Country Risk

Anti-government protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina subside, but risk of escalation ahead of elections

09 February 2014
A Bosnian protester raises his arms in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 7 February 2014, in a protest over privatisation and salaries. Source: PA

Key Points

  • Street violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is likely to continue to flare sporadically over the coming months, with protest action in an election year underlying the security risks posed by deep economic and social problems.
  • There is a heightened risk of street violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina sparking similar protest action in neighbouring countries such as Serbia, with police in the Kosovan capital having also used tear gas on 8 February to disperse student demonstrators.
  • Demonstrators' demands for early elections within three months are unrealistic and the government is unlikely to be unseated, although peaceful protests - with a potential for violence - are likely to continue until elections in October.

EVENT

Police made more than 100 arrests in what was the worst unrest since the end of the 1992-1995 civil war. Protests have mainly taken place in the Croat-Muslim political entity of the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina (FBiH). However, there were also solidarity demonstrations in the Serb entity of Republika Srpska (RS).

According to an IHS source, across the country 17 buildings had extensive property damage from arson attacks. There were also unverified police reports of small-scale and localised looting at the centre of the demonstrations in the northern industrial city of Tuzla. The violence culminated on 7 February with the ransacking and burning of unoccupied government buildings and party headquarters in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Mostar, with no reports of injuries to employees. However, police defending the buildings came under sustained attacks from projectiles and scores of police vehicles were destroyed.

Gathering discontent

Protests had started in Tuzla on 4-5 February, when a few thousand workers from local companies that were weakened or collapsed in the wake of unsuccessful privatisations in the early 2000s gathered in front of the Tuzla cantonal government building. They were protesting against difficult economic and social conditions and demanding payment of salary arrears.

Government officials initially refused to meet the workers, fuelling public anger and triggering scuffles with police guarding the building. The protests quickly spread throughout the country and increased rapidly in intensity and violence. Smaller peaceful demonstrations were also registered in Kakanj, Visoko, Konjic, and Livno, as well as in a few locations in Republika Srpska, including Banja Luka, Prijedor, Bijeljina, and Foca.

At most locations the protesters did not have a clear organisational structure and were largely brought together through social networks and by informal groups such as Udar (strike). Udar's manifesto calls for the "end of nationalism" within BiH's fractured political system, to start the country from a "clean state", and demands the start of membership negotiations with the European Union. It does not have any political representation and is nominally led by Eldin Sinanovic. There was little or no engagement by BiH's usually lethargic trade union organisations in the disturbances. The chief inspector of the FBiH police, Dragan Lukac, told a press conference on 7 February that the similarity in the behaviour and targeting by different groups of demonstrators at different locations throughout the country suggested the violence was not fully spontaneous, although he provided no further details to substantiate this claim.

Domestic and international responses

The performance of BiH's law enforcement agencies during the violent protests is also under scrutiny, with the public accusing police of using either too little or too much force against demonstrators. Dragan Lukac told the press conference that police officers were unable to properly carry out their duties due to various political constraints that were imposed, while Himzo Selimovic, Director of the Office for Co-ordination of all police bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, resigned on 9 February. Selimovic claimed, that in such an environment he was unable to guarantee security to state institutions.

Meanwhile, the international high commissioner for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, has stated that the EU stands ready to dispatch additional peacekeepers should the violence escalate further. The EUFOR Athea mission currently has 600 soldiers in BiH, although a new deployment to bolster the mission would only be authorised as a last resort.

Throughout the protests most politicians avoided public appearances, with some appearing to show a lack of understanding of the depth of public anger. On 8 February, the heads of the cantonal local governments in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Zenica filed their resignations. However, their suggestions that elections should take place in the next three months are a highly unrealistic option given that regular general elections are only eight months away.

Socio-economic and privatisation issues will continue to be at the heart of protests. In addition to the workers of the five companies who started protests in Tuzla on 4-5 February, there are at least a dozen larger companies and numerous medium-sized or small enterprises in Sarajevo and other towns that are facing collapse. While workers and the wider public have been demanding a reassessment of unsuccessful privatisation proceeds for years, no government has dared to initiate such a process. The prospect of restarting production at some of the former state-owned companies is difficult and would require international technical and financial assistance.

ANALYSIS

Peaceful and orderly protests are likely to continue for a second week, with significantly lower turnout after strong public and international condemnation of the violence. A potential trigger for further violence has also been removed after police and prosecution services investigating detained suspects and known organisers, released those arrested.

Further manifestations of the public's dissatisfaction with Bosnia and Herzegovina's dysfunctional political system and falling living standards are highly likely in the run-up to the national elections scheduled for October 2014. To some extent the recent protests have crossed the country's ethnic divide between Croat, Serb, and Bosnian, although there is no religious or ethnic dimension to the protests at this stage, meaning that they cannot be linked in any direct way to an 'Arab Spring'-type scenario. However, protests have a different appearance in the RS and FBiH regions, with a much greater risk of street violence in the latter.

The lack of precedent for such widespread and violent protests means that the country is now entering uncharted waters. Protests could dissipate in a relatively short period of time if some of the protesters' objections are met, including the revision of privatisation laws. However, a failure by politicians to address the poor economic and social conditions in the country could see a sporadic spike in protests and violent street demonstrations between now and the October elections. More worryingly, if Croat or Serb politicians continue playing the ethnic card and if Bosniak civic leaders attempt to 'cross the ethnic divide' and in any way support or orchestrate protests in Croat or Serb areas, the unrest could give way to larger-scale street violence that could involve ethnic overtones. This would mean scenario in which further developments could lead to renewed violence or even the effective break-up of the country.

IHS assesses that the most probable scenario is a sporadic spike in protests, with or without occasional violence, ahead of elections in October. There is a small possibility that protests could dissipate provided that new cantonal or federal government institutions are established. However, we regard that scenario as low. Protests could give way to larger scale street violence in the next nine months; this would become more likely if politicians play the ethnic card.



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