Breaking the old narratives of Bosnia

A discussion with two young Bosnians involved in the under-reported protests this year against the corrupt post-war regime.


In February of this year, popular protests originating in the northern industrial city of Tuzla quickly spread across Bosnia and Herzegovina, leading to what the Bosnian government dismissed as “rioting” by “hooligans” but which many citizens saw as ‘Bosnia’s Spring.’

The initial protests in Tuzla emerged out of a strike over pay at a factory, and the botched and shady privatization processes behind it. They developed and spread to most major cities and towns in the country, taking a wider aim at the corruption and stagnation of post-war Bosnia.

Bosnia is divided into two main ‘entities’ – Federacija Bosnia Herzegovina and Republika Srpska and a small exception in the Brcko District. An estimated 40 per cent of people in Bosnia are unemployed, while politicians are among the highest paid in Europe in comparison to the salaries of the rest of the population.   The current political system of Bosnia and Herzegovina is consociational, devised in the Dayton constitution that was an annex to the 1995 peace agreement that ended the war. As well as a three-person Presidency with a seat reserved for each of the three main ‘ethnic groups’, the overall political system privileges political parties that campaign on ethnic lines, and thus ‘ethnicises’ public life. Ethnic identification is, in reality, compulsory to operating in public life and working in public institutions. This constructs a cultural climate that philosopher Asim Mujkic has described as an ‘ethnopolis’, where one’s surname is destiny.

The protesters were met by police brutality and attempts by the government to smear them, without evidence, by describing them variously as drug-fuelled hooligans and nationalists. Countering these accusations, the protesters marched carrying banners with slogans such as “we are hungry in three languages”, a reference to the fact that, in post-war Bosnia, school-children are segregated and taught either ‘Bosnian’, ‘Croatian’, or ‘Serbian’ despite the clear mutual comprehensibility of these languages. “He who sows hunger reaps anger” was the graffiti sprayed across Sarajevo, a charge leveled at the political elite, who the protesters accused of pursuing their own interests and stirring ethno-nationalist tensions for political gain at the expense of providing essential services for all their citizens.

A month into the protests, the demonstrators began to organize themselves across the country in an innovative form of direct democracy in order to articulate their demands. These public assemblies or ‘plenums’ were unprecedented in post-war Balkan history and a testament to citizen mobilization against corrupt and incompetent regimes. The demands of the protesters as articulated through these institutions, particularly the outcry against corruption, led to several resignations of politicians at the canton-level of government.

But then in May, just a month into the plenums, Bosnia was hit by the worst floods in a century, with thousands fleeing their homes, and fatalities across the country and region. The protests, and the plenums into which they had transformed, came to a halt as the floods turned into a national emergency. The lack of willingness by both Bosnian politicians and EU representatives to engage with the plenums and listen to the concerns of citizens arguably also led to the decline of the movement, yet leaving the problems that sparked the protests very much in place.

I talked to Sumeja Tulic, 29, and Sadzida Tulic, 28, two Bosnian law graduates living in Sarajevo who were involved in the protests from the start. I asked them about the protests, the plenums which they worked to organize, and where Bosnian citizens who desire change can go from here. (Disclaimer: they are also my personal friends.)


Photograph courtesy of Sumeja Tulic

Heather McRobie: After several weeks of protests, the plenums emerged seemingly very suddenly. How did that shift occur, from protesting on the street to organizing in a more systematic way?

Sadzida Tulic: The protest experience was different around the country, so we’re talking here of the experience in Sarajevo, which is what we experienced. The story of what happened elsewhere, in Tuzla and in Mostar and other cities, and how it reflects the situations of the people there and the history, are also important stories.

So the first big protest here was Friday 7th February, and thousands of people took to the streets that day. It was so big that there were different protests in different parts of the city. People were posting footage on social media and you saw most of the city in the footage at some point. And this protest dynamic developed, after the big protest that Friday, of where to go, who would likely attend and that kind of thing.

As the pattern of the protests developed, it became too unfocused. We realized we needed focus – by ‘we’ I mean the younger, more ‘educated’ people – sorry to use that word, as that was a problem itself – but anyway, we began saying the protests needed to be more focused and our demands articulated properly. Because at the start the protests were very horizontal, it was an eruption of anger at so many different things that all came to a head at once. Then we needed to channel that.

Sumeja Tulic: Maybe some people had prepared in advance, even before the protests really started, I mean activists, maybe they had thought that any demonstrations should be turned into something more concrete, an expression of the people’s will.   But the early protests were just people shouting random things, with many different demands, because there are so many sources of anger but then they are related. And of course because those participating in the protests were given the stigmatizing label of ‘hooligans’ by the authorities almost as soon as the protests started, there was a need to find a new way to express the concerns of those who had taken to the streets.

Representative democracy failed us greatly in Bosnia. That is one of the big failures of this time here. So the plenums were also a response to that, because there is no pre-existing outlet, because the ‘official’ democracy is not meaningful.

“…as soon as we were on the streets the bubble just burst, the show they are putting on about democracy in Bosnia doesn’t work anymore.”

Heather: So the protests would not have happened if Bosnia had a functional democracy? Or would you say that is perhaps why the protests coalesced into plenums, a kind of direct democracy activity?

Sadzida: After the war there were protests on so many levels, protesting against all the different levels of government – because the government structure here is so complex – and these protests were on so many issues, because there are so many things to protest here because it isn’t a functional system, in a way that affects everyone’s day-to-day life. But nothing worked, from all these protests.

No-one was ever listened to and nothing changed from all these demonstrations.

Because representative democracy doesn’t work here, not under Dayton [the 1995 Dayton peace agreement], it isn’t a real democracy, it is just picking which members of the elite will tell you the same ethno-politics. The people of the system here don’t associate themselves with democratic values.

I think it was finally the right moment, and as soon as we were on the streets the bubble just burst, the show they are putting on about democracy in Bosnia doesn’t work anymore. They started using Qadhafi-style rhetoric, saying the protesters were all on drugs, that we were hooligans. All the old rhetoric came out – when some buildings burned, the Bosniak elite politicians in Sarajevo were using rhetoric like “they did something even the Chetniks didn’t do [in the war]”. They were trying to demonise the protesters and the only thing they can draw on is the old rhetoric, even though that’s what the protests were rejecting.


Photograph courtesy of Sumeja Tulic

Sumeja: One thing that really fuelled it was the young men, boys really, being mistreated by the police, they’re “our boys” in the sense that, whatever ethnicity, if you’re from Sarajevo you’re ‘ours’. It was a shock that this violence was our own, it didn’t come from ‘outside’ and you couldn’t use that language to explain it away. You couldn’t use the language of the external aggressor. More people came after that, people were angry as these stories began to go around.

But another thing that fueled it was that politicians refuted the fact that people are hungry and they lack dignity. It was shocking that politicians refused to recognize that that is true, because it is obvious, you can’t live in Sarajevo and not know people here are hungry, literally hungry, and lack basic dignity in their lives.

Heather: So it was a protest over standards of living? To what extent were socio-economic concerns a factor in people joining the protests?

Sadzida: Of course it was economic, but everyone linked this to the current system, the corruption and the ethno-nationalist politics, and the sense everyone had that they had been manipulated for so long. But everyone linked it to ethno-nationalism. They know they have been manipulated. And neo-liberalism is hand in hand with ethno-nationalism and corruption. They all work together. The “transition” couched in the language of freedom is all a façade where everything inside is rotten.

It is paradigmatic of ex-Yugoslavia. Look at Vucic in Serbia presenting himself as ‘pro-EU’, that’s all they have to do, then they can have any nationalist past, be as corrupt as they want, all the corrupt privatization they want. And they have learned that this is all they need to do for the neo-liberals to be happy with them.

Heather: I remember when the protests began, Dodik [Milorad Dodik is a nationalist politician and President of Republika Srpska, the Serb-majority Federal entity] tried to say it was Bosniak nationalists, or anti-Serb protests, and then when that argument didn’t work he switched and said something like ‘well look, this is a sign Bosnia and Herzegovina doesn’t function as a state, like I always said it never worked’. He used the protests for his own nationalist secessionist agenda. Like he had to steer it back to the old narratives.

Milorad Dodik. Credit: Flickr / Izbor za bolji zivot

Milorad Dodik. Credit: Flickr / Izbor za bolji zivot

Sadzida: Yes because they were afraid, all the elite were afraid, because their logic and way of seeing things couldn’t accommodate us.   People were laughing at Dodik’s response. That in itself showed how corrupt and morally bankrupt they all are, to use a demand for justice from the people for their agendas like that. It was a sign of fear coming from those who hold power – economic power and political power.

There was a protest at one point where the rumour was the protesters would go to Poljine, you know past the zoo, the rich area where all the villas are, where the elite live and the politicians live. So they put a special police barrier there, and a special police patrol so no one could go there! And at the same time as they are telling us we are hooligans the politicians came out with the most ridiculous comments. Itzetbegovic [Bakir Itzetbegovic, a politician and former Bosniak President, one of the three Presidency seats] was saying “well now Zara won’t open in Sarajevo” because of the protests.

“…neo-liberalism is hand in hand with ethno-nationalism and corruption.”

Sumeja: Yeah, like we are little children and now we can’t have a new toy. Or that this is all they care about, “what will it look like and what will the west think.” There was no attempt to address our concerns, they just try to distract us. And that’s offensive really, like we aren’t citizens or we have no real values so we’d be distracted by that and say “oh, no, we should stop and be obedient, otherwise we won’t get a Zara.”

Heather: You’ve mentioned Dayton and the problems it has caused, or has been seen to cause. To what extent was this a protest over Dayton? [the current constitutional set up in Bosnia, established after the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995.]

Sumeja: Okay, of course we as citizens are against Dayton and that is an absolute obstacle, because Dayton is unjust at its core. But actually in the immediate sense, people made their peace with that.

The line of thinking is: of course Dayton is unjust and of course we need a new constitution, but for now let’s just deal with the corruption and how it has been abused. Dayton is bad in itself and then there is how it has been abused and manipulated by politicians, and how tendering and contracts are all corrupt, and there is even just basic gross incompetence – never mind corruption but just total incompetence!

So the protesters were really asking for the bare minimum, it wasn’t ‘let’s overturn Dayton’ so much as ‘let’s just meet people’s needs, put an end to corruption, pay people the months of wages they are owed, let people have some dignity.’ The war veterans in Republika Srpska were protesting at the same time.

Sadzida: The protests and the plenums also showed a kind of maturity, in terms of the arguments being used. Because we have all been arguing against Dayton for so long.

Sumeja: it was an overall outcry at how bad things had become, with no provisions for citizens. Which of course comes down to Dayton in the end but that wasn’t even the immediate concern.

Heather: Sumeja, you documented police brutality throughout the protests. Do you see a link between police brutality and the other things we’ve mentioned, like corruption and the Dayton structure? Or just – and sorry to use this phrase everyone uses – the ‘post-war’ situation in general?

Sumeja: The report of Human Rights Watch and of other international organizations all clearly stated that there had been police brutality – and torture actually, not just brutality. And it occurred to minors, boys who were minors in the eyes of the law, as well as young men. Their parents didn’t know where they were, because the police detained them for longer than they are allowed to hold them and didn’t let them contact anyone.

And this happened at the same time as police raids – you could have just been an observer and you’d still get beaten and harassed. The police are politicized, in the big picture sense of who appoints them and the ties of corruption there, but also in the day to day sense, of daily-life politics: they can instill fear just through whispers among neighbours “I heard your son was at the protest.” People got phone calls like that. People can get intimidated and also just kind of neighbourhood peer pressure, it’s a small city, you can get a rumour to someone “I heard your son was at the protests, was he at the protests?” And after the protests, police would approach people and ask for their IDs. It was obviously an attempt to use fear as a tactic.

So for me it is all connected – the protests and the response to the protests, particularly the brutality of the police. People who are asking ‘why did the plenums die out, or why did the protests stop?’ need to make the connection that it was because people were being intimidated by police, because they created a climate of fear, either directly through their violence or through implication. And together that is effective, it becomes too risky for people.

As the plenums developed, and we formed subgroups within this for different tasks, a legal aid group was formed – we did this because it was obvious, from the early weeks of the protests, that they were targeting people who were not really aware of their rights. Or they were taking advantage of the fact people are worn down, used to being mistreated.


Photograph courtesy of Sumeja Tulic

Heather: You’ve both mentioned corruption. To what extent was that a focus on the protests, and were there any specific demands from the protesters? How is it linked to the other issues the protesters were addressing?

Sadzida: Nationally, the protests started in Tuzla, and that’s what inspired the protests in many other towns and cities in the following days and weeks. And the protests in Tuzla were definitely addressing corruption. And in Bosnia, corruption is linked to privatization.

It is important to note that the workers in Tuzla had been protesting for years, because their lives have been systematically destroyed. They were really dehumanized. Through privatization, half their colleagues were fired. This had been a long campaign by the workers in Tuzla, which had included hunger strikes.

There is a joke in Bosnia, “Do you work? And do you receive your pay check?” You have to ask the second question because just because someone has a job doesn’t mean they will be paid. The workers in Tuzla had not been paid for months. Their protest was a response to systematic violence in their lives.

“…international organizations all clearly stated that there had been police brutality – and torture actually, not just brutality.”

Heather: And this is linked to ethno-nationalism?

Sadzida: Corruption and ethno-nationalism are bound together. They function like a mafia. Procurement and tendering are all corrupt. The ethno-nationalist elite maintain their power through corrupt practices.

During the period of the protests, a new law was passed on how tendering is dealt with, and the law served the interests of the corrupt. They were so shameless they passed it while we were on the streets. The protests were the first time we endangered their position so they used all possible means to shut us down.

There’s obviously frustration at “shtela” [roughly translated as nepotism, culturally-coded corruption and giving favours] because the lack of basic justice ruins people’s lives here. It is brutal to not have a safety-net because you know there are not fair provisions for everyone. Every life here is like a lottery card, there is no meaning of fairness.

I met one guy at the protests who told me he was born in 1993, and when he was born his father was thinking of whether to shoot the baby or shoot himself, because there is no hope for people here. Bosnia really is beautiful, the place itself, the country – when you go away and then come back here you see it, the landscape, the hills and mountains, Herzegovina for instance, all of it – it is a beautiful country and so rich in resources, but somehow, the present reality, makes the country the opposite of what it should be. The poverty is almost violent, it is visual, you can’t avoid it, and this structure that no-one can live in. Bosnia is so beautiful but now it is not a liveable situation.

“The western journalist clichés of Bosnia are well-documented by now, of course.”

Heather: Do you think these sentiments were conveyed, do you think the protesters got their message across?

Sumeja: The politicians were never interested in what we said, of course, because they can’t even make us the enemy, because they are used to that logic where the ethnic ‘other’ is the enemy.   So that’s why they stigmatized us and used the tactics of police brutality that they did.

Heather: What about the media? Do you feel the message of the protesters came through? Can you explain a bit about the media landscape of Bosnia?

Sadzida: The national media, and the media in the two federations – because a lot of media works on the ‘entity’ level – is linked to the ethno-nationalist politicians so of course they misrepresented the plenums. That never really changes, except that occasionally one of the broadcasters switches allegiance between the different nationalist politicians – like in Federacija entity you can tell who really has power by the rotation at Federation TV.

Sumeja: The national media is corrupt, in the sense of the deals done of ownership, and also in their political links and how that works. The journalist who presented ’60 minutes’, one of the big political programmes, is now in the running to be the next Bosniak candidate for Presidency. The ex-Minister of Security owns the biggest newspaper, and his idol is Berlusconi.

One thing that shocked me during the protests was thinking how much money the EU or the ‘international community’ or whoever, poured into all these ‘media training’ initiatives for journalists and for press freedom and professional standards. But they will do what their owners tell them, they will be obedient to the money, so they did not properly cover the plenums, the concerns of those involved, even when we began to organize to have a coherent message.

Heather: And what about the international media?

Sumeja: The international media, or the western media if you prefer, just want to write about the war. That is the only lens through which they see Bosnia. They come for the commemorations of atrocities, or they come for the commemoration of [the assassination of] Franz Ferdinand, and then they leave.

The western journalist clichés of Bosnia are well-documented by now, of course. The current realities, the reality of 2014 and what our struggles are now, are rarely addressed.

I remember one western journalist wrote “will this mean a new ethnic war for Bosnia?” It’s as though, because we have had a war here, we’re now not allowed to protest anything! It is infantilizing and of course it is Orientalist but it also works well for the people who are currently in power. We are not allowed to be normal citizens like in France or Spain, where you can just exercise your right to protest like normal – instead there is this narrative from the international media “oh, but does this mean you’re going to have another war now?” It’s offensive. No, it means we don’t like corruption, or we want to be paid our wages, or whatever the protest is about – we deserve to be believed that we are just protesting what we say we’re protesting without someone putting words into our mouths, or pushing it into their own agenda about ‘war-torn Bosnia’.

Heather: I remember when the protests started in February and I was watching the international media coverage quite closely, because I wasn’t in Bosnia at the time, and I wanted to see how it was analysed, what language the western media would use to frame it. And I remember noticing they wheeled out all the journalists from the 1990s who hadn’t written about Bosnia in twenty years, like ‘Bosnia is back in the news, give us a comment!’ instead of going to Bosnians who were there now (although some did that later). And the second thing I noticed was watching the coverage of Bosnia’s protests shift – and then disappear – as Euromaidan in Ukraine developed into a full revolution.

Sumeja: Only one Eastern European country at a time, or people get confused.

Heather: Yes, it was like “oh we only have energy for one issue in Europe outside the EU, sorry.” Or that it would have worked if Bosnia’s protests had been at a ‘revolutionary’ stage, a narrative could have been built upon that like in 2011 with Tunisia and Egypt, but because this was going in a different direction, with plenums and a different legacy of the twentieth-century, no-one could put Bosnia into a line along with Ukraine, so it had to disappear again.

Sadzida: Why the protests and the plenums eventually lost their momentum is complicated. There were the floods in May [which were the worst floods in a century in Bosnia and caused fatalities throughout the region] and there were also divisions as the plenums progressed, at the stage of the ‘plenum of plenums’ which was to bring together the plenums that were happening across the different cities and towns.

But it was also because of this oppression and stigmatization of the protesters and the way the media is an arm of politics and the people who are in power.


Floods in May, 2014. Credit: Flickr / Ian Bancroft


Flooded church, May 2014. Credit: Flickr /  Ramon Lomeli

Flooded church, May 2014. Credit: Flickr / Ramon Lomeli

Heather: But the plenums created their own media too? There was a newspaper?

Sadzida: Yes, we needed to make alternative institutions to everything because we can’t trust the existing institutions. This was like a lot of the exercises that the plenums organized, they showed people that they have the power to do these things for themselves since we can’t rely on the government. So we need to take action as citizens. In one way they were sort of like a practice, and in one way they were an example, of what an alternative would look like.

Sumeja: Actually the plenums began to organize subgroups, committees to debate and decide on different topics, of what we put to the government like demands to stop corruption and also on what people wanted as citizens, it was like an exercise in learning rights as well, people were learning through this process that they do have rights and they can ask for them, and the government works for them, or should work for them.

The sub-groups kept growing, so for instance there was one for culture, one for socio-economic issues, and in the end I think there were sixteen groups like this. And the media one organized the newspaper. Mediacentar Sarajevo was the only media – although they’re not conventional media because they are more like an NGO or civic initiative – that helped us with this, and also helped to try to change the discourse on the plenums. They are the only ones who stood by the ethics of their profession.

“…there are 5,000 people in Sarajevo who can never go back to how they were or who they were a year ago.”

Sadzida: It is important to remember that this was such a suspension of normal life for so many people, you made new friends at the plenums, people you would never normally have spoken to, like these kids in university, or unemployed kids, usually everyone just hangs out in their own social group in Sarajevo, but the protests were such an intense experience, and through that we also grew new networks. Everyone adding each other on Facebook, and also losing friends who didn’t understand, getting into arguments with them or losing respect for some of your old friends because this felt like such a fundamental issue, like this is really it, this is happening for real and things might change.

People in the diaspora were transferring money to people in Sarajevo to buy all the protesters coffee, or get them bread. Especially the young people, when unemployment is so high for them and the university system has been changed so people don’t even know if their diplomas are worth anything, this was the first time anyone ever treated them like they mattered. It showed them they can contribute to something.

Heather: What legacy have the plenums left now they’re no longer functioning?

Sadzida: On the basic level, I would say that for instance there are 5,000 people in Sarajevo who can never go back to how they were or who they were a year ago. So there is that, on the basic level, people who now feel empowered to the point their lives are changed completely, their daily lives and what they will do with their lives. And I think that happened on a wide scale and across the country, even the new networks that have been formed, the different people everyone hangs out with now, it is as simple as something like that, and at the same time now having these better channels of communication because of these changes from people who met at the plenums.

I remember even the gender-sensitive language, this really ‘human rights NGO’ sort of language, started to come just naturally without it being forced, from people who have never been taught that, like making the word “citizens” in both genders, like gradjana i grandjanki”. It was complicated as the plenums developed and sometimes people would push a young person forward who is seen as more ‘educated’ and say “you speak, you know about this, you know law or you know what to say”, and then it got difficult because there was a fear it would lose its egalitarian quality, of course.


But the most fundamental thing is this shift in mentality, in terms of people understanding they have rights and that they can do this, they can mobilise like this. It wasn’t totally ‘of the street’ but it wasn’t just the students or more so-called ‘educated’ people either. So I think the plenums didn’t fail so much as they exercised their capacity for this time, this is the level they got to, they stretched to the limit they could at this point – the big auditoriums full of people talking about their rights and what they want as citizens – and I am really hopefully for what can build upon this in the future.

Heather: What do you think would have happened if the floods hadn’t come the month after the plenums really started?

Sumeja: Well it’s not about whether the plenums would have stayed the same, but what you saw with the floods was people organizing among ourselves, getting supplies together, bringing supplies of food and water to [a cinema and other locations in the city] and then forming a big human chain to pass them out efficiently. Because still no-one trusted the government to provide for them.

But this citizen action and citizen response to the floods itself showed the change in people, because of what had happened the months before, because they know they’re capable of organizing. These bonds have been formed or strengthened.

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