When I began keeping this blog, I imagined I would update frequently with accounts of what I was doing every day. I thought I would save addressing the political situation in Bosnia until later. A couple things got in the way of that–I realized that spending time journaling/blogging each day would mean that I would be isolating myself from my host family and spending time on the computer and my experience became too difficult to easily put into words. In the past few days, however, something even bigger happened that made me pay attention to Bosnian politics more than ever. One of the biggest protests in Bosnia’s recent history occurred this Monday just outside the school that I’m teaching in.
When America ended the war in Bosnia with the Dayton Accords in 1995, they created a political system that entrenched nationalism. Bosnia today is a federation made up of two republic: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS). These two republics roughly represent the two sides of the war in Bosnia, and are almost entirely separate. As a result of this, Bosnia has a huge number of politicians, and its government is seen as increasingly out-of-touch with the rest of the population.
This distance between the general Bosnian population and the regular Bosnian people reached a climax in February, when the old law assigning individuals JMBG numbers (the Bosnian equivalent of social security numbers) expired. Politicians from the FBiH and RS began bickering over whether the new law should assign babies numbers that indicate which republic they are from. As a result, any baby born in Bosnia after February does not have a JMBG number, which means it is extremely difficult for them to leave the country for any reason. As a result, one baby, born with a treatable medical condition that required care overseas, has died already.
In response to this crisis, protestors held a massive demonstration outside the Parliament on June 6, blocking politicians from leaving. Parliament hasn’t sat since then, but that didn’t stop protestors from taking up arms again last Monday, July 1st. When we walked near the protest site on our way to work in the morning, all was quiet–the demonstration was set at 10. Early in the morning, the protest was more like a small dance party–the oldest class at my camp even went to the protest to see civil society in action. By the time we left the camp at the end of the day and headed to Alta–the large mall across the street from the Parliament–things had gotten quite a bit louder. As we stood outside waiting to meet one of our contacts, the protestors crossed the street and began blocking traffic on the main road through Sarajevo. The city exploded with noise–people screaming and horns honking (both in solidarity and annoyance at the traffic).
Protests aren’t usually a big deal in America–although this was considerably larger than any protest I had ever seen in DC–but for Bosnia, this was huge. According to my friends here, this protest was the first in years that attracted people from outside Sarajevo, and the first to lead to simultaneous protests in other towns. Walking through town, it’s easy to see the signs of protest and how big a movement this was: the mark of the protestors (a fist on top of a pacifier) and the date of the protest (01.07) is graffitied everywhere.
I’ve been reading about the protests in the news, but I’ve learned the most about these protests from talking to my Bosnian friends. I interpreted these protests as a success (yay for peaceful protests in a country with limited civil society) but most of my Bosnian friends saw the protests as a failure. As my host mom’s brother-in-law explained to me, in the first protests, the protestors shut off the Parliament and had real power; this time, they had no bargaining chips. The differences in our interpretation made me reconsider my own attitudes: before I really talked to any of my Bosnian friends about the protests, I was ready to just accept any protest movement as a good thing. These protestors, however, want to be more than just in the game–they’re playing to win. I used to think “Any civic participation in Bosnia is a good thing,” but now I realize that attitude is simply patronizing. Bosnia does have a stagnated government, but its people are more than ready for peaceful change, and I’m optimistic about its future. At first I was a little apprehensive about the protests, but now I’m thrilled to be here to watch all of this happen. The demonstrations have ended for now, but I feel like the overall movement is still going strong. Solidaridnost!