Ukraine fever sweeps the Balkans

balkansAs the world watches the Ukrainians in their effort to defend themselves from Russia and become a fully European nation, close attention to the situation in Kiev and the crisis in Crimea is notable in the Balkan Muslim countries—Kosovo, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina—and in two with significant Muslim minorities, Montenegro and Macedonia.

In the Balkans, the threat of Serbian aggression has receded, but in a parallel with Ukraine, Russian influence is perceived behind intrigues from Belgrade. The events in Ukraine are seen in a context of the struggle against corruption and the phenomenon of the post-Communist “mafia state.”

In the first week of February, a wave of protest began in the Bosnian city of Tuzla, which is known for its tradition of multiethnic harmony among Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs. An old industrial redoubt now plagued with unemployment ranging between 40 and 60 percent, Tuzla boiled over quickly, as reported by BBC News, with attacks on official buildings.

Solidarity demonstrations spread to other Bosnian cities with economic problems, including Mostar in Herzegovina, which is divided between Muslims and Croats and has an aluminum industry, Zenica in central Bosnia, where a steel complex has been owned by ArcelorMittal since 1998, and then to Sarajevo, the capital. There, on February 7, demonstrators set fire to government buildings and fought police.

Local and foreign media, international observers, and politicians assigned blame for the Bosnian upheaval in all directions. Resentment of the excessively convoluted bureaucracy foisted by the 1995 Dayton Accords on Bosnia, which is partitioned between a so-called “Republic of Serbs” and the “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” grouping Muslims and Croats, is one issue. “Federation Bosnia” comprises 10 cantons, each with its own autonomous political and educational authorities, plus a special zone at Brcko in the northern part of the territory, all reporting—barely—to the supposed central government in Sarajevo. It has more varieties of statist delirium above and below the cantonal level: legislatures, ministries, municipalities, in a seemingly endless and redundant supply.

Economic opportunities mostly involve political malfeasance, financed by the European Union through the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the real government, with American support. The current high representative is an Austrian of Slovene background, Valentin Inzko. Bosnia-Herzegovina is therefore a place of profound despair, afflicted by brain drain. Its traditional Central European system of education, which produces well-trained graduates, sees them leave for other countries as soon as they can. A serious upheaval in Bosnia was, to anybody watching the country, obviously on the way—a matter of when, rather than why.

Also at the end of the first week of February, Kosovo saw turmoil as Ibrahim Gashi, rector of the University of Pristina, in the capital of that Balkan republic, was forced to resign after he was exposed as a falsifier of his academic work. Clashes between police and students left 29 officers hurt and 30 students arrested. Gashi’s departure from the university was followed by that of several of his colleagues.

In Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, on February 18, hundreds of people gathered, throwing rocks at state offices, and injuring nine policemen. The Montenegrins called for “revolution.” Unemployed workers in Macedonia assembled in front of government buildings in that country’s capital, Skopje, on February 18. The next day, in Albania, after an informal strike by minivan drivers, in a country lacking a reliable public transportation system, a full one-day transport shutdown took place, with a rally in Tirana, the capital.The idiom of social rebellion is common in Balkan culture, which has undergone numerous such movements over the centuries, and where communism in the former Yugoslavia, under the charismatic dictator Joseph Broz Tito (1892-1980) kept memories of it alive in a civic myth that imposed much less conformity and silence than in other Communist lands. Lately, public acclaim for a “Balkan spring” gave way rapidly to visions of a “Bosnian-Ukrainian model.”

But in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, entrenched elites quickly sought to profit from social conflict. The Bosnian politician Fahrudin Radoncic, leader of a party titled the Union for a Better Future, which holds four out of 28 seats in the weird, ineffectual House of Representatives crafted for the Muslim-Croat Federation, has been accused of organizing the assault on the government buildings in Sarajevo in an attempted coup d’etat. Radoncic, once a respected dissident, is now seen as a patron of shady deals with Serbian extremists—likewise an old motif in the Balkans. Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice), a down-market tabloid owned by Radoncic, last week featured a column headed “Ukraine Is All of Us”—rhetoric viewed as cynical by many Bosnians.

Similarly, former Albanian prime minister Sali Berisha, an ex-Communist and leader of his country’s entrenched Democratic party, stirred the striking minivan drivers against the Socialist (i.e., neo-Communist) administration of Edi Rama, who took power last year.

As in Ukraine, allegations that discredited leaders are manipulating mass protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania to regain influence are widespread. But in the Balkan lands, they are more convincing than they appear to be in Kiev. On February 28, Zeljko Komsic, an ex-Communist and politically independent member of the three-person presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, declared “I am not with fascists, chauvinists, thieves, or racketeers.” Epitomizing the complexity of post-Dayton Bosnian governance, Komsic is the Croat representative in the presidency, which comprises a Bosnian Muslim, a Serbian, and a Croatian.

A legal complaint brought at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg by Dervo Sejdic, a Bosnian Roma (Gypsy) representative, and Jakob Finci, president of the Bosnian Jewish Community, alleged discrimination in that, under Dayton, members of minorities are excluded from the Bosnian presidency. The Court found for the plaintiffs in the case, Sejdic and Finci v. Bosnia and Hercegovina, but a reform of the ethno-political structure has yet to be adopted.

Since the cathartic arson at government facilities in Sarajevo, protests have continued but with much-diminished participation, typically bringing together a few hundred elderly folk aggrieved mainly by the loss of pensions. Observing one such gathering on Saturday, March 1, which was Bosnian Independence Day, I noticed the prominent display of a portrait of Tito. Nostalgia for communism is an important motive for elderly Bosnians to take to the streets.

Leaflets for the March 1 assembly, taped up throughout Sarajevo, demanded “social justice for all.” Bosnia’s Muslim religious leadership, under moderate direction since the replacement of the Wahhabi-line chief cleric Mustafa Ceric by Husein Kavazovic last year, supports the call for social justice. But the Islamic approach to Bosnian problems is conservative.

At Friday prayers in Sarajevo’s exquisite and intimate 16th-century Cobanija mosque, the day before the March 1 protest, the elderly preacher, known as a khatib and different from the imam, who leads the service, pronounced blessings and immediately commenced an eloquent denunciation of violent demonstrations. With his voice repeatedly breaking, he said to stay away from barricades such as were seen in the recent uproar. He referred to violence as “Satan’s path” and called on the assembled Bosnian Muslims to be thankful for the existence of a state with a territory and constitution which they should protect and obey. He said he was a pensioner himself and that his wife had not worked for years. But he repeated, “do not go to the barricades. Do not be tempted to Satan’s path. Remember that we have a state, territory, political structures and freedom. Do not waste them or abuse them.”

Meanwhile, those who remain indignant about corruption, rulership from afar, joblessness, lack of pensions, and the other misfortunes of Dayton besetting Bosnians have been meeting in “plenums” for democratic debate and proposal of solutions.

Thus, its Balkan disarray notwithstanding, Bosnia may find a secure way to European standards of entrepreneurship, accountability, and popular sovereignty. In a land where rebellion seems deeply embedded in the culture, hope is not exhausted.