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In Bosnia, Protests That Can No Longer Be Ignored

Editor’s note (February 11, 2014): In this post, Dobrila Govedarica referenced passages written by Lily Lynch in Balkanist Magazine. You can read the text in full at Balkanist.

It was 30 years ago this week that Sarajevo was emblazoned with orange pennants as host of the Winter Olympics. It was 20 years ago that we were under siege; our city transformed by death and war. And this week, plumes of black smoke blanketed the city as demonstrators set fire to government buildings in protest against their impoverishment and lack of economic prospects.

In Tuzla, Bosnia’s second biggest city, which was once the industrial powerhouse of former Yugoslavia, some 10,000 unemployed workers took to the streets to demand that the local government investigate privatizations they said had lined the pockets of profiteers and destroyed their livelihoods and the companies themselves. Among the troubled firms was the Konjuh furniture factory. This once proud company in many ways tells the story of Bosnia-Herzegovina—and Yugoslavia, the former communist federation of six republics.

Founded in 1885 by enterprising businessmen from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the company thrived. Under Tito, the company employed 5,300 employees and sold high-quality wood furnishings to customers on five continents. By December 2013, the company employed just 400 workers, some of whom were on hunger strike.

Joining the Tuzla demonstrations were also former employees of the 36-year-old Dita detergent factory—once Bosnia’s biggest producer of liquid detergents and washing powders. They were demanding two years of unpaid wages.

Until now local authorities in Tuzla have ignored the protests, which have been bubbling up over the last few years. Now, young, unemployed people whose rage and despair is palpable are joining them.

The first clashes between police and protesters in Tuzla came on Wednesday. The next day Sarajevo and several other cities followed with similar demands. Protestors rallied under the banner “He who sows hunger, reaps anger.”

By Friday, a dozen or so government buildings were in smoldering cinders. In response, the governments of three cantons resigned.

According to official statements, more policemen were injured than protestors. Around 100 protestors were arrested. Most of us saw that these protestors were fed up with unresponsive and corrupt governments.

The politicians, however, did not get the message. They immediately began discrediting the protests or used them as pretext to settle scores against rival political parties in an early gambit ahead of elections set for October 2014. And of course there are the conspiracy theories, ranging from “foreign forces” exported from Ukraine, politically organized hooligans that abused peaceful protestors, and so on.

Protests continued today, and they were peaceful but there are fewer gathered. We were shocked by the scenes of destruction and the reports of police beating protestors. But a country that has gone through war, whose citizens feel they have so little—has nothing to lose.

University professors and students announced they would strike from next week on, the official start of the second semester of the academic year. That could be the next wave. That could be the new outburst in a place that can be unpredictable.

A hundred years ago World War I started here.

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