Capital Sarajevo
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 387
Mobile Codes 61,62,63
ccTLD .ba
Currency Bosnian Convertible Mark (1EUR = 1,96 BAM)
Land Area 51,129 sq km
Population 4 million
Language Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian
Major Religion Islam, Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity

Social Protests, Democracy and Politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

By Lana Pasic editor’s note: What’s up with Bosnia? This is the question the world has asked for almost a week. Sarajevo, the capital, and other Bosnian cities have been affected by public protests for several days; this dispatch from Sarajevo comes to us from contributor Lana Pasic, whose photographs capturing current events there are also published below.


Police hold riot shields at the 7 February protests in Sarajevo (photo: Lana Pasic)

On Friday, 7 February, hundreds gathered in front of the building of Cantonal government in Sarajevo, as a sign of solidarity for the workers and protesters in Tuzla. Citizens in Mostar, Zenica, Visoko, Travnik, Banja Luka and other towns expressed their support for Tuzla and their disapproval of poor governance and rising poverty in the country.

As I approached the location of the protests in Sarajevo, hundreds of citizens were scattered around the buildings and surrounding streets, while the police forces regrouped around the street. Emphatic words aimed at the government, like “we want change” and “thieves” echoed from the crowd. When the news broke that the protesters in Tuzla had entered the government offices there, rocks started flying towards the line of police officers. The sound of firecrackers, breaking windows and flames soon filled the air. Some in the crowd cheered and some showed disapproval. Blocking the way of fire-fighting vehicles, the protesters moved towards the adjacent building of the Presidency, burning police vehicles on the way.

Sunday night protests in Sarajevo; dumpsters block the road (photo: Lana Pasic)

The next day, the blackened buildings of the State Presidency and Cantonal Government, wrecked doors and windows, burnt cars, yellow police tape, and scattered office equipment served as a reminder of the current political and social stalemate in the country.

What Do the Protesters Want?

What started as a spontaneous gathering of the former employees of state companies then turned into nationwide riots. Workers demanded re-evaluation of privatization deals, resignations of government officials and health insurance for all. As the youth, pensioners, and other citizens joined the protests throughout the country, resignations were handed in at the cantonal levels. In Tuzla, the prime minister, Sead Causevic, resigned on Friday, followed by the Suad Zeljkovic in Sarajevo. A couple of days later followed the resignation of the Prime Minister in Bihac region, Hamdija Lipovaca.


Police caution tape and burnt-out cars between the buildings of Presidency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the wake of protests in Sarajevo (photo: Lana Pasic)

The expression of new issues soon followed, as Bosnian citizens have waited for 20 years to express their concerns. In Tuzla, groups published the Manifesto for New Bosnia and Herzegovina. Similarly, in Sarajevo, Mostar and Bihac, citizens’ demands have been articulated.

These demands range from Federation-wide resignations, health insurance, cessation of all benefits for public officials, including using state cars, cuts in salaries, and addressing issues of youth unemployment and social services, among other problem areas. After the resignations of the canton-level officials, the government of the Bosniak-Croat Federation was next. Although the Prime Minister of the Federation, Nermin Niksic had at first said that he would resign if asked to do so, and if the people believe that he is the problem, he has not yet responded to public calls to resign. Instead, during the weekend, he confirmed that he will indeed not resign. Protests in Sarajevo are still taking place now regarding this issue.


A view of a vandalized government building in Sarajevo on Saturday morning; ‘the nation is hungry, but somebody’s happy’ the graffiti reads (photo: Lana Pasic)

Considering that numerous institutional, political, economic and social issues have been present in Bosnia since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, the expectations would be that the citizens’ concerns can best be dealt with through the ballot box. Yet, the election turnout in 2012 was just above 50%. Taking into consideration the singularities of Bosnian internal structures and its politicization by ethnicity, people have become disillusioned with politics and are searching for other means to demand change.

Although citizens voicing their grievances through public assemblies and gatherings are certainly expressions of popular democracy, the riots across Bosnia and Herzegovina have been to a certain extent accompanied by destruction and burning of government buildings. These were the acts of vandalism which the majority of citizens did not support, but the ones which did draw the attention of the political elites.

As with all the larger protests, there are small groups which take advantage of the protests, in order to burn and loot. However, the majority of the young people involved in the protests were not actually those “hooligans” responsible for vandalism.

Who were, then? In front of the cantonal government building, I asked three young men, who had been inside the government offices a couple of minutes before I approached them, about their motives and why they resorted to burning and destruction. Teenagers and boys in their early 20s, they told me that people’s grievances have been ignored for years, and they felt that “violence is now the only option.” The destruction was, according to them, a last resort, but also a strong message and the only one, they felt, government would listen to. Considering the extremely high rates of youth unemployment – the highest in the region and Europe – the pronounced income inequalities gap, pervasive corruption and social and economic collapse in the country, their reaction, while not justifiable, is understandable.

Over the years, peaceful means of expressing discontent in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been met with absolute disregard and ignorance by the powers-that-be. Therefore, for some overthrowing the government through revolutionary and violent means seems to be the only solution. One could even argue that similar protests and violence have taken place in the democratic European capitals, including London, Athens and Paris, and that the developments in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar are thus no different. Social injustices have, throughout history, inspired violent reactions.  Since Friday, however, no other buildings or public property has been damaged, and citizen gatherings now continue in a peaceful manner.

However, the reaction of police officers has not fitted well with the definition of democratic society. Although the police have been ordered to maintain a high level of tolerance towards the demonstrators, reports of police brutality have appeared, first from Tuzla.

In Sarajevo, around 40 people were arrested. On Sunday night, the streets in Sarajevo were blocked, mainly by the parents and families of young men who were arrested on Friday, demanding their release. Families of released youth have claimed that the arrested had been locked in a police basement and beaten.

Politicization and Misinformation

Political parties and their leaders, although none have spoken to the protesters, were quick to blame their counterparts from other political parties. All political parties have, in one way or another, tried to run political campaigns around the protests, and present themselves as the true allies and representatives of the people. The protests have conveniently provided a pretext for political campaigning, early in the election year. In spite of the attempts, most citizens have distanced themselves, and the protests, from the political parties.

The international community, on the other hand, has voiced concerns through the High Representative, Valentin Inzko. He stated that although citizens have the right to protest, the situation in Bosnia is currently at its most tense since Dayton, and that soldiers organized by the EU will be called if needed. In this way, Inzko actually succeeded to raise local tensions and concerns; after all, no troops are sent to cities like Athens or London when they sugger periodic protests.

As the protests continue, attempts at politicization of the events are becoming more widespread. A number of conspiracy theories have been raised and potential players named as being ‘behind the protests.’ The different scenarios thus being circulated among Bosnians include an attempts by the international community to declare a state of emergency in order to restructure Bosnia, the involvement of Serbia, a regrouping of the Bosniak war veterans to attack Republika Srpska, and tanks being sent in from Croatia.

As with everything in Bosnia, these developments have also ended up being highly politicized. Yet, the poverty, inequality, unemployment and social and economic collapse, which have motivated regular people to come out and show their solidarity on the streets, are still very much present. However, although all have made political statements about their and other parties’ work, elections and various conspiracies, no political leaders, or foreign representatives have yet proposed solutions to these real, material and every-day social and economic concerns of the citizens.