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Is This the Beginning of a Bosnian Spring?

Bosnians might have to agree on being in one camp instead of three, first.

by Katie Engelhart
11 February 2014, 2:33pm

Graffiti on the ransacked cantonal government building in Tuzla where protests began last week. Photo by Edis Jasarevic

Recently, it has smelled of smoke in Sarajevo. Last week, Bosnians took to the streets, in what began as a workers’ protest against privatisation in the industrial town of Tuzla, and has since become an all-encompassing rally against the Bosnian state. Government offices the country over have been stormed and set ablaze. Burning tyres, raw eggs and heavy stones have been met with police-issued tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds have been injured, regional leaders have resigned, historical archives have ben torched and the country’s Interior Minister is warning of a “citizens’ tsunami”.

One might forgive an observer for suggesting that “Spring” has come early to Bosnia-Herzegovina. But "Spring" suggests a change of season. And present-day Bosnia is stewing in inertia. Almost 20 years after its bloody civil war ended, Bosnia is badly broken.

The name Bosnia usually calls to mind the 1992-95 civil war that threatened to tear the region asunder. And indeed, tourists in Bosnia (there aren’t many) will find themselves greeted by an array of bullet-riddled buildings – and warnings not to stray too far off the road, where latent landmines lurk. But present-day Bosnia is defined not by strife, but by stagnation. The economy is flailing, ethnic wrangling cripples the government and politicians at the highest level are calling for the state to be dissolved. This has some optimists hoping that a #BosnianSpring might prove redemptive: by shoving politicians the way of change, might the three presidents who rule Bosnia be forced to contend, at last, with the will of their people?

Old Bosnia hands know that it won’t be that easy – in large part because the 1995 EU and US-brokered Dayton Agreement both brought peace to Bosnia and created the sclerotic mess that is today’s Bosnian state.

“Does the country work? No. Are people happy? No. Does the future look bleak? Yes,” says Ozren Jungic, an Oxford University PhD candidate in Bosnian history who formerly worked for the International Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia. “Things are rough. Something has to happen… But the sad thing is – and this is really the tragedy – this might be as good as it gets within the Dayton framework.”

Before Communism collapsed, Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics. Declared in 1943, the Socialist federation balanced regional and ethnic differences with a strong arm until WW2 leader Tito’s death in 1980, when things began to crumble. In 1991, Croatia voted to secede from the federation. That began a regional war that soon engulfed Bosnia. In 1992, Bosnian-Serb paramilitaries began a nationwide assault on the country, which led to ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. Serb, Croat and Bosniak (Muslim) populations dug in their heels and took up arms against each other. Nearly 100,000 were killed – and over two million were displaced.

The signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995 (photo via)

The war ended in 1995, when American and European officials met with Bosnian leaders near Dayton, Ohio and brokered the famous Dayton Agreement. The Agreement was largely toasted as a success. Though negotiated in haste, and somewhat crude in formulation, it got Bosnia’s warring factions to stop slaughtering each other. But the Agreement left something very ugly in its place.

Dayton carved Bosnia into two fairly autonomous entities: a Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and a Federation of Croats and Muslims – with only an anaemic central government binding the two. Such a move was needed to appease the battling parties. But two decades later, it has rendered Bosnia ungovernable.

Though the country has only 3.8 million residents, it boasts dozens of overlapping governments. An international “Office of the Higher Representatives” sits atop the system: acting largely as an observer – but also holding the power to fire elected officials. Below the Office, the two entities have their own president, government, parliament, security force and institutions. The Bosniak-Croat Federation is further split into ten cantons, each of which has a prime minister and a cabinet. There are also myriad municipal offices. And gaggles of influential oligarchs. And, holding it all together, a wily tripartite of presidents.

That’s right. There are three Bosnian presidents: one for Serbs, one for Croats and one for Bosniaks.

(There is an old joke in Bosnia: Ask a Bosnian about politics and she will answer, “I am of three minds about that!”)

The European Union has said for years that Bosnia will not be eligible for accession until the tripartite presidency is scrapped. The European Court of Human Rights has also condemned it for discriminating against Jews, Roma and mixed-race citizens. But Bosnian leaders have done little to initiate reform. A promising effort at constitutional restructuring was quashed in 2006 (by just two votes.) Subsequent talks have similarly fallen apart.

Today, Bosniak leaders are calling for more centralisation, Croat nationalists are considering the merits of a separate entity and Serb nationalists – their eyes on a Belgrade capital once more – dismiss the viability of a united Bosnia.

“The great sin of the Dayton Peace Settlement was to enshrine ethnic nationalism forever more in Bosnia. That was the big mistake,” rues Daniel Serwer, a senior professor of Conflict Management at Johns Hopkins University. Serwer should know. The former diplomat was a US special envoy to Bosnia in the 90s, and one of the top dogs who helped negotiate the Dayton Agreement.

“The Dayton Accords gave Bosnia a very difficult-to-change constitutional structure,” explained Serwer. That was done on purpose – to make sure that no single faction could gerrymander the state to its advantage. But today, Serwer continues, that structure is “at the heart of what’s wrong in Bosnia”. The state is built around ethnic divisions, which in turn paralyse the state.

That all bodes ill for today’s reform-minded protesters.

Already, says Oxford University’s Jungic, nationalists are making the ongoing protests – by all accounts, non-ethnic – into an ethnic issue. This is especially true since protests are largely limited to the Federation – and have barely touched the Serb Republic. “The Bosnian-Serb leader recently said that he was proud of citizens from Republika Srpska for not responding to provocations from the [Muslim-Croat] Federation,” says Jungic – who suspects that some nationalists will use the protests to push their secessionist cause.

There is nothing nuanced or shrouded about this ethnic politicking. Don’t believe it? Just drive straight through the country – and forgive yourself if you mistake it for two different nations. The two entities use different alphabets (Latin in the Croat-Muslim federation; Cyrillic in Republica Srbska), worship different Gods, educate their children in separate schools and even serve competing beers at local restaurants.

So what are the ethnic stats in Bosnia? Don’t ask. Only now is Bosnia carrying out its first census since 1991. For almost 25 years, counting Bosnian citizens by ethnicity has seemed too dangerous an enterprise to pursue.

Protesters clash with police in Sarajevo on Friday (photo by Fedja Kravavac)

Now take all of this and add a failing economy. Corruption is rife. Bureaucracy hampers growth. National debt is unchecked and mounting. According to the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” report, Bosnia ranks 131st out of 189: safely behind countries like Jordan, Ethiopia and Honduras.

Bosnians must, eventually, sail their own ship. But as dislocated protests begin to bubble across the country, some observers are calling for that amorphous entity “the international community” to take some responsibility for Bosnian woes – and step in.

“Quite frankly, I’ve seen it coming for a long time,” said Christian Schwarz-Schilling – a German politician and former high representative for Bosnia – in a recent interview with Deutsche Welle. “It’s just like with Ukraine. There, the international community woke up only after a critical situation arose. The same thing will happen in Bosnia.”

And still, some hope that a Bosnian Spring will, in the end, bloom – and that it will be redemptive for the nation. These optimists worry not about civil war, but about the demonstrations fizzling out. After all, protests last summer (the so-called "Baby Revolution") also threatened to turn the Bosnian tide – and then didn’t.

Today, Bosnian protesters are calling for early elections. But another round of elections is unlikely to change much. The country needs a constitutional reform package that would do away with institutionalised ethnic pivots. Already, a US-brokered plan to shake up the Muslim-Croat Federation is being considered by the entity’s parliament. The virulently nationalist politicians of the Serb Republic will be harder to crack.

Bosnia should also be pressed (and hard) to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ 2009 ruling that Bosnia’s tripartite president is invalid. Bosnia would be better off with one president, elected by all Bosnians.

In the meantime, protests continue to spread to smaller towns across the Federation – though they have yet to truly breach the Serb Republic, and are unlikely to disrupt Bosnia’s EU-minded neighbours.

“Did I see it coming?” asks the former diplomat Serwer, of Bosnia’s current malaise. “I don’t think we saw it coming quite in the dimension that it has come. We knew that we were bringing the war to an end by satisfying the people who were fighting… It’s a very difficult situation.” And as for a way forward? “What I don’t think you can do,” Serwer muses, “is continue to muddle along.”

Follow Katie on Twitter: @katieengelhart