Where is Bosnia and Herzegovina going?

In this article, the author explores the nature of protests taking place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 


By Alejandro Marx, 26th November, 2013

The year 2013 has seen major protests around the world, including in Turkey, Brazil Romania and the ongoing ones in Bulgaria. The common thread that these protests have had was that they questioned the role of their elected representatives. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has also seen protests, although they haven’t been adequately covered by the international media.

BiH experienced from June 6 2013 a succession of protests in Sarajevo, which later spread to other cities of BiH. The protests were a result of the frustration with the complex working of the State of BiH, created after the 1992-1995 Civil War. BiH is divided into two major entities, Republika Srpska (the Serb entity) and the Bosnian Federation (the Croat and Bosniak entity), plus the Brcko District with is under the control of the both mayor entities. Both entities have their own parliaments. On the national level, the Parliamentary Assembly, with its two chambers (the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples), represents the ethnic groups. Decisions are taken on the basis of an agreement between each of the 3 ethnicities. An ethnic group which considers that a law is against its vital interests can veto it.

The International Community is still importantly involved in the country. The Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) oversees the application of the civilian aspect of the Dayton Peace Agreement. It is has considerable power in BiH and can dismiss elected and non-elected BiH officials who obstruct the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. The EUFOR ALTHEA oversees the military implementation of the Agreement. The European Union (EU) is negotiating with BiH, its membership in the European organisation. The Balkans is the next process of enlargement for the EU. The recent membership of Croatia in July 2013 has now put BiH on the border of the EU.

Despite progress in the application of BiH for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the European Commission has not given its green light to its implementation, due to the continuous ban on BiH citizens who are not members of the three constituent people (Croat, Bosniak, Serb) from standing as candidates for the BiH Presidency and the House of Peoples. Despite a ruling in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights (Case of Sejdic and Finci vs Bosnia and Herzegovina).

A protest for the weakest members of BiH society

The reason for the protests in BiH were the continuing absence of new ID law for new-borns since the decision by the Bosnia’s Constitutional Court to abolish in February the Law on Personal Numbers, on the ground of the disagreement on the names of several municipalities in the country which have changed since the 1992-1995 Conflict in BiH. Despite discussions at the State Parliament, MPs from both the Bosnian Federation and the Republika Srpska did not agree on how to reformulate the law on IDs, making impossible for the children born after February to receive ID numbers, stopping them from obtaining passports and health care cards.

The impossibility to obtain a passport for children stopped a couple from taking their daughter, Belmina Ibrisevic, to Germany to receive a bone marrow transplant. The child became the symbol of newborns unable to receive ID numbers. Despite, the decision by the Council of Ministers on June 5 to adopt a temporary measure, valid during 180 days, to issue ID numbers, protesters converged to and blocked the Parliamentary Assembly, on June 6 2013, in Sarajevo to call for a permanent resolution of this issue.

Politicians of the Srpska Republika’s Serbian Democratic Party, one of the two major ruling Serbian parties in BiH, claimed that the protests were staged against them, thus implying a ethnic motivation of the protest. The protesters denied this. Parliamentarians of the 3 constituent peoples were blocked inside the parliament buildings, in addition to foreign investors who were invited to attend a conference.

The protests continued in the following days with protesters coming from the both entities which make BiH. The protests took place also in other cities of the country, showing that it was truly a movement of the general population of BiH, not a particular ethnic group. The protesters also called on Valentin Inzko, the current Head of the OHR to impose a solution. Inzko declined in an interview, on June 14 2013, to take position, saying that BiH parliamentarians must be responsible for their actions. The protest could have turned violent after the announcement that Berina Hamidovic, another sick baby delayed to travel abroad to be operated, had died. The demonstrators reacted by organising a silent commemoration in front of the parliament on June 16 2013. This only made the statement of the protesters more powerful. The Parliament finally gave up resisting the protesters and voted a new ID law, under urgent procedure. However, this law was later vetoed, on July 23 by Bosniak MPs, on the base that their vital ethnic interest was endangered by the urgent procedure used for the vote. On November 5 2013, the Parliament of BiH finally voted changes to the Law on Personal Numbers, finally giving to newborns citizens the possibility of receiving passports and health care cards.

Which future and which meaning?

The failure of the protesters to end the grip of ethnic leaders in BiH is a huge disappointment. Again, issues affecting the daily lives of citizens have been a tool by politicians to bargain and maintain their power in the country. This is the irony of BiH. The politics of ethnicity which were supposed to create a workable democracy in the country, while avoiding its fragmentation, have revealed themselves to be unworkable.

2013 has shown that the political elites of BiH could not be pressured by their population. However, the ethnic basis for politics may soon change. On October 1rst, a census has been launched. It is the first census since the war in BiH. It is seen as potentially changing the current ethnic demographic of the country. Interestingly, it is possible that 35% of the population may declared itself as ethnic Bosnian-Herzegovinian, in opposition to the 3 ethnic groups in the parliament. However, Bosniak NGOs have declared, prior to the publication of Census results, that 54% of the respondents declared themselves as Bosniak. Many citizens are also wishing for a change of the entity and State system. The ethnic groups have very different views. A survey carried out in 2013 by the researcher Roland Kostic shows that a majority of Bosniaks wish for a more centralised BiHState, a majority of the Serb Community prefers independence of the Republika Srpska from BiH, while a Croatian majority wants secession from the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to create a Croatian autonomous entity inside of BiH.

Belmina Ibrisevic, the baby unable to be treated abroad finally died on October 15 2013 in a hospital in Germany. A protest took place at the front of the BiH Parliament where a mock tomb with a black blanket was unveiled.

The fact that the population could not force the politicians to change the ID law also shows that relations between the population and the State will continue to be conflictive and uncoordinated. It has revealed that the International Community is insensitive to the plight of the BiH people. The Office of the High Representative in BiH used the responsibility of BiH parliamentarians to not support the protesters and maybe save Berina Hamidovic and Belmina Ibrisevic. The insensitiveness of BiH parliamentarians and representatives of the International Community is also a reminder of a wider crisis that democracies are living today with the silence of politicians to protests against austerity measures in Europe and the political infighting during the Shutdown debate in the USA.

Alejandro Marx is a former Junior Analyst of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He previously worked for various agencies of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

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