Bosnian Baby Protests: Citizenship, Civic Awakening and Mono-Ethnic Politics

protest zziBy: Medina Malagić

On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the second former Yugoslav Republic to become a member of the wider European ‘family’ and now hold EU citizenship. Despite being conceived as a primarily economic block, throughout the years the idea of what it means to be a citizen of the EU, or belonging to a broad European community has been brought to the forefront and widely debated.

The notion of belonging to a European project and a European project carries an array of explanations and justifications for the further promotion of this idea. In the context of the recent Croatian accession to the EU, the definition(s) of what it means to be a citizen of the EU and its implications on BiH’s currently tenuous attempts to eventually become a EU member are expounded, especially in light of the recent mass protests surrounding the lack of adoption of a state law on the unique master citizen number (JMB).

What is considered standard procedure in many countries, the failure of BiH politicians to agree on a state law on an identification number for its citizens is not an anomaly. Rather, it is symptomatic of the way in which politics is conducted in BiH, predicated on fear and nationalism and institutionalized mono-ethnic politics. Now that BiH shares thousands of kilometers of a border with the EU and its leaders profess dedication to meeting the requirements that are necessary for EU accession, the recent protests in Sarajevo and throughout many BiH cities has revealed a vital social component that attempted to strip away the ethnic overtones that pervades the decision-making process in BiH. While the protests have subsided for now, various media, civil society organizations and citizens have been eager to point out the nascent civic awakening in the country.

It is indubitable that the institutionalized ethnic divisions in BiH, a product of the Dayton Peace Agreement, have resulted in inefficiency at every political and administrative level in the country. Public dissatisfaction is high, and the BiH Constitution openly discriminates against those who do not belong to the three constituent groups (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats). BiH politicians continue to face widespread criticism from the EU for their political inertia and unwillingness to affect much-needed change to even begin negotiations over eventual EU membership.

While Croatia’s membership to the EU has already demonstrated to be a challenge for BiH authorities and revealed the extent of the inefficiency of its extremely complicated administrative and political structure, the recent mass protests that was defined by its social component, rather than an ethnic one, it can be said that it shed some more light on the contemporary notion of citizenship in BiH.

While the entire effort to define what it means to be a ‘European’ citizen is wrought with debates over its meaning and the extent of its meaning, the definition of a citizen of the European Union and in BiH is in stark contrast. Whereas Article 9 of the Treaty of Amsterdam stipulates ‘’Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member state shall be a citizen of the Union’’ in theory means that all citizens of the EU possess the same rights and freedoms and is devoid of any ethnic connotations, in BiH the reality is different. Civic membership in BIH is nearly nonexistent. The idea of an individual as a vocal political subject is correlated to the legitimacy of rule. In BiH, discriminatory measures against those who do not belong to one of the three constituent groups are the norm, and it is institutionalized. The lack of efficient decisions and protracted political stalemates even resulted in newborns in BiH left without a citizenship after failure to adopt a state law on an identification number. The protest culminated in a protest held on 1 July with the symbolic slogan ‘Let’s Fire Them’.

Thus, objections over the legitimacy of rule of BiH leaders were one of the main components of the JMB protests. These series of protests last month clamored for a change in the status quo that is defined by mono-ethnic politics in BiH. While this is not to say that the civic protests immediately brought change throughout the country and resulted in the elimination of ethno-politics, the potential of these protests to foster this change exists. The question that remains is whether civic protests in BiH are able to stir up mass countrywide protests, protests that transcend the current mono-ethnic structures firmly in place. The other dilemma that inevitably arises is the problems over the alignment of the BiH Constitution with the EU aquis, and how the implications of the BiH Constitution, which places strict ethnic quotas on the political participation of its citizens and excludes the ‘Others’, will have on BiH’s aspirations for EU membership.

It is obvious that social exclusion is one of the results of BiH’s current structure of citizenship, but the question that remains open-ended is in what ways the BiH Constitution can be transformed, or if it can be transformed, in order to conform to the so-called ‘European’ concept of citizenship that confers rights to EU citizens that are devoid of an ethnic basis. One problem is that the EU does not offer any concrete solutions as to how BiH should reform its political structure to alleviate the current blatant discrimination legalized by the state. EU officials do not hide their dissatisfaction with BiH politicians and their failure to act, but no concrete steps are being taken to offer a solution to the myriad of problems facing BiH, especially when placed in the context of meeting the strict requirements necessary for EU accession. Here is where the protests could serve as a glimmer of hope for the expression of broad civic unrest, or the attempt to initiate radical change from the bottom-up. However, this wish among many of BiH’s citizens should be approached with cautious optimism. It is difficult to predict at this point the implications of a reconfiguration of the notion of ‘citizenship’ in BiH in connection with the EU aquis, as the country is still fraught with heavily decentralized and fragmented institutional structures that are incapable of delivering reforms and meeting the basic needs of its citizens. This is a delicate issue in an ethnically divided country in which politicians are given free reign to spin any issue into an ethnic one, issues in which ethnicity obviously plays no role, and where it is very easy to stir up distrust and fear and only protract the overall crisis in the country.

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