‘We are hungry in three languages’: The forgotten promise of the Bosnian Spring

Ruth Tanner looks back at a wave of protests which swept through Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014.

February 4, 2018 · 7 min read

It is four years since thousands of Bosnians took part in protests in major towns and cities across the country. For a few turbulent weeks there was a genuine sense of anticipation, fear and excitement. People began to ask – is this the Bosnian spring?

A workers’ protest at the Dita chemical factory in Tuzla on the 4th February sparked national protests. Inspired by the protests in Tuzla and angered by the polices brutal response, by the 7th February, around 10,000 people were protesting in Tuzla and further protests had sprung up across the country.

The protests were an expression of pent up frustration and rage at the ethno nationalist political elites, corruption and clientalism that have dominated the country since the war. As well as corrupt privatisation, economic stagnation and high levels of unemployment that have ensured it is one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Activists and protests leaders channelled the growing anger into political forums. They organised grassroots assemblies called plenums. Plenum meetings went on for days, as people were given the space to speak as citizens, A cathartic exercise, after years of pent up frustration, people came together to share experiences and air their many grievances.

At the plenums participants agreed on shared demands they wanted to see delivered by the government. Despite debates and discussions taking place separately and in different cities, the demands were broadly similar across the country – rooted in anger and distrust of political elites. In particular, the lack of accountability for economic crimes and corrupt privatisation. Also the unjust salaries of government representatives, dysfunctional government and its lack of accountability.

Politicians felt threatened by the speed and scale of the protests. Political parties on all sides were quick to frame it as an ethnic nationalist issue and evoked war imagery to sow fear and put people off joining the protests. Bosnia Herzegovina is dived into two entities. The federation, dominated by Bosniak muslims and Croats and the Serb Republic of Srbska. Federation media evoked fear by saying the protestors were organised by  Serb Chetniks and hooligans and the demonstrators were paid. In the Republic of Srbska,  smaller demonstrations also took place and politicians felt compelled to blamed it on Bosniaks. Despite the efforts by politicians and the media to paint the  protests as ethno nationalist the protests demonstrate that there is a stark contrast between ethno nationalist electoral dominance and the underlying frustrations and anger within Bosnian society at politicians and the status quo.

One of the most oft-quoted slogans of the protest was “we are hungry in three languages.” With this slogan, protesters were challenging the nationalist discourse and showing that socio- economic issues united them. Those three languages” are Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. Gladan means hungry in all three languages. The slogan’s potency was in the way it ridiculed the differences between the three groups when in reality they share a language and poverty and unemployment were affecting everyone.

Bosnia, a country associated in most peoples minds with war and being torn apart by ethno nationalist politics was articulating a politics more associated with democracy and anti-austerity movements.  Prominent diaspora, academics and intellectuals urged international solidarity and action by the international community. Sympathetic commentators called it the Bosnian spring, invoking the democracy movements that had swept the middle east and north Africa in the years before.

The plenum forums mirrored the participatory democracy models of the social movements leading the anti austerity charge in Europe.  In early 2014 In Greece and Spain anti – Austerity movements and new political parties were challenging corruption amongst elites and punishing economic policy impositions. Plenum organsers invited speakers from these movement. The plenums were also inspired by regional activism. The plenums used a methodology developed within the region, inspiration for them was taken from the occupation of the Faculty of Philosophy in Zagreb in 2009 and the book that followed The Blockade Cookbook Blokadna Kuharica.

Despite excited murmurs of a Bosnian spring, the protests and plenums were short lived. Within weeks most of the plenums had fizzled out. There were many reasons given for the failure to build on the initial hope and enthusiasm. The fear and intimidation politicians used to encourage people not to join the protests played on the very real fears of Bosnian who have so recently lived through war. The very act of coming together in plenums some argued defused the momentum of the protests. Floods hit the region in May and peoples efforts shifted to tacking the immediate crisis.

The failure of the protests and plenums to bring about a substantive movement for change has added to many people’s despondency, weariness and fear about the future.  Others are more hopeful about the rise of democratic movements in response to the illiberal elites that dominate political and economic life.

Despite these challenges, Bosnians do have reasons to be hopeful. The protests and plenums challenged the core assumption of many that Bosnia lacked a democratic culture and that the politics of the county should only be seen only through an ethnic lense. Protesters from all three ethnic groups found common cause on economic and social justice issues that resisted and challenged ethno nationalist elites. The plenums offered Bosnians a popular participatory democratic model  that challenged the depoliticisation of this war embittered society.

Four years on from Bosnia’s forgotten spring, in another election year, little has changed for the better. As the political parties gear up for the elections in October, the nationalist rhetoric and threats of conflict are duly ramped up a gear. The political elites that led the country into war continue to use the threat of war to sow fear and division and ensure their continued survival.

Whilst 2014 did not turn out to be the year of the Bosnian Spring the protests and plenums of 2014 should not be dismissed as an angry blip. The anger hasn’t gone away and neither has a deep desire for change. Bosnians deserve better and they know it.

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