What should the EU do about the protests in Bosnia?


In this year’s Scorecard, against the backdrop of a host of encouraging developments in the Western Balkans, Bosnia’s situation stands out as particularly troubling. The European Union’s policies in Bosnia have had few results in the past year. In fact, the EU’s policies have made little impact on the country since the Scorecard was launched back in 2010. Little has changed, and the sense of “same old same old” is largely met with a shrug. As a Bosnian friend put it, “I can pretty much recycle anything I’ve written since 2006, just changing dates, and it still matches the situation in the country”. Indeed, deadlock is profound in Bosnia: the state system is characterised by constitutional deadlock, dysfunctional state structures, the same old faces in power at various levels, a stagnating economy, and Western policy in paralysis. Pushes for serious change have not delivered, but neither has the current policy of wait-and-see.

This negative equilibrium can only be broken from within. Last summer, Bosnia saw a mass “baby revolution”. A fresh outburst of popular anger is now under way, with protests spreading from Tuzla to Sarajevo and to other cities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnia’s primarily Bosniak- and Croat-populated entity. The demonstrations were triggered by workers from several formerly state-owned enterprises. These companies are failing because they have either remained under the control of the state and languished in practical bankruptcy for years, or else have undergone shady privatisation ending in ruin.

The mass rallies have already prompted the resignation of the prime ministers of the Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica cantons. And the protests have caused havoc across Sarajevo, where public buildings have been set ablaze. But observers of Bosnian politics warn against concluding that social grievances have bridged the deep ethnic divide. As was the case last summer, the protests have occurred in areas dominated by Bosniaks. Gatherings in Republika Srpska were not as well attended. In this region, the demonstrations spurred counter-protests, in which Serbs vowed to maintain the stability of their part of Bosnia. As Florian Bieber notes, Republika Srpska has taken advantage of the protests to bang the drum for a “divorce” in Bosnia. Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik and his entourage have been more successful than their counterparts in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in buying social peace. They have achieved a measure of stability even though they face similar challenges to those of the Federation with regard to unemployment and economic prospects. Ethnicised political systems tend to transform any issue into a cause for nationalist mobilisation.

EU policymakers, once again, have been caught off guard. Their reaction thus far has not been inspiring, to say the least. Valentin Inzko, the UN High Representative, has suggested that EU troops could be brought in to calm things down. On the face of it, this might seem to be a great idea. Brussels could take responsibility for Bosnia’s security and stability. But such a move would effectively mean that the EU is siding with Bosnia’s depressing status quo. The EU – along with the US – has long been in the business of keeping a lid on socio-economic tensions, for fear that they could fracture the country’s fragile polity. But containment has only made the situation worse. Anger has simmered beneath the surface for a long time. Bosnia’s own political system, flawed though it may be, must navigate the crisis and find a way out on its own. The EU should facilitate, of course, but it must stop short of policing the streets of Sarajevo and Tuzla.

Bosnia’s grave social and economic plight, along with that of the Western Balkans more broadly, vindicates the view that the region shares the same set of questions and challenges as the rest of Europe. The global economic crisis and the upheaval in the eurozone spread contagion to peripheral economies such as Bosnia, which was already integrated into the EU in terms of trade, investment, banking, and even labour markets. Core Europe is now seeing some green shoots of recovery – the data from southern Europe are encouraging. But the Western Balkans are a long way from turning the corner. The best thing the EU can do for Bosnia is to set its own house in order and spread economic dynamism into the crisis-hit Balkans.

PS Bosnia was discussed by the Foreign Affair Council (FAC) in Brussels Monday the 10th of February. High Representative Catherine Ashton is due to visit Sarajevo along with Enlrg Commissioner Stefan Fuele next week. In the meantime, protestors have called for the resignation of the FBiH government and early elections. 

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