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Bosnian Protests Create an EU Dilemma

6 MINS READFeb 11, 2014 | 11:02 GMT
Bosnian Protests Create a EU Dilemma
(ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Protesters outside the Bosnia-Herzegovina presidential residence in Sarajevo on Feb. 9.
Summary

Protests for early elections and against corruption and bureaucracy continued in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a sixth day on Feb. 10, albeit with smaller participation. These protests stem from the country's dire economic situation, which to a large extent is the result of its political fragility and its complex ethnic profile. Although the protests could calm down in the short term, political instability probably lies ahead given the country's structural problems — creating a dilemma for the European Union, which considers pacifying the Balkans a priority of its policy of enlargement.

An ethnically fragmented country where political consensus and effective governance are extremely difficult to achieve, Bosnia is the archetypal Balkan country. Its location on the European borderlands made Bosnia ripe for foreign conquest. Centuries of invasions — most notably by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires — wrought a complex ethnic landscape comprising Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. Overlapping foreign interests in Bosnia persist, with the European Union identifying Bosnia as a potential member and Turkish companies serving as a significant source of investment in the country. (Roughly 2 million people of Bosniak ancestry live in Turkey.) Bosnia's rugged geography makes the country almost impossible to govern: Even the most powerful empires struggled to exert full control, with revolts a common occurrence.

After the collapse of Yugoslavia, a vicious civil war raged during the first half of the 1990s. To a large extent, the present political crisis resulted from the Dayton Agreement of 1995, which ended the Bosnian war. The peace treaties created a largely decentralized federation comprising two autonomous entities, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, and one region with local government, the Brcko District. Adding to the complexity, the peace agreements created a three-member presidency composed of a member of each major ethnic group. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a mechanism meant to please everyone ended up upsetting most everyone. The effort to create ethnic balance made decision-making complex and inefficient. The original Dayton Accords envisaged a transition to a less cumbersome system, but political and ethnic divisions made this impossible.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

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The lack of an effective central government greatly complicated the transition from a centrally controlled to a market economy — a process most countries that emerged from Yugoslavia, including relatively large economies such as Serbia and Croatia, struggled with. The European economic crisis added one more element to the problem, with salaries and employment both dropping. Remittances from the Bosnian diaspora, a significant safety net for many Bosnians, also declined. According to the World Bank, remittances to Bosnia fell from $2.1 billion to $1.8 billion between 2009 and 2012.

Meanwhile, prices on utilities and health care have risen in recent years, further reducing households' purchasing power. A third of Bosnia's active population and two-thirds of young people are presently unemployed, the highest rates in Europe. Unemployment rates are relatively higher in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina than in the Republika Srpska. And international organizations have repeatedly criticized the country for its strong presence of organized crime and the pervasiveness of its shadow economy.

If Bosnia embodies the dysfunction the term Balkan brings to mind, Tuzla — where the protests began — is emblematic of Bosnia's dysfunction. The northeastern city served as an economic and cultural center during the Communist years, but a series of privatizations of state-owned companies (some linked to corruption, according to locals) led to firings of workers, and economic decay set in.

Recently fired workers at privatized companies, angered by rising unemployment and widespread corruption, initiated the current protests, which soon spread to other cities and morphed into anti-government demonstrations as people saw an opportunity to express their own frustrations and dissatisfaction with the authorities. While some Bosnians criticized protesters' use of violence — several public buildings and cars have been set on fire — most share the protesters' anger at the ruling elite. The main protests took place in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the largest Bosniak population lives. Most parts of Republika Srpska, where Serbs are a majority and there is a more centralized government, remained relatively quiet (though some small protests took place in Banja Luka and other cities).

The protests will change little in the short term, as none of the country's mainstream political parties is interested in a substantial reform of the country's political system, under which the largest parties enjoy a share of economic and political power. Most parties enjoy power at least at some level of government (federal, state or cantonal) and are not interested in replacing a system that benefits them. In the coming days, some political leaders could resign — there have already been a few resignations in some cantons — and the Bosnian government will probably offer subsidies and financial help to appease protesters. But the Bosnian political establishment will work to protect the status quo.

Moreover, the protesters lack the organization and structure to guarantee their continuity as a significant political entity. To a large extent, the protests were spontaneous, with little coordination among demonstrators in different cities. While some informal citizens' groups (such as "Revolt" and "Udar") were linked to the protests in Tuzla, they have yet to operate at the national level.

This does not mean that protests will stop, nor does it rule out domestic political consequences. The economic and political situation will remain fragile in Bosnia, and there will be more anti-government protests in the future. But the main challenge for protesters will be to remain united and to develop a cohesive voice to channel their requests. Local police beat some members of the citizens' groups in Tuzla; this could motivate new leaders to emerge from these groups. In the long run, yet-to-emerge political parties could benefit from Bosnia's widespread anger. Bosnia's ethnic divides also make it difficult for a countrywide movement to emerge.

At the international level, Bosnia will pose substantial challenges to the European Union. Brussels saw EU accession as a way of pacifying the western Balkans, but this strategy places the Continental bloc in a permanent dilemma. On one hand, Brussels is interested in the accession of these countries, since it considers EU membership a way to avoid repeating the wars of the 1990s. On the other, most Western European nations are strongly concerned about corruption and organized crime in the region. This forces Brussels constantly to seek a balance between providing money to Bosnia and threatening it with sanctions if economic and political reforms are not carried out.

The European Union considers the western Balkans its backyard. Its late reaction to ethnic violence in the region in the 1990s still haunts policymakers in Brussels. Most countries in the region have now applied for membership in the bloc. In 2013, Croatia joined the European Union and Serbia received candidate status. The European Union provides technical and financial aid to Bosnia. While Bosnia is unlikely to join the European Union in the coming decade, Brussels will probably continue assisting the country — but considering the European Union's own political and economic troubles, there's little Brussels can do to bring economic prosperity to the country.

More important, this is a region where wounds are fresh and societies do not forget, so ethnic tensions have not disappeared, though they may lie dormant. So far, these protests have not reignited the traditional ethnic divides in Bosnia. But the events of the 1990s stand as a reminder of how volatile the region can be and how fast the events in one country can spread to its neighbors.

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