25 Febbraio 2014

Protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina: culmination of years of social injustice

A demonstrator in Sarajevo

Protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina: culmination of years of social injustice

Since 1995 Bosnia and Herzegovina has been dealing with many parallel transformation processes: peace-building after the war and reconstruction of the state, democratization and transition from the communist planned economy to a capitalist free market.

These processes, combined with nationalist parties as ruling ones and the complex political structure, the system that does not support transparent decision-making processes and enables corruption and formation of the political elite, provided for fertile grounds for many embezzlements during the process of privatization of the public companies, many of which previously formed the axis of the economy of BiH and employed thousands of people, who were now left jobless. About the same number of them continued to work on minimum or no pay, with no health and pension insurance paid by companies, making the years of hard work worthless, since the workers could not accumulate enough for retirement.

Years of reckless behavior and absence of responsibility by the leaders led to the destruction of many publicly owned companies, which resulted in high numbers of unemployed and humiliated people, who felt betrayed.

According to the International Labor Organisation, the percentage of unemployed today in BiH is 45%, while unemployment in youth is an alarming 60%, making around 77% of young people in BiH eager to leave the country in search for better opportunities for life abroad.

Many years of ignorance by the leaders for the public complaints, protests, pickets, hunger strikes, and sit-ins have recently erupted in a joint movement throughout the country, with thousands of protesters taking to the streets at the same time every day for the last two weeks.

Protests started on Wednesday, February 5 2014, organized by unemployed workers from 5 factories in Tuzla.

Groups of organized protesters encouraged solidarity with Tuzla throughout the country. A movement calling itself UDAR say they spontaneously formed as a response to the workers’ protests in Tuzla and have called for the extension of the movement across  the country. For UDAR, it’s important “that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats are fighting together and reject the nationalism that is often used by the government to create splits between people.”

The International community present in the country has condemned the violence, but later supported the citizens democratic right to protest in the peaceful manner.

On Thursday, February 6 2014, police and demonstrators clashed in the city of Tuzla, Bosnia Herzegovina, after up to 6,000 took to the streets. Dozens of demonstrators and police were injured and police reportedly tear gassed protesters, some of whom were allegedly throwing stones and eggs at a local government building.
On Friday, February 7 2014 the demonstrations spread through many other cities in BiH, with violent attacks on institutional buildings, arrests and clashes between police and protesters. In Sarajevo, the capital of BiH, the Presidency building  was partially burned, while the cantonal building, located at the back  it, with important archive and municipal registry office, was almost completely burned. Some shops and small businesses were also destroyed during the clashes. The same destruction was evident in Tuzla, too.

Over the next weekend (15th &16th February), however, the situation calmed down drastically, as the street protests continued in more a peaceful manner. More organised forms of citizens actions came to exist, through citizens plenums formations in many towns through the country. People in Tuzla even went out for a street clean-up of all the debris from the previous day.

The common requirements of all plenums are: resignation of governments, revision of the privatisation process in BiH, creation or return of the jobs, re-possession of the unlawfully gained assets, health and pension insurance for workers solved, salaries of politicians reduced to reasonable amounts, change of law that allows the resigning politicians to have full salary for a year after resignation (so called “White bread”), the governments formed by the people that do not belong to any political party or option and in accordance to skills and experience as the main criteria.

Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina want the society made for people, not for political- tycoon oligarchy, was the general requirement made by citizens.

Since the beginning of the protests, 4 prime ministers and 43 ministers on cantonal level have resigned from their positions. This could be understood as the first effect of the protests in BiH, but the victory comes with the bitter aftertaste, as the law that allows the resigning ministers and prime ministers to have full salaries for one year after the resignation was in effect. These salaries for the politicians resigning so far would amount to 1,5 milion BAM (arr. 760 000 €), unless  this law is  changed soon. This was immediately picked up by the protesters as one of the requirements for change.

Political party  representatives continue their power-struggle through media mostly, but their statements find no fertile ground. Many comments on portals and facebook profiles, as well as made by people interviewed in the streets, show that they can no longer count with the appeal to “national interests” in manipulating the masses.

“We are hungry in all three official languages” says the response on one of the banners, carried by the protester in Sarajevo street.

People of Bosnia and Herzegovina themselves (including the protesters) do not support the violent attacks of last Friday. The latest opinion poll by one of the marketing agencies in BiH shows that, while 88% of people in BiH support the protests, this percentage would drastically fall (to 50%) should violence continue. This fact feeds the suspicion that some of the violations were caused by the purposely infiltrated perpetrators, to turn the public support away from the genuine protesters.
Oxfam will keep a close eye on further developments, while the citizens gather for the second week in front of the  BiH Presidency building for the peaceful protests.

While Oxfam condemns all forms of violence in protesting for human rights, we also believe that governments must be accountable for their actions to the citizens, that active citizens are the driving force  for any positive change to happen, and that responsible leadership begins with the citizens inclusion in important decisions making processes.

Oxfam in Bosnia and Herzegovina, supports the citizens arousal against the social injustice in peaceful forms, and works with institutions and the NGO sector to further build their capacity in support of the development of democratic society and a prosperous one.

Political context

Bosnia and Herzegovina is young sovereign state that, before the war in 1992-1995., functioned as an administrative unit within Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After the 1992-95 war, Bosnia and Herzegovina faced great challenges on the road to recovery and the return of normalization to all aspects of life. The main obstacles to the return of normalization of the country are the extremely complicated political structure and the inefficient administration, which hampers the implementation of reforms that need to be made on the way to the EU.
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