Gloom Overshadows Protest Anniversary in Bosnia’s Tuzla

The biggest protests against poverty and corruption in recent Bosnian history began in Tuzla two years ago, yet little has changed for the town’s disillusioned residents.


Tuzla former Gov building
                     The old cantonal government building in Tuzla | Photo: BIRN


Two years after being set ablaze during protests against poverty and corruption, the cantonal government building in the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla remains charred and tattered. Much like the economy of this once thriving industrial town. For a while, it seemed that the protests, which rapidly spread across Bosnia and Herzegovina, had roused a population worn down by poverty, unemployment, failed privatisations and endless political crises to forcefully demand positive change.
Plenums were set up where residents debated and agreed demands that were submitted to the cantonal government, including calls for greater accountability for privatisations gone awry, payment of unpaid salaries and enforcement of anti-corruption measures. The protests were the biggest seen in the country since the 1992-95 war. Many believed they, and the plenums they inspired, were the beginning of a kind of ‘Bosnian Spring’.
Such optimism for a brighter future in Bosnia soon petered out. “That building is all that is left today of those protests. They didn’t bring anything else. It’s just a mockery,” says Admir, a butcher who works near the old government building that was torched on February 7, 2014.

Osman Bundic, 54, once employed by the now bankrupt Factory of Transportation Devices, agrees. While the local authorities are currently trying to rescue the factory, its 150 staff say they have not been paid for a year. “The protests didn’t change anything. They were only exploited by the people and the parties that were not in government in 2014, to win the local elections and take their slice of the pie”, he says.

That the protests began in Tuzla surprised few commentators. Once the industrial heart of the former Yugoslavia, the town has been devastated by a series of failed privatisation deals. Tuzla Canton has the second highest unemployment rate in Bosnia, 54.8 per cent in 2014, according to the Statistical Institute of the Federation of BiH.

‘Sick of so-called democracy’

While Tuzla Canton got a new government in March 2014, a month after the protests, little has changed at state level. The last general election held in October 2014 brought back to power the very same parties which won the first free elections in 1990.

“I’m sick of this so-called democracy”, Nurija Isabegovic, a pensioner living in Tuzla, tells BIRN. “People are now leaving, worse than during war, and it’s all their [Bosnian politicians] fault. They destroyed our country, they decided to divide it along ethnic lines. Something like the 2014 protests were just too weak to change anything,” he says. His opinion is shared by another Tuzla resident, Ifeta Mesic, who says it was naive to expect the protests would have had any real impact on the institutions. “The point is that here people are just not educated enough to solve problems on their own,” she stresses. “We lack everything, particularly education. Our best students, our best brains, are forced to quit the country if they want to find a job. And in universities they just don’t teach them how they should work if they want to change the system, to improve our public administration and our government.” Mesic, who maintains she is “still a Yugoslav”, blames the media and political parties for Bosnia’s problems, saying they “exploit nationalism to brainwash the citizens”.

Ethnic tensions continue to simmer in both of Bosnia’s entities – the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, RS. “On January 9, everybody was talking about this RS Day. I don’t have anything against it. I think they should have their right to celebrate everything they want. But while everybody was distracted talking about [RS leader] Dodik, on that very same day, our company Dita again began selling its laundry detergents after being on the verge of closing production. That was a very positive story for the workers and for the whole country but went totally unnoticed,” she says.

Rare glimmer of hope

Although it cannot be directly connected with the outcomes of the protests, Dita’s is one of the few positive stories to have emerged in the past two years in the Canton of Tuzla, which is one of ten cantons in the Bosniak-Croat Federation.

“Two years ago, our production was collapsing and we were not receiving any salaries,” Jasminka Delic, a worker from Dita, tells BIRN. Dita workers were among the first to hold regular protests in January 2014, which would later develop into country-wide uprising of February 2014 and the plenums. Although Dita was declared bankrupt in March 2015 the workers decided to continue the production on their own, a move strongly supported by Bosnian public opinion. “We remained in the premises of the company. We literally occupied it because we were afraid of the possibility that somebody would come and unlawfully remove the machines to resell them, as often happens,” explains Delic.

As Dita now awaits a new buyer, workers have started producing detergents and selling them. In January, they began once again selling the laundry detergent Arix Tenzo, which is their most popular product. “We are lucky, but we have also shown our determination and goodwill to keep our jobs and the factory working,” she says. “The situation for us is getting better but unfortunately we’re just an exception to the general rule of factories getting closed and abandoned in our canton.”

While the Dita workers have taken matters into their own hands, the outlook remains bleak for Tuzla residents overall. Delic warns that protests like the ones seen in 2014 could easily happen again. “Everybody has the right to work and to a decent, honest life. We should try to defend it, if possible, through dialogue and negotiations. But who know what could happen in the next months?” she says.

Balkans Insight 
18 January 2016