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Ukraine Fever Sweeps the Balkans

10:02 AM, Mar 3, 2014 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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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.

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