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Bosnian Protesters Demand Bread, Social Justice and Freedom of Speech

When the citizens of Bosnia’s second biggest city, Tuzla, went out to protest on February 4, 2014, few expected to witness the country-wide riots that the world is witnessing just a week later. Whether the latest unrest in Bosnia-Herzegovina, can be qualified as the “Bosnian Spring”, as some media have named it, isn't what matters at the moment. The reasons behind the unrest and where things are headed are the topics that many locals are asking the international community and media to focus on.

Bosnia’s “Grapes of Wrath”

Protesters have drafted a set of demands, narrowing down their struggle to one about social justice [ba], the end of corruption, and freedom of expression. People have also made it clear that the protests are not motivated by a quest for identity or inter-ethnic tensions. Stefano Fait from Italy commented:

Eric Gordy, a University College of London (UCL) professor who also writes for a group blog about Balkan politics and academics, described snapshots of the recent atmosphere in Bosnia that he observed during a visit there, giving insight into what is fueling the current anti-government protests:

Conversation 1 was with the waiter in a large Sarajevo hotel [...] A colleague and I had heard that the employees of the hotel had not been paid for several months, so we asked. It was true, he told us. Most of the employees had remained at the hotel through a series of ownerships and bankruptcies, and had often faced periods of reduced pay, no pay, or something in lieu of pay. So what were they working for? They wanted to keep the hotel going in the hope that one day it might become profitable again, and they wanted the employer to keep making contributions to the pension and medical care funds. [...]

Conversation 2 was with a group of postgraduate students in Tuzla. Most of them had or were seeking work as schoolteachers. And they were only able to get short-term jobs. Why no permanent jobs in schools? Because available workplaces are distributed among the local political parties, who fill them with their members and put them on one-year contracts. The effect of this is that no young person can get a job except through the services of a political party, and no young person can keep a job except by repeatedly demonstrating loyalty to the political party. You can probably imagine the wonderful effect this has on the development and teaching of independent, critical thinking in schools.

The government has been claiming that it has no funds to provide even for its citizens’ most basic needs. Some Bosnians have responded with humor, circulating comments and images like the one below, widely on social networks:

The note reads: "Donations for the government”, using the word ‘sergija’ which is a term for donations made to religious institutions and charities. Image widely circulated on Twitter.

The note reads: “Donations for the government”, using the word “sergija”, which is a term for donations made to religious institutions and charities. Image widely circulated on Twitter.

Media coverage

In national and regional mainstream media, the protesters are often labeled as hooligans. A textbook example of media manipulation is the spin around protesters having weapons. Serbian tabloid “Kurir”, considered a government mouthpiece in Serbia, published an article detailing a plot for the “violent unification” [sr] of the ethnically varied cantons of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). The article screams, through exclamation marks, images of violence and biased wording, that protesters are amassing a stockpile of weapons with which to lead the alleged “violent unification” of Republic of Srpska, the so-called Bosnian Serb Republic that is one of the two political entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the other, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kurir’s piece generously quotes Mehmedalija Nuhić, called a “political analyst from Tuzla” in the article. On social media, people wondered [ba] who this person is, some of them clearly dismissing his claims. Tanja Sekulić, executive editor at Klix.ba, tweeted:

The peak of idiocy: Analyst Mehmedalija Nuhić claims that protesters have acquired weapons that they will allegedly use against the citizens of RS [Republic of Srpska, the Serb majority part of Bosnia-Herzegovina]. #protest

Banja Luka-based Kontakt Radio published an investigative piece [ba] researching the alleged Nuhić, “presented [to the public] as an analyst”. “Every journalist around Tuzla is wondering who this analyst is,” writes Kontakt Radio team. As Kontakt Radio's quick research revealed, Nuhić is in fact a municipal inspector serving in the city of Lukovac. “And we kid you not,” comments the author, cheekily ending the piece with some more readily available information on Nuhić, which dismisses his credibility as a “political analyst” entirely.

People from the region are used to media manipulation and the above example of such machination is one among countless others. In an op-ed [ba], Paulina Janusz reflected on the unity political parties and media in Bosnia's show against protesters. The media, for its part, was quick to report on any rumors of protesters’ bad behavior, but protesters were quick to react to such reports. Activist Emir Hodžić, who attended the Sarajevo protests on February 7, detailed to Radio Slobodna Evropa (Radio Free Europe) what he witnessed, declaring “we are neither vandals nor hooligans”.

Others have been thorough in describing their experiences on blogs as well. The following video of a young woman in tears, imploring police to join the crowd, went viral, accompanied by snarky comments on social media in the lines of “see, these are the hooligans of Bosnia”:

Dario Brentin, among others, has compiled articles from the early days of the protests in a Facebook note. Materials like this are regularly translated into English and updated on Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files. A collectively curated compilation of links is also available through the CrowdVoice.org platform.

Now what?

Many politicians and media representatives have already begun to play the blame game quite actively. Lord Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative and Europe’s Special Envoy to the country from May 2002 until January 2006, urged the European Union “to make Bosnia functional”. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Lord Ashdown warned:

At the moment its citizens are complaining about poverty and lack of movement and dysfunctionality of the state and corruptions among politicians” [but it] “could move to something far worse very quickly.[...]

The international community has to act now. If they don’t act now, I greatly fear that a situation where secessionism will take hold could easily become unstoppable as we approach elections.

Alarmism is also present on several sides. Valentin Inzko, an Austrian citizen and the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina, declared to Balkanist.net:

If the situation escalates, we will possibly have to think about EU troops. But not right now.

Regardless of whose fault it is and who is supposed to “fix” the country, one question persists: Why are so many Eastern European and Balkan countries suddenly protesting? Shortly after protests erupted in Tuzla and Sarajevo, Bulgarian independent research blog Banitza published a thoughtful post, “Waving ‘Democracy’ from Ukraine to the Balkans”:

Why now? Why not 6 months ago; why not one year ago? These are question that were directed at the protests in Bulgaria, which reached their largest numbers in the summer. Clearly, the situation is so dire that either nothing or anything could trigger public outrage. [...]

Of course violence cannot be the answer. It’s destructive. But desperation clearly takes precedence over dialogue in this case. [...] It’s simple – for the people protesting, the assumption of patience is nonexistent. And it is understandable. There is a level of tolerance that is, as has been shown over and over again in the 20th century, very flexible and malleable among human beings. But it has its limits. And within the Balkan countries this year, the sense of tolerance has been exhausted by the outright public arrogance of the Untouchables – call them mafia men, ex-communist, business elites. It makes no difference. Their capacity to flaunt their economic dominance is one thing, but their increasing ability to enforce their political and legal immunity is apparently too much. It has been, for a long time, a fact that democracy is very dysfunctional.

Writing for Balkanist, Darko Brkan formulated four suggestions:

1) Declare Victory for the Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina
2) End all Police Investigations [against citizens having taken part to the protests]
3) Establish Provisional Governments in the Cantons
4) “Internal Lustration” Within Political Parties

What may be a game-changer is a recent decision by the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo ordering “temporary seizure” of all media property documenting the protests in Sarajevo. Pro-government protests have also been witnessed, as seen in a video from February 10.

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