Bosnians protest as political row leads to infant death

Crowds hold up signs as they demonstrate in front of the Bosnian parliament building in Sarajevo demanding laws for personal identification numbers for newborns. (Photo: Sulejman Omerbasic / Demotix)

Crowds hold up signs as they demonstrate in front of the Bosnian parliament building in Sarajevo demanding laws for personal identification numbers for newborns. (Photo: Sulejman Omerbasic / Demotix)

In the shadow of events in Turkey and Brazil, Bosnians have been taking to the streets. For over a week, citizens of the small Balkan country have been protesting their leaders’ failure to pass a new law on citizen identification numbers, leaving babies unable to travel for medical care. Milana Knezevic writes

As is often the case in Bosnia, this seemingly straightforward task soon took on an ethnic element. Serbian parliamentarians wanted the number to recognize the internal geographic split between the Serb majority entity Republika Srpska and the the Croat Bosniak majority Bosnian Federation. Their Croat and Bosniak counterparts disagree.

The political stalemate means that since February newborns in Bosnia have not been able to get passports.

Last Wednesday, activists organised a car blockade of parliament in Sarajevo. The impromptu show of support for Belmina Ibrisevic, a seriously ill infant who could not travel abroad to get treatment, quickly grew until several thousand people surrounded the building, trapping parliamentarians inside.

“It [the protest] is about those few brave citizens who decided to take a risk and react. Others came, following basic instinct and their conscience”, says Sarajevo-based activist and political commentator Nedim Jahic.

On Monday, the leaderless “babylution” took the shape of a tribute to baby Berina Hamidovic, who died at a hospital in Belgrade. After weeks of pleading with authorities, her parents decided to take her across the border without a passport.

“My Berina has died, because to Bosnian authorities she wasn’t alive”, father Emir told local press.

On Tuesday, some of Bosnia’s biggest music acts stepped onto a makeshift stage outside parliament. Behind them, projected onto the parliament building, loomed the image of a giant pacifier in the shape of defiant fist. It is estimated some 10,000 people gathered to see the show. Meanwhile, citizens of Tuzla, Mostar, and other cities have also organised demonstrations under the banner of “JMBG”, the name of the ID law. The official facebook page has 22,000 likes and counting, where photos, videos and articles are widely shared. People from across the world have tweeted and facebooked messages of support, as have some of the biggest stars of the region. Combined, this makes for a remarkable, country-wide wave of political expression not seen for years.

This is not the only time Bosnia’s leaders have been unwilling and unable to make important decisions. The complex system of ethnicity-based quotas and vetoes implemented with the 1995 Dayton peace agreement to accommodate Bosniak, Croat and Serb leaders, has led to political paralysis on a number of occasions.

“The timing was important was an important reason for people reacting the way they have in this particular case”, explains Florian Bieber, Professor in South East European Studies at the University of Graz, and a leading expert on post-war Bosnia. “Frustration had been accumulating over time, especially with the deteriorating economic situation. This is an issue that affects everyone, not only one group, which helped galvanised support across the population. It also has a human face. It’s not about losing money; it’s about lack of ID numbers risking children’s lives”.

The size and scope of the protests is not to be underestimated. The feeling of unity invites comparisons to the anti-war protests of 1992. Much has particularly been made of seemingly cross-ethnic nature of the demonstrations. But while it is certainly the case that Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks alike have been taking part and expressing solidarity, the movement has largely been confined to the Bosnian Federation. Recent student protests in Banja Luka, while likely inspired by the nationwide atmosphere of protest, have distanced themselves from the message of JMBG.

“Today’s protests are also important, however, without significant number of citizens from Republika Srpska, it is hard to expect real change. In todays’ conditions and political structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina, you cannot expect to have change and efficient pressure without relevant support coming from both entities, which is rarely the case”, Jahic concedes.

Politicians have also been unwilling to cooperate thus far. Some parliamentarians have refused to come back to work citing security fears, while Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosnian representative to the three-member presidency, has urged people not to take to the streets.

Despite this, the movement rumbles on. The protesters have given the politicians a deadline of 30th June to resolve the ID number debacle, and Jahic says the first priority is to “see results on the directly addressed issue.” However, protesters have also demanded that politicians, who earn approximately six times the national average, take a 30% wage cut and place the money in a fund for Bosnians who need medical treatment abroad. This appears to invoke the frustration and anger about the general state of the country helping drive the scale of the protests.

While Bieber is uncertain whether the demands will be met and the elites will change their ways, he does believe this could be a turning point for the country.

“Even if they fail, the protests have made citizens feel they can achieve something”.

Glitz and glamour can’t hide Eurovision’s politics

The Eurovision Song Contest gives a platform to some of Europe's outliers on free expression. Photo: Sander Hesterman (EBU) / Eurovision 2013

The Eurovision Song Contest gives a platform to some of Europe’s outliers on free expression. Photo: Sander Hesterman (EBU) / Eurovision 2013

Europe will once again be swept away by a sparkly hurricane of techno beats and pompous ballads, kitschy and/or traditional costumes, wind machines, pyrotechnics, heavily accented English, awkward host banter and nul points. Yes, Eurovision takes our breath away in more ways than one.

While first and foremost a showbiz spectacle, if you look beneath the layer of sequins you’ll soon discover the political tinge to the continent’s premier singing competition. From the start in 1956, it was designed as fun way of testing out new broadcasting technology. Those partial to the occasional conspiracy theory would have you believe this was also a convenient cover for pan-European satellite testing during the Cold War, which is why NATO members Turkey and Israel were invited to the party.

With the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the inclusion of the Eastern Bloc in 1990, much was said about the healing, unifying power of the contest. Since then, even more has been said about the tendency of the late arrivals to share their points amongst themselves. The UK, for instance, have been vocal about political, neighbourhood voting being the cause of their recent Eurovision failings, rather than, say, sending entries like this. And while Eurovision, somewhat censoriously, prohibits political songs that has not stopped artists from trying to get their meaningful messages across.

The most famous recent example is perhaps Georgia’s pun-tastic 2009 offering “We Don’t Want To Put In’‘, to be performed at final in — you guessed it — Moscow. They were told to change the song or drop out, and ultimately chose the latter. Krista Siegfrids, Finland’s entrant this year, has warned she might be planting a kiss on one of her female dancers in protest at her country’s failure to adopt equal marriage legislation.

Most significantly, Eurovision gives its entrants prime time access to some 800 million viewers around the world – an unparalleled platform on which to promote their nation should they choose to. Many have jumped at the opportunity, chief among them the land of fire; Azerbaijan. As 2012 hosts, the Aliyev regime poured millions of their significant oil wealth into reforming their international reputation as a repressive hereditary dictatorship. The only problem with this otherwise foolproof plan was that they forcefully evicted  people to make room for an ambitious Eurovision-inspired urban renewal project in Baku, attacked journalists covering and speaking up about it, and generally conducted their notoriously human rights abusing business as usual. Not much has changed since the party left town a year ago — only this week, the regime announced they have extended libel laws to online speech ahead of October’s presidential election.

Before that, 2009 hosts Russia attempted to dazzle Europe and the world, with a spectacular stage show in the 25,000 capacity Indoor Olympic Arena in Moscow. However, LGBT activists seized the opportunity to shine the spotlight on the country’s poor record on gay rights, attempting to stage a Slavic-wide Pride parade on the day of the final. In a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression and assembly, the parade was banned. Many of the protesters who showed up anyway, were attacked and arrested. LGBT rights remain poor in Russia, with a 100-year ban on pride parades in Moscow announced only last year. The charm offensive of last year’s singing, dancing, baking grandma entry has this year been followed by the John-and-Yoko-esque ‘What If?‘, which among other gems, contains the lyrics “Together we can make a better place/ On this little island out in space”. Meanwhile, in Russia, internationally funded NGOs have to register as ‘foreign agents’, or risk fines and prison time.

You don’t have to host to be able to host to take full advantage of the promotional platform Eurovision. Like Belarus, you can condense your message to fit the 3-minute performance slot. In 2011, the country known as Europe’s last dictatorship sent Anastasiya Vinnikova to perform the subtly named “I Love Belarus“. Somehow, it didn’t progress to the final. Maybe the rest of Europe had some trouble reconciling the country described in the song, with its “fields full of gold” and “free, friendly and young people”, with the country where you’re put in prison for pointing out that your repressive dictator is, well, a dictator.

Also in the running this year is Hungary, the country with some of the most draconian press regulation on the continent. There’s Ukraine, where the former prime minister is serving a seven-year jail sentence for what is widely recognised as politically motivated charges. In Italy, the final will be broadcast on public broadcaster RAI, one half of the TV duopoly that poses a big threat to the country’s media plurality. In Greece, financial woes have also had a pretty detrimental effect on freedom of expression. Bulgaria’s web of cosy relationships between authorities and media leaves the country without an accurate picture of itself.

Yes, Eurovision is first and foremost one of the biggest parties in the world. However, as you’re watching the spectacle unfold on Saturday, spare a thought for the Europeans who are not as free to express themselves as their fellow countrymen on stage in Malmo.