As Ukraine’s new government grapples to restore stability, another eastern European nation roiled by anti-government street protests is gearing up for a tense anniversary. On Saturday, Bosnia will celebrate its 22nd year of independence from the former Yugoslavia — or at least the Bosniak-Croat Federation (FBiH) will. The country’s other political entity, the Serb Republic, (RS), refuses to acknowledge the anniversary over two decades after representatives of Bosnia’s Serbs boycotted the 1992 referendum that led to the country’s independence following a bloody civil war. On Friday, the speaker of the Bosnia’s House of Representatives Milorad Zivkovic announced that no celebratory events would be held in the parliament’s two largest halls.
March 1 has long been a source of tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where ethnic tensions have persisted since the U.S.-brokered Dayton accord split the country into two ruling entities in 1995. However, as of late those tensions have been superseded by frustrations over a stagnant economy and sky-high unemployment (over 44%), which prompted Bosnia’s worst public unrest since independence earlier this month. Protests began February 5 in a sluggish industrial zone in northern Bosnia, before spreading to Sarajevo, where last week demonstrators stormed the presidential headquarters and set fire to government buildings.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Unemployment in Bosnia
Bosnia’s fractious ruling triumvirate of Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats is to blame (and has been blamed, vehemently, by anti-government demonstrators in both entities). Amid jockeying between the RS, which is pushing for greater autonomy, and the Federation, which wants national unity, Bosnia’s economy has stalled, along with its chances at European integration. Corruption is rampant — not to mention costly, with an estimated 8 million euros lost to graft every year — and Bosnia’s parliament is consistently log jammed by political bickering. (See last year’s “Baby Revolution” for an example of the government’s disastrous inefficiency.)
Yet there is a hint of political change on the horizon – minus the harsh crackdown that marked Ukraine’s recent upheavals. Four out of ten regional governments in the Federation have resigned, and protest leaders are organizing citizen assemblies that are expected to push for negotiations with Sarajevo in the coming days. (They want snap elections — a demand cautiously endorsed by the Federation, and rejected by the RS.) The challenge here is that protesters are going it alone, so to speak. The European Union has shied away from Bosnia in recent months, disappointed by its failures to implement critical reforms, as has longtime ally the United States. Now, with all eyes on Ukraine — where nationalistic strife is front and center — Bosnian protesters can expect increased isolation as they move to transform a grassroots movement into tangible political change.
Nonetheless, the turbulence in Sarajevo has a silver lining: a focused set of grievances that focuses on an untenable, Byzantine political system, and not on the sectarian tensions that have long divided Bosnia. (This despite reported attempts by leaders in both of Bosnia’s entities to dismiss protests as ethnically motivated.) Indeed, the challenges of reversing a two-decade old political paralysis notwithstanding, the self-proclaimed “Bosnian Spring” has the potential to be one of the first post-war popular movements to unify Bosnia’s three predominant ethnic groups. On Saturday, look for quiet independence day celebrations in the Federation, before Bosnia’s protesters — inspired, perhaps, by the gains in Kiev — get back to business.