On Saboteurs and Junkies in Czechoslovakia and Bosnia

Politicians love diminishing the value of brave public acts by individuals, who do not fear to revolt against them.

Jan Palach, who burnt himself 45 years ago in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, was labelled a lunatic, so that his act would lose a moral value in the eyes of the public. Driving public attention away from the reasoning behind his act, the communist regime needed to turn this heroic move into a meaningless accident.

Sabotage was the word of the era – whoever tried to stand against the regime, was a “saboteur” [diverzant].

But the Czechoslovak political propaganda failed to force out the memory of his self-immolation as well as the ensuing popular demonstrations against the totalitarian regime governed from Moscow. People remembered.

In 1989 people took to the streets in Czechoslovakia and subsequently forced the regime to remember too, no longer believing in any of the images the regime was trying to force upon them.

In a similar fashion, the Bosnian authorities are trying to present the current protests as actions driven by junkies, vandals and hooligans, who spend their lives on drugs and drunk, when they should be looking for jobs.

They skilfully use the media to support this discourse. Some journalists at their service show images of beautiful historical buildings vandalized and on fire after the last round of protests. They make references to burning books by the Nazis and the fire in the Bosnian State Archive (which is stored in the Bosnian Presidency, hence unintentionally suffered some minor damage).

They are using the same strategy as the communists did. They need to drive public attention away from the causes of the problem and shift the blame onto someone else.

Today, the word diverzant is not appropriate but “hooligan” or “junkie” – to go with the geistzeit – might do.

Yet another irony of history and politics. Times change, so do names and terms, but people tend to use the same means.

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Angry Bosnians Setting their Country on Fire

The Inshallah-attitude of the Bosnian political elites is over. People are no longer happy to duly tolerate the leadership’s corruption and nepotism. They want jobs, decent living standards, and a functioning state. They are very angry. And this time they know whom to blame.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had more than enough of wars, poverty, corruption, and incompetent governments. One can dispute the fact that there exists a people of the name “Bosnian-Herzegovinian” but one can no longer claim that Bosnians would be silent in view of the dumbfounding extent of state capture and incapacity of the political leaders to deliver some fundamental services to its citizens.

The largest violent clashes since the end of the war in 1995 erupted across the country in early February 2014. Enraged and distraught people are aggressively letting Bosnian authorities know that they no longer tolerate their wanton plundering of the state resources at the cost of the citizens’ wellbeing. “This is not a violent protest, this is a protest out of hunger!”, one protestor summed up the situation. “We cannot live like this anymore. This is not living but surviving.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), on paper a federative state of two entities – Republika Srpska and Federation of BiH  (and a shared district) – has been in a state of political and economic stalemate for some time now. BiH is a conglomerate of three ethno-national communities (Bosniaks/Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats) and two political units (entities), where each entity runs on different administrative and even legal rules. Both entities operate as separate units and state-level political reform efforts have repeatedly failed. Not only politically but also economically Bosnia-Herzegovina does not function as a country. The result is inefficiency and bureaucratic chaos, which is hard to navigate through.

The protests started in Tuzla, in the north eastern part of the Federation of Bosnia, on 4 February 2014, when a group of former state company workers took streets in protest of their lay-offs, unpaid salaries, and criminalized privatization. The rally soon turned violent after the police tried to arrest some of the protestors. In what followed more people joint the protest in solidarity and set on fire governmental buildings and police vehicles. Over a hundred of people were injured and a number of public buildings vandalized. After three-day long violent clashes, the cantonal prime minister of Tuzla resigned.

Immediately after the first street clashes in Tuzla when images of battered people spread across social networks and the media, other major Bosnian cities like Mostar, Zenica, Bihac, and the capital Sarajevo revolted and followed suit in trashing political institutions. The police and special units reacted violently and arrested tens of people in the capital. By 8 February 2014, 156 people were injured in Sarajevo, 23 in Tuzla, and 40 in Zenica. Not only political and governmental buildings were set aflame but even the State Archive in Sarajevo was under attack. Executive and political institutions in the main cities were rained with grenades. Zenica’s and Sarajevo’s premiers resigned.

In Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, several hundreds of citizens supported the protests but this non-violent demonstration never escalated in anything of the size of the predominantly Bosniak and Croatian towns in the Federation.

From “2014 Tuzla protests”, the Wikipedia entry changed into “2014 Bosnia and Herzegovina” social riots within two hours. As one of the protestor put it, “people haven taken charge of their future. They cannot trust the politicians. They have to do it on their own.”

In reaction to the ensuing wrangle over who’s to blame for the Tuzla clashes, the Prime Minister of Federation Živko Budimir told AlJazeera that, “[t]here is not a politician in Bosnia now, who could say he is not responsible for this.” Economic woes, high unemployment and irritation over the political situation are difficult to hide. But some statesmen challenged the facts that the economic situation in the country is catastrophic: “[t]here is no reason for this unrest,” the Prime Minister of the Sarajevo cantonal government told the media, enraging the angry citizens even more. Several politicians tried to portray the protests in the media as actions of hooligans and junkies. Though the destruction of cities needs to be condemned, it shows the extent of desperation.

Was this so unexpected?

Nearly 40% unemployment rate, poor state service delivery, large-scale embezzlement and corruption, divided state institutions, and no prospect for a change with clear alternatives would by all standards manage to spark a revolution. Especially if those most affected are young people.

Moreover, this is not the first Bosnian social protest. The generally shared disgust with politics in Bosnia has been striking a chord for a long time. Disgruntled and angry, Bosnians have been repeatedly expressing their grievances. In the majority cases, their demands fell on deaf ears.

The first post-war social movement directed against governmental incapacity was formed in the end of 2005 as a result of a meeting of several online activits. From 2006 to 2008, the “Dosta” (Enough) Movement actively mobilized people and demanded responsibility from the state authorities and fight against corruption. Under the strong public pressure, which they created, the mayor of the capital Sarajevo and the prime minister of the Federation resigned.

In spring 2013, the state failure to find an agreement across the two Bosnian entities to issue new identity card (JMBG) for newborn children galvanized the public into the largest post-war popular peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of people revolted against the malfunctioning government, which had been unable to deliver fundamental services. After the death of a newborn girl, who was unable to receive medical treatment abroad due to her lack of identity travel document, ignited Sarajevo. The protestors initially blocked the parliamentary building where 350 foreigners attended the annual meeting of the European Fund for Southeast Europe. The protests lasted several months until an agreement was reached and new cards issued.

But this so-called Babylution was accompanied and preceded by a number of small social protests across the country, which have not been given much attention or thought. Yet if you list them together – one by one – you realize that the current situation is the outcome of a variety of long-suppressed frustrations.

In 2012, war veterans have been protesting and sleeping in Sarajevo for over a year, demanding the payment of their pensions. In December 2012 Zenica citizens took streets urging the ArcelorMittal Steel factory to install filters and cut emissions from the plant, which was polluting the city. In February 2013, relatives of Bosnian Serbs killed during the war demonstrated in Sarajevo, claiming that prosecutions and searches for missing people had been carried out unjustly. In May 2013, 5,000 workers gathered in Sarajevo in protest against the government of the Federation entity, demanding compensation for their unpaid salaries and urging for better health care. In September 2013, hundreds of deaf people called for social integration of the disabled. In October 2013, 500 Hydro Energy company workers protested over missing salaries. From November 2013 to January 2014 parents of children in Konjevic Polje organized sleep-ins demanding that their children be taught in their own national subjects and language variant.

And the list is much longer. But until now violence and destruction of public institutions was never an option.

Desperate times call for desperate means.

It is to early to predict whether these protests would turn into a general societal and political transformation. Even the greatest optimists have lost hope. The following months will show whether the 2014 protests enter into history side by side with the “Dosta” movement and “Babylution”, or finally provide the tipping point that Bosnia and its citizens have been waiting for so long.

With only limited internal political alternatives, lack of strong and unified opposition, there is space for scepticism. But the current social stir shows to the world that Bosnians are no longer merely pieces on a chessboard.