By Medina Malagic – Sarajevo
The surprising character of the protests that have engulfed B&H over the past few weeks is its non-ethnic character. Or to be more specific, maybe it should be said that it is only surprising to those who have viewed the current problems in B&H as the result of ethnic divisions. What these protests have shown is that the so-called entrenched ethnic divisions, institutionalized in B&H’s Constitution post-Dayton, is not a natural phenomenon. These ‘ethnic divisions’ were a carefully calculated maneuver that ended up enriching the small minority in this country, that is, the political classes, while impoverishing the majority of the citizens of B&H.
The breaking point seems to have arrived for many people in B&H who for nearly 20 years have suffered the full brunt of this institutional structure that espouses a take-all attitude among the very few. Since the end of the war, the country has not experienced an economic boom. The unemployment rate stands at around 44%. For years, politicians in B&H have been making deals with foreign investors, and shopping malls with high-priced brands and luxury apartment buildings have become a feature of this city. Meanwhile, about half of the population of a country of nearly 4 million people still live on the edge of poverty. Politicians and B&H institutions at all levels have not even begun to tackle these social and economic issues, focusing instead on issues that have an ethno-nationalist component.
However, according to research conducted by Valicon, a company for marketing consulting and research, the majority of the citizens of B&H, in both the FB&H and RS entities, support the protests. The initial spark of the protests, which began in the industrial town of Tuzla where workers took to the streets after a wave of privatization, has morphed into protests that decry against the general state of B&H society. Citizens are dissatisfied, and it has nothing to do with ethnicity.
The demands that were adopted at the Plenums in Tuzla, Mostar, Bihac, Zenica and Sarajevo have all included similar demands. They are all based on rectifying the social and economic causes of the stagnated Bosnian-Herzegovinian economy, such as eliminating the ‘white-bread’, which is the benefits paid out to ministers and prime ministers after they leave their post, reducing the salaries of ministers to be more harmonized with the salary of an average worker, a thorough investigation of privatization, and the appointment of expert non-party governments that are equipped to tackle these serious issues. Nowhere is ethnicity mentioned.
Since the beginning of the protests, leaders and members of ethnically-based political parties in B&H have attempted to sideline the non-ethnic nature of the social uprising in B&H, and have instead issued statements where they place blame on some outside entity that they themselves cannot clearly define.
These protests mark a pivotal change in B&H, one whose tide cannot be overturned now. Where the protests and plenums are heading is not certain, since what we are witnessing is the incipience of direct democracy. This is a country that was under socialist rule for a little over 4 decades and after the fall of Communism, entered the period of free-market liberal processes of a ‘country in transition’. Through the protests, the people of this country are clearly expressing that this transition period has been detrimental and has not bettered their lives. What is new is that they are not waiting for the next elections to produce change. With the protests that take place every day and the plenums becoming more organized, it has already become clear that a firm message is being sent to B&H politicians, who now have a reason to fear the unity of B&H citizens across ethnic and religious lines.