The origins of the socio-economic issues that have sparked protests in Bosnia can be traced back to the late Yugoslav period. Daniela Lai explains how economic inequalities became rooted in the countries’ post-socialist and war-time transition.
In the past few days some excellent posts have been published on the Bosnian protests, like those from Eric Gordy and Florian Bieber, or Jasmin Mujanovic’s much shared article on Al Jazeera. I have no intention of replicating their arguments. What I would like to highlight here is the strong link between today’s protests and what is usually called ‘transition’. The term transition has been used, by media, policy makers and academics to define the process of moving away from an authoritarian, non-democratic regime to a ‘Western’ democracy. In the case of Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War specifically, the democratisation process involved a strong economic component. Free elections and new party systems came with liberalisation and privatisations of formerly state-owned companies.
However, in the case of Bosnia, this is only part of the story. Even before the outbreak of the war, the countries of the former Yugoslavia stopped being socialist in the sense in which they had been constructed over the past decades, although that did not mean an immediate embrace of democracy. In addition, throughout the war, Bosnia’s constitutional status changed from being part of the Yugoslav Federation to that of an independent country whose sovereignty was internationally recognised. Just as Bosnia declared its independence large scale violence began and soon the whole country was at war.
When the country was pacified in 1995, Bosnia was deeply changed both by the war and by the state-building projects associated with the ‘transition’. These multiple trends within the transition process, whose origins and development are somehow intertwined, further complicate the Bosnian scenario.
The origins of the socio-economic issues that have sparked the recent protests can actually be traced back to the late Yugoslav period. The economic transition of Yugoslavia from socialism to capitalism had already started during the 1980s when, due to increasing difficulties, the IMF granted a loan that was, as it can be expected, conditional upon an austerity program and reforms aimed at opening to Yugoslavia to international markets and liberalising the economy. While the mismanagement of the economic crisis by the Yugoslav authority further worsened economic conditions throughout the country, international programmes for economic reconstruction after the war were based on the same neoliberal principles. One important aspect of this process was the privatisation of state-owned companies.
The privatisation process entailed dramatic changes for large parts of the Bosnian society. Industrial areas scattered around the country, such as that of Tuzla – where the recent protests began – were hit by reduction of personnel that compromised the wellbeing of the local community. In addition to the loss of jobs and the destruction caused by the war, people had to endure a permanent modification of the role of the state and its responsibilities towards society. Bosnians lost the guarantees and certainties they were used to. Ultimately, their interests and their voices were not heard by those who drafted the new constitution or approved economic reforms. The recent protests thus express a deep dissatisfaction with the way the transition has been handled, both by the international community and the national authorities.
While the state relinquished some of the responsibilities it had under the socialist regime, the nationalist elites that came after Dayton tried to maximise the profit they could make from the privatisation process. In addition to the economic profit, political elites benefitted from the electoral support they could gain from managing the clientelistic networks that kept them in power in exchange of jobs or other forms of protection.
The citizens of Bosnia are well aware of the complicity of the political elites in the current political and economic crisis of their country. When the local government in Tuzla initially tried to shift the responsibility of the loss of jobs away from them, claiming that the companies were now private, the citizens made it clear that they wanted to address root causes of the problem rather than the symptom. The economic problems Bosnia faces are deeply linked to the inability of the political system to respond to them, and that is what has brought more and more Bosnians on the streets in the past days.
The root cause of this crisis, or at least a major one, can be identified in the way the complex transition process of Bosnia was conducted in the past decades. While it is hard to make any plausible predictions about the outcome of the protests, the social and economic distress that provoked them is not fading away. If nothing changes this time, it will just take another spark to initiate a new confrontation between Bosnia’s angry citizens and the political elites hanging on to power.