Urban struggles: Activist citizenship in South-East Europe II

Karlo Basta
Sarajevo protests

Bosnian Protests: Between Post-Ethnic Revival and a Stillborn Civil Society

Recent protests in Sarajevo and other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (most notably in Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb-majority entity) have led a number of commentators to conclude that we are witnessing the start of a qualitatively new phase in Bosnia’s politics. According to this view, the current wave of activism represents the emergence of the abused, taken-for-granted, and manipulated Bosnian Citizen. The pervasive immiseration, the argument goes, is finally making people turn their backs on the ethnic divisions of the past. While this would, indeed, be a desirable scenario, at this stage such assessments amount to wishful thinking more than an accurate description of reality.  

Why they took to the streets

To sum up the events that led to the current situation, Bosnia’s (ethno)political elites have allowed a mundane administrative issue (the drawing of administrative boundaries in the lapsed law on ID numbers) to degenerate into another round of quasi-constitutional conflict. The parties from the smaller territorial unit, Republika Srpska, have tried to re-draw the registration areas for ID numbers according to inter-entity lines. Bosniak-majority parties from the country’s larger unit, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have blocked these attempts. The ID issue is only the latest battlefield between the Serb and Bosniak (and also, perhaps, Bosnian) visions of how the state should be organised – along ethnic or civic lines. Caught in the middle are the citizens of the country, among whom those born after February 2013 have not been able to obtain permanent ID numbers. In at least two cases (Belmina Ibrišević and the recently deceased Berina Hamidović) the parents of these children have been unable to take them out the country in a timely manner in order to obtain medical treatment. This was the galvanizing issue that prompted street protests in Sarajevo and other cities in the Federation. Around the same time, student organisations in Banja Luka staged demonstrations of their own, though here the main motive was the improvement of the students’ residential arrangements.

It was this near-coincidence of protests across entity lines, in addition to some cross-ethnic participation in the Sarajevo events, that prompted some observers to conclude that a trans-ethnic activist movement was in the process of being born. However, a brief look just beneath the surface of these developments reveals a more depressing reality – namely that common circumstances do not necessarily lead to a common outlook, to say nothing of coordinated action.

Ties that bind...

It is generally accepted by people in both of Bosnia’s entities that their political leaders form a well-entrenched, corrupt, and unaccountable oligarchy. The rhetoric on both sides of the inter-entity line on these matters is, indeed, quite similar. There is a degree of recognition, though more pronounced in the Federation, that ethnic nationalism is frequently used in order to deflect attention from day-to-day concerns of the vast majority of the population, including economic stagnation, ineffective public services, and other social ills. It is on the basis of this ‘objective’ commonality that some argue that Bosnia’s politics is in the process of being transformed.

Yet, to paraphrase (perhaps ironically) Marxist thought, this is in some ways a ‘citizenry in itself’ kind of argument. The fact that most people on either side of the territorial (and ethnic) divide face similar problems does not mean they share a common vision of how to deal with them. In other words, short of a common understanding of the political future, these protesters cannot become a ‘citizenry for itself’, coordinated and effective in accomplishing their goals.

Making politicians ‘do their jobs’, as some protesters have been demanding, may be fine sloganeering, but the devil, as ever, is in the details. How should the political representatives ‘do their jobs’? What should change in Bosnia’s institutions for this to be accomplished? And it is once we probe into the specifics that we come to the crux of the matter, and the reason why there is no Bosnian ‘citizenry for itself’. There is simply a lack of common vision of the political community between people in Republika Srpska and in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

...and lines that divide

A closer examination of the ID numbers issue illustrates the point vividly. As already mentioned, both the Serb and Bosniak-majority parties have dug in their heels regarding the new law (the Croat parties have been largely quiescent). For the former, the goal is to reinforce the inter-entity division of the country, whereas the latter are trying to prevent this. Notwithstanding the fiery political rhetoric, the ID registration law is not politically consequential for either side. If the registration areas were to span the inter-entity line, the autonomy that Republika Srpska currently enjoys would not be undercut. If they were to conform to it, the country would not be more disunited than it already is. The issue is largely symbolic.  

However dissatisfied the protesters might be with ‘their’ politicians, there is little reason to believe that they perceive the problem of ID registration areas from the same angle. On June 12th, student protesters in Banja Luka explicitly denied the link between their demonstrations and those that took place a few days prior in Sarajevo. Moreover, they pointedly refused to offer their support for the Sarajevo activists. Even if they were not indifferent to the ID question (which we do not know, absent a systematic investigation), we cannot assume they would have accepted the Bosniak parties’ position against the proposal of the Serb national parties. Conversely, we might ask if most protesters in Sarajevo would have accepted the Serb parties’ proposal if it meant that numbers would be issued, but that the registration areas would conform to inter-entity lines. Judging by the number of signs that expressed support for a civic, rather than ethnic, Bosnia, such a law would be in direct contradiction with the underlying political preferences of the Sarajevo demonstrators.

In fact, the differences between the two protests could also be seen at the symbolic level. The participants in the events in Banja Luka waved the flags of Republika Srpska exclusively (this author did not notice a single flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina), with most signs being written in Cyrillic script, usually used by Serbs. Their counterparts in Sarajevo brought Bosnian flags instead (with nearly no ethnic Bosniak banners present), while one could see both official scripts featured, at times on the same poster. Even the implicit narrative was therefore different.

There can be no trans-ethnic (or multi-ethnic/multi-national) civil society in Bosnia unless there is some minimal level of agreement between the protesting groups about the character of the state and the ways in which the government can be made more effective. Yet, the differing visions of the Bosnian polity are so deeply entrenched that such agreement is unlikely to materialize in the near future, even with the objective problems facing people in both entities. As Tanja Topić of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation told this author, activists in Republika Srpska will continue to fear being branded as traitors to the Serb cause if they collaborate (or even express sympathy) with their counterparts in the Federation. Activists in the Federation might also have become so impatient with the status quo that they might welcome solutions directly at odds with what their peers in Republika Srpska would find acceptable.

Silver lining

While the divisions in civil society tend to reflect those in the political sphere, the events of the past several weeks could be cause for cautious optimism. Each ‘wing’ of the civil society might make a difference in its own domain (entity or canton). In order to do this, they need to sustain this level of activism, not only via protests, but through continuous organisation, awareness-raising campaigns and advocacy. It is through such activism that they can hope to make politicians in their own sub-units more accountable. In the circumstances facing Bosnian citizenry, democratisation of the state must start at the local and entity (or cantonal) level. It is only in the longer run, once and if this indigenous civil society grows in size and influence, that one can start to broach the more contentious issues over which there is little to no agreement right now. The role of civil society in this enterprise ought to be to articulate political positions that are less uncompromising than those assumed by the current political elites.

There is little romance in such work. It will require painstaking organisation and activism, often away from the cameras and the streets, with few immediate results. This may sound excessively conservative and timid. Still, in deeply divided societies such as Bosnia, the conservative has the potential to become transformative. 

For more on civic resistance and urban struggles in Bosnia and Herzegovina see ‘We are all in this together’: a civic awakening in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Igor Štiks, which originally appeared in Open Democracy digital commons.

Karlo Basta is Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, Memorial University of Newfoundland. 


* Photo 1: By Karlo Basta

* Photo 2: Courtesy of SRNA