Image credit: Midhat Poturovic Image credit: Midhat Poturovic.

Bosnia has remained largely divided along ethnic lines since the wars of the 1990s. Yet 2014 saw Bosnia’s population unite against what some consider the most complex and contradictory political system in the world, as well as its corrupt leadership. Bosnia’s 'plenums' movement was brief, but highlighted both the potential and pitfalls of local movements for positive change within this often deeply divided society.

Largely motivated by the botched privatisation of state industries, Bosnia’s workers took to the streets of the north-eastern town of Tuzla in February 2014. Students and other young people joined them in voicing their dissatisfaction with Bosnia’s shape and state, with the protests spreading to Sarajevo in days. Social media helped connect this popular movement, which saw ethnic divisions melt away in the face of the bigger social and economic issues. This was exemplified by protesters employing satirical slogans such as 'we are hungry in all three languages', in their 'act of rebellion against the government and the ruling structure'.

Unity in unrest

The predictions of a 'Bosnian Spring' overstated the impact of this popular movement
The international media often illustrated this unrest through images of burning buildings and cars, focusing on incidents of violent confrontation between the protesters and authorities. Yet this fixation on the extreme ignored the unifying nature of the unrest, which found a mouthpiece in the plenums, or 'citizens’ assemblies', that took shape in towns and villages. Like the protests, the plenums were open to all, regardless of background and ethnicity. Connected through networks - specifically through information and communications technology (ICT) and social media - the plenums enabled ordinary individuals to engage in the political discourse of the time. Consequently, the plenums quickly drew up lists of demands at both national and local levels, which some consider 'an articulation of the voice on the street'.

Network theorists are optimistic for these types of networks of civil society actors. They argue that their flexibility and breadth, particularly in light of developments in ICT, significantly challenge state structures, enabling the development of a bottom-up democracy which counters the traditionally hierarchical state structure. Both the protests and the plenums movement displayed aspects of this networked bottom-up democracy. Indeed, ICT were highlighted as fundamental in facilitating the national coordination of actions, and the spread of information and ideas. Furthermore, those involved considered social media to be the only tool through which their voice could be transmitted: as one anonymous activist said, "All prominent [national] TV stations and newspapers stand as puppets of different parties, manipulating [a] wide variety of people."

Some of the demands were partly met - and some even completely. To an extent, this supports the idea of decreasing state authority in the face of unified, networked popular movements. Much of the commentary on events was highly optimistic, citing them as Bosnia’s 'new model of democracy', and others calling for 'all power to the plenums'. However, history has shown that the predictions of a 'Bosnian Spring' overstated the impact and longevity of this popular movement. Indeed, following their inception in early February, the plenums ceased to exist by the following April.

The limitations and possibilities of popular movements

The domination of ethnicity over the lives of Bosnia’s citizens is not an inevitability
This provides an insight into both the limitations and possibilities for future popular movements that seek to change state structures. Although officially apolitical, the plenums quickly adopted a left-wing character. This was perhaps unsurprising, especially given their origins amongst factory workers and students. However, this distracted attention from the dysfunctional political system, and simultaneously isolated the movement from institutions such as the US and EU governments, leading to minimal external support for their cause.

Indeed, the international response to the plenums highlights the contradictory position taken by such powerful international players. Despite longstanding external pressure on Bosnia to take ownership of its problems and provide locally driven solutions, the locally driven solution that occurred was not the solution that these external influences sought.

Furthermore, the movement decided to remain separate from the political mainstream, isolating it from influential political decision makers whose support may have given their voice both greater weight and a broader reach. Yet scepticism of engaging with the 'kleptocratic' political elite as well as a strong desire for redistribution given elite mismanagement of state assets have been highlighted as focal points for any Bosnian popular movement.

In addition, heavy handed police tactics and threats of repercussions in case of continued protests and involvement in the plenums both drove activists away from engaging in the established political process and led many to abandon the cause altogether.

Thus, the plenums’ short life may provide an example of the limited extent to which networked protest can challenge state power and organisational hierarchy. However, the forcefulness of the state’s response to the plenums also highlighted the unease felt by political elites in the face of such unified dissatisfaction. Furthermore, their brief existence indicated that the domination of ethnicity over the lives of Bosnia’s citizens is not an inevitability. Whilst Bosnia has remained relatively peaceful since, considerable discontent within the population persists.

The plenum movement was a clear opportunity to engage and develop locally driven solutions to Bosnia’s difficult situation. Now, with warnings from citizens such as 'how long we can actually suffer,' highlight the need to take the populations' desires seriously, it is becoming ever more apparent that their failure was a huge opportunity missed.

This is an edited version of an article by George Rossetter that originally appeared on Balkan Diskurs. A non-profit, multimedia platform dedicated to challenging stereotypes and providing viewpoints on society, culture, and politics in the Western Balkans.