Since the signing of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, Bosnia has often been described as relatively stable but stagnant. Recent protests, however, have pushed Bosnia into what one analyst described as “unchartered waters” (quoted in Sito-Sucic and Robinson 2014). While commentators suggest that this newfound activism could usher in a “Bosnian Spring” with transformative potential, more caution and EU attention are needed. The recent experiences with the Arab Spring and the failed rekindling of the Ukrainian Orange Revolution show that political elites do not give their power up easily, and peaceful protests can be hijacked by small, extreme groups holding more radical political objectives and the violent means of achieving them. If colour revolutions have taught us anything, it is that success requires time, patience and the art of compromise, none of which are in great demand right now in Bosnia.

Most vocally, Bosnian protesters have pointed to the dismal economy facing the majority of citizens, and youth, in particular. Street graffiti in Tuzla, where the protests started, explains better than anything else the reasons behind the current wave of protest in Bosnia: “Whoever sows hunger reaps rage” (Mustafic 2014). Factory closures in Tuzla left the workers without pay, pensions and little prospect of finding other employment. The World Bank unemployment estimates for Bosnia are bleak: 27 percent is the unofficial unemployment rate, while some 57 percent of Bosnians between the ages of 15 and 29 are without jobs (World Bank 2013). These figures apply country-wide, with minor regional differences; however, cities experiencing the worst street protests are in the Bosniak parts of Bosnia, with smaller-scale protests in areas dominated by other ethnic groups.

An issue underlying both the protests and the general politics of the country is that the political system itself is based on power-sharing between three constitutionally predetermined groups: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats divided into two entities, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS). This model, which arose from the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accord, has stalled progress in Bosnia, particularly the possibility of ever reaching a consensus for constitutional changes. The power-sharing model has also faced criticism for discrimination, as only members of the three ethnic groups can be elected to the presidency — a fact that has been challenged at the European Court of Human Rights. While the court ruled that the Constitution discriminates against other groups and needs to be amended to ensure that other ethnicities can hold office, this matter has remained unresolved, as it would lead to a shift in the delicate power-sharing balance.

The political dance among Bosnian politicians is best described as follows: while Bosniaks prefer a centralized state, Bosnian Serbs stress the importance of decentralization and factual independence of the Serb Republic. At the same time, Bosnian Croats tend to favour the creation of a third Croat-dominated entity to ensure their own group rights. As a result of the disagreements and resulting stalemate, the international community has guided — and sometimes directly intervened — in Bosnia’s governance.

Still, much of the international effort can be characterized as political “triage,” trying to keep Bosnia progressing as the nation’s own political leaders at all levels continue to pull in different directions. It is precisely this combination of inefficient, corrupt political institutions and leadership that are responsible for Bosnian discontent. As Florian Bieber (2014) aptly points out, Dayton cannot be blamed for all the ills in Bosnia, as the country’s political leaders also shoulder much of the blame. Governance is generally weak and political elites are corrupt, a failing shared across the region, despite differences in their respective political systems.

For almost 20 years, fear of a return to conflict kept any serious challenges to the status quo at bay, but the protests have led to an important shift, unsettling the old mantra of complacency, “ne talasaj” or “don’t make waves.” It remains unclear if the more active civil society-led movement can be sustained, but some encouraging signs of citizen-led forums and participation have become visible in major Bosniak cities. The broader problems, however, pose a formidable barrier to any changes envisioned by the citizens. Fear between ethnic groups, continued disagreements over the past and the divisive issues of constitutional legitimacy all test these movements. Some protesters have proclaimed that these protests are “anti-nationalist,” but in Bosnia, what one perceives to be an extreme nationalist stand, another sees as patriotism.

 The fact that the protests have occurred in mostly Bosniak-dominated towns and areas is not lost on anyone in this hyper-ethnicized political environment. Thus far, cities in RS have been mostly quiet, not because they live better than their Bosniak counterparts, quite the contrary. One primary factor keeps them from protesting. Local Bosnian Serb politicians, such as RS President Milorad Dodik, have defamed the protests as attacking the constitutional foundations of Dayton Bosnia and being anti-Serb, with the ulterior motive of abolishing RS. In the eyes of a majority of Bosnian Serbs, RS is a legitimate entity protecting their interests. Thus, most ordinary RS citizens identify support for street protests elsewhere in Bosnia with the betrayal of “their” own entity.

The situation is not much better in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, where Premier Nermin Niksic publicly denounced fellow Bosniak and Minister for Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina Fahrudin Radoncic, for ulterior motives in the latest events. As a former media mogul and one of the richest men in Bosnia, Radoncic leads the Alliance for the Better Future of Bosnia. Unlike most Bosniak politicians, he was quick to support the protests and was critical of instances of police brutality (Oslobodjenje 2014). Finally, adding to the cacophony of voices in Bosnia, a Croatian minister visited Mostar, talking to leading Croat politicians in Bosnia, while at the same time, Dodik was meeting with Serbian politicians.

 Given the riots and protests, Bosnia was unexpectedly on the agenda of the EU foreign ministers meeting last Monday (February 10). Brussels, it seems, is finally starting to take notice after some years of what might be described as the benign neglect of Bosnia; indeed, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has referred to the current situation in Bosnia as a “wake-up call” for the European Union (Sito-Sucic and Robinson 2014). The growing consensus seems to be that the European Union needs to develop its strategy for Bosnia and to recognize the limits of some of its more traditional methods — in other words, that top-down approaches and talking exclusively to political leaders is likely to remain unproductive. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this week, EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele once again met with local elites, showing ever more clearly the need for a new EU strategy.

Although the European Union has neglected Bosnia, it has maintained a presence there and attempted to address some of its political and economic issues. If smartly played, the European Union has potential allies in Croatia and Serbia. The former is the EU’s newest member, and will be bound by whatever common policy is agreed upon at the European Union, while Serbia has just started EU accession talks and is equally pliable to whatever pressure might come. These two states exercise some influence on their respective ethnicities and could play an important role in the region.

 As a first and crucial step, the European Union should listen to the sentiments of Bosnian citizens’ forums and recognize the extent of the divisions of the Bosnian state. Addressing these concerns should inform any new EU strategy. The challenge, and only real option, is to start moving Bosnia on the path from Dayton to Brussels. It is a long and rocky road, requiring commitment and cooperation from local actors as well as the international community, particularly the European Union, the United States and Turkey, who are powerful and influential players in the region — a move that would not only benefit Bosnian citizens, but also the entire region that is composed of some new and upcoming EU members.

 Following Croatia’s EU accession, former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic suggested that while “It is undoubtedly tempting to keep the other Balkan countries on the sidelines of Europe,” it is an unwise and untenable policy, given the importance of the stability of the region for the European Union (Milanovic 2013). As the centenary of the beginning of World War I approaches, attention is once again focussed on Sarajevo and Bosnia. This time, however, there is an opportunity to set the country on its path. It may not be a “Bosnian Spring” just yet, but it is certainly an opportunity and high time for a new EU approach to Bosnia.

Works Cited

Bieber, Florian. 2014. “Is Change Coming (Finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests.” Blog post, February 9.

Milanovic, Branko. 2013. “Europe’s Threat Is not the Euro, but its Neglected Southern Flank.” The Globe and Mail, July 8.

Mustafic, Dino. 2014. “Ujedinjeni u Gnjevu.” [In Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian.] Oslobodjenje, February 10.

Oslobodjenje. 2014. “Otvoreno Pismo Niksica Radoncicu.” [In Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian]. Oslobodjenje, February 11.

Sito-Sucic, Daria and Matt Robinson. 2014. “Bosnia Unrest Puts Spotlight on Broken Peace Accord.” Reuters, February 11.

World Bank. 2013. “Improving Opportunities for Young People in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” World Bank News, February 14.

The challenge, and only real option, is to start moving Bosnia on the path from Dayton to Brussels.
  • Branka Marijan is a Ph.D. candidate in global governance at Wilfrid Laurier University, based at the Balsillie School of International Affairs. 

  • Dejan Guzina is an associate professor in Wilfrid Laurier University's Department of Political Science. An expert in comparative democratization and ethnic politics, he is currently leading a collaborative research project on the European Union and state building in fragile states.