Today is the fourth day of the protest wave that swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina after workers and angry citizens in Tuzla filled the streets by the thousands. Unhappy with the lack of transparency in the privatization processes of the state-owned firms and their own living and working conditions, the workers were supported by the retirees, students, and other citizens desperate for change. For a list of demands of the Tuzla workers, please click here. For a list of demands of the citizens of Sarajevo, please see Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian text here (translation coming soon). For more background information, please consult this piece by Emin Eminagic written for the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung here.
The protest wave spread to Zenica, Sarajevo, Mostar, Bihac and other cities, and in some cases the protests became more violent and government buildings were set on fire. Citizens demanded for the resignation of their representatives sitting in the Cantonal governments and so far, Premier Munib Husejnagic and the government of the Zenica Doboj Canton have resigned, Premier of the Tuzla Canton Sead Causevic has resigned, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Hercegovina Neretva Canton Mario Sulenta has also resigned. The Mayor of Novi Travnik Refik Lendo also offered his resignation. In Sarajevo, the Canton Premier Suad Zeljkovic suggested that , there were no hungry people and no reason for unrest in our city. However, just a few hours after his remarks, he has also given his resignation, which was one of the demands from the Sarajevo people.
Religious leaders called for an end to violence and for more patience, and the Minister of Security Fahrudin Radoncic took this opportunity to present himself as the protector of the people and suggested that since his party was not in power during the wartime he was essentially not responsible for the political situation in the country. Given that 2014 is the general election year for Bosnia and Herzegovina, he seemed to waste no time and used this opportunity to position himself as a vote-worthy candidate. I hope our citizens remain vigilant and continue to demand accountability from politicians and those wanting to take their place.
Last night in Sarajevo, the Municipal and Cantonal government buildings were set on fire. Likewise, the BiH Presidency building which also houses the (undigitized!) Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina sustained serious damage. The Director of the Archive confirmed that some of the most important and priceless historical documents were lost last night and angry citizens went on to draw the parallel with the Army of the Republika Srpska destroying cultural and historical evidence of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s historical continuity during the aggression in the 1990s, and that apparently these “stupid hooligans” have continued their job last night, by destroying culturally significant records in times of peace. The issue of keeping historical documents in a basement with terrible protection is yet another matter altogether.
We can also expect a hypothesis from the Republika Srpska that this is an attempt to create a unitary Bosnia and Herzegovina which is apparently a natural enemy of the Bosnian Serbs, the Dayton agreement and the Serb majority entity. The Premier of RS Zeljka Cvijanovic also stated that protests in the Republika Srpska are not necessary by suggesting that the violence seen in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t need to “spill” across entity lines. Interestingly enough, the wave of protests has not hit the RS just yet, even though there was a small gathering in Banja Luka of about 300 people. Bosnian hip hop artist Frenkie joked on Twitter, calling on people from the RS to at least “light up a barbecue” [since in the Federation, buildings are in flame].
The media has already started with attempts to discredit the protests. In Tuzla, reportings of mall lootings were verified as false after an Al Jazeera Balkans journalist posted photos of the untouched mall. Later, the mall website provided information that no stores were vandalized and nothing was stolen. Today in Sarajevo, the discrediting process continued. Apparently, 12 kg of speed was seized from the protesters, in an attempt to paint the protesters into violent thugs and drug users or dealers. While many young people did indeed participate in the violence and rioting (and cleaning actions this morning) we cannot and should not dismiss their actions nor should we look at them without proper context:
These young people live in a state which does not invest in its youth. Museums and cultural institutions are closed or are having major funding problems. Sarajevo does not have adequate green spaces in the city, affordable recreation youth centres or adequate youth centered programs. Our educational system suffers, the youth unemployment rate is high. Very few scholarships or skill upgrading opportunities exist. Corruption and nepotism-based success is widespread and deeply ingrained in society. Many of them will reach the age of 30 without a day of work history on their CVs. Many of them are not able to live independently, not even with roommates. Many live from the money borrowed from their parents -and many of these are grown people, well ahead into their adulthood.
Last night, as the protesters were dispersing away from the Presidency building, we were running towards the Alta shopping centre through the small streets to avoid potential violence. I asked a group of young men why they are doing this and one of them said to me: “Well what have I left to lose? I can’t even pay for coffee when I take my girlfriend out. She probably wants me to be like the son of those politicians. I don’t even have a driver’s licence and I’m 20″. The other young men laughed at this, but this was the kind of laugh full of pain and discomfort because they cannot afford even the most basic social and recreational activities or feel like they can lead dignified lives or have promising futures. While it is unfortunate that there has been significant damage to property, I will say that the administration costs for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s huge state apparatus is much higher (not withstanding the Archive materials lost nor the money laundered and stolen from the budget), and in a discussion about what a proper social movement is and isn’t, we cannot and should not dismiss these “hooligans” without acknowledging the difficult political and socioeconomic situation they live in.
These young people are not angry because they are bored and want to burn things, they are angry because their futures are not just compromised but gambled, their grandchildren are already in debt and they see no way out. This violence is not characteristic of Bosnian-Herzegovinian youth and it’s no different from the violence we have previously seen in Greece, North Africa and South America. These young people do not have political representation, their voices are not being heard, they are isolated not just in their own countries but also by civilized Europe. We keep getting urgent calls for nonviolence from religious leaders, governments and international community representatives. I assure you, no one here wants to riot. No one here thinks it’s cool to destroy our cities. But I beg of you to support the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina in building strong, representative and democratic institutions which will work for the people and create opportunities for them to be able to have a shot at a future. Support the youth, don’t dismiss them. Do not point to desperate violence as a legitimate reason why police and state brutality should be used to punish them. What else did they have when they threw stones, fire crackers and then their bodies into the chaos?
Young people with a future will not riot in their cities. Young people will not throw rocks at buildings because they would have lives to build and something to look forward to. The governments on all levels haven’t bothered with that so far. We need to help rebuild this country. We need to help them, rather criminalize their desperation and poverty. We need to stop pathologizing them and shifting blame on them when they were not the ones who created the problems in the first place.
While I lament the destruction of the cities, all the injured people and the destroyed historical records – I lament the loss of a generation of young people who are being punished when they are being patient as well as when they are being violent. This is not the way to prepare for the future.