Bosnian town Tuzla gets a new government after mass protests

Tuzla Canton is the first in Bosnia and Herzegovina to get a new government since the mass protests that started in February forced four cantonal governments to resign. Members of Tuzla Canton's new government held their first meeting on 27 March after the cantonal assembly confirmed their posts the night before.

“Security, Justice, Solidarity and the employment of citizens”
After a lengthy discussion about candidates for ministers in the new government, 28 voted in favour for the new government while six abstained.  Bahrija Umihanić was chosen as the new Prime Minister. Umihanić, professor at the University of Tuzla,  and the other ministers signed statements, freezing their membership of political parties and pledged not to run in the upcoming general elections this autumn.

“I believe we can do a lot or a little – a lot if we all work together and only a little if we work separately,” Umihanić said. He thereby presented the four key principles that the new government of Tuzla Canton will work on: security, justice, solidarity and the employment of citizens.

The Plenum of Citizens of Tuzla Canton has yet to discuss the formation of the new government and possibly give its advice in various fields. Plenums sprung up in many parts of Bosnia in the wake of the street protests, raising hopes among disempowered citizens of a new channel to articulate grievances and express ideas.

Anti-government demonstrations in February and March

From the beginning of February, anti-government demonstrations engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina for multiple weeks. It was the biggest uprising since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995. Thousands of people took to the streets across the country. In the beginning of March, hundreds of people were still protesting in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica and other towns every day. The citizens demanded change and reform in a country that is not prospering and cannot deliver on its promises after the war. Many claim that it is mainly the complex and inefficient political system obsessed by inter-ethnic bickering that is crippling the country.

The demonstrations were triggered in the first week of February by the closures of factories Tuzla, but rapidly spread throughout the country.  More than 200 people got injured and multiple governmental buildings including four cantonal government HQs, the Bosnian Presidency and the State Archive, were set ablaze. The governments of Tuzla, Zenica-Doboj, Sarajevo and Una-Sana cantons resigned.

The protests also spread to neighbouring countries: in Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia people rallied in support of the protests in Bosnia and demanded change as well. The EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fule, and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, both visited Bosnia to discuss the protests. Many citizens in Bosnia partly blame the EU for the economic hardship and lack of reforms due to lack of a strategic vision for the country.

Economic and political situation in Bosnia Herzegovina
The people’s call for reform is not unaccounted for. The economic situation in Bosnia has been worsening for years. Foreign investments are declining and GDP per capita is not increasing. At 27.5 percent, its official unemployment rate is the highest in the Balkans. Unofficial unemployment rates are around 40%. The people are blaming the corrupt government for not creating enough jobs and not stimulating the economy. Next to that, the country is in a political impasse. Political leaders have not succeeded in carrying through the reforms that are needed to set clear steps in the EU integration process, and will not do so when the political situation remains as it is.

One of the main reasons why the political leaders have not succeeded in carrying through reforms is the result of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian war. It created a weak central government, as the country is composed of two political autonomous entities: Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. In addition, the Federation is divided into ten cantonal units. Each political unit has its own governing body, accumulating to 700 elected state officials and more than 140 ministers. These political units are hence divided according to ethnic lines. As a result, decisions are made based on ethnicity rather than the interest of the entire country. It is therefore very difficult to unite Bosnia on issues such as the reforms that are needed to become a EU member state, since all three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) have to agree on the constitutional changes that should improve the functionality of the state.

For many, this has raised the question whether change is possible in the current institutional set-up in Bosnia. Others say that the problem in Bosnia is not the institutional set-up but the political representatives in these institutions. It remains to be seen if these protests can lead to long-term changes. On 13 March the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said EU’s focus now will be on the economy and on improving people's lives and not on constitutional change.

By Merel Berkelmans

Sources: Balkan Insight ISarajevo Times, Balkan Insight IIBalkan Insight III, Balkan Insight IVEuropean Forum IEuropean Forum II

Photo: AP

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