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18 Feb 14

Who’s Afraid of Milorad Dodik?

Alisa Mujanic

The president of Republika Srpska said the recent protests were a threat to Bosnia’s Serb-led entity, but his nationalist rhetoric was just another attempt to maintain a failed system.

More than a week has passed since the first protest began in Tuzla and then spread to several cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the largest and most intense protests took place in the country’s Bosniak-Croat Federation entity, smaller gatherings did happen in cities within the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska.

While most people, academics and representatives of the international community agree to some extent over the causes of the protests, Milorad Dodik as usual has his own idea of the protests. Briefly, Dodik sees the protests as “undermining Republika Srpska”, as “signs of the Federation’s instability” and as illustrating the “need for Republika Srpska to break from the Federation”.

But for me it seems pretty clear why so many people took to the streets to protest, and why the protests spread quite quickly.

High unemployment rates, corruption in all sectors, lack of political progress (which means lack of progress in the welfare and wellbeing of citizens), and the feeling of being in a hopeless situation due to the economic difficulties faced by so many families all over Bosnia and Herzegovina (including Republika Srpska).

What goes on at the top political level in Bosnia and Herzegovina does not correspond to what goes on in the daily life of most citizens.

While political campaigns, elections and political negotiations are all about ethnic categories and nationalistic rhetoric, the daily life of most citizens is about worrying if your salary next month will be on time, if your children with university degrees will be able to find a job, and basically how to be able to get enough food on the table with ever-increasing prices for basic everyday supplies.

Ordinary people do not argue and associate with their fellow citizens in ethnic categories, so the protests we have seen in recent days are also not based on ethnic categories (and that is a good thing). The protests are a clear result of years of corruption and the failure of politicians to listen to their citizens.

Even in authoritarian regimes, politicians have to listen to their citizens at some point, as the Arab Spring has shown us. What has been labeled the “Bosnian spring” is also an effort to make the politicians to listen.

So, no: the protests do not aim to undermine Republika Srpska, they aim for a better economic and social future. No, the protests are not only a sign of the Federation’s instability, they are a sign of the failure of the overall political system in the country as a whole, starting from state level, to entity level and then to cantonal level.

So my personal relationship to Dodik is that I mostly ignore his official statements. I've stopped counting his threats about Republika Srpska’s need to break away.

But he doesn't strike me as an idealist, however, he is more of the type of politician that tries to sell some great nationalistic idea before elections, and from time to time provokes and creates headaches for EU officials with his statements. He is the type of politician that is satisfied as long as he makes a ‘decent’ (read: very comfortable) living from being a provocative politician in power. So this is not particularly scary.

What is scary is how ordinary citizens interpret Dodik’s statements and ideas about the protests. The most likely outcome, unfortunately, is that people will be scared into silence, or maybe not so much scared as manipulated into silence.

By claiming that the protests do not have anything to do with Republika Srpska, or that they are aimed at doing evil towards the entity, Dodik hopes to create a distance between people based on ethnicity. In other words, this is politics as usual.

But a smart politician and ‘soft idealist’ like Dodik does not only rely on statements and nationalistic rhetoric to achieve his goals. Last week a young, fellow citizen took to the streets of Banja Luka, peacefully carrying a poster to protest against high unemployment among young people. For this, he was fined about 280 euro.

If Dodik succeeds in his strategy of portraying the protests as just an attempt to undermine Republika Srpska, and at the same time scaring people into not protesting, the outcome will be that corruption, unemployment and the tough economic and social situation for our fellow citizens will continue – business (politics) as usual, yet again.

What is scary about Dodik is that he is attempting to preserve the status quo, the same status quo that forced citizens to take to the streets. And because he is in power, he actually has the ability to preserve the status quo as long as we, as citizens, are silent and passive.

Talk about it!

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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.