The interminable, unfulfilled spring: is it Bosnia’s turn?

sebilj-may-2008CLICHÉS ABOUT POLITICAL SPRINGS are looking a bit shopworn at the moment; recent events in Ukraine and Crimea show how so-called springs can go spectacularly off track and with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Of late, talk of springs, of the political kind, if not of seasonal shifts, has been associated with popular protest. The last year or so in Mediterranean Europe has seen protests in GreeceSpain and France and of course the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in June last year.

Popular disaffection with the political status quo isn’t just confined to these EU-member or EU-aspirant parts of Europe.  Recent years have also seen protests and mobilisations in the Balkans, but these have been protests that haven’t attracted the spotlight of international media attention.

The Balkans are, generally speaking, stuck in the recesses of the popular imagination as an unstable region of ‘ancient hatreds’, so perhaps uprisings here are seen as unremarkable – after all, as received wisdom has it, this is a region prone to gratuitous violence.

That said, this rugged, mountainous corner of Europe is slowly gaining recognition as a place not just seething with inter-communal tensions and not solely physically riddled with 1990s-vintage bullet holes. Even Bosnia & Hercegovina, the country most closely tainted by this sort of thinking, has recently won some kudos, gaining a star rating from National Geographic Traveler, no less.

Nat Geo coverage doesn’t automatically foster a happy political arena, however. In February protests erupted in the northeastern city of Tuzla, said to be one of the powerhouses (all things are relative!) of the Bosnian economy. It also happens to be one of its most ethnically diverse cities: it retains an Orthodox cathedral and Franciscan monastery amidst it mosques, as well as an active Jewish community.

Protests in Tuzla were triggered by public discontent, disillusionment and frustration at political shenanigans that have bedevilled the country and forestalled reform and economic development since the peace accords of 1995. After three days, protests had spread to more than 30 cities and towns across the country, with Sarajevo becoming the epicentre of protest and public displeasure. As if to live up to Western (mis)conceptions of the region, protests in many instances became violent, with public offices torched and phalanxes of police bringing in tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

Three months on protests may have cooled, yet popular mobilisation and the voicing of political complaints and demands are ongoing. The political arena in Bosnia is fiendishly complex: where else is there such a small state that entertains two distinct political entities, five presidents, 10 cantons and a mind-boggling array of political parties and bureaucratic organs? Getting anything done in such circumstances is a tall order indeed.

Aside from the resulting stupefying political inertia, what appears to have finally sparked your average Bosnian-on-the-street is mounting frustration with the political framework put in place after the peace negotiations of the mid-90s, one that has worked to the advantage of political elites and their cronies, but done nothing for aforementioned average Bosnian Joes. The upshot of the protests, and a direct response to this democratic quicksand, has been the formations of ‘plenums’ across Bosnia. These are public forums where people gather to enunciate concerns and articulate demands, which may then be addressed to administrative bodies. ‘Plenums’ have been lauded as a mechanism that will demonstrate to Bosnians how democracy *really* works.

Giving the people a voice may generally be applauded, and it appears that there are many voices wishing to be heard. Top-down, elite-driven political development is often fraught. James C. Scott, the noted political scientist from Yale, argues that the standard top-down approach to instituting ‘high modernism’ involves enforcing legibility – that is administrability(!) – on society; such a process is feasible, but comes at the cost of local knowledge, Scott contends. And without taking account of local conditions and building on local knowledge, he continues, attempts to improve societal conditions are bound to fail. This is all the more so in Bosnia, where it appears that political actors have demonstrated few aspirations to the more enlightened aspects of high modernism, but plenty of aptitude for shoring up their own positions and feathering their own nests.

library-night-may-2008In many regards the internecine killing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s was a top-down initiative. Rogers Brubaker in his landmark collection of essays, Ethnicity without Groups, speaks of ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’, ie those who manipulate – indeed, in some instances manufacture – ethnic tensions and conflicts to their own advantage, to serve their own usually political agendas. Brubaker’s model describes with pin-point precision the circumstances of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Such manipulation of circumstances can have very real implications, in this case serious episodes of inter-communal blood letting. So significant were these that the political quandaries of Bosnia continue to be viewed by many solely through an ethnic prism. ‘Ethnic  hatreds’ are taken to be part of the very landscape, thus creating an environment where said ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’ can play on fears of new wars breaking out, manipulating events to their advantage, thus extending the political doldrums that Bosnia has languished in for so long. Indeed, it has been remarked that various Bosnian politicians tried to put an ethnonationalist spin on the protests as they broke out earlier this year, blaming, of course, *other* ethnic groups for fomenting the troubles.

In fact, without downplaying the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, there is a long history of intercommunal fraternity at a workaday level across Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans. Cooperation, despite religious and ethnic diversity, has been the modus operandi for a long time in the region, even during the horrors of the 1990s, as recounted by Svetlana Broz. This continues to the present, an example being the village of Ustibar in Republika Srpska, where townspeople of all faiths come together to work on building projects in concert. As reported in SE Times, locals remark that, ‘For us in Bosnia, this is so normal. We live together, indeed.’

Perhaps on the ground it is apparent to adherents of different faiths that they share a great deal of history and have much in common. Indeed in the early days of the Bosnian protests, Serbs across the border went out in sympathy with their Bosnian neighbours, gathering in Belgrade and chanting ‘Brave Bosnia, we are with you.’ Such an expression of solidarity is perhaps recognition that the peoples of the region may be connected by issues other than ethnicity.

In the last few days, both Serbia and Bosnia have been beset by disastrous floods. (Too much spring rain, perhaps…) It is to be hoped that in the face of such a natural disaster that the two peoples can be a support to each other, that they can cast aside earlier differences and work through the mire together. Already, the plucky Macedonians are mucking in to bring supplies and succour their neighbours.

Meanwhile, a significant event in recent weeks little noticed in the mainstream press was the reopening of Sarajevo’s City Hall. Destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992, the building’s decrepit and bombed out appearance seemed to symbolise Bosnia’s troubled plight. It is now fully refurbished, revelling in all of its neo-Moorish glory – could this possibly be a harbinger of spring for Bosnia?