Bosnia's Serb Entity Immune From Protests?

Both of Bosnia’s administrative territories face the same problems of unemployment and corruption, but only the Federation has seen protests so far.

Bosnia's Serb Entity Immune From Protests?

Both of Bosnia’s administrative territories face the same problems of unemployment and corruption, but only the Federation has seen protests so far.

Banja Luka city centre. (Photo: Maja Bjelajac)
Banja Luka city centre. (Photo: Maja Bjelajac)

Analysts say the anti-government protests taking place in many parts of Bosnia could well spread to the country’s predominantly Serb entity, Republika Srpska (RS).

This month’s protests spread quickly through the Federation, the larger administrative entity, inhabited mainly by Bosniaks and Croats. Around 300 people were injured and around 100 detained in rioting that left government buildings seriously damaged.

Protests – now peaceful – have continued in many parts of the Federation, with citizens demanding action on unemployment and corruption. 

By contrast, the RS has not seen protests, with the exception of one rally in Banja Luka held in solidarity with Tuzla. It was attended by fewer than 200 people.

RS president Milorad Dodik said the protests were only a “problem for the Federation”, implying that people in his own entity had no reason to come out and demonstrate.

Dodik accused the international community of backing the demonstrations in order to create instability and thus justify increased intervention in Bosnia’s affairs.

His prime minister, Zeljka Cvijanovic, similarly asserted that RS was “stable and functional” and that the protests were purely the Federation’s problem.

Political analysts disagree, arguing that both Dodik and Cvijanovic are ignoring the fact that people in RS face identical problems to those in the Federation – unemployment, poverty, corruption and murky privatisations of state-owned companies.

With a population of 1.4 million, RS has over 150,000 people out of work, and there are as many citizens drawing pensions as there are in paid employment.

The average monthly income in RS stands at 820 Bosnian convertible marks (580 US dollars), which covers less than half the needs of a family of four.

Svetlana Cenic, a Banja Luka-based economist and former RS treasury minister, said that the absence of protests was the result of the government’s PR.

“RS citizens have been brainwashed into believing that if they demanded their money, they’d be seen as bad Serbs. And if they demanded both their money and their rights, they’d be perceived as traitors. No one wants to risk that,” she said.

However, Cenic argues that this dynamic cannot not last indefinitely.

“The more protests are postponed and the more arrogantly the authorities behave, the stronger the explosion will be once it happens,” she said. “People in RS are increasingly aware of the fact that those who are stealing from them while pretending to protect the interests of Bosnian Serbs are in fact their biggest enemies.”

Srdan Puhalo, a Banja Luka sociologist, agreed, adding that the RS authorities were trying to spread fears that any protests might lead to changes in the Bosnian constitution and eventually to the abolition of RS itself.

“The RS authorities are deliberately fueling paranoia among their citizens, so that any attempts to change things are subdued. This fear paralyses people and prevents them from taking any concrete action,” Puhalo said.

Nonetheless, he argued, an uprising would be possible if it were led by “someone perceived as a ‘good Serb’ whom the government cannot label a traitor or foreign mercenary”.

Dragan Bursac, a columnist with the online news portal Buka, is sceptical about the chances of people taking to the streets, even though they face the same economic problems as those in the Federation.

“They won’t do it – out of spite,” he explained. “Anti-government protests in RS could happen only if similar protests were not taking place in the Federation. This is a sad truth. Ninety-five per cent of RS citizens would rather be hungry than support their brothers in poverty on the other side of the ethnic divide.”

Bursac claimed that RS lacked a tradition of civil disobedience, with only “occasional small-scale protests that are strictly politically organised and controlled”.

But others note that there have in fact been public expressions of dissent in RS. In June 2013, for example 2,000 students took to the streets of Banja Luka to call for better study conditions, later broadening their demands and calling for an end to crime and corruption and more respect for human rights.

In November 2012, public sector workers marched in anger over a ten per cent salary cut. And protests against illegal construction in a city centre park some years ago quickly turned into demonstrations against crime and corruption lasting for several months.

However, none of these protests coalesced into to a fully-fledged uprising, nor did they yield any concrete results.

Miodrag Dakic, an environmental activist from Banja Luka, said the RS authorities were well aware of public discontent and were keen to head off any protests.

“At the slightest sign of possible social unrest, the government sends out the usual misinformation, claiming that some foreign enemy is trying to destroy RS and that they, the government, will not let that happen,” Dakic said. “Although this is such obvious manipulation, it works.”

Maja Bjelajac is an RFE and IWPR reporter in Banja Luka. 

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