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Balkan Spring?

Bosnia & Herzegovina Finally Rising Out of the Ashes?

by ILIJA M. TROJANOVIC

Beirut.

Frenzied hooligans may have hijacked this week’s protests in Bosnia & Herzegovina which began in Tuzla over unpaid wages to workers of privatized companies that soon filed for bankruptcy, but there is no questioning movement’s popularity which aims to tackle corruption and unemployment. After only a few days, the demonstrations mushroomed across the Balkan country to the capital city Sarajevo, Bihac, Mostar, Zenica, and even areas in  the state of Republika Srpska.

Twenty years ago nobody would have guessed that the main two players of the Balkan War – Croatia and Serbia – would make it to the European Union finish line before Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose own flag uncannily bears the same blue and yellow of the EU’s. Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav republic to gain EU entry in 2004, and Croatia soon followed in 2013. Serbia is undergoing accession talks, and to Bosnians it may be a bit difficult to swallow that their southerly neighbors will enter the EU before them.

Of all the breakaway states that emerged from the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina was perhaps the hardest hit. Unlike their neighbors who ended up with the “purest” (on ethnic grounds) borders, Bosnia remained a virtual mini-Yugoslavia populated by enclaves of Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs. As the war’s epilogue began in the late 1990s, Slovenia, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, and Serbia (known before as Serbia and Montenegro) began adjusting to life as the world’s newest nations, while Bosnia was lagging behind trying to find an answer to the new ethnic imbalance that had to be solved. Adding insult to injury, the newly drawn map only gave the Bosnia a meagre coastline of 12 miles.

Ethnic divides still persist, but what ravages Bosnia the most is the widespread corruption which has resulted in what many would agree is a failed economy. According to the website BalkanInside, of all the former Yugoslavian republics in 2013, Bosnia had the highest unemployment rate at 43.3%. Serbia, also considered to have a weak economy, has a GDP of $45 billion, while Bosnia’s GDP is $18 billion, clearly struggling in the slipstream. Bosnia’s macroeconomic misfortune is only the beginning of its sad economic tale.

With heavy government spending (half of their GDP), too many redundant municipal offices, and a sluggish privatization process of state enterprises, the Bosnian people are simply not earning enough as the rest of Europe let alone their Balkan neighbors. It’s not only the government’s plan of privatization which backfired, the judiciary has also been the target of wide speculation of corruption.

Earlier in 2013, the President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – one of two entities that make Bosnia and Herzegovina – Živko Budimir was arrested on allegations of corruption where local media claimed that out of 435 crimes, Budimir accepted bribes to acquit criminals from over 150 cases. These crimes included murder, drug-running, human-trafficking, and other crimes linked to organized crime, which is rife in Bosnia.

Commenting on the high-profile arrest of Budimir, British ambassador to Bosnia Nigel Casey claimed that  it “may send a chilling message to others.” Only a couple of weeks after the arrest, Budimir was released with insufficient evidence to find him guilty.

Nevertheless, Casey’s message was still delivered. Despite not reaching its intended audience [of other corrupt government officials], the people of the once mighty middle class took heed. After the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992-3, many state companies were privatized. As a result of the mass privatization, many middle class families slipped down the tier, while working class families either became poor (i.e. living under the poverty line, which one in five Bosnians do), or emigrated.

While the sweeping protests all over Bosnia are uniting a nearly extinct middle class and creating an economic protagonist to battle the antagonists of Bosnia’s economy such as corruption and failed plans for privatization, they are also acting as a band-aid for the ethnic tensions which many felt could never be patched.

The most evident sign of the ethnic unity arrived when the predominantly Serbian town of Banja Luka joined the other protesting cities demanding, as local journalist Sead Numanovic told the BBC, “change and justice, that’s all we want.” The government is yet to respond, but even if they do, it may be too little too late with elections coming up in October.

Famed Bosnian peace activist Mevlida Kunosic-Vljajic, told me “I hope this is the beginning of the new spring in Bosnia and Herzegovina, like that of the Husinska rebellion in 1920 which bore many similarities with our protests  today.”

The early stages of the second decade of the 2000s is clearly making its name as the decade of the protester, of demonstrating, and of fighting for your rights and beliefs. If there is any protest that will gain unanimous support from the majority of the population, it will be these protests in Bosnia which have spread like wildfire to various cities in only a matter of days. The ethnic unity it is creating is only an added bonus to the real aspirations of the protests, but sooner rather than later will the demonstrators realize that putting the past aside, and coalescing as one will be the only glue that will hold the movement together.

Ilija M. Trojanovic can be reached at: ilija.trojanovic@gmail.com.