Bosnia: The Next Ukrainian Crisis?

Violence is nothing new to Eastern Europe, as the most recent events in Ukraine show. However, there are fears among many analysts that the example of violence used in Ukraine to overthrow governments could be repeated in other countries. Such fears were present in February, when Bosnia saw riots in Tuzla and other major cities when anger over the privatization of various state firms spilled over into the public sphere. The result was that several government buildings were torched, hundreds were injured, and dozens were arrested.

Of course, a common theme in most post-communist countries is the problem of corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Bosnia ranks 72nd in the world with a rank similar to other Balkan countries. This does not seem that bad until one takes into account that Bosnia has an unemployment rate ranging from 27% to over 45%, a staggering number for any country, let alone a Balkan country. This not only causes economic problems, but also social problems. The indignity of economic poverty becomes fodder for extremism and the corrupt state becomes the target of one’s anger.

Image courtesy of stefanogiantin ©2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of stefanogiantin ©2014, some rights reserved.

This is not to say that Bosnia is suffering from abject poverty like many states of the Global South may be. Bosnia has seen relatively steady economic growth since 1995, being classified as a middle-high income country. At the same time, the economic growth in Bosnia is not always distributed evenly, and while the income inequality may not be as bad as it is in the United States, it is still uneven.

In 2007, the top 20% of income-earners held 43.8% of the country’s earnings and the top 10% made 27.25% percent. Meanwhile, the lowest 20% made only 6.65%. With the absence of Chavista-like leaders in the country, the current distribution of income share will most likely remain the way it is, or get worse.

Complicating problems even further is the history of violence within the country. It is clear that most Bosnians fear the resurgence of violence in the country, but so did many before the Yugoslav war broke out.  Obviously the fear of war is no guarantee to peace.

While the fear that Ukrainian violence may set a precedent for many extremist groups throughout Eastern Europe, it does not seem that this was felt in Bosnia according to Paula Pickering, a professor at The College of William & Mary and a former US State Department analyst. Instead, the frustration of the people has been directed towards local governments in peaceful ways, with citizen plenums being set up throughout the country. These plenums are breeding new political leaders in a hope to bring positive change to the country.

Meanwhile, politicians in Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s unrecognized breakaway republic, which was set up after the Dayton Accords, are clamoring for independence. The corruption there may be even worse, as exemplified by Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska. One of his most infamous splurges is on taxpayer-dollars spent on lobbyists in the United States. The republic is the second-largest spender on lobbying efforts in continental Europe, only second to Switzerland. Of course, few American politicians are likely to support the independence of Republika Srpska, making the efforts rather useless.

Dodik has been stoking tensions in the country for years, threatening independence referendums, and declaring Bosnia an illegitimate and unstable country. The precedent set by Russia’s annexation of Crimea has been discussed as a potential galvanizing point for Dodik’s wish for independence.

While Dodik is likely to use this precedent as his own political weapon, it is unlikely to have much effect. The European Union’s leverage is strong enough that Dodik would not wish to isolate his republic. Furthermore, the United Nations and the EU have a greater active presence in Bosnia-Republika Srpska, which makes it significantly more difficult for Dodik to put his threats to effect.

In an editorial for The Guardian, Slavoj Zizek characterizes the Bosnian protests as a revolt against the nationalist elites. Instead of ethnic identity as the major rallying cry of the Bosnian people, revulsion over corrupt politicians and a desire for a normal life has driven thousands to protest. Thus, The Bosnian protests could serve as a model to other protest movements. Instead of generating violence as displayed recently in Kiev, the Bosnians have decided to set up new institutions with the hope to rebuild the country so that everyone has a chance for prosperity, not just nationalist politicians.

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