Bosnian politics since the 1995 peace accords have been locked in stalemate. The armistice took bureaucracy to another level. The country is divided into two ‘entities’, one Serb, one Bosniak/Croat; before the war no such distinction would have been possible, but atrocities homogenised formerly mixed areas. There are three presidents, one from each of the three ‘constitutional’ ethnicities, and countless ministries, cantons, sub-ministries. Laws are incredibly difficult to pass. This suits nationalist Serb politicians, who argue that the state is chronically dysfunctional, beyond repair and therefore should be split in two: they’ll veto any law that implies a common, contiguous polity. The situation suits Bosniak leaders, too, as it means they can blame everything on the filibustering Serbs.
Nationalist parties still dominate the scene. There have been attempts to move away from ethnic politics, notably by the large Social Democratic Party (SDP), but most of its members are Bosniaks; its autocratic leader is the former prime minister and current foreign minister Zlatko Lagumdžija. The Serbian Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), headed by Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb entity, is as jingoistic in its approach as any avowedly nationalist party (it was expelled from the Socialist International last year). The electorate is getting tired of the politicans’ empty promises. Youth unemployment is around 50 per cent. Most young people hope to move abroad. Many survive on remittances from relatives in the West.
Last month, the people took to the streets. The protests are known as bebolucija. Babies born since February had not been given social security numbers (JMBG, or ‘Unique Master Citizen Number’). The relevant law had lapsed and not been renewed because of parliamentary squabbling: Serbian lawmakers want the numbers to be allocated by the entities; Bosniaks want it to be conferred by the state. Meanwhile, thousands of Bosnians have been born without a JMBG, which means, among other things, that they can’t get passports. This finally led to a public outcry when Belmina Ibrišević, a three-month-old girl in urgent need of a bonemarrow transplant, couldn’t go to Germany. Mothers, students and others took to the streets, besieging officials, demanding action. Temporary legislation was passed; Belmina went to Germany. But another baby whose treatment was delayed by her not having a JMBG died in hospital in Belgrade.
The protests continue. Some of the demonstrators’ slogans play on the JMBG acronym: ‘Because It Can Get Worse’; ‘Because Citizens Elect Morons’. The most common image is of a baby’s dummy with a fist for a teat, sometimes with a raised middlefinger. Suck on this, it seems to say to the politicians.
Twenty years have passed since the war. An entire generation knows its homeland only as a divided country. But a lot of these young people are rebelling against the barricades their parents imposed. Surveys show there is broad support for action across the ethnic divide. And yet already much of the demonstrations’ initial verve has dissipated, and larger reforms seem a long way off. But perhaps this was just the first round. If the only thing gained from these protests is greater solidarity among the ethnic groups, and awareness that civil demands outweigh ethnic ones, much will have been achieved. As another banner puts it, ‘Identities Not Entities’.