Bosnia and Herzegovina's Rioters Are On a Roll

They've got the country's political class fearing a "citizens' tsunami".

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10 February 2014, 7:00am

Tuzla's local government building after being set on fire

Last week, protests in Bosnia got a little out of control. The initial demonstrations, which began on Tuesday in the northern town of Tuzla, followed an ongoing dispute involving four formerly state-owned companies that were privatised, before the new owners sold all the assets, stopped paying workers and filed for bankruptcy, leaving hundreds of locals unemployed.

Former employees took their outrage over the layoffs and apparent corruption to the local government, but were ignored by politicians. This is in a country that has between a 27 to 44 percent unemployment rate (depending on whether you believe government or independent statistics) and whose people have suffered plenty of injustices since the 1992 - 1995 Bosnian war.

Following the end of the conflict and the fall of communism, a large amount of companies were privatised, creating a small number of moguls, almost eradicating the middle class and driving the working class into poverty. All this while – according to one protester in Tuzla – "the politicians are paid ridiculous amounts of money for sitting comfortably in their leather chairs, doing nothing". 

Police in Sarajevo facing a large group of protesters

On Wednesday, angry at a lack of recognition from politicians, around 600 protesters tried to storm the Tuzla local government building, accusing authorities of turning a blind eye to the privatisations and subsequent company closures. Joined by local football fans, demonstrators threw stones at the building, set tyres on fire and called for the beginning of the "Bosnian Spring".

By Thursday, the crowd had grown considerably, attracting students, the unemployed, pensioners, more football fans and members of the Facebook-founded protest group "Strike". That morning, up to 6,000 people blocked Tuzla city centre and called for the resignation of the local government. As is now tradition at any anti-government protest, activists soon began clashing with police. The violence resulted in 130 people being injured, 104 of them cops and one Strike leader Aldin Siranovic.  

Police and protesters clash in central Sarajevo on Friday

On Friday, the protests spread across Bosnia and Herzegovina, morphing from localised anger at a bunch of factories closing down into widespread discontent about unemployment and government corruption throughout the country. Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar, Bihac and a few other cities and towns hosted the same kind of scenes that had taken place in Tuzla the previous couple of days: demonstrators blocking streets and confronting police outside local government buildings.

Politicians still weren't willing to address the protesters, which, of course, made them angrier, turning what had been particularly shouty demonstrations into full-blown riots. In Sarajevo, the capital city, the presidential residency and other government buildings were set alight, as well as the Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which contained important historical documents from the period of Austro-Hungarian rule.     

In fact, a group of around 100 people – which, by this point, was mostly made up of hooligans, rather than pensioners, students or factory workers – were setting fire to basically anything they could. Special Forces responded with tear gas and water cannons, pushing the rioters back and allowing the police to make around 50 arrests.

Flames coming from the roof of the government building in Zenica

In Zenica, a city about 50 miles north of Sarajevo, protesters also managed to storm government buildings, before setting them on fire and pushing cars belonging to local politicians into a nearby river.

Back in Tuzla, politicians had been evacuated from the government building and police allowed protesters to enter. Once inside, they too proceeded to set fire to everything. Later, crowds began throwing rocks at the court and city hall, again sparking clashes with police. The same day, Sead Causevic, the prime minister of Tuzla Canton (the administrative division of the country where Tuzla is located) announced his resignation, likely making it history's fastest successful coup against a local Balkan government.

Demonstrations continued over the weekend but remained mostly peaceful, with many protesters helping to clean up the debris from the previous days' clashes.

Police throw stones at protesters in Sarajevo

The political class are clearly shaken by the public's sudden and vicious display of anger and frustration, with Security Minister Fahrudin Radoncic calling for a major crackdown on corruption, warning that the alternative is to face a "citizens' tsunami" of unrest. This, however, might not appease everyone who's taken to the streets over the past few days, with a number of people saying they will continue protesting until the national government resigns.

Unfortunately, the violence on Friday slightly undermined the cause, raising the question of how many protesters were actually there to fight corruption within the country's political system, and how many were just using the riots as an excuse to fuck up a bunch of public property. That said, at least the laid off locals of Tuzla finally got the attention they were looking for.

"On one side we put the workers who were left without their basic rights, such as pensions and health benefits," said Bosnian Prime Minister Nermin Niksic after an emergency meeting. "On the other side, we put these hooligans who used the situation to create chaos. We will not reach an agreement or come to the solution by destroying property, damaging vehicles and windows or fighting the police."

More stories from this part of the world:

Inside Bosnia's Bleak Zenica Prison

WATCH - The Vice Guide to the Balkans

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