A ‘Bosnian Spring’ in Winter?
As the attention of the world’s media turned to Sochi for the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, a storm raged in Bosnia where anti-government protests across the country turned into anarchy. The closure of a local chemical factory in Tuzla on Wednesday quickly sparked civil unrest in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla, Bihac, Mostar and Brcko as angry citizens took to the streets demanding that the government stand down. Protestors clashed with riot police, burned down government buildings including the Parliament building in Sarajevo, and set cars alight in a show of force not seen in decades. These events have been interpreted by some political analysts as the beginning of a revolution – a Bosnian Spring. However, before such declarations are made it would be useful to examine the facts more closely.
A weak political system
The benchmark for a revolution in Bosnia would be nothing less than a new system of government rather than a change of government. The existing political framework was established in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement. While the agreement was successful in ending hostilities, it also preserved the autonomy of rival ethnic groups at the expense of the country’s long-term economic and political interests. The political system in BiH is highly complex comprising of: two autonomous state entities each with its own constitution, government and parliament; a tripartite presidency, three prime ministers; and an international presence known as the Office of the High Representative (OHR). One of the main demands of the protests was an end to widespread corruption and inequality – two direct consequences of Bosnia’s convoluted political system.
Revolution or revolutionary?
Acts of civil disobedience in Bosnia over the past 20 years have been rare and unusual. Crossing the line is in itself, a revolutionary act. However, for a revolution to occur, the protests would need to transform into a national movement with a legitimate basis of support among the people. So far however, most of the rioting seems to be taking place in only one of the country’s two autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia. In the other entity – the Republic of Srpska – cities such as Banja Luka, Bijeljina, Prijedor, and Doboj have remained quiet.
A revolution without a leader?
A key feature of the Arab Spring was the existence of highly organised opposition movements with the support base of hundreds of thousands. In Bosnia responsibility for the riots is unclear. Most reports point to the involvement of “a few hundred football hooligans” acting spontaneously. Civil society actors such as university professors and students who have the strongest ability to influence society have yet to become actively involved in significant numbers. Although it is possible for a grass roots movement to emerge, the protests have already been condemned by Bosnia’s powerful religious institutions which yield considerable influence over the population. In one unofficial report from Zenica, mosques have already begun preaching that “rioting is not the Muslim way”.
Mixed public reactions
Public reaction to the riots has been mixed. Large segments of the population have expressed sympathy with the protestors, although at the same time condemned the use of violence and meaningless destruction of property (a message reiterated by the European Union Commissioner for Enlargment, Sefan Fule). Others oppose the actions completely claiming that riots are counterproductive. Thus, events have divided rather than united society.
The Bosnian Police can’t stop the rioting
Bosnian Spring or catchphrase?
Events in Bosnia have taken the world by surprise, although in many respects they were a long time coming and could have happened sooner. However, in order for these actions to trigger a revolution more needs to happen. Firstly, the protests need to become better organised and coordinated through some form of political representation. Secondly, change needs to be supported by all segments of society: from students and families, to retirees who are all prepared to become actively involved in peaceful demonstrations. Finally, demands for change need to transcend into a broader national movement by spreading into the Republika Srpska.