Back to top

Bosnia Rises Up

Bosnia has this month been rocked by a series of mass street protests against the political elite who have been presiding over a population burdened by low living standards, poverty, job cuts and cronyism.

The recent protests started in Tuzla and quickly spread to Sarajevo and other towns and cities. The demonstrators have been made up of workers, students and veterans from the civil war that ended in 1995, and drawn from all the ethnic groups.

The Muslim Institute talked to Melissa Robson, who grew up in a mixed town in Bosnia, about the protests and their underlying causes.

What is the cause of the protests and what are the protestors’ demands? 

On the surface, the cause is primarily economic. Years of economic decline, corruption, lack of employment opportunities, poverty, declining living standards and a huge increase in inequalities. The demands appear simple and basic – opportunities to work and earn a living.

What has been happening to Bosnia, economically socially and politically since the end of the civil war? 

The country has gone through all the usual stages of post-war reconstruction and redevelopment, the ups and downs of the process, including soul searching and asking questions about the rights and the wrongs of the conflict. 

Who has been running Bosnia since the war? How is the administration regarded by ordinary people? 

There has been a constant change in personnel and leading parties; however in reality there has been little difference between the parties, who have encouraged voting reflecting divisions along religious and ethnic lines. There has been a succession of international interventions from major institutions and NGOs, such as an overhaul of all parts of public administration, judiciary, economic institutions, education, health and free market privatisation of state owned assets.

How have people survived the lack of jobs and the drop in living standards? 

The country has become more and more divided on socio-economic grounds over the years, the gap between those at the top of and those at the bottom of wealth and social status has become more pronounced. Many families have relatives and family members working abroad, and remittance has been a saving grace for a huge number of families.

People have become resourceful and found ways of surviving on very little, often not being able to afford much beyond basics. On the other hand, there is every luxury available for those who can afford it. There seems to be a huge polarity in the society.

Is Bosnia still divided into ethnic rivalries? Has the time since the civil war healed any of the wounds of the past? 

My observation is that the divisions has become bigger, as the recent and more distant past is constantly relived in the public realm. It is difficult for me to tell how these divisions play against the backdrop of daily lives. During my visits I focus on family and do not partake in public life. I observed that the media appears hugely polarised and that there are many vested interests at play. 

You lived in a multi-ethnic community before the war broke out – can you tell me what life was like and how the war changed it? 

My childhood and youth memories are of a happy country with free education and health systems, high employment, good living standards, social security and good housing. Perhaps I was too young to see any other sides, but through the eyes of a young person, life seemed good, with opportunities aplenty. The feeling of living at a crossroad between the East and the West was something we cherished. There was a time when the prospect of a happy future full of possibilities was real.

Is there much difference between the lives of ordinary Muslims, Croats and Serbs today? 

My impression is that there has been little difference in the past and little difference today between the lives of ordinary people, but that this may change in the future. Young people which grew up during the war and those born afterwards have been exposed to different circumstances, where the public domain appears to be dominated by a discourse of religious differences and a capitalist economic system.

Those of us who were brought up before the war, were influenced by a mantra of 'brotherhood and unity' and exposed to socialist ideas, and many still mourn the passing of these years, when life for ordinary people seemed good. 

The recent protests seemed to have involved all the different ethnic groups – one photo showed demonstrators holding all three flags – Bosnian, Serb, Croat, and marching together. Is that a hopeful sign? 

I am not sure whether and to what degree the current upheaval may result in a more dialogue and more co-operations between different constituencies and interests. It has been interesting reading the coverage from different sides and reactions of politicians and various public figures. There appears to be many different views on the impact of the protests and the ways in which the situation could be resolved. 

What is the future for Bosnia? 

I wish I can be optimistic and say that the future will be bright; my impression is that the reality might not improve for a long time. It is difficult to predict which direction will prevail.

I was told during my last visit by a young couple that many of their peers dream of being able to send their children to live abroad. There are many older people living alone, whose children have left to live across the globe, many graduates are trying their best to get scholarships abroad, where they could eventually attempt to stay. Anything is possible in the wider region, and the history could be repeated for better or for worse.

Melissa Robson moved from Bosnia to England 20 years ago. After the initial few years retraining and learning English, she started working full time in the public sector, where she remains to date. Melissa volunteers in her local community in East London, focusing on community development and social inclusion, and over the years has been financially supporting her extended family in Bosnia.