On protests in Bosnia & Herzegovina, quickly and darkly

by Eric Gordy, Feb. 8, 2014

Two vignettes

Conversation 1 was with the waiter in a large Sarajevo hotel, where we were generally a bit sheepish to be attending our conference (the deciding factor was that it was big enough for all of the participants, the down side was its odd business history and the fact that the main conference room was also where Radovan Karadžić liked to hold his soirees with the media). A colleague and I had heard that the employees of the hotel had not been paid for several months, so we asked. It was true, he told us. Most of the employees had remained at the hotel through a series of ownerships and bankruptcies, and had often faced periods of reduced pay, no pay, or something in lieu of pay. So what were they working for? They wanted to keep the hotel going in the hope that one day it might become profitable again, and they wanted the employer to keep making contributions to the pension and medical care funds.

Conversation 2 was with a group of postgraduate students in Tuzla. Most of them had or were seeking work as schoolteachers. And they were only able to get short-term jobs. Why no permanent jobs in schools? Because available workplaces are distributed among the local political parties, who fill them with their members and put them on one-year contracts. The effect of this is that no young person can get a job except through the services of a political party, and no young person can keep a job except by repeatedly demonstrating loyalty to the political party. You can probably imagine the wonderful effect this has on the development and teaching of independent, critical thinking in schools.

I could go on with vignettes. I have lots of them. But these sorts of scenes might be thought of as the background of the protests that began earlier this week in Tuzla, developed into police violence by Thursday afternoon, and spread across Bosnia’s larger entity partly in the form of mob vandalism by Friday.

By Saturday morning it looks a bit of a part-triumph (some useless politicians resigned, and some police officers withdrew their loyalty) and a bit of a horrid mess (among the things that were burned in the protests were valuable documents, both ones related to the dubious activity of the targets of the protests and possibly a hugely valuable portion of the BH archive). So what brought this about, and what does it suggest for the near future?

A permanent, parasitic political class made in Dayton

At the root of every political problem in BH is the way that the state was established through an agreement that was brokered between large-scale killers and international powerwielders in Dayton in 1995. The killers were offered a great deal: take a break from killing folks, and we will finance you, guarantee that you occupy political office forever, and design a system that absolves you of all accountability. The citizens weren’t at the talks, and were not offered much of a deal, just the killers’ fantasy that every one one of them was a manifestation of one of three never-coinciding groups that somehow exhaust all of the possibilities that are around with regard to identity and interest. Think of the Dayton constitution as an outline for the plot of a Star Trek episode. They even named one of their entities “the Federation.”

Over the two decades since Dayton, the immovable political class that it established has taken every opportunity to demonstrate its irresponsibility and utter uselessness. Last year’s JMBG protests were catalysed because of the inability of parties in the parliament to reach an agreement that would allow state agencies to issue identity documents to newborns, resulting in the death of a young child who was prevented from crossing the border to get urgent medical attention. The response of high- (and long-) ranking government officials was to accuse citizens of endangering their security.

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