Last week, cities were burning in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It all began in Tuzla, a city with a Muslim majority. The protests then spread to the capital, Sarajevo, and Zenica, but also Mostar, home to a large segment of the Croat population, and Banja Luka, capital of the Serb part of Bosnia. Thousands of enraged protesters occupied and set fire to government buildings. Although the situation then calmed down, an atmosphere of high tension still hangs in the air.
The events gave rise to conspiracy theories (for example, that the Serb government had organised the protests to topple the Bosnian leadership), but one should safely ignore them since it is clear that, whatever lurks behind, the protesters’ despair is authentic. One is tempted to paraphrase Mao Zedong’s famous phrase here: there is chaos in Bosnia, the situation is excellent!
Why? Because the protesters’ demands were as simple as they can be – jobs, a chance of decent life, an end to corruption – but they mobilised people in Bosnia, a country which, in the last decades, has become synonymous with ferocious ethnic cleansing.
Before now, the only mass protests in Bosnia and other post-Yugoslav states were about ethnic or religious passions. In the middle of 2013, two public protests were organised in Croatia, a country in deep economic crisis, with high unemployment and a deep sense of despair: trade unions tried to organise a rally in support of workers’ rights, while rightwing nationalists started a protest movement against the use of cyrillic letters on public buildings in cities with a Serb minority. The first initiative brought a couple of hundred people to a square in Zagreb; the second mobilised hundreds of thousands, as had an earlier fundamentalist movement against gay marriages.
[Extract. Appeared in The Guardian on February 10th, 2014.]