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Breaking from Bosnia: Ethnicity in Critical Condition Due to Self-inflicted Wounds

By Slovo , on 11 February 2014

0,,17418743_303,00 In the past few days, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced the most extensive unrest since the end of the war in 1995. The demonstrations were markedly violent in the first days, but on Sunday acquired a more peaceful nature. Milorad Dodik tried to argue that the protests were limited to the Muslim-Croat Federation and thus were the product of problems specific to the Federation, very subtly hinting at the superiority of Republika Srpska’s political achievements. Unfortunately for him, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny, as the main frustrations the protestors have been giving voice to are related to the overall impotence and inherent corruption of the country’s political system as it came into being after the Dayton Accords of 1995. The various lists of demands released by protest groups from Tuzla, Bihać and Sarajevo all specifically state that the protests are opposing the self-enriching policies of the political elites, the reality of which is just as true for Republika Srpska as it is for the Federation.

Indeed, protests got underway on Friday in Banja Luka and in Bijeljina on Sunday – the capital of Republika Srpska and its second city, respectively – indicating that the inhabitants of that part of the country identify with the struggle of their neighbours in the Federation. Although these early signs of solidarity between the people of the two entities are encouraging, it is not a decided matter at all if things will continue to develop in this direction. The demonstration in Bijeljina was met by a counter-demonstration of Serbian nationalist youth chanting “No protests in [Republika] Srpska” and “No spreading fire from the Federation of BiH to Republika Srpska” (atvbl.com, 9 February), a sign of tensions within Republika Srpska and a possible hint at future confrontation. Still, the unprecedented cross-country protests may just galvanize the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and be the start of the development toward a more inclusive social, political and economic system.

The international community has an important role to play in channelling the protests into positive, rather than destructive, directions, and the attitude of ever more populist EU/NATO governments will be based to a significant extent on the opinion of their electorates. It is for that reason that I want to give a short overview of the reactions to the demonstrations by some of the largest media, both populist/tabloid and independent/broadsheet, from several different EU countries, as well as the United States and Norway. All translations into English, wherever relevant, are mine. The countries represented are: the USA, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and, finally, the UK.

In the United States, CNN blames the rampant unemployment most of all, while the New York Times identifies the incompetence of the federal and local governments to overcome petty inter-ethnic struggles as the cause of people’s disenchantment. Surprisingly enough, even Fox News puts the focus on protesters anger over politicians’ inter-ethnic quarrelling.

In France, Le Monde writes that “the origins of the dispute are not ethnic, not religious, but political and social.” (lemonde.fr, 8 February) Le Figaro puts the blame on the disillusionment of people caused by corruption and political in-fighting.

In Germany, the tabloid Bild does not report on the protests at all; Süddeutsche Zeitung focuses on people’s mistrust of the government and anger over widespread unemployment and poverty; Die Welt mentions political stagnation and the inefficiency of the system with a manifoldness of government agencies; while the subtitle of the Frankfurter Allgemeine article from 10 February is: “The social unrest in Bosnia is the largest since the war. For the first time these protests are shared over ethnic borders.”

In the Netherlands, the broadsheet NRC explicitly states that the protests are not caused by ethnic antagonisms, while tabloid De Telegraaf names unemployment and political impotence as prime causes of the protests, without mentioning ethnicity. De Volkskrant and Trouw echo this analysis.

In Norway, Aftenposten focuses on socio-economic dissatisfaction and both semi-tabloids VG and Dagbladet blame corruption and unemployment.

In Austria, populist Krone sees the failure of Dayton and unemployment as the sources of the demonstrations, Kleine Zeitung zooms in on corruption and Kurier finds fault in the en-masse privatization of companies, poverty and the self-enrichment of politicians.

Finally, in the UK, the Daily Mail does not report on the protests, while the Daily Express starts out unpromisingly with the title of the article: “Hundreds of police hurt protecting government buildings as Bosnia’s civil war rages on” (9 February). It then pulls a personal emotional quote relating to the 1992-1995 siege from a Sarajevo resident and gets somewhat constricted in its terminology by talking about the “Croat-Muslim Bosniak half of the country” (either Muslim or Bosniak, but not both). All the same, it goes on to mention that there are some protests in Republika Srpska as well and that the demonstrations seem to be caused by disillusionment with the political system. How they are a continuation of the Bosnian civil war, we are all left to wonder, but this is besides the current point. The BBC gives an in-depth report of older Bosnians joining the young protesters to fight for the latter’s future, disproving the possible assumption that it’s just young hooligans out there. The Guardian specifically ascribes the origin of people’s disaffection with the system to the ethnically divided construction of the state and notes the protest in Banja Luka.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

It is clear that all of the surveyed media locate the origins of the demonstrations in people’s disillusionment with the system as a whole, even though the depth of analysis varies. I am thus cautiously positive about the reporting of the international media so far, seeing as not a single one of them represents the causes of the protests as illegitimate. But most importantly, none of them see the protests in terms of ethnic hatred. Most of them explicitly reject this possibility, while some even discern signs that these protests might just overcome inter-ethnic suspicions and bind the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina together in a struggle for a better life, as many seem to realize that the ethnic division of the country is one of the main reasons that got them into this mess in the first place.

If the people are swayed by the media and the governments are swayed by the people, it seems that Bosnians might just get some actual support in the right direction this time around.

By Joris Zantvoort

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