Angered Bosnians take unemployment and corruption to the streets

By Mikkel Danielsen - June 4, 2014

A woman passes the burned out Government Office in Tuzla. The building was stormed during protests in early February - Photo by Mikkel Danielsen.

The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina have had enough of high unemployment rates and politicians involved in corruption scandals. Now they are taking their frustrations to the streets. 

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - 31-year-old Lejla Bakić lives in her parents’ apartment in Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. She is desperate to move to her own place, but without a job she can’t afford living on her own.


A few times a week she gives lessons in English, Spanish and German. Her students are mostly other unemployed young people, who want to go abroad to look for a job. On average the teaching earns her 150 Convertible Marks (77 €) per month.


“The worst thing is to ask my parents for money, but without their support I am not even able to buy enough food,” Lejla Bakić says.


Her situation is far from unusual in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the official unemployment rate has reached 44 percent, making it the highest in Europe. Among the Bosnian population below 25 years two-thirds does not have an official job, an UN-report reveals.


Unemployment was one of the main reasons to why protests erupted in the countries’ major cities in February. Several government buildings were set on fire and protests throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina forced  four out of ten cantonal prime ministers to resign.


According to Jasmin Mujanović, Balkan analyst and PhD-candidate in political science at York University in Toronto, the protests are a result of frustration with the political elite that has accumulated over the last 20 years. Unemployment, widespread corruption, slow economic growth and shady privatisation of state-owned companies are all major concerns for the ordinary people, says Mujanović.


“Politicians and bureaucrats have a standard of living that is on a completely different level than the vast majority of the population, which is struggling just to survive. The protesters have had enough of the Bosnian class society,” he says.


Mismanaged transition to capitalism

The protests that spread to all of Bosnia-Herzegovina started in Lejla Bakić’s hometown, Tuzla. During the years of socialist Yugoslavia the city was the country’s centre for the chemical and metals industries. The state-owned factories were employing thousands of workers and unemployment was almost non-existing.


“The factories were not all cost-effective, but for the Yugoslav Government they were used as a productive welfare system,” says Darko Brkan, a political analyst and founder of the Sarajevo-based NGO Zasto Ne, which promotes government transparency.

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"The protests give me a more positive look on the future of our country," says Lejla Bakic.


The centre of Tuzla, the main city of Tuzla Canton. The canton has 480.000 inhabitans and an unemployement rate of 55 percent. Photo by Mikkel Danielsen

Today Tuzla’s industrial zone is in ruins. The railway tracks that used to carry products such as detergents and iron pipes to all of Eastern Europe are covered in grass and enormous production halls are empty and destroyed by rainwater coming through the leaky roofs. The unemployment rate in Tuzla Canton is 55 percent.


During the transition from planned economy to capitalism through the 1990s and early 2000s, the Government privatised and sold off many of Tuzla’s factories to foreign and local tycoons. In numerous cases the privatisation deals have involved corruption.


“The new owners buy the companies for a lot less than market value by bribing the politicians. Or they pay the authorities to look the other way, while they drain companies for money and put it in their own pockets. This is common in all former Yugoslav republics,” Brkan says.


Instead of trying to run the companies, many of the new owners were only interested in making fast profit by selling the land and the expensive machinery.  To do this, the owners have to get rid of the workers. Since firing the employees is illegal, several owners try to force out the workers by not paying them salaries and by stopping production.


Protests ignited

A few years ago the detergent factory DITA was among the largest in Tuzla, employing more than 1000 workers. Today only aroud 100 workers are left and they have not been paid for almost three years. Still they go to the factory every day to guard it from its owner, who wants to tear down the production halls and sell of the land. Every Wednesday they protest in front of the Court House.


“The authorities are running from their responsibility. They are protecting the criminal owners. We will never give up,” says Emina Busuladžić who has worked at DITA since 1977.


On February 5th the Wednesday-protests turned out different than usual. The workers were joined by a large group of young people, who shouted for better employment policies. During the next few days the protests grew larger and the Government Office was set on fire.


From a window in her parents’ apartment Lejla Bakić could see the protests growing in number and decided to join.


“I felt afraid in the beginning, but quickly I got excited to take part in this revolution. I have been waiting to show my frustration for years,” she says.


A recent survey from Youth Information Agency Bosnia-Herzegovina shows that 81 percent of the population below 30 years “would leave the country tomorrow” if they had the chance. Before the protests Lejla Bakić also thought about leaving, but recent development gives her hope for a better future in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


“I will not try to escape. I will build a life for myself here. If the Bosnian people unite we can create a better a future,” Lejla Bakić.


The protests spread to other major cities like Sarajevo, Mostar and Zenica. After a week four cantonal prime ministers had resigned, three government buildings were set on fire and the mentality in the Bosnian population has changed, according to Jasmin Mujanović.


“The Bosnian people have realized that they can achieve things. The underlying reasons for the protests have not been solved, so it’s only a question of time before they will take the streets again,” he says.

In Sarajevo prostesters stormed the Office of the Canton and sat the building on fire. 

During the era of Socialist Yugoslavia factories were built all around Tuzla. Today the industrial zone is a wasteland. Photo by Mikkel Danielsen

Democracy of the citizens

On the third day of protests in Tuzla around 50 people gathered to discuss the main concerns of the protesters. This was the first of the so-called Plenum-meetings. At the most recent meetings almost 1000 people have gathered in libraries and theatres.


At Plenum-sessions the participants discuss political issues such as public health care, retirement benefits and minister salaries, but no representatives from political parties are allowed to take part. At the end of the Plenum the participants vote on their stance on different subjects and the demands are taken to the politicians. Similar meetings have been held in Sarajevo and other major cities.


The most influential people in Plenum are the organizers, who set the agenda for the meetings. Among the organizers in Tuzla is Damir Arsenijević, a professor in English from Tuzla University.


“We have gained a formidable amount of political influence already. The politicians are afraid of us and they should be. If they don’t listen to us, we will definitely have to go back to the streets,” says Arsenijević.


Plenum played a large part in forcing the Government of Tuzla to resign and had influence on the appointment of the new Tuzla Government.


“Plenum is an alternative to the current malfunctioning political system. It works as a direct democracy that holds the politicians accountable for their decisions. The threat of protests is what gives us legitimacy,” says Arsenijević.


Dayton-agreement in the way of changes

Balkan analyst Jasmin Mujanović is impressed with how fast the protests were gaining ground in the population, but he believes improvement of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s situation is far away.


“The protesters can get rid of all the corrupt officials, but what creates the problems is rather the constitution – The Dayton Agreement,” says Mujanović.


The Dayton Agreement was the peace agreement that ended the bloody Bosnian War in 1995. Today it still functions as the country’s constitution. Many of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s problems –corruption, unemployment, and lack of political solutions – have their roots in the agreement.


It has created a decentralised political system of power sharing between Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three ethnic groups – the Muslim Bosniaks, the Orthodox Serbs and the Catholic Croats. According to Mujanović there has been several examples of political leaders blocking legislation that would not benefit their own ethnic group.


“The Dayton Agreement was a fantastic peace agreement, maybe the best in modern history. As constitution for Bosnia it has been a disaster. It has not fostered the emergence of accountable and responsible political elites and political institutions,” he says.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​