‘We are all in this together’: a civic awakening in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Igor Štiks
Bosnian protests

This piece originally appeared in Open Democracy digital commons. 

Many scholars and analysts would agree that ethnically divided polities do not offer much space for cross-community political activities. Even when the latter do occur, they unsurprisingly have a limited influence in an electoral and political system designed to perpetuate existing divisions. One big challenge to this widespread belief is about to come from a country - Bosnia-Herzegovina - where the post-conflict peace settlement was made in such a way as to prevent any attempt to subvert this consolidated ethnic partition.

But in early June 2013, and instead of the usual reports (the traumatic legacy of war, political paralysis and disappointments over the slow EU integration process etc.), what we could read about Bosnia-Herzegovina was the story of curious protests taking place all over the country. Citizens poured onto the streets demanding of politicians that they finally agree on unique civic registration numbers. Why did such unprecedented mobilization occur because of what seems to be a trivial administrative issue? The question is, of course, what is actually at stake?

It's all about the numbers

The controversy started with a decision of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2011, which declared the law on unique citizen ID numbers - needed to request passports and other administrative documents - unconstitutional, due to the fact that one of its articles did not contain the new names of a handful of municipalities in the Serb entity. The Court ordered the Bosnian parliament to amend the law within six months. But as the six-month period elapsed and no decision was reached by parliamentarians, the Court suspended the law altogether in January of this year.

Following the Court’s decision to abolish the law, administrative offices actually stopped issuing registration numbers. This unusual move for any citizenship regime immediately had very real consequences. As of February 2013, all newborn babies do not legally exist as citizens of their country, although, by birthright, they are entitled to citizenship and all the rights attached. Parents complained, administrators did not know what to do, and public discussion soon hit the wall of political paralysis until the problem started to threaten not only the civic status of newborns but also their very lives. A representative case is that of Belmina Ibrišević, a 3-month old baby in need of an urgent stem cell transplantation, which can only be done in Germany. But travelling there is impossible without a valid passport that, in turn, cannot be issued without a citizen ID number. And Belmina's is only one of many similar stories. How could Bosnia's elected representatives fail their fellow citizens so badly?

There is actually a pattern when it comes to issues of citizenship, ethnicity and nationality being discussed by the parliament. Take for example the implementation of a binding decision by the European Court of Human Rights in the Finci-Sejdic case: the ECtHR ordered Bosnia-Herzegovina to change its discriminatory laws forbidding anyone who does not belong to the three constitutive peoples (Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats) to run for the state presidency and the House of Peoples (upper house) of the Bosnian Parliament. In other words, if you are Jewish or Roma, as Mr Finci and Mr Sejdic happen to be, or if you decline to declare your ethnicity, you cannot enjoy full political rights in your own country.

Now, while one may be able to understand that it is in the ethno-nationalist elites’ interest to uphold these discriminatory laws in the Finci-Sejdic case, you may justifiably ask - why on earth would anyone block a procedure related to clarifying a simple administrative issue? The answer lies in the wide swathe of veto powers given to the representatives of different communities and territories. In post-Daytona Bosnia, they can block political and legislative processes and negotiate ad nauseam over seemingly insignificant issues – regardless of whether acting thus brings real or illusory political benefits.

If, as a member of the Bosnian parliament, you wish to make sure there's isn't much action on an issue, the easiest way is to present it as a question of ethno-national interest, or as crucial in the balance of power between ethnic groups. In this case, the conflict is between those advocating more decentralization within an already highly federalized state (usually demanded by the parties based in the Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity) and those opting for more competences for the central government (usually demanded by the parties from the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosniak-Croat dominated entity, especially by the Bosniaks and non-ethnic parties). In the "debate" over civic registration numbers, the Serb representatives demanded not only that the new law includes the new names of municipalities in the Serb entity, but also that the ID numbers reflect the division of the country along national-ethnic lines. The Federation’s representatives claimed that the amendments should only reflect the new names, and that these changes should not be tied to a re-definition of registration areas, some of which currently cross entity borders, and their numbers.

Yet, while scholars and observers agonize over the aporias of consociational agreements and resulting irrational choices, it is perhaps wise to look at reactions on the ground.

Protest across the lines

Belmina’s story triggered anger on the part of Bosnians and Herzegovinians against their political elites, regardless of ethnic backgrounds and administrative levels.

The protests started on 5 June when a group of citizens, revolted after hearing Belmina’s story, gathered in front of the Parliament building to protest. They decided not to move until politicians find a solution to the problem. The next day, this handful of protestors was joined by a growing number of citizens. They blocked the whole Parliament resolving not to allow deputies or anyone else out of the building until the laws are adopted or until, as they said, politicians finally do the job they are (well) paid to do. (Strikingly, the political and administrative apparatus, consisting of one state, two entities, one district, ten cantons, some thirteen governments at all levels, 180 ministers of all kinds, 600 members of various parliaments, and a vast army of public servants, costs this impoverished country around 66 percent of its entire budget). Protesters were persistent in their demands, even when the government adopted a temporary measure allowing the issuance of citizen ID numbers.

Politicians were stunned by these sudden protests, which are highly unusual in a country of divided, demobilized and traumatized people. In the early hours of Friday morning, even the High Representative of the international community and the European Union Valentin Inzko demanded that protesters remove the blockade on the Parliament building, promising that the issue would be discussed at an urgently convened meeting of the Council for Peace Implementation, an international body which oversees the country's peace process.

This external intervention, however, wasn't enough for Bosnian citizens. The very next day, protests erupted in all major cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Students were protesting in both Sarajevo and the Republika Srpska’s administrative centre Banja Luka against an inefficient university system and the difficult conditions of student life. In Banja Luka citizens also gathered in support of a man who had been evicted from his property and beaten by the police in an incident related to plans to destroy a public park and build - a familiar story these days - a shopping mall instead.

Throughout these protests, which have continued ever since, something new emerged: protesters started to send strong messages of solidarity to each other, from one part of the country to another, irrespective of ethnic divisions. The last time a similar phenomenon happened was during the peace protests of early 1992, when Bosnian citizens from all backgrounds asked nationalist politicians to find a solution to prevent conflict. The rest of the story, sadly, is well known. But precisely because of the tragic history of Bosnia-Herzegovina over the last 20 years - war and a difficult post-war period marked by predatory capitalism beneficial only to ethnic political oligarchies and their clientelist networks - protests expressing a demand for basic citizenship rights that affect (and therefore unite) all can potentially be a game changer.

The response of the post-Dayton ethno-national political caste was predictable: they started blaming each other. Serb entity politicians went on record to declare that the protests were ‘anti-Serb’ in nature and manipulated by Bosniak parties, the President of that entity talked about ‘the biggest hostage crisis’, while the Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency called upon protesters to go home and try their luck at the next elections. But deep down they all understood that the message of defiance was directed against them all. They tried the old trick of ‘divide and rule’ - only to be ridiculed by protesters across the country.

The question of citizenship

Indeed, citizenship in the modern world often starts with a number confirming your status as a citizen of the state, but the struggle for your own and other people’s citizenship rights - for the legal, political and social equality of all - is what gives sense to citizenship as a bond that holds diverse political communities together. But in Bosnia-Herzegovina, citizenship itself is also divided: there is state citizenship, the only internationally recognized form of citizenship, but each Bosnian citizen also has to have citizenship of one of the two entities. The Dayton Peace Agreement has reduced being a citizen of Bosnia to an administrative category, a number, an ID, a passport. By preventing citizens from gaining access to the basic citizenship right of a registration number, ethno-nationalists provoked an unexpected reaction: they inadvertently gave a political meaning to what they strived to destroy, namely the common citizenship of all Bosnians and Herzegovinians.

‘We are all in this together’ was one of the messages one could see during the protests. Indeed, protesters finally found a lowest common denominator in something that is clearly a basic public good - the civic registration number that gives access to elementary social, economic and political rights - but also in expressing their mutual dissatisfaction with political oligarchy.

The Bosnian protestors come from different walks of life: some are proud members of their communities, while some refuse to declare their belonging to any ethnic group; they are of different political stripes, and they might not agree about a future direction for the country. But, it seems that they all know one thing for sure: they are - and they will remain for a long time – in 'this' together. There will not be a secession by any entity or part of the country, nor a re-centralization; no easy solution will come from the European Union, and the disaster capitalism which all citizens experience in their everyday life is not going to show a better face in Bosnia just because of its past sufferings. But ‘this’ place in which they have found themselves to be together is where new political subjectivities are born and the visions of common futures are forged.

This struggle for basic public and common goods for all is the transparent, if not clearly articulated, progressive content of these protests. Starting from this fundamental feature of any political community (‘we are in this together’), citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in a true grassroots activist manner, have created a new public and political space. They occupied it together and have understood that they cannot win - and indeed survive - without solidarity with each other. In this respect, these protests are similar to those we can see unfolding in Turkey, Slovenia, Greece or Portugal. However, to re-claim that space Bosnians and Herzegovinians have had to beat all institutional, political and social odds. By doing this they are sending a powerful and encouraging message to the world:

If you can make it there, you can make it everywhere.


Photo by Karlo Basta