The protests, which began last week (5 February) among workers laid off from previously state-owned factories in Tuzla, have spread across the half of the country that is home to ethnic Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats, and has also prompted small demonstrations of support among the Serb community.
Governments in four of the country’s ten Muslim-Croat cantons have resigned, and protesters are calling for the resignation of the state-level government and early elections.
At a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday (10 February), William Hague, the UK’s foreign minister, described the protests as a “wake-up call”, while a diplomat from another member state said that the main message conveyed by his foreign minister was: “take this bloody seriously”.
The protests, which have led to the torching of a number of government buildings, forced itself late onto the agenda of EU foreign ministers. The result, diplomats and officials say, was a short but “substantive” debate about the economic, political and security challenges.
The protests, which appear to have been spontaneous, have not acquired an ethnic character. Florian Bieber of Graz University said that they reflect broad disappointment with the political class. Officials, though, fear that any ill-judged step by police in mixed areas could inject an ethnic dynamic into the protests.
Diplomats from some EU member states took the unrest as vindication of the continuing presence of an EU military mission, although they said that because of its diminished strength of 600 soldiers, Operation Althea would be unable to deal with any serious security challenge.
Some of the foreign ministers’ debate was devoted to the possibility of securing additional international financial support for Bosnia. This could, however, send clashing signals to the state-level authorities, whose inability to agree on the implementation of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights prompted the European Commission last October to cut half of Bosnia’s pre-accession funding.
Turkey, a major influence in the country, has already sent its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutog?lu, to Bosnia. Štefan Füle, the European commissioner for enlargement, is expected to visit in the coming days.
Despite Bosnia’s persistent problems, diplomats say that for the EU it had become a matter of routine business. The unrest has already changed that, with a wider debate now expected at a future meeting of ministers.
One diplomat said that Bosnia was a much harder case for the EU than the post-war difficulties between Kosovo and Serbia, which have dominated EU diplomacy in the Balkans over the past year. Bosnia has also proved resistant to the recent regional momentum towards closer integration with the EU. Croatia joined the EU in July, and Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo have all begun talks with the EU in the past 20 months, while Albania hopes to gain candidate status in June.
Edward Joseph, an American academic, has called for a “concerted EU-US effort to launch a new concept designed specifically to address Bosnia’s unique challenges”, arguing for a tailor-made European integration process because “Bosnia-Herzegovina lacks the minimal level of internal administrative and political integration to implement even pre-accession EU criteria”.