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15 Feb 14

Plenums Are Teaching Bosnians Real Democracy at Last

Nidzara Ahmetasevic

After 20 years of botched ‘democratisation’, Bosnians are finally getting a chance to articulate something that truly belongs to them.

All over Bosnia, protesters are organising “plenums”, places where people can gather and try to formulate their demands. The participants are defining their rules, moderating the plenums by themselves, and, after summing up, sending their demands to cantonal assembles.

Sarajevo held its second on Friday. The first, a few days earlier, ended without conclusions, as so many people wanted to participate that it was hard to find a way to let them all speak. Many did not have any clear demands, but just wanted to say why they had been out on the streets now for more than a week. Their stories, and other stories of the people on the streets, present a depressing picture of Bosnia today.

One elderly man living in one of the suburbs of the city told the plenum that his wife was killed during the war, his daughter was a victim of sexual violence, and 20 years on, he is hungry. And so it went on. Many people came with demands and with proposals for solutions written on paper.

Some sounded more rational and logical than anything any local politicians or members of the international community present in this country ever came out with.

Friday’s plenum was held in much bigger premises, in the Youth Hall at Skenderija, a public arena belonging to the Canton. At first, the director of the complex - a person close to one of the ruling parties – said he would let people use the hall - but only if he was paid 400 KM for an hour, plus taxes, adding that, “as a citizen, I will give you as a gift one hour for free”.

However, under pressure from the protesters and part of the media who are supporting protests, the Cantonal Assembly finally sent us a signal that they would let us go there for free.

More than a thousand people of all ages and backgrounds turned up - former soldiers, students, professors, actors, director and musicians. Each had only two minutes to talk, so each thought carefully about what to say.

The plenum ended with four demands: 1. The urgent establishment of a Cantonal government of experts without political affiliations, acting in consultation with the Citizens’ Plenum. 2. An audit of all salaries and benefits of public officials, bringing them in line with the economic situation. 3. A privatisation audit: The Cantonal Privatisation Agency to urgently conduct an audit of the privatisation of public enterprises in the Canton. 4.

Establishment of an independent commission of experts to verify the facts of the events of February 7.

One speaker was young man who, on the first day of protests was pushed into the river by police. A video that somebody made, just seconds before the police pushed him in, shows other protesters urging the police to stop the violence and not fight against the people.

His leg was broken and the plenum was the first time he had left his home since it happened. “I am here today because I am Serb, I am Croat, I am Jew, I am Roma, I am all the citizens of this country and I want better life,” he said.

On Thursday, standing at one of the main junctions in the city that was blocked by the protesters and talking with people, I met a woman of about 50 who had been on the streets every day. I asked how it felt. “It is cold, it is not easy to be here every day since I am sick, but we have no other way,” she said.

“Today, I ate one sandwich. And my dear, I have to tell you it was expensive, 3 KM [1.5 euro]. It is a lot of money, and the sandwich was small, and I am still hungry.”

Some local shops have given away some food to the protesters, but it is not enough for so many people.  

Sometimes there are more police than protesters on the street. Some are in uniform, but many are not. They are listening to what we say, and recording it, taking pictures of each one of us on the street. And, I can tell you, they have many pictures of me these days.

They wait for the evening to start being rough towards people and provoking the protesters, which is not hard to do with people who are tired, hungry, and angry with everything that is happening. The next step is they start taking IDs from everybody, threatening to file it as an offence. Anybody who gets this will have to pay 400 KM (200 euro).

People who have been on the streets for days are being stopped on their way back home after the protests, far from the places where demonstrations are taking place, and they go through the same procedure. Some are still being taken to detention. We have heard reports of police brutality again from those who were detained.

On Thursday, it was announced that people who took part in violent clashes on the first day of the protests would be charged with terrorism. It sounds shocking and dangerous, as well as absurd. However, some rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and Civil Rights Defenders, and many others, are with the citizens, offering them all possible help. Hopefully, we will prevent terrorism charges and dismiss all the others.

At the same time, the prosecution ordered all the media to hand over any pictures they took on the first day of the protests, in order to identify people who had committed crimes. But, they appear to be just looking for anyone who is part of what is going on the streets, peaceful protesters as well as troublemakers.

People want to come to plenums and talks, but are becoming more and more afraid of the police who are using every means they can to intimidate the protesters, and all the other citizens in Sarajevo. Some are becoming afraid of the media as well, since many are openly against the protesters and are picturing them in the worst possible light.

Bosnia today is a school of democracy. What is happening in plenums and on the streets is democracy live. We are trying to figure out what we want and how to achieve that. We know little about democracy. Twenty years of democratisation taught us only that those who are irresponsible and careless, supported by a plethora of international organisations, plus those in the EU who have supported these politicians for years as partners, are not the way we want to go.

Now we have a chance to articulate something different, something that will truly belong to us. We will see how it will go. I believe we are brave enough to reach the final goal - a democratic state that respects the basic rights of the people, and in the first place their social rights. We know the process will be long and painful. But we are taking first little steps by ourselves. We will make it, because we must.  

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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.