Report #1 –
Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism. By Peter Lippman
2015 Report index
Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism. Report 2:
Prospects for activism. Report 3:
Prijedor. Report 4:
Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption. Report 5:
Srebrenica. Report 6:
Tuzla, Mostar, and activism. Report 7:
The wave of
refugees coming into Europe.
To contact Peter
in response to these reports or any of his articles,
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
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 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
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 Izetbegović'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
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
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
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: "...one 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
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
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
It is interesting that the labor reform law was passed with the
approval of the political party Naša
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
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
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
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.
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
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
SDS – or of some party even to the right of that erstwhile genocidal
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
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,
political - that is, it is a political decision whether something
gets called a crime or not, and whether someone gets prosecuted."
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
A street in the Sumbulčesma neighborhood of Sarajevo
Next Report: What this all means on the ground: immiseration and