Whatever Happened to the Plenums in Bosnia?

The protest movement that swept Bosnia earlier this year may have faded, but its principal legacy – a new sense of empowerment among the people – will endure.

In February and March, Bosnia and Herzegovina witnessed widespread unrest. Starting in the industrial town of Tuzla, workers protested about outstanding payments, and were soon joined by students, dissatisfied citizens, pensioners and many other people in different parts of the country.

All were united by their desire to voice their dissatisfaction with a political elite that has abandoned them, with corrupt officials, with economic mismanagement, and with a lack of prospects in a country that is still recovering from the war of the early 1990s.

Many writers have commented on these protests, seeing them as an example of a revolution from below, as a chance for real change and as an opportunity to overcome the legacies that have held Bosnia back in recent years.

Yet, not even six months on, Bosnia has calmed down. The citizen plenums, which formed as a result of the protests, are mainly abandoned and the political elites are again in charge of the discourse. So, what went wrong, why did something that started with so much potential fade away?

To understand why the plenums (and the protests before them) failed to have an impact and stopped working shortly after they were established, it is important to consider a number of factors.

First, the plenums themselves made some strategic mistakes. Instead of working with non-nationalist pragmatic parties such as Nasa Stranka to achieve common goals, the plenums declared themselves ‘apolitical’ in the sense that they did not want to collaborate with any existing political parties. By doing so, they missed an opportunity to take their message into cantonal, entity and national parliaments, especially in a year when elections will occur.

Instead, the plenums wanted to focus on concrete changes and defined very precise, often local, issues, such as irregularities in the privatization of certain companies and the waste of money by local officials.

While this was important at the beginning, and showed some success when a number of local and cantonal governments stepped down, in the long term the plenums failed to establish a link between the political system and existing structures in the country.

Social justice, as demanded by many plenum members, cannot be achieved without the reform of a system in which a small number of elites control certain territories and thereby have access to important resources (mainly financial but also access to jobs and benefits).

Any social reform, therefore, has to go hand in hand with political reform. By focusing on social reform, and by failing to engage in a wider reform debate, the plenums isolated themselves not only from political elites and potentially like-minded parties.

They also failed to create coalitions with NGOs and civil society initiatives that were already involved in discussions about constitutional reform and wider political reform. This could have created a country-wide alliance of reform-oriented forces that could really have put pressure on the political elites.
While this lack of political engagement can be seen as a missed opportunity, what is more worrying and what really underlined the weakness of the plenums was their ideological confusion.

Declaring themselves apolitical, they also started discussions on Socialist reforms, on pseudo-Communist economic planning and the abolition of the market economy. This radical-left thought, cosy as this might make those who identify with the values of Communism feel, ruined the plenums’ chances of being taken seriously as an actor in Bosnia.

International actors, including the US and the EU, distanced themselves from the plenums after they discussed some of these Socialist ideas, and as some international academics, like by arguing for wider Socialist reforms, instead of focusing on concrete political problems.

The problem in Bosnia never has been free-market capitalism per se (at least not more so than in other countries); the problem is that a small circle of elites control the political, economic and welfare resources of the country and decide their distribution.

The problem also has never been one of ethnic nationalism and ancient hatreds, as it is sometimes portrayed; it lies in the fact that these elites have been able to manipulate the public discourse so that it appears that everything is about Serbs not wanting to be part of Bosnia, Muslims wanting to control Serbs and Croats and Croats wanting their own entity.

A further reason for the failure of the plenums is the lack of support from international actors. For this, both sides are responsible.

While international actors, such as the EU and the OHR, failed to engage with the plenums and put their political demands and the citizens’ dissatisfaction on the political agenda, the plenums themselves also failed to get support from international actors.

I have argued before However, because Bosnia remains dependent on international support and because international actors continue to play an important role in the country, any reforms will need to have the buy-in from international actors.

The EU remains one of the key drivers for change, although its ‘drive’ has massively declined in importance since 2006. The American focus on the reform of the Federation in 2013 and 2014 also demonstrates that the US is still engaged in Bosnia and wants to see progress. Hence, international actors could have been strong allies of the plenums, since they continuously raise the same problems.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that the political elites, those party leaders responsible for the political deadlock and economic mismanagement, are permanently seeking external support and international validation for their policies.

The plenums could have become the ‘voice of the people’ in opposition to the ‘voice of the small elite’ but they failed to seek dialogue with international actors.

This leaves the question of whether it was all in vain. Did the protests and the plenums achieve anything, or were they just a short episode of public unrest? The plenums did have an impact, and a lot of their achievements will become visible only in the future.

First, the protests demonstrated that a lot of people are unhappy about their situation and now feel empowered to demonstrate against the political elites. For a day or two, when buildings were burning and tens of thousands demonstrated in Bosnia, the political elites were worried.

While this worry quickly resulted in abuse and ignorance towards the protestors, what the plenums highlighted is that people are able to self-organise and talk about concrete political reforms. This is a legacy that will remain.

Without proper reforms, the economic situation will not improve, which will lead to new protests in the near future. Second, the plenums demonstrated that it is not ethnic nationalism that divides Bosnia – social inequality and political dissatisfaction unite the people of Bosnia.

While elites have been good at manipulation and at playing the nationalist card, the protests and the resulting plenums did not talk about national divisions but about the problems most Bosnians share, independent of their ethnic background.

Third, the plenums provided networks that continue to organise and mobilise. These networks played a key role in organising support for those areas in Bosnia that were hit by the floods in May 2014. This, too, is an important legacy that has managed to bridge the ethnic divide.

The plenums might be dead, but without reforms and long-term change, unrest will continue. That another Bosnia is possible has become part of the public discourse, in relation to Bosnia’s football team.

The fact that the discourse has shifted, so that these discussions are taking place, shows that the protests and the plenums had a lasting impact. Another Bosnia is possible, and it is the responsibility of the people of Bosnia to build it. The plenums were an important first step. Their failure will lay the foundations for future initiatives that will succeed and will demonstrate how people themselves can choose the political, economic and societal framework of the country in which they live.

Dr Soeren Keil is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University. In December 2013, his book ‘Multinational Federalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina’ was published with Ashgate.

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