Resentment oddly unites a Bosnia rife with injustice

Objavljeno u International New York Timesu, 15. februara 2014.

Ogorčenost čudno ujedinjuje Bosnu punu nepravde

Godinama nakon mirovnog sporazuma, siromaštvo i korupcija izazvali su najnovije talase ljutnje

“Našim liderima nije alarmantno to što je 63 posto mladih ljudi bez posla.

Years after peace accords, poverty and corruption sow new seeds of anger

Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegivina

By Alison Smale

The local government headquarters here is a shell, its 12 stories charred by fire. Shards of glass tumble from its smashed windows.

But while the destruction evokes the Balkans turmoil of the 1990s, when more than 100,000 people died, it is not a result of war, but rather, Bosnians, diplomats and analysts say, an unintended consequence of what ended it: the 1935 Dayton accords, negotiated under muscular diplomacy by the United States, which bought nearly 20 years of peace but imposed what turned out to be a dysfunctional government structure that has impeded economic progress and left citizens increasingly angry and frustrated.

The long-simmering frustrations of Bosnians erupted a week ago not only here in Tuzla but in a dozen towns and cities across the country, including the capital, Sarajevo, where the national presidency office bears scars, too,

Ethnic divisions fueled four years of war in the 1990s. Today if there is one thing that unites many of Bosnia's 3.8 million people — Bosnian Muslims. Serbs and Croats — it is their disgust with the hydra-headed presidency and multiple layers of government developed to appease the nationalist sentiments of all sides. But the terms of the accord were in time supposed to be replaced by a more streamlined system. They were never supposed to remain in force this long.

This impoverished industrial city of 200,000 in Bosnia's northeast has the highest unemployment rate in a woebegone country — around 55 percent — and it was the fount of the anger that erupted last week, startling Bosnians and outsiders alike.

The system established under the Dayton accords has only helped cement “corrupt, nepotistic and completely complacent elites” said Damir Arsenijevic, 36, a psychoanalyst who has studied and lectured in Britain, participated n Occupy protests in Oakland. Calif., and is now a prime mover in nightly Tuzla discussions about the way forward.

Workers in Tuzla had protested for months against the botched privatization of four factories, once part of a proud array of industry stretching back to pre-Communist days. Pictures showing the police beating protesters on Feb. 6 drew crowds into the streets the next day in Tuzla, Sarajevo and two other towns where government buildings were torched, and rocks hurled at po­lice.

“Our leaders do not even take it as alarming that 63 percent of young people here are jobless,” said Edin Plevljakovic, 23, a student of English lit­erature in Sarajevo. “We have neither strong politics, nor a very potent elite,” he added. The result: “bedlam.”

John Komblum a retired United States ambassador who drafted the Dayton accords as the late Richard Holbrooke negotiated them, noted that the complex mechanisms they put in place were designed primarily to secure peace, and were supposed to be replaced in three years with a more streamlined governmental structure.

A serious attempt at change in 2005, he said, was hindered in part by nongovernmental organizations reinforcing the Bosnian Muslim leaders’ desire for a unified state, which the Serbs and Croats will not allow.

Diplomats have tried in vain to get Bosnians to heed a 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which in effect challenged the three-way set-up of the national presidency, comprised of a Bosnian Muslim, a Serb and a Croat, as discriminatory. In addition to the three-way presidency, the country is com­prised of a Muslim-Croat Federation, a Serb Republic, 10 cantons in the Federation and the separate city of Brcko.

Until the 2009 ruling is observed, Bosnia's nationalism means it cannot advance toward the European Union, which neighboring Croatia joined last year and Montenegro and even Serbia are now edging toward.

“I'm a Croat Catholic,” said Sonja Kladnik, a 78 year-old retiree, “but that is what I am at home. When I leave the house, I'm a citizen.”

“We have 7 or 10 or however many levels of government and three presidents,” she said. “We should have just one. Enough with this nationalism! But nobody is listening to me.”

In interviews in Sarajevo and Tuzla over four days this week, the popular anger was palpable.

“Let's stop importing! Let's make our own things! We want a better fu­ture!” said one of the many posters plastered at street level on the ruined government building in Tuzla. Some 200 people stood or crouched in spring sun, listening to recordings of local rappers whose lyrics of revolution and rebellion are much admired here.

Breaking with the prevailing political patronage, which has enabled wartime leaders to dole out jobs to their cliques, the protesters are demanding governance by technocrats outside Bosnia's scores of political parties. The protesters have prompted the resignations of four cantonal govemments but so far no broader change.

With her nearly buttoned blue coat, turquoise scarf and discreetly modish black shoes, Emina Bursuladzic, 58, is an unlikely rebel. Like many others in this largely rural country, with little tradition of street protest and an abiding horror of bloodshed after the war, she disavows the violence.

But over the past seven months, she has fought to preserve the remnants of Dita, once the provider of detergent for all Yugoslavia. She and her coworkers stood vigil outside the local government off ices, pursuing a vain quest to sue the owner they say came in 2008-09 and stripped their Chemical plant almost bare.

Deep down, it was not just the months of unpaid wages, or the plundering of the workplace Ms. Bursuladzic has served for 38 years that stirred her ire, she said. It was the humiliation.

“People inside this building used to look out the window and laugh at us,” she said.

Her coworker Snjezana Ostrakovic, 29, in faded jeans and a cheap jacket, bitterly recalled standing in temperatures well below freezing and accosting a lo­cal bureaucrat, who she said simply h-diculed her pleas for help in feeding her two sons, aged 5 and 2.

“Our leaders do not even take it as alarming that 63 percent of young people here are jobless.”

Tuzla's industry was built on coal and salt mines. A legendary workers’ uprising of the 1920s is still memorialized in a 1956 statue of a miner dropping his pick for a rifle, gazing out at the giant power plant that still belches steam toward the dilapidated shells of Tuzla's factories. They arose under Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader remembered in Bosnia as guardian of ethnic harmony rather than — as elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia— a brutal repressor of nationalist or political dissent.

The rusting plants almost certainly had no future anyway. But locals are furious that they seem to have been sold off cheaply to the well-connected, who then reaped profit trom hawking piece-meal serap, or land. As elsewhere in eastern Europe, privatization has enriched a few. In Bosnia. there is the added twist that it followed war.

Ms. Bursuladzic's plant still functions. But she said the workforce is down from a Communist high of around 1,000 to about 340 when the new owner arrived, and just 100 now. Emphasizing that she is relatively comfortable — her husband works, her son is a doctor and daughter an engineer — she said “my fight was bound to end like this,” an outcast from what she held dear.

As if on cue, the rap music play ing at the protest outside the government building here cut to a spliced-in speech by Tito.

“Here in Yugoslavia,” he said, “we have to show that as a country we stand together. That the minority is for the majority, and the majority for the minority.”