By Medina Malagić – Sarajevo
Darko Brkan is the founder of “Zašto ne” (Why Not), a non-governmental organization based in Sarajevo and founded 11 years ago, which seeks to promote civic activism, government accountability and the use of new technologies and digital media to strengthen the work of civil society. He also helped found the citizen movement called ‘Dosta!’ (Enough!). In light of the recent events in B&H over the past month, Darko offers his views on the ongoing citizens’ protests, plenums throughout the country and its possible implications for the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
As the Plenums continue to be organized in cities throughout the country, in your opinion what kind of significant, gradual progress has been made so far that could potentially lead to a major shift in B&H society?
I think that the major victory has already been won. It was won on the 9th of February when the fourth cantonal government resigned. The citizens of this country have made 4 governments resign and have shown that they will no longer wait for another 20 years to do the same again. And that is what matters. As for the Plenums, the effects of that are to be seen. But one should not be putting all our hopes into that. Every civic initiative, every demand the society has, will be seen differently after this. The Plenums might be challenged with different problems, such as lack of proper articulation and focus and, to some extent, legitimacy, but we should not give up if all the Plenums’ demands are not met. Elections are approaching shortly and other initiatives are bound to emerge. One thing is certain – after the political parties were brought to their knees as they were, the citizens will never again let them rise to the ultimate comfort zone where they used to be.
Do you think that B&H politicians are seriously worried now that the power balance might not be in their favor for much longer?
They are worried like never before. The majority of parties joined forces in minimizing the effects of the protests and is trying to make the best of it, after they have recuperated from the initial shock. I think that their major worry is that the elections are approaching fast and they know that events such as these have already had a lot of impact on elections in the past. All major parties have made big mistakes during the protests and I think all of them will suffer because of this come election time. The extent of the damage to the parties will depend on both their actionsin the upcoming period, and on the activities of the citizens and civil society. And there is plenty of space for civil society actions around elections. Also, the policy and advocacy dialogue would definitely have to change, so I guess the space for proper communication is opening. However, there is always a chance of politicians feeling safe again and to start to ignore the civic initiatives again – my personal opinion is that that would be a much bigger mistake this time around.
Are informal citizens groups and civil society organizations participating in the organization of the protests, and if they are, in what way are they contributing?
First of all, these protests came as a very spontaneous initiative and no group was in charge or was helping organize them. In the start, they were workers protests begun by workers from several firms in Tuzla and they sparked people first in several cities with a bigger tradition of protests and then in several other cities and regions. At this point, it might be that some groups are helping out and making themselves a part of the process. But what is more important is that all civil society groups that want substantial changes in this country have been empowered and motivated by what was happening, and you can see all of them pushing much harder in the public discourse on their issues. I guess we’re about to see more of this and more articulated efforts to improve the situation riding the waves from these protests. Personally, I think the more pressure to the politicians and government, the better. Keeping them alert and worried is the only way not to let them think they got away with it.
In the past week, there have been protests in neighboring countries. Do you see the current protests and general social resistance movement as possibly evolving into a regional social uprising? Does this work to rid the misconceptions about the so-called ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ that have been used by many journalists and analysts to try to offer an explanation of the continuing stagnation in this part of the world?
To be honest, I don’t think this will spill over in a way to ignite a regional social uprising on a big scale. Every country and society has its’ own specificity and, even if the situation of the citizens looks similar in general, I think that those specific conditions would definitely be determining the nature and scope of protests more than the regional ones. However, in some countries where the conditions for such unrests are present, I guess it might be the case – I would mostly consider Macedonia, perhaps even Montenegro or Croatia for such events. But I still think it is highly unlikely to happen. As for the effect of this on ethnic hatred, I am not too sure it applies. It can motivate people that are fighting ethnic divisions, but I think that that fight is a very long and exhausting one.
What is your assessment of the role of the EU in all of this?
The EU, as usual, has been just a passive bystander. I don’t know if they really think that one or two visits by high-ranking bureaucrats mean something to the people of this country, but I can assure you that they don’t, especially if they look exactly the same as the visits that happened before. If the EU really wants to change their attitude towards BiH, I’m sure they know what to do – involve and empower other stakeholders like civil society organizations, give trust and credibility back to the institutions like parliaments, promote and stick to their own values and human rights standards, even if it means making some enemies within BiH politicians, be more determined and active and not introducing double standards. However, I don’t think it would change, but the good thing is that, finally, they are not a factor in all of this – it is the people of this country and the politicians that are in the arena. The best thing is that after this the EU will have to change in the suggested way if they want to be a stakeholder at all.
So far, the protests have been directed at cantonal and entity governments in the FB&H. Maybe it might be too early to say anything about this. But do you think that ultimately, despite the possible major changes in the internal political structure of the FB&H, would the political system imposed by the Dayton Accords have to be scrapped as well in order for B&H to move out of this stalemate?
Ultimately, yes. But many things can be done without changing the constitutional arrangement and we have proven that in the past. Moreover, these changes can occur even on the state level. I guess that it should be a mixed scenario. First, accepting that nothing will change unless everyone wants it and that we need to work on positive changes within the current framework. And second, understanding that at a certain point we will need to change this arrangement in order to be sustainable. But this needs to be done without stopping and blocking other positive changes.