How long till the next protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Bankwatch Mail | 14 May 2014
Back in early February this year, workers at several privatised companies started protesting in Tuzla. The workers expressed outrage at how factory owners were not paying social security contributions, thus making their employees no longer eligible for health care, social security or pensions.
This article is from Issue 59 of our quarterly newsletter Bankwatch Mail
A huge number of people started to give support to the workers, and protests quickly spread to more than ten cities across the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, sparking violence in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Zenica and Bihac on February 7. Meanwhile, in Republic of Srpska, another entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), only a few, small, non-violent protests were organised.
For people living in BiH, it was not a question of whether people would start protesting, but when? And, moreover, given the level of pent up frustration, just how violent any protests would be.
Some BiH economic data speaks for itself:
- 45 percent of the workforce are without an official work contract,
- 75 percent of young people want to leave the country,
- youth unemployment, according to the World Bank, now stands at over 57 percent,
- EUR 800 million a year is disappearing due to manipulated public tenders,
- 50 percent of the population is living on the brink of poverty, while 700,000 people are living in poverty.
BiH is a dysfunctional state, according to many representatives and observers from the international community. State finances are low while public expenditure and debts are climbing ever higher. The political parties control the judiciary and the police, while running corrupt privatisation schemes.
The country is in political deadlock over structural and constitutional reforms that are deemed to be essential if the path towards the European Union is to be found. But unlike neighbouring countries in the region, BiH is at a standstill when it comes to EU integration, and this is giving rise to a variety of political and financial intrigues.
The root of the protests – dubbed, of course, the ‘Bosnian Spring’ – lies in the country’s staggering unemployment, nepotism, widespread corruption, institutional paralysis and poor governance, but they were also a reaction against the manipulation of the ethnically divided people of BiH.
Some 200 people were reportedly injured in clashes with riot police, and it has been viewed as the worst unrest since the end of the war. Protesters managed to topple four out of 10 cantonal governments in BiH – in some cantons the ending of the ‘white bread’ perk came about, a privilege enjoyed within officialdom whereby salaries are paid for a year after leaving office.
Demands for a review of privatisation across the country, an increase in the minimum wage and the prosecution of corrupt politicians were also to the fore. Those demands are now in jeopardy.
Official push back
In the first few days of the protests, the panic among the political class was palpable – how, and in which direction, would the protests develop and perhaps spiral?
Refuge and then push back, needless to say, were found via the familiar trick of inventing plots against particular ethnic groups, as well as plots from unidentified foreign interests. Even though these accusations and manipulations have no relation to reality, to some extent they produced the desired result for the elites, especially in Republic of Srpska, where large protests failed to kick off at all.
After the initial violence and confusion, protesters continued with street protests but also turned their energy into citizens’ assemblies called ‘plenum’, where they practiced direct democracy in decision making over issues that should be discussed with the institutions.
Even though at their peak the plenum were able to conceive a decent number of citizens’ positions on topics of wide public interest, they gradually experienced a drop in numbers. This was somehow inevitable, given that the ‘professional’ politicians used all means necessary to dilute and redirect people’s anger, not to mention the fact that most of the protesters expected quick solutions for their economic and social issues, while direct democracy most often takes time to bear fruit.
EBRD needs to do better
It would be foolish, though, to think the protest spirit has disappeared for ever in BiH. And perhaps in this period of calm an institution such as the EBRD may pause to reflect on its role and past interventions in BiH society – and a few specific, problematic areas need to be addressed by the bank.
First, various EBRD loans to BiH projects have had, at best, questionable value for the people of BiH, but have also had substantial potential for corruption. This is relevant to most public projects, and transport projects in particular often spark controversies.
We’ve seen EBRD loans that supported projects threatening local communities (Blagaj and Pocitelj on corridor Vc), post-bid price increases (the Banja Luka-Gradiska motorway), building without construction permits (the Prnjavor-Doboj motorway), putting future national parks at risk (corridor Vc), and excessively polluting the environment in local communities (Arcelor Mittal).
Second, the EBRD’s willingness to support dirty energy projects, such as the lignite-fired power plant in Stanari – though ultimately the project was not financed, the EBRD’s initial presence helped to build the credibility of the project.
Finally, it is important to mention the institution’s lack of constructive communication with other stakeholders, including civil society organisations, regarding its activities in the country – an inefficient two-hour meeting with CSOs only reveals the bank’s lack of awareness about the fragile state of the country.
If BiH is to survive and prosper, both its legislation and leaders must heed and respond to the needs of its population. The international community, including the EBRD, must help to ensure that this iis realised, and support BiH citizens as they lead their own transition.