Constructing democracy and deconstructing buildings: attempts at a different present and future in Bosnia

By Elena Cirkovic · 12 March 2014

Bosnia’s widespread protests against unemployment and corruption, began in the formerly industrial town of Tuzla in early February, and spread quickly among other cities, eventually shutting down the center of Sarajevo. The general expression of the protests is that the average Bosnian citizens have had enough, and that the time has come for real change. Since the beginning of the protests, various commentators, journalists, and scholars, have raced to analyze their meaning, including Slavoj Žižek’s commentary in The Guardian. Such attempts to define the uprisings and predict their outcome at this moment would not do them justice as the local participants themselves continue to work on articulating their position and demands.

An announcement of the citizens’ plenum in Tuzla states the following ‘All who wish to participate, can. Each person has one vote. The plenum respects an ordered dialogue.’ Importantly, according to the members of the Initiation Committee for the Organization of a Plenum in Sarajevo, ‘Behind us stand no political parties or organizations. We know that behind us stand only many years of humiliation, hunger, helplessness and hopelessness.’ It is difficult to define the exact claims of the protestors or their identity, socioeconomic status, ethnicity or gender. The protests are directed against the general situation of the country, which has been at a standstill since the 1990s conflict.

Namely, current Bosnian institutions do not represent its citizens. They represent ethnic-nationalist parties and their interests and supporters. Those exist both within, and outside of the Bosnian society. It could be assumed that to an extent, loyalty to the parties is by necessity. However, it cannot be easily assumed that after the legacy of a brutal and genocidal civil war, ethnic, religious, or nationalist interests became erased by economic hardships or demands for greater accountability. It is also not clear what the new claims are precisely. The goal for Bosnia’s future is still quite blurred.

Rather than defining the actual demands of ‘the people’ there are two points, which, I would argue, are obvious in the recent Bosnian uprisings. First, citizens, at least those who have joined the protests demonstrate that their demands are in no way related to now overly represented ethnic, nationalist, and religious interests of the country. These citizens are visible either on the streets, or the media, and participating in local dialogues. Due to the general lack of public space, the objective of citizens is to reclaim this space, in whichever manner. It should thus not be important to exactly define or predict this moment in Bosnia, which may or may not last. Rather, it is important that it is happening. The events in themselves show a kernel of a possibility, and importantly, the capacity and willingness of Bosnian citizens to challenge the governing structure.

Citizens of Bosnia need to rejoin the citizens of the globe. They have been hijacked by the civil war, the ethno-nationalist discourse, and then the Dayton Accords, which constitutionalized the very ethno-nationalist interests responsible for the violence. In April 2013, the European Union ‘froze’ the EU accession process for Bosnia due to the lack of commitment among Bosnian leaders over the constitutional reform and implementation of the Sejdic-Finci judgment. European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Fule emphasized that ‘there are no further deadlines’.

The stance of the EU is in direct contrast to the international community’s involvement in the resolution of the Bosnian conflict. During the peace negotiations Bosniacs, Serbs and Croats were recognized as constituent peoples, while other ethnic groups were simply set aside. Thus, the only local actors involved in the wartime peace negotiations were representatives of the local ethnic-nationalist parties. As Robert Howse has argued, the major task in resolving conflict situations is to prevent their escalation into an unstable competition among major powers, ‘All of the major powers and conflicting parties in Bosnia were actors in this game. A victory would be a negotiated agreement bringing the conflict to an end. An eruption of the conflict beyond the parameters of Bosnia and involving the major powers was to be avoided at all costs.’[1]

The widely discussed Sejdic-Finci case, in 2006, involved two citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina of Roma and Jewish ethnicities, Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, who brought applications before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The applicants complained that, despite possessing experience comparable to the highest elected officials, the Bosnian Constitution and the corresponding provisions of the Election Act 2001, prevented them from standing as candidates for the Bosnian Presidency and the House of Peoples of the Parliamentary Assembly, solely on the grounds of their ethnic origins. The post-war Bosnian Constitution created new identities, without the democratic participation of local peoples. The ECtHR decision challenges the legacy of the General Framework Agreement for Peace (GFAP) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, initialled at Dayton on 21 November 1995 and signed in Paris on 14 December 1995 (the ‘Dayton Peace Agreement’), which created the current Bosnian Constitution. The Dayton Peace Agreement resulted in a discriminatory electoral framework, which prohibited non-constituent peoples from running for office based on their ethnicity. Specifically, the Constitution allocates protection to collective rights above individual rights. It is a type of ‘ethnic democracy’, which only recognizes as democratic participants leaders of main ethno-nationalist parties.[2]

 This is why Bosnian citizens chose to take their claims to the streets instead of at the general elections in October this year. Main political parties represent ethnic nationalist sentiment, which has been the essence of the Bosnian procedural democracy, rather than pertinent issues of public policy. Lack of accountability in policy-making, has also been facilitated by the lack of platforms for debates.

The local emphasis on dialogue runs very contrary to the standard international approach to Bosnia. Al Jazeera has hinted at the risks of violence, by comparing the initial outburst of the protests and the destruction of the government buildings and national archives, to the civil war. The warning stands, as some may benefit from potential violence and this is what appeared to happen in the first days. But more troubling is the international response, which alludes to the protests as a security threat. In the interview for the Austrian daily Kurier, the current High Representative and Austrian diplomat, Valentin Inzko stated that ‘if the situation escalates, we might have to think about EU-troops (‘Wenn die Lage eskaliert, werden wir eventuell an EU-Truppen denken müssen.’). Portrayal of the protests as a threat is reminiscent of the ‘Balkan violence’ rhetoric, which surrounded the civil war. Annex 10 of the Dayton Peace Agreement’s ‘Agreement on Civilian Implementation of the Peace’, created the office of the High Representative, to coordinate the civilian aspects of the peace settlement. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) represents the countries involved in the Dayton Peace Accords through the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which was established for BiH in 1995. The HiRep has the final authority to interpret the Dayton Peace Accord on the civilian implementation of the peace settlement (art. 5).

The spirit of the international commentary and reporting evokes a sentiment of entitlement the international community has towards the region. Keeping peace in Bosnia, after all, has historically been an issue of international security. Still, these concerns have little to do with local interests. However, the response from the local and international political elites, as represented by the misguided statement of the High Representative, has been to utilize now tried and tested demagogy and discredit citizens’ claims by referring to possibilities of ethnic conflict. In his statement, Inzko did not deviate too much from a traditional view of local citizenship in Bosnia as inherently tied to the local ethnic, religious and cultural identity. But the Orient of the local, and its specificities, has been as much as created and imagined by the outside forces, as it was adopted and also constructed in local self-perceptions.

Specifically these perceptions echo in the constant destruction and rebuilding of local architecture. In the beginning of the protests several buildings were burned, including the seats of regional (cantonal) governments in the cities of Tuzla and Sarajevo. Burning buildings are now a symbolic image of the Bosnian war, most notably the Sarajevo Town Hall (or the National and University Library). In August 1992 the National Library was shelled with incendiary grenades until its collection was destroyed and the building almost entirely burnt down. It included one million volumes in the languages of the various cultures that have influenced Bosnia. Approximately 90% of the library collection went up in flames in what Riedlmayer described as the ‘largest single act of book burning in modern history’.[3]

But the library is an example where structures have been used to alter any locality’s relationship to itself. The construction of the National and University Library was completed in 1894 during the Austro-Hungarian rule in the region. Provisions of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, stipulated that Bosnia was to be occupied by the Habsburg troops for the next thirty years, and was formally annexed to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1908. The Austro Hungarians built the Town Hall in a Pseudo Moorish style, which does not originate in any of the local traditions, but was supposed to reflect the outside perception of the Bosnian identity.[4] The use of what could be judged as the “Arab” style originated from an understanding of Islamic influence, or an essence, in the region. Interestingly, however, even the Ottomans absorbed such a style as a ‘national’ Ottoman style, self-positioning within the so-called ‘Orient’. 

As much as the Town Hall represents the ambiguity of Bosnian identity, so do the political and legal structures emphasize the religious and ethnic identities of various peoples who live in BiH. Until recently, the building had a characteristic of a foreign and superimposed structure.[5] The Town Hall underwent a variety of transformations to serve requirements and interests of different moments in Bosnian history. All of these moments, however, were simultaneously local and transnational. As part of the former Ottoman empire, BiH became characterized as both a ‘Balkan’ and ‘Oriental’ space. The external perception of BiH seemed to imply that in a country of particular social, cultural, and religious background, citizenship could appear only in forms qualified by that background. Not surprisingly, we can see the resonances of such perspectives on local citizenship in the recent protests in Turkey. [6] As much as the Town Hall represents the ambiguity of Bosnian identity, with focus on its imagined Oriental character, so do the political and legal structures emphasize the religious and ethnic identities of various peoples who live in Bosnia, as well as their situatedness in the regional and global framework. Bosnian governing institutions can be seen as a political and legal monument and a symbol of international and local post war imaginations of what Bosnian society is and/or could be.

It is thus significant that Bosnian citizens express themselves as subjects. In this sense, they get to define their democracy. As Jean-Luc Nancy has argued the aim of democracy, is nothing less than the total refounding of politics. Democratic politics is ta politics that withdraws from all assumptions, and cuts short every kind of ‘political theology,’ whether theocratic or secularized. Not everything is political, but everything is multiple, and singular-plural. The lack of answers in the current Bosnian events demands a thinking and perhaps unlocking the ‘same traps and monsters, or others still’. [7]

In this case the ‘people’ are part of the social whole that sees and experiences itself as distinct from a part to whose domination it is subjected: ‘It is the revolt of destitution, of what is intolerable in minds and bodies, the revolt of hunger and fear.’ The current claims of Bosnian citizens are not political, but social. However, the revolt itself is not a sufficient foundation for a new regime. It needs to become a permanent situation pushing against the setting in or entrenchment of something that is pre-determined or sees itself as an essence of a community. In other words, it needs to become a process in itself with permanent spaces for public participation. The process would be the one where the people are ‘constituting’ and not ‘constituted’, but at the same time without the uprisings merely inverting the existing situation. We have yet to see what it is that wishes to express itself or recognize itself in the Bosnian setting. If the present expression manages to maintain itself, it might bring in an opening for new possibilities. The value in these possibilities is to be found in the gesture. But the option that still remains is a hijacking or re-constitution of local demands and identities by international and local elites. And most importantly, the skeleton of democratic procedures had to be put aside while local voices rearrange and reconstitute themselves from a history of resignation of victimhood to active participation and self-determination.

This is the paradoxical situation of the Bosnian citizen. The external perception of Bosnian citizenship and identity allocates it to a defined social, cultural, and religious background. This identity is not ‘cosmopolitan’ but ‘Oriental’ in character. Lack of international support for the current Bosnian initiative is a revelation of several issues all at once. Dayton Accords ushered peace and international security. Overseen and crafted by Richard C. Holbrooke, a deal was negotiated with the same nationalist leaders who led the civil war, to partition Bosnia into ethnically defined territories. Democratization and citizen participation was not a priority. The control of ‘ethnic tension’ thesis maintained the image of potentially volatile oriental particularities and a fundamentally ontological difference between the universal citizen and the incapacitated local Bosnian subject who was conditioned by ethnicity and religion. The main significance in current protests is the attempt at undoing of the burden of this history and imagery, and discovery of a new voice and possibilities for a people who do not wish to continue being victims.



[1] Howse, Robert. ‘A Horizon Beyond Hatred: Introductory Remarks’ in Yugoslavia, the Former and Future: Reflections by Scholars from the Region (Washington: The Brookings Institute, 1995), p. 2.

[2] Mujkic, Asim. ‘We, the Citizens of Ethnopolis’, Constellations,14, (2007), p.14.

[3] Riedlmayer, Andras, “Killing memory; the targeting of libraries and archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina” (1994) 61 Newsletter of Middle East Libraries Association 1

[4] Alic, Dijana, ‘Ascribing Significance to Sites of Memory the Sarajevo's Town Hall’, in P. Somma, ed., At War with the City (United Kingdom: The Urban International Press, 2004), pp. 65-86.

[5] Sindbeak, Tea, Hartmuth, Maximilian eds., Images of Imperial Legacy. Modern discourses on the social and cultural impact of Ottoman and Habsburg rule in Southeast Europe (Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2011).

[6] Cirkovic, Elena, Citizens of the world and citizens of Turkey-the occupy Gezi protests, 17th of July 2013, Oecumene: citizenship after orientalism.

[7] Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Truth of Democracy. trans by Pascale –Anne Brault and Michael Naas (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010).

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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