The bitter joke in Sarajevo, during the war-torn 1990s was “Only the odd-numbered world wars start here.”
World War I, for sure, was triggered there -- by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip in 1914. And, if you consider the spate of sectarian, tribal, ethnic and nationalist wars in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Mali, Ivory Coast, Somalia and Nigeria, over the past 20 years to be a kind of conglomerate World War III, think of Sarajevo. That's where the tone (and some of the strategies and tactics) was set during the devolutionary wars of the Former Yugoslavia, whose flashpoint and moral nadir was the Siege of Sarajevo.
Right now, this week, Bosnia balances on a knife-edge of temporary quiet, suspended between two global antagonisms, the old one of “national” or “ethnic” conflict (I use quotes because the claim that Serbs, Croat and Muslims in Bosnia represent separate “nations” or “ethnicities” is at best questionable if not largely bogus), and the newly-recognized world-wide fracture line, between self-sustained oligarchies of wealth, force and political power and the general populace who are sinking into poverty and desperation..
The present peaceful pause follows a week of violent and large-scale protest that burned significant government headquarters in Bosnia’s 4 largest cities: Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Mostar.
Caroline Hopper, a veteran human rights worker in the Balkans, calls the demonstrations “the largest anti-government protests since the war; unprecedented, not only in size, but also in their very nature.”
But, you may be surprised to hear, she adds,”These protests offer a real sense of optimism that is so uncommon for the suffering state.
“Masses have organized themselves behind universal grievances regarding severe economic woes that are the fault of both individual politicians as well as the system of government as a whole. Resolutely non-ethnic, these protests have crossed both social and physical boundaries, occurring in both the [Bosnian-Croat] Federation and in Republika Srpska, and in rural and urban areas alike. Fires lit around the country should not be seen as signals of pending warfare, but if anything, as an embodiment of the universal rejection of embedded nationalism, and with it stagnation, corruption, and nepotism.”
In Hopper’s judgment, frequently repeated by scholars in Europe and America, and citizens across Bosnia, (and yes, asserted previously in my blogs) the failures, the “stagnation, corruption, and nepotism,” are direct consequences of American diplomatic irresponsibility, or as the one time UN High Commissioner in Sarajevo, Miroslav Lajcak has asserted, Bosnia is “a prisoner of Dayton.”
The 1995 General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the Dayton Agreement, driven principally by the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, ended an almost 4 year war of savage ferocity (estimates range between 100,000 and 200,000 Bosnian civilians were killed, at least twice as many driven into exile).
Unfortunately, it did so, by handing power back to the very armed hyper-nationalists guilty of most of the mass murders. Dayton set in place a “temporary” governmental structure that ratified and institutionalized rivalries exploited and magnified by the crooked politicians and criminal mafias who misled and exploited Bosnia’s Serb, Croat and Muslim minorities (the Muslims, now called Bosniaks, make up an estimated 40% of the population).
Then, with equally uncaring cynicism, the political leaders of the US and Europe looked the other way as the grafters and thugs harrowed the whole society.
As Bosnian scholars Aleksandar Hemon and Jasmin Mujanovic wrote in the NY Times:
“[Dayton] effectively awarded to the cleansers their ethnically cleansed territories, and was practically designed to prevent the state it defined from functioning as a civic society.
“In a country smaller than West Virginia and with a population the size of Oregon’s, there exist 142 municipalities, two highly autonomous entities, 10 cantons, a special district, a national government and an internationally appointed high representative to oversee them all. It amounts to approximately 180 ministers, 600 legislators and an army of about 70,000 bureaucrats.”
This infestation of faux-governors has had one over-arching product: impunity for the political-criminal elite.
“What the war didn’t destroy,” they wrote, “has been wrecked by Mafioso capitalism, practiced with equal zeal across ethnicities, in which private initiative is expressed in the form of corruption and cronyism. The political system’s primary function is allowing wealth to be amassed by the leaders of political parties, fully united, despite their presumed cultural and ideological differences, in their commitment to impoverish the people they lead.”
Finally, it seems, the Bosnian people have had enough.
Most important, the protests seem to include representatives of all the Bosnian peoples, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Roma, and Jews protesting, not as oppressed and mutually hate-filled minorities, but as an oppressed majority whose hatred is focused not on ethnic groups, but corrupt government officials, violent paramilitary gangs and their beneficiaries, a cohort of super-rich oligarchs.
Predictably, the progenitors of minority abuses are the first to warn that the protests aimed at them are actually signs of ethnic pandemonium. Equally predictably, they have been the first to call on their European and American enablers to intervene.
Prime Minister Vjekoslav Bevanda told Reuters he’s not worried.
The recent unrest in Bosnia is a local "fire," he told Euro-bankers he was begging for more money to misspend. "We will be able to extinguish it very quickly."
Hemon and Mujanovic report, “The Bosnian people have found a voice. In Tuzla, after the initial chaos and police violence, the protesters forced the resignations of the cantonal prime minister. They formed a plenum — an open parliament of citizens where everyone is welcome, and which has by now gone through a number of sessions. They formulated demands, including establishing a cantonal government of non-party-affiliated experts and a thorough investigation of the privatization process. In Sarajevo, the first plenum had to be rescheduled when the organizers were overwhelmed by the turnout.
Or as Alida Vracic, executive director of the Think Tank Populari in Sarajevo told USA Today, "The political elite feels fear and is insecure about its position for the first time in 20 years.”
“For the first time,” Vracic said, “people see that they have to take power in their hands.”
This is a perception that is also alive (and under monumental challenge) in other places around the world where government and all its political elements have failed the people: Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Venezuela, even (if less violently) in Scotland.
As the Bosnian scholar Igor Stiks wrote in The Guardian:
“This is not a rebellion of discriminated and ghettoized groups, territorially contained on the outskirts of big cities. It is a rebellion of the whole population that has been subjected to economic impoverishment, social devastation and political destitution.”
The Nobel prize winning Bosnian novelist Ivo Andric, from my years in the area, still the most authoritative source on Bosnian culture, called his homeland, “the land of endless hatreds.” But he also showed in his novels what history has shown, that for every outburst of communal killing and alienation, there are intervening decades when all factions live together civilly.
Notwithstanding expectable attempts by the political and community “leaders” who have benefited from the dissonance to push their peoples to mindless conflict again, there are signs that many people remember that history, and embrace their capability to live as a single Bosnian nation.
Some people see similar signs in Ukraine, that persistent, consistent political failure and exploitation of historic fault lines have robbed both politicians and fractional populisms of all credibility and allegiance, driving once disparate groups together in a campaign for real democratic, rule of law reform.
Please, God, let it be so.
In the new world of instant, ubiquitous global communication confronting rampant impunity, injustice and inequality, people do find themselves with lots of new, and newly collective power in their hands. Using it against their political and economic oppressors relentlessly as well as civilly may shift the balance of yet another global struggle. Call it World War IV (the better one): of common humanity against greed and exploitation.