Tags: Bosnia | politics | unrest

Bosnia 'People's Assemblies' Demand Change

Tuesday, 04 March 2014 10:59 PM EST

Packed into a small concert hall in the Bosnian capital, anti-government protesters can barely contain their anger, nor their excitement at finally having the country's widely reviled politicians on the ropes.

"The voice of the people is being heard for the first time, and the politicians are afraid. We must keep going!" shouted Sead Kosko, a 53-year-old electrical engineer, to the crowd of several hundred in Sarajevo.

These "people's assemblies" have sprung up across the tiny Balkan country of 3.8 million as frustration over decades of economic hardship and paralyzed government has boiled over into violent protests in recent weeks.

In early February protesters ransacked and torched government buildings in several towns, while clashes with police left dozens injured.

Many are still taking to the streets every day, but protesters are also flocking to concert halls and university campuses to hash out their demands for a government they accuse of rampant corruption and ineptitude.

"Citizens who bend their backs for those bandits do not deserve a state!" read one banner unveiled above a small stage at the Sarajevo people's assembly.



Bosnia has made almost no progress in the nearly two decades since the end of a catastrophic war that claimed some 100,000 lives.

The Dayton peace accord of 1995, brokered by the United States, placed a straitjacket on the sectarian tensions that had torn the country apart, with power shared among ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims — all overseen by an international High Representative.

Peace has held, but the complex power-sharing system has paralyzed decision-making, with ethnic groups unable to agree on reforms while political leaders get away with blaming the dysfunction on the international community.

The result is that Bosnia is one of Europe's poorest countries, with monthly salaries averaging just 420 euros ($570). Its central bank puts unemployment at 27 percent, while a further 17 percent are stuck in the "grey economy" without benefits or insurance.

The students, pensioners and war veterans who have gathered at the Sarajevo people's assembly have a common goal: to "force those in power to do their job," as Nidzara Ahmetasevic, one of the organizers, put it.

"I work for public transport, a mafia nest that has not paid our social security benefits for seven years," said participant Asja Kuluglija.

Having lost a husband and child during the 1992-95 war, Kuluglija said she is "not afraid of anyone".

"I have nothing to regret since I have nothing left to lose in life," she said.

Another common demand at these meetings is for cuts to regional officials' wages, and there is talk of appointing technocrats to stand in general elections due in October.

The demands are regularly handed over to the authorities, who have slowly started to pay attention.

In the northeastern town of Tuzla, where the protests began, several officials have already resigned and declined the payoff they normally receive when they leave.

Officials in Sarajevo and the southeastern town of Gorazde have followed suit.

"The time has come for the citizens to speak and for the politicians to remain silent," said Bosnia's ruling coalition leader Zlatko Lagumdzija.



Not everyone in Bosnia is keen to challenge the system, however.

In Republika Syrpska — a Serb-run autonomous rump of the country — many are wary of where the protests are heading.

"The Serbs see (the protests) as an attempt to centralize the country, a move they strongly oppose," analyst Milan Radulovic told AFP.

But even among Serbs, patience is running thin.

In Pale, a war-time Serb stronghold in the hills above Sarajevo, Zoran Maric considers himself lucky to have a job in a local grocery store.

But he wonders what his fellow Bosnian Serbs are "waiting for, as if the situation is better here?

"We are used, even conditioned, to rejecting anything that comes from the Muslim-Croat entity," the 47-year old told AFP. "But this argument will not hold much longer."

Zeljko Komsic, who currently holds Bosnia's rotating presidency, said in a recent interview with local daily Oslobodjenje that politicians now have a small window of opportunity to heed the protesters' demands.

"In a month or two, or a year, a new wave of protests might erupt, much more destructive than these, as devastating as an earthquake," he said.

© AFP 2024

Packed into a small concert hall in the Bosnian capital, anti-government protesters can barely contain their anger, nor their excitement at finally having the country's widely reviled politicians on the ropes.
Tuesday, 04 March 2014 10:59 PM
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