with as many fault lines as Bosnia, and one that is still rebuilding from a brutal civil war, there are just as many fears as hopes as to what this may lead to. For now, smaller protests continue as the nation contemplates what will – and should – happen next.