Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Asleep at the Wheel

by Ivana Howard

25 February 2010

Civil society needs to stand up to Bosnia's new hate-speech demagogues.

As Bosnia lurches toward a train wreck of political confrontation prior to the October general elections, the blare of intolerance, misogyny, and hate speech heard in Sarajevo over the last few weeks has failed to stir the country's slumbering civil society. Nongovernmental organizations seem to have shut their ears, even as hate speech reaches the highest decibel levels in recent years. In a country still deeply scarred from a conflict sparked by that very noise some 20 years ago, the silence of civil society is deafening.

To those who have followed civil society's rebirth from the ashes of war, the beginning of 2008 offered some sense of hope. Brought together in sorrow over the death of a young boy murdered on a tram by his peers, and in outrage against the government that had failed to protect him, thousands of citizens took to the streets of Sarajevo to demand accountability. After 16 years, it was the first spontaneous display of mass activism since Serb bullets had cut down civil society's budding post-communist spirit from the mountains overlooking the city. After a standoff, the politicians backed down. Several public officials resigned and others were ousted in local elections later that year. Civil society had acted and democracy won.

And then its defenders promptly went back to sleep.

But hibernating in Bosnia is no longer acceptable. Several weeks ago, media mogul and aspiring politician Fahrudin Radoncic, who owns Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice), the largest daily in Bosnia's Federation entity, made a series of remarks that echoed the chilling rhetoric of the early 1990s and deserved at least some moral, ethical, and even legal reaction. Radoncic declared that Duska Jurisic, who had been dismissed as chief news editor at the public broadcaster Federal Television (FTV), was not competent to hold the position because she was not a Bosniak or, essentially, not a Muslim. It apparently didn't matter that Jurisic has more than 20 years of media experience, studied journalism in the United States, was trained by the BBC, and teaches journalism skills in Sarajevo. While no official reason was given for her dismissal, Jurisic is a strong critic of Radoncic's shady business operations and political aspirations, and the FTV news show is one of the most popular in the country.

In follow up "clarifications," Radoncic attacked Jurisic's character, sex, and ethnicity. His derogatory comments matched those made less than two years earlier by Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia's Republika Srpska province, when he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the state prosecutors' corruption investigation into his government's financial operations by declaring it "unacceptable for Republika Srpska to be judged by Muslim judges."

Reactions to Dodik's statement were virtually nonexistent among civil society organizations in Republika Srpska. This past month, counterparts in the Federation were no braver, even though Jurisic herself compared the attacks to those of Radovan Karadzic's wartime propaganda broadcasts. Besides a handful of journalists with a nothing-left-to-lose attitude, led by the uniquely civic and multiethnic daily Oslobodjenje (Liberation), the few who objected to the Avaz attacks numbered one journalists' association, an adviser to the city's mayor, a couple of academics, and the outgoing head of one (!) human rights organization.

Those who reacted and dared to condemn the inappropriate statements were immediately subjected to an onslaught of even stronger discriminatory, insulting, and threatening columns in the paper, some of which, ironically, came from the director of a leading civil society organization and a well-known professor of philosophy and human rights. Fearing "Bosnia's Berlusconi" or simply resigned to the predictable rise in ugly rhetoric prior to the October elections, the rest of civil society remained mostly mum. Some of the most prominent and prosperous NGOs in the country failed to condemn the words of hate, intolerance, and misogyny emanating from the pages of Radoncic's publications. By doing so, civil society rendered itself complicit in the assault on the basic postulates of democracy and decency to which Bosnia and Herzegovina aspires. And it certainly raised questions about the strategies, resources, and efforts invested in its development.

Since bringing peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina 15 years ago, the international community has spent well over $15 billion on post-conflict state building and democratization efforts in the country. Seen as capable of articulating needs and acting independently of vested ethno-nationalist and political interests, civil society became central to those efforts and, in the first five postwar years alone, international and local civil society organizations were given a significant portion of the roughly $6 billion spent on various forms of assistance to local communities. Over the years, many have argued that the money was not well spent. At this moment, it is difficult to disagree.

What is responsible for civil society's sleeping sickness in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Part of the problem is, not surprisingly, the legacy of communism. The memory of forced mobilization and mandatory participation has led citizens to shun organized or voluntary community activities, which are seen as an alien force. The lack of trust in organized groups also stems from the widespread view of NGOs as a business, and a lucrative one at that, rather than a genuine civic credo or calling. This belief stems from the postwar flood of civil society assistance and consequent mushrooming of NGOs. The result is a vicious circle: the low level of involvement in associations and NGOs robs Bosnian citizens of the opportunity to develop greater civic skills and spirit.

Postwar civil society in Bosnia and Herzegovina also exhibits a fatal design flaw. NGOs, the preferred form of civil society supported by the international community, have been actively encouraged by donors to pursue nonpolitical projects that would differentiate them from political entities vying for power by playing on ideological and ethnic differences. While this phenomenon is evident throughout Eastern Europe, it has taken particularly strong root in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina, where stability and consensus are more prized than contentious but constructive debate on sensitive political issues. Due to the greater role of the international community, particularly the Europeans, as well as the damage wrought by the war, development was stressed over democracy. By embracing a nonpolitical modus operandi in a divided country where virtually every issue is political, Bosnian civil society organizations can rarely contribute to meaningful reform processes, thereby failing to establish their own relevance.

Finally, for far too long, civil society organizations in Bosnia have relied on someone else to do the difficult job of pushing for accountability, insisting on responsibility and protecting citizens from corruption, organized crime, or extreme nationalism. But the international community, embodied by numerous and strong institutions present to maintain peace and ensure the implementation of the peace accords, has dwindled over the years both in numbers and power. It is no longer possible to rely on international organizations to do the "dirty work" for Bosnia's civil society. It is time for civil society, above all NGOs, to wake up and step up to its role, and an important election year, in which so much can go wrong, is the time to do it.

In a country in which words paved the way for bullets, civil society is more than just a Jersey barrier of democracy. In addition to acting as a brake against hate speech, extreme nationalism, and intolerance, it must drive efforts toward the reconciliation and democratic reforms necessary for European integration. At this crucial moment, the protectors of peace cannot afford to be asleep at the wheel.

Ivana Howard is program officer for Southeastern Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy, which provides some grant funding to TOL.


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