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Protests, Floods, Elections, Anniversaries and Arrests: Reflecting on Bosnia’s Main Events of 2014

January 14, 2015

By Lana Pasic

For Bosnia, 2014 was a year of civic activism, raised hopes and expectation, both politically and in the world of sports, a year of several significant anniversaries, continuous political status quo and great environmental destruction and sorrow. It was also a year when larger world events, like the emergence of the ISIS as a fighting force in the Middle East, brought new police actions and international scrutiny to Bosnia itself.

Political and social protests

The year began with February’s citizen protests, reported by Balkanalysis.com at the time. The protests occurred over corrupt privatisation processes and dismissals of employees from formerly state-owned companies. The protests started in Tuzla on 4 February and spread throughout the country, escalating three days later when the protesters in Tuzla, Sarajevo and Mostar set fires at cantonal government buildings and the building of the state presidency in Sarajevo. Protesters called for a re-evaluation of the privatization deals, government resignations, reductions of salaries for high-ranking government officials, and free and quality health services, among other demands.

Although there were claims made that the protests constituted a sort of a “Bosnian spring” it is important to note that 2014 protests or any similar future activities are very unlikely to result in significant political or constitutive changes. Social unrest in February was mainly in the Federation, and although citizens and students in Republika Srpska also decided to voice their grievances, they were not connected with the citizens’ groups in the other entity.

Indeed, the country’s complex structural and institutional make-up limits the impact that the protests in one part of the country can have on the other entity or overall state institutions. Although the prime ministers of cantonal governments in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica resigned, the federal government refused to give up its power. The protests did however resurrect hopes for a popular democracy and citizen-led reforms, though they did not result in any major changes throughout the course of 2014.

Reviving the Olympic Spirit in Sarajevo

Even as the protests were escalating, Sarajevo also marked the 30-year anniversary of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games held in the city during Yugoslav times. It was a significant event especially because, for the first time during the Cold War, athletes from both East and West came together to compete in the Olympics.

Thus the 2014 “Sarajevo Winter” event was marked by the lighting of the Olympic flame at Jahorina on 1 February.In addition to other sporting events which took place, British ice skaters Torvill and Dean returned to Sarajevo in February to perform again their famous “Bolero”– which won them the perfect score and the gold medal in 1984, in what the BBC at the time called “an overwhelming St Valentine’s Day victory for the duo in an event traditionally dominated by Soviet skaters.”

Balkan Floods

During the spring, the central Balkan region was hit by catastrophic rains and floods. More than 30 people died, hundreds of thousands were displaced and over a million affected by the disaster, primarily in Bosnia and Serbia. A third of Bosnia & Herzegovina was under water, and the rains also brought landslides, displaced and unearthed war-era minefields, and destroyed crops.

The floods resulted in human, economic and financial losses, and caused great trauma to the affected population- many of whom have found themselves entering 2015 still without their homes. The natural disaster saw a rise in activism and empathy, and also an increasing use of social media to organize and respond to the disaster and assist those in need.

Culture and Sports take Center Stage

In 2014, the Sarajevo Town Hall, Vijecnica opened its doors again to visitors, while the Sarajevo Film Festival celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Bosnian sport fans also celebrated 2014 as the remarkable year when the Bosnian national football team participated for the first time in the World Cup. The Bosnian paralympic Sitting Volleyball team brought home gold one more time, winning the World ParaVolley Sitting Volleyball World Championship in Poland.

Of course, 2014 was also the year in which Bosnia marked the centenary of a famousassassination: the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Mlada Bosna (Young Bosnia) member, Gavrilo Princip. The assassination is popularly considered as the trigger for the start of WWI.

The commemorative cultural events in Bosnia sadly showed that different historical narratives continue to influence country’s present. Separate commemorative events were held in two entities, with the Republika Srpska celebrating him as a hero, though in the Federation he was often portrayed as a terrorist.

General Elections

On 12 October, Bosnians voted in their country’s sixth general election. The Central Electoral Committee noted that 7,877 candidates were competing for the political seats, and there were 13 presidential candidates.

Although there were heightened expectations regarding political participation in this election, and particularly regarding the votes of the post-war generation who in 2014 had the right to vote for the first time, the statistics on voter turnout showed that civil mistrust of democratic institutions and the country’s political representatives remain high – election turnout was only 54.14%, lower than during the 2010 elections.

Despite the expectations for a more moderate government, citizens of all three constituent peoples entrusted their votes to the nationalist parties. The only exception has been the victory of Mladen Ivanic, from the opposition party in Republika Srpska, who won the Serbian seat in the Presidency. Bakir Izetbegovic’s SDA and Milorad Dodik’s SNSD remained the leading parties in the two entities. Although several coalitions have emerged, it is expected that a state-level government will be established by February.

A Continued Economic Downturn

High unemployment levels and a difficult socio-economic situation in Bosnia & Herzegovina came to public attention once again, as the workers from Tuzla revived their protests. They were demanding at least a part of outstanding payments and social support. Instead of going to the government this time, in a symbolic act, they walked for 5 days to the Croatian border, determined to migrate from a country which they claimed does not respect their rights.

However, after five days of walking in the snow, the movement lost traction. The majority of the marchers were not able to cross the border, as they lacked the necessary documents, and were returned to Tuzla by buses. They still have not reached an agreement with the government regarding their complaints.

Political Corruption and Freedom of the Press

Just before 2014 ended, another political controversy shook the country. News portal Klix.ba published in November a recording of Prime Minister of Republika Srpska Zeljka Cvijanovic, in which she allegedly mentioned “buying” two MPs in order to gain a majority and form a government in that entity.

This case of political corruption became known popularly as “Dva papka” – “Two hooves.” In Bosnia, “hoof” is a colloquial expression, referring to a person who is unrefined, non-emancipated, uneducated, and who does not act in accordance with ethics and societal values.

The media allegation did not cause much of a stir among the public in and of itself, as citizens are accustomed to allegations of political corruption. However, the political response to the recording caused much more concern, since the police forces of both entities jointly raided the news portal’s offices and seized their equipment, due to allegations that their journalists had bugged the prime minister.

This state act against an independent media body was condemned by journalists, foreign ambassadors, the Office of the High Representative, the European Delegation and the OSCE. Although the investigation is currently taking place to find out how this intervention was authorized, there has still been no official inquiry into the alleged bribery of the MPs.

Police Actions against Terrorism Suspects

Over the last year, the question of foreign Islamic fighters joining ISIS has been a global concern, which did not bypass Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the summer, the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) announced that it was collecting information about the involvement of Bosnian citizens in conflicts abroad. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Criminal Law prohibits its citizens from fighting in extra-territorial wars and joining foreign paramilitary groups. Although the law itself will not stop the citizens from joining the military groups, it gives the state a basis for prosecuting those who do.

In September 2014, 16 people were arrested in the police operation“Damask”, which was repeated again in November and December. The arrested were suspected of terrorism and organizing and financing foreign fighters from Bosnia to join ISIS in the Middle East. Husein or more commonly Bilal Bosnic, the informal leader of the Salafi movement in Bosnia, has been charged on these grounds, and there are allegations that he has received over 90,000 euros from Arab countries in the last two years. The funding of Islamists groups in Bosnia from abroad has been a concern for several years, with indications of financial flow between radical Islamists in Vienna and groups in the Balkans reported.

Bosnic had been arrested in September and on 31 December became the first person to be indicted under the new foreign fighters law of April. “The indictment accused Bosnic of urging members of his community to join Islamic State militants, saying he had ‘publicly encouraged others to join terrorist organisations during 2013 and 2014, consciously and from a position of religious authority,’” according to Reuters.

Considering that this remains a global issue, SIPA will continue its surveillance and activities in this area throughout 2015.

Bosnia 2015: What Can We Expect in the Year Ahead?

In the New Year, Bosnia will have to address many of its unresolved issues from 2014 and deal with new developments as well.

Firstly, as we await the establishment of the new government, there are no high hopes for major reforms, economic development or social stability. This is likely to feed the existing ill-will among citizens that manifested in protests almost one year ago.

The ever-relevant process of European integration and necessary reforms will continue. Bosnia has made limited progress, and even no progress on some areas, according to the 2014 EC Progress Report and the government will certainly be under pressure from both the EU and the Bosnian public to make progress in this area.

Although political apathy and disillusionment during the elections was witnessed, workers’ grievances and general public dissatisfaction will continue to be high on the agenda, especially considering that the workers’ in Tuzla are announcing the continuation of their protests.

Further, the issue of Muslim militants from Bosnia (among other countries) joining jihadist groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which sparked a major police operation in 2014, is likely to remain high on the agenda in 2015. After the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, SIPA revealed that they are following the social media for hate speech and instigations of violence.

Finally, other long-term issues facing the people of Bosnia (as in neighboring Serbia) are the after-effects of the 2014 flooding. Further work from the government, international charities and donors, as well as the citizens themselves, will have to be done in 2015 to restore some semblance of normality to the disaster-affected areas.

In addition to the issue of floods and natural disasters, media freedoms, high unemployment, corruption and political abuse of office will remain key issues in the year ahead.

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