Stagnation, not nationalism, fuels Bosnian protests

Bosnia protest (Reuters/Dado Ruvic)

Since the beginning of February, demonstrations and riots in Bosnia & Herzegovina against the political and economic stagnation of the state have broken out throughout the country.

The catalyst for the initial protests in Bosnia was the botched privatization of four factories in the northeastern city of Tuzla. Observers and commentators have long criticized privatizations in Bosnia as being little more than publicly subsidized asset-stripping, with Tuzla being one of the worst affected cities.

A hub of heavy industry in Tito’s Yugoslavia, today Tuzla has the highest rate of unemployment of any city in Bosnia. Many of the protestors were former employees of the factories in question, and their demands largely centered on compensation and repayment of healthcare and pension contributions that stopped when Tuzla’s factories were closed down. After reports of police brutality against protestors at the Tuzla local government headquarters the protests have quickly spread to other cities throughout Bosnia, including Sarajevo, Mostar, Bahic and Zenica.

In a country that has been so bitterly divided, the protests appear to have cut across ethnic lines. While protesting in the Serbian enclave of Republika Srpska has admittedly not been as prevalent as in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina solidarity protests have still been launched. The lists of demands from protestors both in Tuzla and elsewhere also make little to no reference to ethnicity, focusing mainly on launching investigations into privatization deals, elimination of privileges for the political class and the resignation of local governments.

Overwhelmingly, the blame for the protests is firmly placed on a dysfunctional political system. Parties frequently dole out public sector jobs as a form of political patronage, and the salaries for the 180,000-strong public administration account for more than one fifth of the country’s entire national output. This inefficiency is perhaps most aptly highlighted by the fact that within the mass of cantons and regions that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found room for no less than 13 constitutions and 14 Ministries of Finance.

The tendency for the Bosnian government to deadlock has also had tragic consequences, such as in the case of 3-month old Berina Hamidovic. Her death, caused by her being denied access to Serbia for vital medical treatment due to a border dispute between two cantons, triggered a wide scale public outcry that has directly contributed to the current unrest.

The lack of transparency and complex governmental and regulatory structures has also severely hampered foreign investment into Bosnia. From a high of 1,329 million euro in 2007, Foreign Direct Investment in Bosnia has collapsed to 285 million Euro in 2012. While corporate taxation rates are harmonized across all regions, business registration and licensing regulations can differ and often duplicate between different areas and levels of government. This opens up opportunities for corruption and greatly increases the time and effort required to do business.

While a state level agency was formed in 2011 to co-ordinate anti-corruption efforts its effectiveness has been limited at best. Bosnia ranks 126th out of 183 countries in the World Bank Ease of Doing Business Report compared to 93rd and 89th for its neighbours Serbia and Croatia. Bosnia also languishes in 72nd place in the 2013 TI Corruption Perceptions Index.

Initially only intended to last 3 years before being replaced with a more streamlined governmental structure, 20 years later the Dayton system continues to persist. Attempts at reform and replacement by diplomats, citizens and the European Court of Human Rights (which declared the entire system discriminatory and its reform a condition of Bosnian accession into the EU) have proved futile in the face of an entrenched class of political insiders that benefit greatly from the status quo and employ nationalist rhetoric to shore up their own support bases.

Securing any kind of agreement on constitutional or institutional changes also requires the support of major ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) who have contradictory views of what the future of Bosnia should entail. Even the carrot of eventual EU membership has done little to progress affairs. The current unrest in Bosnia therefore highlights the problems with current state-building processes. The current protests are an attempt to force this process in the face of perennial economic and political stagnation. It remains to be seen whether they will be successful.

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Categories: Europe, Politics

Author:Colm Delaney

After achieving a First Class Honours Degree in History and Politics at the University of Glasgow, Colm is currently studying for a MSc in International Relations at Aberystwyth University, Wales. His thesis will focus on the Iranian nuclear weapons program and its implications for the global non-nuclear proliferation regime. His Masters studies have focused primarily on the strategy and politics of nuclear weapons, emerging security issues in the developing world and 21st century American foreign policy. When not contributing to GRI, working or writing his thesis, Colm enjoys playing rugby and video games. He currently lives in York, England and can be contacted at colmtdelaney@gmail.com.

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