Bosnia Must be Rebuilt in Sarajevo, Not Brussels

The protests have shown clearly that Bosnians want to decide their own future, not have solutions handed down from elsewhere.

by Dr. Soeren Keil

The widespread unrest in Bosnia, first in Tuzla and then in other parts of the country, has prompted an intensive discussion on the role of international actors. As the protests are about unpaid salaries, corrupt and incapable politicians, and overall dissatisfaction with the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, many commentators have asked where change should come from. 

Some, such as Valery Perry, have argued that the solution must be found within Bosnia itself. While the political elites in the country have lost their legitimacy, NGOs, citizen forums and other civil society actors should play a key role in moving Bosnia forward and out of the sclerosis it has experienced since the failed attempt to reform the constitution in 2006. 

Others, such as Edward Joseph, have argued for an outside intervention in Bosnia, focusing on the need for elite-driven and externally guaranteed reforms, and comparing Bosnia to Kosovo, Joseph argues that “it is unfair to saddle Bosnian civil society with expectations that it cannot fulfill, certainly not in the timeframe needed to save the country from further – and even more serious – potential crises.  

“Unlocking the potential of Bosnia’s citizenry requires an urgent – outside-led – catalyst, working in partnership with Bosnia’s leaders and engaging the wider public,” he wrote.

A third group of commentators has suggested that while Bosnian problems require Bosnian solutions, the EU and the US still have an important role to play in the country. 

As Florian Bieber puts it, “Before the EU or the US should engage in Bosnia, they need to listen, to hear what are the citizens’ concerns articulated on the streets, to talk to the demonstrators, to send a clear message that they share the concerns. 

“Once the political process in Bosnia itself moves forward, the EU should re-engage and hopefully it will have more responsive partners then,” he says. 

Bieber, amongst others, advocates a more active role for the EU (and presumably the US as well) in support of the reform process, which nevertheless must be driven by Bosnians themselves. 

To understand the role and potential of outside intervention in the current situation in Bosnia, it is important to look at some of the dynamics of the protests. 

The current unrest started with demonstrations in Tuzla as a result of unpaid salaries. From there it spread, mainly within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina the mainly Bosniak and Croat-populated part of Bosnia. However, some smaller protests were reported from the Republika Srpska, the mainly Serb-populated entity. The District of Brcko also witnessed widespread demonstrations. 

The protesters demanded that leading politicians in several towns, cantons and within the Federation (and indeed in the country) step down. They did not wave EU flags as part of the protests, as we have seen in Ukraine, although their anger was also not directly channelled against the EU or the US as such. They are unhappy mainly with their own political elites, which have failed to implement any major policy initiatives in recent years and have focused on their own benefits in a patronage system that rewards the few and disadvantages many. 

Understanding these protests is essential before assessing the potential impact of outside intervention. The demands focus on changes within Bosnia, both changes in terms of political elites and changes to the current institutional framework. Hence, it is important that these protests are seen as internally motivated, focused on internal reform. 

What other solution than an internal one can be found to this? When Joseph compares Bosnia to Kosovo, it is an unfair comparison. The EU-negotiated Serbia-Kosovo Agreement did not address widespread social unrest and was not the result of mass demonstrations by Albanians or Kosovo Serbs. It also remains to be seen if Kosovo really has an EU future, as Joseph claims. Five EU countries have still not recognised the independence of Kosovo, while observers note that implementation of the Agreement has a long way to go.  

Furthermore, it is also important to remember that the EU as an institution and leading European officials, such as Catherine Ashton, have problematic reputations in parts of Bosnia. While most Bosnians want to join the EU, the inability of the EU and its leading representatives to engage with the ongoing stalemate in Bosnia and provide a framework in which politicians can (indeed, must) find compromises to move the country closer towards EU membership have left many disillusioned about the EU. 

The lack of European support for more robust rule-of-law institutions in Bosnia, the lack of European support for High Representative Valentin Inzko against threats of a referendum on Independence coming from leading Republika Srpska politicians, and the failure of the EU to engage civil society and citizen forums in the enlargement process have resulted in a situation in which many of the protesters do not see the EU as either a capable, or a desirable, partner. 

It is interesting to see how the protesters have formed citizen forums in recent days. They have met in town halls, universities and other places to formulate key demands to local and national elites. What started out as uncoordinated social protest is becoming more organised; protesters are developing a clear strategy for the changes they want to see and how they want to achieve them. Bosnians are sending a clear message that they want to take charge of the reform process and be in the driving seat for any political process that will result in fundamental changes to the current post-war order. 

The EU and the US should refrain from telling Bosnians that they cannot be in charge, need to listen to Brussels (or worse, to their own elites), and that outsiders know best. 

What the EU should do is to make sure that the protests do not escalate into large-scale violence. Other than that, the EU and its representatives should sit back and let Bosnian citizens decide their own future. It would be a distinct change to the international policy towards Bosnia in the last 20 years. 

Europe and the West failed to intervene during the conflict in Bosnia. Right now, non-intervention is the right thing to do.  

Dr Soeren Keil is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Canterbury University in the UK. His book “Multinational Federalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina” was published last year with Ashgate. He has also worked with think tanks and NGOs in Bosnia and the wider Western Balkans. 

(This post originally appeared on –


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