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Bosnia-Herzegovina: corruption protests fuel a potential political spring

Bosnia-Herzegovina: corruption protests fuel a potential political spring
By Hans von der Brelie
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Tuzla in Bosnia is the epicentre of protests against corruption and bad governance. In this edition of Reporter we look at the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Fire has already blackened the regional government building in Tuzla. Now, the empty windows look down on yet another protest march – one of many in Bosnia-Herzegovina nowadays.

Is it a ‘political spring’? This is where it all started when middle-class families march alongside students and the unemployed. The protests against unemployment, corruption and political inertia have already toppled four out of 10 regional governments.

Protest leader Damir Arsenijevic explained the problems to euronews: “Corrupt privatisation. Political parties controlling the judiciary, controlling the police, promoting terror in everyday life and that’s the worst thing: that they have actually stolen the money from the people and they have got richer.”

Emin Eminagic, an activist in Tuzla complained: “We have been lied to for 20 years. We have been oppressed for 20 years, people are hungry, people are starving. We do not have job prospects here, we will not have a future here unless we change something.”

In early February, government buildings were set alight in Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla. It was the worst violence since the end of the war in 1995. But even after the violence, all over the country the protests continue – peacefully this time.

Tuzla is the regional capital. In the job centre they tell us that this region has 100,000 unemployed people and only 80,000 people in work. Less than four million people live in Bosnia. Depending on which statistics you use, 25-45 percent of them are without an official work contract. The “grey economy” governs all social and political relations in the country.

Aldin Siranovic is one of those who triggered the protests. In the resulting turmoil, dozens of ministers lost their jobs. He received threats but said he does not regret exposing the corruption experienced by he and his wife: “The Social Services Minister in the government told her: ‘If you want to work in healthcare, you need to pay 25,000 Bosnian marks [approximately 13,000 euros] to the director of that institution’. I got a job at Telecom Bosnia, in the normal way. I was working over there for three months, after three months my supervisor said: ‘Hey, you didn’t pay 25,000 marks to get employed here, so if you do not pay, you will get fired and my cousin will come to work here’.”

Bosnia looses an estimated 800 million euros a year due to manipulated public tenders. State budgets are low while public expenditure and debt are climbing ever higher.

Emir Dikic chairs the board of the Bosnian branch of the anti-corruption NGO “Transparency International”. He told euronews: “The reform of the judiciary has failed. Basically, the judiciary is still under high political pressure and we have a country that is corrupted by the six or seven most powerful persons in the country: those guys are the presidents of the leading political parties.”

There used to be several factories in Tuzla, employing around 3,000 people, including Sakib Kopic, who worked in the chemical plant for 33 years. Now he is one of the protesters and says people want to be governed by experts. Laid-off workers use the expression “mafia privatisation”. Why?

Sakib Kopic explained: “Someone comes to buy a company for almost nothing, they get one, two three bank loans, then they destroy the company, they close it down, and the privatisation-mafia put the money into their own pockets. The people who invented these privatisation schemes should be sent to prison where they should be made to crush stones with a rubber mallet.”

In Zenica, the heartland of Bosnian steel production, the people have also toppled the regional government. All over Bosnia “citizens’ assemblies” are pushing for transparency on public spending and the abolition of privileges for politicians.

Political Science student Aldin Alic and Mustafa Bisic, who is studying Economics, call themselves “change-makers” launching flash-mobs against air-pollution and taking part in citizens’ assemblies. Aldin Alic said: “The state structure is too complicated. In Bosnia-Herzegovina we have 13 regional governments, more than 130 ministries and ministers, and on the top of that we have five presidents. We have a whole bunch of leaders but they don’t lead.”

We move on to the capital, Sarajevo, where workers are repairing government buildings torched by protesters a few days ago.

Many people point the finger at the “Dayton Agreement”. The deal ended war, but by dividing power in order to stop fighting between Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks it created a dysfunctional system unable to steer Bosnia through economic transition.

We asked one EU diplomat for his opinion on how to move forward. Valentin Inzko, High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, said: “I appeal to the governing decision-makers: do not be afraid of the population. Listen to the requests of the citizens. And I appeal to the public prosecutors too. Do not be afraid to do your jobs!”

Will the country join the EU one day? For the moment failure to reform the constitution has frozen Bosnia’s bid for EU accession. Nevertheless, the European Union’s Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peter Sorensen, hasn’t given up hope: “What we can do and what we are doing is making sure that the offer of eventually membership is clear to everybody: The EU perspective is kept alive.”

Back in Tuzla, the Dita laundry powder factory is standing idle, having also been privatised. The workers, guarding the site, say the machines are still functional.

Fehim Avdihodzic, a Dita factory worker, said: “The factory has not worked for a year, but it could be restarted any time. We prevent the machines being removed: five shifts guard them at night, four shifts during the day.”

The workers say the factory owner did not pay social security contributions, meaning that they are no longer fully eligible for healthcare, social security or pensions.

Adnan Hamidovic is an MC & rapper who performs under the name of Frenkie. During the war, his family took refuge in Germany but today, Frenkie lives in Tuzla, and raps about the situation. He told euronews: “Politicians have been telling us the same lies over and over for the last 20 years. It’s the tactics of nationalism. Politicians use it as a weapon, and that is the main root of our problems and conflicts, even today.”

It is too early to call the protests a “Bosnian Spring”. But without change, there will be one, and possibly a violent one. The message from the EU is clear: clean up corruption and keep ethnic questions out of it. Otherwise you’re playing with fire. The Balkans are a powder keg and Bosnia is part of it.

Euronews reporter Hans von der Brelie interviewed Valentin Inzko, EU High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To listen to the full interview (in German) click on the following link.

Bonus Interview: Valentin Inzko, Hohen Repräsentanten in Bosnien-Herzegowina

Interview (in English) with Peter Sorensen, Head of the EU Delegation in Sarajevo and European Union Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bonus interview: Peter Sorensen, Head of the EU Delegation in Sarajevo

In Sarajevo Euronews met one of the leading political analysts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Srecko Latal from the “Social Overview Service SOS” think tank. To hear the full interview (in English) click on the following link.

Bonus interview: Srecko Latal, political analyst

Emir Dikic chairs the Board of Directors of the Bosnian branch of the anti-corruption NGO “Transparency International”. Euronews met him in Sarajevo. (Interview in English)

Bonus interview: Emir Dikic, ‘Transparency International’

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Bonus interview: Peter Sorensen, Head of the EU Delegation in Sarajevo

Bonus interview: Srecko Latal, political analyst

Bonus interview: Emir Dikic, "Transparency International"