A curious contrast has emerged over the past week or so. In the Ukraine, the streets are alight with the growing “Euromaidan” protests, as masses stare down cordons of riot police, occupy government buildings and central squares in opposition to their government’s turn away from Brussels. Meanwhile, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) has lost 45 million euros in pre-ascension funds from this same EU due to the inability of the local governing elite to implement the Sejdić-Finci ruling of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), four years after the original decision came down. In BiH, however, the popular reaction has been deafening silence.
There are now even speculations in respectable media reports that this supposed “inability” to find agreement may be part of a broader strategy on the part of BiH’s political elite. Since the EU has threatened to withhold recognition of the 2014 general elections if the Sejdić-Finci decision is not appropriately implemented, the political establishment in BiH has begun taking concrete steps to ensure that this, in fact, takes place. After all, the occasional pretense of free elections has been one of the last vestiges of nominal democracy in BiH and thus a nagging inconvenience to this same ruling clique. With the elections suspended, popular participation in BiH political life will be finally and completely extinguished.
The irony, of course, is that in Kiev the protestors are using popular, public manifestations to push their leaders towards what they imagine to be a “European” standard of democracy while in BiH, a country de facto under EU administration, European leaders have been party to the near total elimination of popular participation in politics. In the streets of Kiev, sympathetic politicians declare, “Today politics is conducted not in the [parliament] or in the cabinet, but here, on the square.” In BiH, “local and international partners” conspire together to ensure that not a single new voice is heard above the existing, cynical din, one that chooses only to preach fear, suspicion and resentment in order to maintain itself in power.
Let use the Sejdić-Finci “negotiations” themselves as an example. Since the issue in the original case was minority rights and inclusion, we should ask how many minority citizens, the so-called “Others,” are included in the ongoing discussions. The answer is zero. Not even Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci have been on the frequent chartered flights to Brussels and Prague. There are hardly any women involved either, even from the parties themselves, as a collection of women’s rights organizations in the country drew attention to several days ago. No, there are no minorities, no women, no representatives from NGOs or other civil society groups involved in the most significant constitutional debate in BiH since the end of the war. In fact, the only people involved are the respective leaders of the so-called “Ruling Six” parties.
In other words, in BiH we are witnessing precisely the kind of exclusionary “managed democracy” that the protestors in the Ukraine feel their country will become unless they take concrete steps to become part of the EU bloc. In BiH, however, it is Brussels not Moscow that has facilitated the emergence of this disastrous state of affairs.
In truth, the EU does not really want BiH in its fold and the BiH political elite certainly do not want to become part of an actual legal order. The result is a permanent state of quasi-candidate status that along with the constant drone of chauvinist rhetoric substitutes for actual political discourse. The implementation of “reforms” is as staged as the daily clashes between the ethno-nationalist camps, dutifully splashed across the country’s front pages.
The political establishment here has no ideological basis—there is nothing social democratic about Milorad Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) or Zlatko Lagumdžija Social Democratic Party (SDP). One need hardly mention the rest of the sordid cast. It is telling that the only “new” actor on the stage is Fahrudin Radončić, a man who bought himself a newspaper, then bought himself a political party and finally, the post of Security Minister. It says all one needs to know about the political culture in BiH: these are political oligarchs, in power, in most cases, for twenty, thirty years in which time they have turned public offices into personal fiefdoms. Their disagreements originate in the division of these spoils, not in any substantive conflict of principles.
If there is any ideological basis to their rule it is merely that they all agree that politics is not a popular exercise, not one that ought to involve the greatest number of individuals possible, so that we might administer our collective affairs as fairly and equally as possible. Politics does not exist in BiH, the political does not exist, all that exists is politika, the pejorative label by which ordinary citizens refer to their demobilization and expulsion from the public arena.
While the origins of this particular elite strategy can be found in the systemic rot of the Yugoslav system towards the end of the 1980s, its present mutation dates to the institutionalization of the Dayton constitutional order in 1995-96. We must recall that there existed in the 1980s all the markings of an emerging, organic civil society in Yugoslavia. And, moreover, that the original purpose of the “nationalist turn” within the authoritarian segments of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ) was to blunt the substantive democratic potential of these emerging social critiques. Nationalism became a kind of new faux social contract, emptied of any democratic accountability or participation.
How and why the international community came to endorse this anti-democratic turn is documented in detail by Josip Glaurdić, among others. The reality today is that nearly twenty years since the end of the war, in Brussels and Washington, this same logic persists. Even as the former architects of the Dayton Accords begin to slowly line-up to acknowledge the policy debacle they helped usher in.
Ten years after the so-called Orange Revolution, the Ukrainians are out in the streets again. A genuine desire for EU membership may be the nominal cause of the protests and certainly the one to be most readily embraced by the Western media. Yet the massive gatherings in the streets also speak to the fact that the Ukrainian people are not interested in a mere transition in their leadership, from oligarchs to Eurocrats. They imagine themselves as agents of change and not victims of transition.
Regardless of whether or not the 2014 general elections are actually suspended and regardless of what shape the eventual Sejdić-Finci agreement takes, the people of BiH have nothing left to hope for from either the local or the international political establishment. BiH’s lost ascension funds have shifted towards Kosovo, as the world’s attention has shifted towards the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
During the so-called #JMBG protests over the summer of 2013 we witnessed a brief moment of change. In a sense, there was more accomplished by that human chain that blocked the state parliament and forced the trapped politicians to flee out basement windows and to fake medical emergencies than all the EU-sponsored reforms put together. It was a manifestation of the realization, however fleeting, that this system could only be changed through popular, local, direct action.
Democracy cannot be managed, it must be experienced. BiH does not lack for causes to revolt, it does not lack for public squares or government buildings to occupy. It only lacks the sustained popular consensus to transform anger into mobilization and if it fails to try again and again and again. This lack of consensus may, in the final analysis, still be an incredible obstacle to overcome but at least we can shift our conversation from what is to be done? to how do we do it?
Photo Credit: Jakub Parusinski via Twitter