Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #1 – Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism.
By Peter Lippman
Fall, 2015

2015 Report index

Report 1 Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism.
Report 2Immiseration and resignation.  Prospects for activism.
Report 3:  Prijedor. 
Report 4:  Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption.
Report 5:  Srebrenica. 
Report 6:  Tuzla, Mostar, and activism.
Report 7The wave of refugees coming into Europe.

Previous journals and articles

To contact Peter in response to these reports or any of his articles,

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.


This seven-part series of reports, uploaded January 2016, covers a five-week visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina that I made in late September, October, and early November of 2015.

View of Sarajevo from the southern hills

In thinking about a comparison between what I saw during that period and the Bosnia of a couple of years before, I could say that it is "the same, only moreso." More people are unemployed and more young people have left the country for places where they could find work. The corrupt operators in the political class are richer and are, for the most part, as secure in their positions as they were before; everyone else is poorer and less secure. Some of this insecurity is physical, and some of it is political, as Bosnia's nationalist and separatist leaders think up ever new variations on their decades-long, escalating, "crisis." I put that word in quotation marks because, in fact, that crisis functions quite well for the leaders.

After I was in Bosnia-Herzegovina in mid-2013 some rather momentous things have taken place. In February of 2014 there was a widespread protest that momentarily reached the proportions of a rebellion in many cities in the Federation; there were minor echoes of this in the Republika Srpska.

Then in May of that year there were massive floods throughout the northern and eastern parts of the country, with thousands of homes destroyed and tens of thousands of people displaced.

And in October 2014 nationwide state- and entity-level parliamentary elections took place, heralding some adjustments in the line-up of Bosnia's ruling kleptocracy.

I have written before about these developments in the following articles. See these:
--Bosnia-Hercegovina Protests Are a Response to Post-War Corruption and Impoverishment May 2014,
--Protests in Republika Srpska, as Federation Plenums Fill Political Vacuum June/July 2014,
--Bosnian National Elections to Take Place Amid Flood Damage, Political Indifference October 2014.

I won't cover these events extensively in this series, except to share some activists' reflections on the February 2014 protests.

Fahrudin Radončić's "Twist Tower"                                                            Marijin Dvor and the City Center shopping center
                            with Parliament building in the background

Sarajevo and the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Thinking back to the early postwar days, a lot has changed visually in Sarajevo. Signs of the siege and bombardment are not hard to find, with shrapnel marks and bomb craters still visible in many places. But the atmosphere created by rubble and UNHCR plastic window-covering is gone, replaced by glitzy shops that line the pedestrian zone and shiny, glassy buildings a little further out from the town's center. And in Marijin Dvor, opposite the restored Parliament building, there is a fancy new shopping center which, with its 160 stores, outdoes all the other modern buildings in the country.

This place, called City Center, could be emblematic of the economic life of Sarajevo and, to some extent, the city's cultural life as well. Five floors of slick, purely western fashion shops efface any sense that one is in Bosnia. You can buy fine chocolates, sushi, and Italian shoes, but you can't get Turkish coffee or
čevapčići. (This is not a complaint; it's just a report of what is going on.) And this shopping center, one-upping the BBI Center (another shopping center, named after its parent company, the Bosnia Bank International) closer in town, is quite popular. It seems that it provides a new level of consumerist excitement to the youth of the middle class that, while small and struggling, is more robust in Sarajevo than anywhere else in the country. The young people at City Center sit in the cafes (I wouldn't call them kafanas) looking bored and handsome like the models in the advertisements in any high-end western magazine. It seems that the šminker culture has returned in force to Sarajevo.

The massive electronic readout panels on two corners of the outside face of the City Center shout "This is Times Square" to all who pass by. One does not have to wonder for very long where the money came from to build this monstrosity. Everyone knows – or at least, everyone says – that it is Bakir Izetbegovi
ć's laundered money. Izetbegović, the son of Bosnia-Herzegovina's first president, Alija, is now the head of the Muslim nationalist party SDA, and he holds a seat in the three-part state-level presidency. Stories of his corrupt practices going all the way back to the war are a dime a dozen.

Many of those who hold positions at the top of their own political or business empire control a sparkling glass building: Fahrudin Radončić, head of the Bosniak nationalist SBB party and
"former" owner of Avaz, the most influential newspaper among Muslims, has his Twist Tower. (I wrote earlier here and here about Radončić's mafia dealings and how he divorced his wife and sold the newspaper to her so that he could get involved in politics without an apparent conflict of interest.) And RS President Milorad Dodik has his scandal-ridden RS government building.

All this glass bespeaks two things: first, the consolidation of the new, post-socialist domestic political class. This has been underway since the war, or even before the war, as former dissidents joined with former Communists and former gangsters (and a few high school teachers and ordinary fruit peddlers) to create the new elite. They seized their opportunity to get rich during and after the war and have been entrenching ever since. The divide-and-conquer operation that took place during the war was enshrined by Dayton and has worked for the elite up to today; this statement should be read as an antidote to the claim that the war and current tensions are all about "ancient ethnic hostilities."

What goes on in the course of that consolidation is that large state-owned corporations are broken up and parted out, with the spoils going to the "party-ocracy" (stranokratija); in the present system, the political parties in power at any given time hold the managerial positions in all state-controlled companies, and thus the right to wreck them and profit from them. This practice has brought the country to its present state, with official unemployment over forty percent, and the few getting richer and richer. Everyone in Bosnia knows these things, but it is devilishly hard to
organize and do anything about it.

The domestic mafiocracy also functions as a rentier class, which controls natural resources that can be extracted and sold abroad. Such a class profits hugely from sales – in the case of Bosnia, of electricity, lumber, ore, and some other resources – to the detriment of the development of the productive industrial capacity of the country. The rulers don't care to do that. They don't have to.

Secondly, the proliferation of shiny objects in Sarajevo and a few other cities is to some extent a reflection of international involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the economic level. BBI is owned by a conglomerate of "Arab" capital. You can't buy alcohol or pork there, nor at City Center. Alta shopping center across the street from City Center. with 70 stores, is the result of direct investment from an American businessman. You can buy alcohol there.

There are several more shopping centers: Importanne, Bosmal, and Konzum (formerly Mercator). All of these provide jobs for a few hundred low-paid but presentable workers. None of them produces anything. That seems to be the level of investment that foreigners are prepared to venture in a country ruled by profiteers, where written regulations and unwritten rules combine to create an insecure investment environment. For real development, Bosnia will have to wait until it is a real state.

I spoke with scholar and analyst Jasmin Mujanović about foreign economic involvement in Bosnia. He shied away a bit from my casual assertion that it was a manifestation of neo-liberalism, that oft-mentioned but rarely-defined phenomenon.
Jasmin holds that primitive capital accumulation is what is happening in Bosnia, that is, that the profiteers are plundering the country just as if they were thieves stripping a house of its copper wires.

He asks, "How is it that a state-owned company like Gras [Sarajevo's city transportation company, which runs the streetcars and buses] can lose millions, with hand-me-down buses in bad condition? And it should be, but isn't, a scandal that McDonald's can't get a foothold in Bosnia due to the corruption. There were franchises in Banja Luka and Mostar. They both shut down, the one in Mostar because the owner was not willing to cave in to protection extortion.

"There is talk about development, but how can one create jobs in a 'public company' that's actually a 'party company?' In an economy with a real middle class or business class, the businessmen would care to develop the infrastructure and create jobs. They would realize that it would pay off well to them to have better roads."

In this vein, investigative journalist Drew Sullivan told me, "
Economic development is not an option, because the elite do not understand that if someone else besides them benefits, they'll benefit too. They have the mentality that no one but them should benefit: 'If you have something, that means I don't.' It's as if everything is in a refrigerator, and thus finite, rather than in a garden, where it can grow."

I talked to Kurt Bassuener about this as well. Of all the commentators on political affairs in Bosnia, he's one I particularly trust, as he has been living in the country for many years and has his ear to the ground. He commented, "Marx would say that capitalism would be a good thing for this country." (See the web site of his Democratization Policy Council

So, in parallel with regional investors and money-launderers, some international investors have involved themselves in cheap buyouts of wrecked industries and in construction of shopping malls; serious development of productive industry has been all but nil. I remember going to Romania in 2008, a year after the country joined the EU, and hearing of the opening of an automobile plant due to employ 5,000; such a scenario in Bosnia is beyond fantasy.

Here I will quote
Dražen Crnomat who, in a November 6 article titled "Banja Luka must be the focal point of class struggle," characterized the position of Bosnia thus: " of the proceedings we see [shows] how we are structurally conditioned here in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond, and how that structural conditioning pushes us to be the agents of specific policies and changes. Those are the neo-liberal policies, austerity measures and the adaptation of our economic system to the needs of the European periphery. What is essential for the periphery is that it shall not decide on its own, rather, it must implement the decisions made in foreign centers in this case, be it Brussels, Germany, or France."

If you take Crnomat's words as part of a definition of neo-liberalism, well, then it certainly pertains to Bosnia, even if, per Jasmin and Kurt, international capital is not coming in and whole-heartedly overtaking the country. There's not enough of an economy to Bennetonize. But Crnomat describes a facet of the cooperation between the international decision-makers and the domestic elite, which is underway. To a degree, Bosnia is being subjected to the crude and foul-smelling advance mechanisms of international capital.

Kurt Bassuener said to me, "There is a compact between elites, that is, between the international community and the domestic politicians. The IC gets a form of 'stability,' and the domestic leaders get to keep their jobs."

For years I wondered what the role of Bosnia-Herzegovina was to be in the European Union. It has become clear that that role is to be a second-class citizen, provider of natural resources and cheap labor for the metropolis. It is already fulfilling that role, regardless of its membership status.

The long-term process of standardizing Bosnia's laws so that the country can fit into the EU has made some headway lately, under the rubric of "reform." A new chapter in this process was initiated about a year ago with a joint proposal by Britain and Germany. This proposal became the blueprint for legal reforms that Bosnia's leaders are supposed to implement. They cover instituting equal rights for minority citizens; reducing the massive and expensive bureaucracy; creating jobs and reinforcement of rule of law, among other things.

In July, thousands of workers protested in the Bosnian Federation against the passage of a labor reform law that Kurt described to me as "the least painful measure" of reform for the politicians to take. That means that it hurts the workers, rather than squeezing the politicians' admirable income; addressing the bloated government will (perhaps) come later.

Bosnia has not received IMF assistance in over a year, and it was the IMF and the EU that presented a version of the labor law to Bosnian officials. Having passed in the Federation, it should now be addressed by the Republika Srpska.

Workers protested against the law for several reasons, one of the primary ones being that it makes it easier for employers to fire workers, releasing constraints left over from socialism. It also creates a sidestep around collective bargaining. And the law was drafted without consultation with union representatives.

It all sounds quite IMF and neo-liberal. But while there is obvious cause for protest, there are also some dilemmas that are addressed by the law. One is that there are thousands of workers in limbo; they are not actually working, but they cannot be fired because of the old laws. That regulation is something that prevented foreign investors from creating companies in Bosnia, where they feared that they would not be able to fire workers.

All this sounds pretty lousy, and the situation is lousy. It would be better if there were actual jobs to get fired from – and thereby, other work to get hired to.

The journalist Predrag
Zvijerac tells me that there are people who have been "laid off" but not fired for as long as twelve years. They are not getting any benefits from their pseudo-employment. Zvijerac also notes, "The political parties control the hiring in the state-run corporations. For example, SDA controls BiH Telecom. So they don't want to allow those corporations to be privatized, because then they won't be able to control the hiring - and that patronage is one of the things that keeps people in line in this system."

People can generally be kept in line if their entire livelihood depends on maintaining an obedient relationship to the dominant political party.

It is interesting that the labor reform law was passed with the approval of the political party Na
ša Stranka, probably the closest thing to an actually principled, honest, and progressive party (though small and mainly local to Sarajevo). The journalist Eldar Dizdarević wrote that there are good elements to the law, and bad ones. He pointed out that the bad elements are those that were drafted by the IMF and presented, basically, as a demand from that outfit. And the good elements were drafted by domestic actors.

Dizdarević's take on the law is that the IMF's sections of the law "are in fact systematic, planned, and premeditated to demolish all of our heretofore acquired workers' rights, to destroy collective agreements, and to foster the general marginalization of the role of the unions." Dizdarević concludes that the law works to adapt conditions to the requirements of international companies – but it does not guarantee that those companies will ever come and create jobs in Bosnia.

As to further reforms, Kurt Bassuener notes, "
What's really not happening is an approach to the padded layer of government jobs. If there were an audit of all those hired, with something like a civil service test, many unqualified people would be out of a job. But with the patronage/clientelist system, that is out of the question."

Looking at the "reform" process from a bit more distance, it appears in fact that reform, and its theoretical result, "going to Europe," are not held as priorities by the domestic leaders. They can and will string out this process as long as possible – and that will be a long time, unless there is some kind of robust intervention from the international community.

Meanwhile, all those glass towers are half-empty, say more than one local expert. And scholars agree: it doesn't matter to the owner, who has laundered his money and made it clean. He doesn't really have to rent offices, but they are there, in case Bosnia ever becomes a place of business.

A little about politics

The Muslim nationalist party SDA's near hegemony over Federation politics was broken in 2010, when the non-nationalist SDP (Social Democratic Party) won a plurality and formed a government at the entity level. Barely had the government been formed when the SDP began to blow its credibility, making power deals with the worst sort of profiteers and nationalists in order to create a governing coalition. (See my
writings from 2010 and 2012, where I discuss these moves.) Not long into its mandate the SDP's coalition fell apart and it wasted about three years caretaking a government that did nothing except line the pockets of a few politicians.

The SDP was summarily turned out of office in the national elections of late 2014, when the SDA regained its traditional position. The new non-nationalist party DF (Democratic Front), headed by the popular former SDP member and twice-former president
Želko Komšić, took enough of the SDP's votes to be able to leverage a position in the new governing coalition with the SDA and the Croat nationalist party, HDZ. DF and Komšić, arguably, thereby immediately blew their reputation as a principled factor by combining with these old machines.

That coalition did not last long either; to DF's "shock" and "surprise" (huh??), HDZ and SDA were caught appointing their own operatives to the lead positions in the state-owned companies, and DF couldn't abide that. It objected, resisted the appointments, and then bailed from the coalition.

This left DF's reputation quite tarnished; criticisms that I have heard allow that Komšić is "probably honest," but his intelligence and capability for political strategy have been brought into question. Drew Sullivan pointed out to me that "
patronage is the rule. It is expected and accepted here that once a party gains power, its leaders will reward their cronies with managerial or ministerial positions." So it is not possible to believe that DF expected honest dealings from its coalition partners when it entered the government.

Another criticism is that DF failed to develop a coherent program, and that it failed to work to develop a broader base around the country. Someone put it kindly, venturing that they lacked the resources to do this.

Meanwhile in the "smaller entity," as people like to say – that is, the Republika Srpska, which comprises 49% of Bosnia-Herzegovina's territory – "dodikovanje," i.e., the customary state-wrecking behavior of RS President Dodik, continues apace. It is Dodik's articulated position that Bosnia's days are numbered; that the RS is a "state" whose time will come; that one day the RS will join Serbia; that the international officials involved in Bosnia are meddlers and occupiers; and that anyone in the "Serb entity" who disagrees with Dodik is a traitor. As to policy, it is Dodik's policy to negate and obstruct any shred of power held at the state level. What competencies were elevated from the entity level to the state, he demands back. What powers are exerted, on rare occasions, by state-level institutions, Dodik obstructs. There'll be more about this in a subsequent report.

Dodik's long-term vision as outlined above may be fantasy. But the best and worst things in life and in history start as fantasy.

One of the few relatively positive things in Bosnian politics in recent months is the fact that an RS opposition politician won the post of Serb member of the state-level presidency, a reflection of the fact that Dodik's nine-year hegemony in the RS is slipping. This development has reduced Dodik's ability to undermine the functioning of the state, but that functioning continues in a very parlous mode in any case. However, it is at least a source of entertainment that the RS opposition has coalesced into a relatively serious threat against Dodik. The new anti-Dodik opposition coalition, called the "Alliance for Change" (Savez za Promjene)  has spent quite some months focusing significant attention on the corruption of Dodik and his cronies, and it has produced quite some verbiage presenting itself as the honest alternative. It has also established a fair degree of cooperation with political parties in the Federation, to the great consternation of Dodik.

This may or may not be something more significant than entertainment, because ever since the end of the war, any existing opposition at any level of the government (and there are fourteen of those levels) decries the corruption of those in power – and you know that the real sentiment of any given opposition is, "get out of the way, now it's our turn to be corrupt." The proof of this seemingly flip statement is in the results every time there has been a regime change in Bosnia.

Dodik's George W. Bush-esque lowbrow folksiness, his Trumpoid racism, and his generally brutish ways make him an easy target for analysts who work at a little bit too much of a distance from Bosnia. They should be aware that all of the others in real positions in power are corrupt as well, and are essentially collaborating with each other to keep things just the way they are. Keeping things the way they are means the continued plunder of Bosnia and enrichment of the elite.

One of the manifestations of the dysfunction of the Bosnian-Herzegovinan state as set up by Dayton is, for example, the fact that there is no state-level ministry of agriculture.
There are two such ministries at the entity level, but their functions are not standardized, and they can't work directly with the EU because they don't represent the state. Given this, Bosnia has been unable to prepare its agricultural sector to conform to EU rules. This affected Bosnia greatly when Croatia joined the EU a couple of years ago, and suddenly one of Bosnia's greatest export markets for agricultural goods came under a regime with a whole raft of new regulations that Bosnia could not accommodate. This hurt Bosnian farmers terribly.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, Bosnia does have a ministry of foreign trade at the state level, headed by the RS opposition figure Mirko
Šarović. Note that "RS opposition" generally refers to members of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić's party, the SDS – or of some party even to the right of that erstwhile genocidal apparatus. Šarović is SDS – but he has a reputation as one of Bosnia's most capable ministers, working for the good of the whole country. In contemporary political lingo this makes him "pro-Bosnia," thus working against Dodik's agenda.

And as an example of this work Šarović has, in fact, been able to arrange some ways to bypass the above-mentioned export constraints so that at least some Bosnian dairy farmers have, as of recent months, been allowed to export their milk and cheese to Croatia.

I note that Šarović was mayor of a Serb separatist-controlled municipality of Srpsko Sarajevo during the war, and he later served for a time as Serb member of the state-level three-part presidency. He resigned from that position in the face of accusations of corruption in 2003. He was later blacklisted by the United States and was arrested for economic crimes in 2005. In addition to the corruption accusations against him, he was also suspected of aiding then-fugitive
Karadžić to remain in hiding.

Šarović spent some time in jail awaiting trial, but then the charges were dropped for "lack of evidence." "Lack of evidence" is a very common legal term signifying that deals were made or, alternatively, that the political winds have changed direction and the profiteer of the day has been politically rehabilitated. As Drew Sullivan noted, "
Crime is political - that is, it is a political decision whether something gets called a crime or not, and whether someone gets prosecuted."

But now Šarović has apparently truly been rehabilitated, at least to the extent that he is doing something positive for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Meanwhile, there is a movement afoot in the Republika Srpska advocating for a state-level agricultural ministry, but this is opposed by Dodik because it would be another instance of "giving up entity competencies."

Here's one last note about political developments in BiH: This fall, in a move to repair the Federation's governmental coalition after the departure of
Komšić's DF, the SDA and Fahrudin Radončić's SBB joined forces. This could be viewed as another head-spinning move straight out of Animal Farm, but it's really old hat. That is, the SDA and the SBB were bitter enemies for a some years. Radončić's Avaz continually lambasted Bakir Izetbegović and his party over the last few years, and the SDA vowed never to work with the SBB. However, as Predrag Zvijerac pointed out to me, The SDA needs the use of Avaz, and SBB needs money. It is a natural coalition, crafted in hell, and now it has been formed. The two parties will be able to collaborate peacefully with the HDZ in the ongoing plunder of the nation.

Apropos of that, here's a comment about corruption that's in circulation around Bosnia:
"If you steal a bag of flour, you go to jail. If you steal a million KM, you go to Parliament."*

A street in the Sumbulčesma neighborhood of Sarajevo

Next Report: What this all means on the ground: immiseration and resignation

Index of previous journals and articles


Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index


Articles by Roger Lippman




Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links