Ignoring Protests, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Leaders Opt for Politics as Usual

Ignoring Protests, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Leaders Opt for Politics as Usual
Photo: Protest outside of the Tuzla Canton Government Building, Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Feb. 8, 2014 (photo by Wikimedia user Juniki San licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina—Ignoring social protests, leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ruling parties have rejected the latest and final attempt of the European Commission’s enlargement commissioner, Stefan Fule, to find a compromise for the country’s disputed constitutional reform. At the end of a two-day visit, Fule told a press conference Tuesday that leaders of seven main local parties were unable or unwilling to address a 2009 ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that found that certain provisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitution violated minority rights. “Bosnia and Herzegovina will remain, at least for the time being, in breach of its international commitments. It is a shame for the politicians, through inaction, to fail, because the rest of the region is moving forward toward the European Union, and because citizens are calling politicians to be accountable,” Fule said. The ECHR found for the plaintiffs in the 2009 ruling, known as the Sejdic-Finci case, in which Dervo Sejdic, a Roma, and Jakob Finci, a Jew, argued that parts of the Bosnia-Herzegovina constitution allocating certain government posts based on ethnicity were discriminatory. The EU has demanded that local leaders adopt new mechanisms for electing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s president and parliament as the key condition for continuation of the country’s EU accession process. Over the past several months, Fule took it upon himself to facilitate negotiations, but was quickly drawn into Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political quicksand. Negotiations became stuck in the political chaos that spread on different administrative levels after 2010 general elections. Senior international officials said that the issue of constitutional reform was also hijacked by Bosnian Croat national leaders, who they said used the talks to try to renegotiate the balance of power in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the larger of the two entities that form Bosnia-Herzegovina. Fule on Tuesday announced he will stop facilitating further negotiations and stressed that “now it is time again for the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina to take [negotiations] forward.” However, local politicians seemed determined to ignore the demands of the EU as well as their own citizens, as they have effectively blocked the country’s path into the EU even while social protests continue across the country. Hundreds of citizens protested in Tuzla, Sarajevo and Mostar, and almost 1,000 war veterans gathered in Banja Luka, the administrative center of Republika Srpska—Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated entity—to protest against corrupt leaders. Now entering their third week, the protests represent a new reality in the war-divided country. The protests started Feb. 4 in the northern industrial town of Tuzla over the catastrophic economic and social situation caused by the country’s prolonged political crisis and the corrupt, unsuccessful privatization process of the early 2000s. They quickly snowballed across the country to include thousands of people and became violent after hooligans joined the demonstrators and attacked government buildings in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Mostar. By the time the violence ended four days later, 17 government buildings had been burned and ransacked in these four cities. More than 300 people were injured and 100 detained, though they were quickly released. Some of the scenes, which were broadcast live on all local and many international TV networks, resembled the 1992-1995 civil war and shocked the local population and international community alike. Local law enforcement agencies immediately began investigating widespread allegations that at least some of the violence was orchestrated by certain political or interest groups. Investigations were also launched into the apparent lack of coordination among police agencies during the violent protests. Judging by their initial reactions, local politicians did not get the protests’ message, and their “business as usual” approach only exacerbated the public’s frustrations. Without any concrete evidence, the ruling Croat and Serb parties tried to present the protests as another attempt by Bosniaks to interfere with Croat or Serb national interests and force through deeper constitutional reform that would make Bosnia-Herzegovina more centralized. Meanwhile, Bosniak politicians exchanged accusations and tried to blame each other for the crisis. Many Bosnian citizens condemned the violence but continued the protests, which entered a new phase with demonstrators in Sarajevo, Zenica, Tuzla and Mostar establishing “citizens’ plenums” in an attempt to organize themselves to better communicate their demands to the cantonal governments. In all four towns, plenums agreed on a few basic requests, including the immediate resignation of their cantonal governments, the establishment of technocratic governments, the reduction of benefits for politicians employed in government and assemblies, the revision of privatization plans and an investigation into the violence during the protests. The effort initially worked, as the governments of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Bihac cantons offered their resignations. The governments of the Mostar canton and the Bosniak-Croat Federation have so far rejected demands to resign, which could lead to more protests. Although the current protests are peaceful, local and international experts are concerned that the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina is unpredictable and still very volatile, due to heightened tensions and the continued attempts of local politicians to put a political or ethnic spin on recent developments. The stability of the country and the whole region will also very much depend on international engagement, which, with the ultimate failure of the European Commission-facilitated negotiations, has now hit a wall. Concerns over the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and dissatisfaction with the EU approach, have been building in many Western capitals, but until the protests turned violent such concerns did not translate into concrete action aimed at identifying new ideas and a different approach. Experts stress that other Balkan countries would also benefit from a new international approach due to growing public dissatisfaction with the worsening economic and social situation across the region, reflected in a number of social protests that took place in Zagreb, Belgrade, Podgorica and Skopje in the past few days in support of the demonstrations in Bosnia. The renewed violence has momentarily put Bosnia-Herzegovina back on the radar of the international community, which is now expected to speed up its efforts. In the meantime, with continuing economic crisis and social uprising, amid political infighting and international indolence, Bosnia faces a difficult and potentially dangerous period. Srecko Latal covered Bosnia and Herzegovina during and after the 1992-1995 war as Associated Press correspondent and editor, as well as reporting from Kosovo, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other places. He has written for numerous regional and international media and analytical organizations and worked as communications and political adviser for a number of international organizations. After serving for several years as Balkan analyst for the International Crisis Group, he founded the Social Overview Service, a think-tank in Sarajevo.

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