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

Protests in Post-Dayton Bosnia and the Failure of the Social Contract editor’s note: the following article complements the author’s newly-released e-book for Kindle, 20 Years after Dayton: Where is Bosnia and Hercegovina Today? The uniquely personal yet objective study combines analysis of the factors that have shaped post-conflict Bosnia with anecdotes from a range of local voices from Bosnia, enriching our understanding of the Bosnian experience before, during and after the war.

By Lana Pasic

At a public meeting organised by a small political party in Sarajevo, a few people got up to ask questions. However, no question was asked- instead, they talked about everything that was bothering them: poverty, unemployment, social injustice and so on. As they spoke, a sense of anxiety, bitterness and depression filled the room.

At times, Sarajevo seems to be completely removed from the reality of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina, just like most capital cities are unaware of developments in the rest of the country. Yet Bosnia’s capital has not escaped the rising inequalities and growing urban poverty of the time. While the city is buzzing with crowded coffee shops, the number of beggars on the streets and older people going through rubbish bins searching for food early in the morning is increasing daily. The number of those who are disappointed, dissatisfied and angry is also growing- as is their desire for a better life.


This dissatisfaction, disillusionment and bitterness over social inequality erupted during February 2014, when citizens throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina rose up against the political elite, protesting against privatization deals, labor market conditions, corruption, social injustices and overall political inefficiency.

The political, institutional, economic and social shortcomings of the Bosnian state over the last twenty years have impacted deeply on the economic status and living standard of the population. Poverty levels reached 17.9% by 2011, according to World Bank data. There are large differences between the average salary in the country between the $430 (€400) per month made by regular workers, and the $3,200 (€3,000) per month which government officials receive. Due to income inequalities, the social gap is widening, and there are little prospects for the new generations to bridge this gap, as both unemployment and youth unemployment are extremely high.

“Overall, we are in pretty bad shape economically. Unemployment, which is now at a staggering 40%, is nowhere near coming down.” Milan, Banja Luka

Industry in Bosnia and Herzegovina was doing well before the war, but after Dayton, formerly state-owned and worker-managed companies were privatized, often for little money. The privatization phenomenon changed the rules of the game, and poor management also resulted in the failure of the factories to contribute to the pensions and health insurance for the workers, who have, due to legal requirements, remained in their jobs for years, but without pay. This situation has created further frustration, inequalities, and workers, without an opportunity to provide for their livelihoods, are slipping deeper and deeper into poverty.

“When I decided to study Economics in 2002, I hoped that when I graduated I would find a job. I was full of enthusiasm about my life, and the future of the country. Now that I have been unemployed for six years, I feel very differently about the whole situation.” Jennie, Sarajevo

Rising Against the System

Since the end of the war, the Bosnian public has been considered rather shy about engaging in popular protests, in order to make demands on the government, due to a general disillusionment that anything can be changed by local politicians. However, political, economic and social mismanagement has over the years inspired a number of uprisings, protests and other expressions of civil dissatisfaction. Large-scale protests have shaken the foundations of, if not the state, then certainly the entity-level politics.

Various groups initiated protests and supported others in solidarity: railway employees, veterans, pensioners and students, over issues ranging from labour legislations and agricultural policies to social policies and pensions. Agricultural workers have blocked the borders with neighbouring countries, and taken to parliaments over issues like export restrictions; they have similarly brought up the failures of Bosnian representatives to devise common regulations. They camped in front of the Bosnian Parliament and state institutions for two years over the signing of the CEFTA agreement, and in protest over perceived inadequate subsidies and protectionist measures for local producers.

“I believe that change will come only when economic pressures become so strong that they translate into political pressure. “ Dino, Sarajevo

In the summer of 2013, a wave of new civic activism was motivated by the deadlock over identity numbers allocated at birth, which led to the blockade of the Parliament. In a follow up, in February 2014, workers of privatized factories in Tuzla initiated the country-wide protests, and were supported by youth, veterans and pensioners, who gathered in front of government offices, demanding political, economic and social changes.

Plenums – a New Form of Democracy

The 2014 protests brought with them a new form of civic participation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – plenums. These forums were public spaces where people in certain areas organized themselves into “working groups”. The groups quickly identified and presented their demands to the government. However, the number and scope of demands voiced during plenums was just as high as the number of citizens attending them. They included issues ranging from the reductions of politicians’ salaries, revision of budgets, establishment of independent anti-corruption committee, free health care, banning of nationalist parties, abolition of cantons, reducing the costs of administration, re-evaluation of privatisation deals, reducing salaries and benefits for high-ranking officials, fixing youth employment and so on. Some of the demands were met, but others were clearly not fitting the jurisdictions of the governments they protested against.

“I actively participated in the protests in Tuzla – I felt that this was finally our chance to make changes in the political and administrative arrangements in Bosnia, to be part of positive developments. When the protests started, I was very optimistic. There was a scent of change in the air. The whole city came together; going to a protest was like socialising. I really felt for the workers and their problems. There are people in our country who really have nothing, who need help, and there are some deep systemic changes which need to happen to improve their lives. We needed to discuss these root causes of the problems, instead of dealing with it one factory at a time.

I also joined the plenums in Tuzla when they were formed, but I was soon disappointed. We had a great opportunity then, but the plenums failed. The issue with plenums was that people talked so much about the problems, which we are all aware of, but they did not seem to be prepared to do any work. There were too many people involved – which was great, because there was a wider participation, but there was no leader. We needed someone who would listen to workers grievances, and popular demands and complaints, and be prepared to make difficult decisions.“  Adis, Tuzla

These citizens’ assemblies presented a potential for alternative ways of doing politics- they challenges the traditional political structures, presented local expressions of bottom-up democracy and were open to all, regardless of ethnicity and background, except to members of political parties.

In spite of initial unrests during the protests, the plenums were completely peaceful forums, with free and open discussions taking place among those attending. Through their use of social media and ICT, they allowed all citizens to engage in politics, particularly as traditional media are manipulated by different political parties. However, they were short-lived. Although the idea of an open democratic space where all citizens can share their views was a tempting experiment, the lack of leadership and management of demands eventually resulted in the failure of the plenums.

 Protests as Means of Change?

Social inequality and dissatisfaction remain high on the agenda in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although no major protests have taken place over the last two years, during which time plenums have ceased their activities, the potential for civil unrest remains present.

However, their potential to make sudden, long-term changes is questionable. The 2014 protests were often falsely referred to in the international media as the “Bosnian Spring” – yet these claims have failed to take into consideration the specificities of Bosnia’s internal structures and politicization of ethnicity. The complex structures of the Bosnian state, its entities and cantons, the presence of international actors, including not only the OHR, but also the World Bank and the IMF, are all factors which citizens may have issues with, but in reality they cannot be resolved through a revolution. Comprehensive political, economic and social changes cannot happen overnight, nor be imported from outside.

In spite of their limited potential to make immediate social transformation, popular protests will remain an important tool of civil society in B&H. Citizen-led changes are not only taking place during the elections. Plenums and protests are just some of the ways of public advocacy, holding politicians to account and exerting public pressure on them to either step up to the difficult task of working in the public interest, or step down from office. The rebuilding of social contract requires both, public pressure and political willingness and commitment to best respond to the needs of all citizens, which is going to be a long-term process, especially in a society where trust in political processes and state institutions is low.