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24 Feb 14

Taking Steps Towards Democracy in Bosnia

Alisa Mujanic

The ongoing protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina are a first step towards a more open and democratic society – but only a first step.

The protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina started with several hundred people, then escalated to several thousand people, and now they're back to a few hundred people on the streets. The protests have gained widespread support across all ethnic groups in the country, but at the same time some people have been and still are skeptical about the demonstrators, questioning whether they can change anything with posters and slogans.

First of all, the political leaders of the country, both on state level and on local levels, have not supported the protests. This is as expected. But there is also a lack of support among some citizens, and there may be several reasons for this.

While the protests started peacefully, they did take a violent turn, resulting in the damaging of several government buildings and public property. The burning of buildings brought back memories from 1992 for some people, although apart from these images of destruction, there is not much resemblance between the situation at the start of the war and the ongoing protests today.

Although buildings were burned and damage was caused, only a small fraction of the people attending the protests participated in this violence. The day afterwards, people gathered again to clean up and restore some of the damage done. After this, the protests have been peaceful.

These protests are not and never were about harming anyone or anything. They escalated as a result of years of frustration with the economic situation in the country. This frustration was boosted by the refusal of politicians to speak with and to the people gathered in front of them with ‘radical’ demands for a better and more secure social and economic situation.

The protests were not completely organised when they started and are still not yet today, but I would dare to say that they have moved forward. The creation of citizens’ ‘plenums’ in several cities is a healthy sign of democracy and active citizen participation which we may not have seen had it not been for the protests.

The power of protest is not in the act itself, it is in what follows. At this time it is still unclear what the results will be, other than the creation of several plenums, but now citizens at least have an arena t engage in the politics and future of their country.

This arena also serves as an opposition to the current political situation and political elite, which is unable and unwilling to listen to the average citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country with weak democratic traditions, where the political system and political parties have almost no legitimacy among ordinary people. A common perception of politics in the country is that all politicans are lopovi - criminals.
So taking to the streets and creating plenums may be a good alternative for many citizens.

The protests went from initial demands about jobs and social and economic security to demands, mostly on Facebook but also on the streets, to abolish the cantonal system and for a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina. I believe that some were frightened by these more radical demands, but the truth is that we will have to have a debate about these difficult questions sooner or later.

Those making demands for a better future for Bosnia and Herzegovina in terms of a unified republic have managed to do so with no references to violence and/or discrimination against other ethnic groups, and with no use of well-known nationalist rhetoric. The debate about this tough question should continue in this way.

These demands, even though they are not widely supported, are a step in the direction of taking the debate away from the political elites in office to people on the streets, but they need to continue in a civilised and non-nationalistic, non-violent manner.

It scares me more when such matters are discussed among political elites behind closed doors and in nationalistic terms, with no logic behind them, than when they are discussed in a civilised manner among citizens.

Even though such demands have been made by smaller groups, the protests and the demands are still about economic and social matters which thousands and thousands of citizens can identify with.

For some people, like many of my friends, this is a question about whether change can be effected through the system or outside the system. I believe that true and lasting change eventually must come from within the system, but one option does not rule out the other. Change through the system takes time; a very, very long time. But people out on the streets are impatient, and they have the right to be.

When people start out on the road to more open, free and democratic societies, it is rarely easy. What is important is that this road demands a first step. Many agree that Bosnia and Herzegovina has taken such a first step during what some call the ‘awakening of the people’ or the ‘Bosnian Spring’.

What is needed is a second step, which may be the creation of plenums; this depends on the concrete outcomes from these plenums. Then a third step is needed, a fourth, and so on. Whether Bosnia and Herzegovina will take the necessary steps depends on support for the protests and support for the plenums

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Background

The ‘Bosnian Spring’ Starts With a Bang

The Bosnian protests are the result of years of corruption, economic decay and in-fighting among ethno-political elites, but it is far from certain that they can bring real change.