There are a queue of reviews waiting to be written for SCB, but after the week all of us have just lived through in BiH, they will have to wait for a little while longer.
Since last week, Bosnia and Hercegovina has been gripped by convulsions that many had actually given up hope of ever happening. The epicentre has been in Tuzla, where a disciplined crowd of workers and citizens has forced the resignation of the cantonal government, after a series of very Balkan privatisations saw former public-owned enterprises asset-stripped and workers penniless and hopeless. In the stead of the cantonal government, a citizens’ plenum in the city has issued demands which have been echoed in over thirty towns and municipalities across the country.
These demands focus on the key problems of the Dayton state that is Bosnia and Herzegovina. Regular readers of SCB will be familiar with our criticisms of Dayton with regard to culture, But, of course, this is a tiny microcosm of the malign effects that Dayton has had on society as a whole. This disastrous treaty- formed in the febrile days when the US and the EU were desperate for peace at any cost after over three years of conflict in BiH- certainly stopped guns firing, but had the effect of freezing society in late 1995, and preventing it from moving forward or back. The protests are on one level a linked series of protests against poverty, social injustice and genuine despair about the future. But these three factors are symptoms rather than causes- the cause of all the disatisfaction is the Dayton state itself.
Walking around the burnt-out shells of the two government buildings on Saturday, in the aftermath of last Friday’s violent protest, two things were obvious. Firstly, was the uncertain reaction of Sarajevo’s citizens. Older people, in particular, seemed stunned at the damage; these after all were buildings which had survived the siege of 1992-95 and, which, in some ways, had been part of the symbols of Sarajevo’s determined and steadfast resistance to fascist aggression. For some, the level of violence witnessed, and the damage caused, was too much. But it seemed that most people had mixed feelings. It may have been that they were sad at what had happened to the buildings, but at the same time, buildings can be repaired. The society which brought the angry crowds to surround and set fire to them, can’t be fixed in its present form.
What was also remarkable was just how *targeted* the anger of Friday’s crowds were. There have been various attempts to dismiss those involved as hooligans, drug crazed, mindless vandals and drunken idiots. Such assessments are embarrassingly wide of the mark. The damage to the buildings concerned and to police vehicles was extensive. But, in the same street, a cinema, public library and private shops were undamaged. Some innocent citizens had their cars destroyed at Skenderija, and there were small pieces of opportunism, with two cigarette kiosks being looted and destroyed. But these were very isolated incidents. What was astonishing was the minor damage to other buildings in the immediate vicinity. This was not indiscriminate damage caused by a feckless mob.
Crocodile tears have been shed by the BiH kleptocracy over the fate of the Austro-Hungarian buildings that were attacked, and the fate of some irreversible fire damage to the Archive of BiH, where some irreplacable historical documents were destroyed in the trouble. But then these were the selfsame politicians who have been abidingly indifferent to the fact that valuable state records have been left uncopied and undigitised in a cardboard box for years on end, and who have been starved such important cultural institutions of the necessary funds they need to grow and develop, to help future generations read our present, as informed and evidence-rich history.
The nonsensical drivel offered by the politicians as explanation for these unprecedented protests..ranging from playing the foreigner-card (EU mercenaries are responsible) to the inevitable ethnic card (Četniks), to the “it wasn’t me, honest” card offered by Bakir Izetbegović and the now-resigned PM of Sarajevo Kanton, Suad Zeljković, to the paranoid and evidence-free sentiment that we know who is doing this, we have their phone numbers, we know who is giving the orders, we will get them when the time is right shows at once just how divorced from reality these people have become, and how much they have bought into the lies that they tell about themselves. It is hard to expect politicians who are paying themselves between ten and twenty thousand euros a month (and that is just the income that has been declared) to understand the plight of ordinary citizens who- if they are doing well and are lucky- earn between four and five hundred euros per month.
If the handling of the protests by local politicians have been clumsy, it has been more than matched for cack-handedness by those in the international community who have bothered to respond. Valentin Inzko, officially the EU’s high representative but in reality more of an indifferent absentee landlord, briefed a journalist for Austria’s Kurier that the situation was as bad as it had been since the end of the war, and that if it got any worse maybe troops would have to be sent in. Just let that sink in for a minute. EU troops would be called in to reverse the minor and small (to date) gains achieved by the protestors, to re-impose the rule of the kleptocracy with a heavy hand. It’s a signature intervention from the hapless Inzko, who rarely seems to have got beyond the exasperation stage with BiH, and who is rumoured to spend as little time as he can get away with here. Of course his official spokesman fell over himself to row back from that position the following day, as the web-portals and blogs ran the story that Inzko had poured petrol on the flames with his careless and badly thought-out intervention. Regardless of the recantation, Inzko seems to have let the cat out of the bag- that the EU would prefer the status quo to obtain, regardless of the impact on what passes for the standard of living of the average person in BiH, rather than allow ordinary citizens to have legitimate and perfectly reasonable concerns addressed. It is to be hoped that Inzko’s so far disastrous handling of the situation speeds his exit from BiH , where he has been an almost entirely unhelpful presence.
Similarly, Baroness Catherine Ashton intervened in the discussion of events in Bosnia to opine that:
“The most important thing for Bosnia and Herzegovina ‘s political leaders to ponder is to seriously take on board the needs of the people . Not only for specific topics , but more for the economy in general . Try to find a political way is very important . In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are a handful of political leaders . It’s time to show the leadership that we will support them…”
Hang on…you’ll support the very people who created the situation, whereby ordinary people are driven onto the street and burn their own cities? Really? that’s what you have to offer? Only when the international community realise that the problem lies with BiH’s “politicians”, rather than those opposing them, will any progress be made. But this lesson, so obvious and simple for those of us living here, seems completely beyond the brains paid hundreds of thousands of euros per annum to take decisions on our behalf. If this is the “leadership” on offer from the EU, then it should come as no surprise to Brussels if their “advice” is roundly ignored by the protestors. Go Home. Sit Down. Shut Up. Let Us Decide. We’re Not Interested.
So, what are the demands of the protestors that are causing such convulsions and headless-chicken antics amongst the political classes both here and in the the EU? Full Communism? Nothing like it. The basic demands that have coalesced amongst the protest groups in the last ten days can be distilled into a few straightforward principles. Firstly, resignation in their entirety of the existing political class. In both Tuzla and Zenica, new governments have been called for, governments made up of experts and technocrats untainted by the Dayton state or by party affiliation. Secondly, the slashing of political salaries and the destruction of the political gravy train, whereby time-served representatives stack their earnings on committees, quangos and company boards. Thirdly, reversal of the shabby privatisations that began the uprising in Tuzla, The re-nationalisation of state property acquired by dubious means, and criminal investigation into those responsible. Fourthly, fresh elections. Fifthly, release of all those arrested as a result of their involvement in demonstrations. These are straightforward, fair and reasonable demands which chime very neatly with the piously expressed “European values”- at least in theory- in practice, less so. Point three in these common demands will cause real anxiety amongst the political classes within and without BiH.
Note one very absent thing from that summary of demands- ethnicity. Summarisers who don’t live here quickly reach for the “ethnicity” explanation from problems and divisions in BiH. There is no doubt that the ethnic partition of this land by Dayton in 1995, will take generations to come to unravel. But ethnicity is a side issue, a red herring in these protests. Indeed, the only people invoking ethnicity as a factor in this uprising, are the very politicians whose shabby pack of ethnic divide-and-rule cards has been shown to be lacking everything but the Joker, in the last week.
What we are witnessing in these protests is the disintegration of the Dayton state. the flimsy superstructure put in place by the international community, who have then studiedly looked the other way as their client-politicians exploited it ruthlessly, to build personal fortunes and networks of nepotism and patronage, in the last eighteen years. What no one knows, is what comes next. The Bosnian people are stuck between the hammer of their own governments, that have been steadily beating them in the Dayton period, and the inert anvil of the international community, looking on in exasperated frustration, and demonstrably not having the faintest idea what to do for the best. It is to be hoped that between the lies of local politicians, and the scramble for a quick and expedient solution at the level of the EU, the voice of the Bosnian and Herzegovinian people will prevail the loudest, in the tense and uncertain weeks ahead.
What is at stake here, is the very soul of BiH, its possibility to carve out for itself a much better future through solidarity, human empathy, and hard work. Citizens here don’t want handouts and free this-and.that from the international community, just a chance. The bearers of these ideals are those on the streets at present. if their voice is silenced,if their is movement extinguished, so too will be the prospect of this wonderful country ever bettering its lot in the years to come. And, if that comes to pass, it will be because of the cowardice and cynical expediency of the international community, not the lack of courage and vision of the people who are living here and who are desperate for things to get better, now.