Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years post-Dayton (6/12) : Ending autocracy in Republika Srpska

With the entity hemorrhaging emigrants – just like the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina – how do you fight Milorad Dodik’s corrupt and authoritarian regime in Republika Srpska ? Stefan Blagić, leader of the nonprofit Restart Srpska, is coming up with new ways to take action. An interview.

This series is presented in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

A quarter-century since the end of the war, the Courrier des Balkans has started series to examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy and politics, the social and environmental movements making their way through society, and the potential path to a brighter future. These articles will be accompanied by a two-day seminar on 2–3 December.

Banja Luka

By Jean-Arnault Dérens | Translated by Clarissa Howe

Courrier des Balkans (CdB) : What did you want to achieve by founding Restart ?

Stefan Blagić (S.B.) : We were very critical of the regime in Republika Srpska, but we wanted to address specific issues and demand specific solutions. I assembled a team in 2017 and we registered as a nonprofit. Our first campaign that August was to criticize the taxpayer-funded purchase of luxury sedans for officials and civil servants. We demanded a price limit of 50,000 KM (€25,000) plus VAT for official vehicles. We didn’t win, but the government did at least commit to reallocating 10% of the cost of the cars to a humanitarian cause, in this case the Sick Children’s Solidarity Fund. After that, we launched a campaign lamenting the exodus of young people forced to leave Republika Srpska – as well as the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by the way. Of course there had been a lot of talk about that already, but nothing had actually been done and we were the first organization to tackle the matter. We put up a billboard on Krajina Square in the center of Banja Luka and asked people to come fill it with messages or just the names of their loved ones who had left the country : brothers, sisters, children, parents, friends, etc. It was like a wailing wall for emigration. It was filled up within two and a half hours. But Milorad Dodik’s party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) responded with a denial, rejecting the evidence of the exodus !

CdB : Bosnia and Herzegovina has always had high emigration, but when did the current wave start ?

S.B. : The really pivotal year was 2014. The wave of departures is an expression of deep despair. After the result of that fall’s general elections, people realized that everything was just stuck and started leaving en masse. Not just young people, but entire families, people with jobs but who couldn’t live here anymore. As usual, most of them went to places like Slovenia, Austria, and Germany ; people who lived in the East near the border with Serbia went there, too.

CdB : 2014 gets mentioned as a year of exodus in the Federation as well because of the failure of the plenum movement as well as the dramatic flooding in the spring…

S.B. : Yes, 2014 was a year of upheaval : Bosnians in the Federation as well as in RS lost all hope for any possibility of change. The opposition also showed that they either wouldn’t or couldn’t change things. People figured out that they were no better than the ruling party ! What you have to realize about Republika Srpska is that everything has to go back to square one. For example, there’s no competitive exam for positions in public enterprises or public administration. The law doesn’t stipulate any hiring conditions for state and municipal civil servants. For everything else, you need to be a card-carrying party member to have any hope for a job. This is what people are sick of, even the ones who have managed to find a little place for themselves in the system.

CdB : You stayed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, though. What’s the story with your generation ?

S.B. : I was born in 1991. My generation didn’t leave in droves ; two-thirds of people my age stayed in Bosnia. The exodus didn’t really take off until afterwards.

CdB : You grew up in Republika Srpska, but did you have any relatives or contacts with the Federation in high school or college ?

S.B. : I grew up in Šekovići, a small town in northeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, near Zvornik, that has really been deserted. Everyone’s gone. When I was in high school, I started getting involved with nonprofits, which put me in touch with high schoolers in the other entity. Otherwise, no, nobody had any contact with the Federation simply because you didn’t need it for your everyday life, for university, or for work. It’s near the border, and lots of people go to Serbia, especially for university. Anyone who can goes to university in Novi Sad or Belgrade. Of course the ones who go to Istočno Sarajevo have more contact with the Federation. As for me, I wanted to study political science, but there’s no political science department in Istočno Sarajevo or Novi Sad, so that’s how I ended up in Banja Luka. When I enrolled, there were 240 of us. Today, there are 27 or 28 in all years combined. Part of the explanation for that is of course the drop in the birth rate, but it’s especially because young people are leaving and don’t even want to waste time studying in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

CdB : Have you also campaigned against corruption within the judiciary ?

S.B. : Yes, when the “horseshoe scandal” broke and justice Milan Tegeltija, head of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina (VSTV) got caught red-handed. It all started in November 2018 when a video was posted on the website Žurnal that showed a businessman giving money to a police inspector to “take care of” a case. We did not just come out against the corruption involved, but also the passivity of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko. We put on a performance in front of his office in Sarajevo, and he promised to meet with us. We never heard back from him. He’s too close to the political parties.

CdB : Restart is also highly involved in Pravda za Davida (“Justice for David”). What has this movement taught you ?

S.B. : Yes, we are ! We have been part of the movement from the start, and there isn’t much left of it, sadly. It started to wither once David’s father, Davor Dragičević, left the country, but things got worse with the ruling party’s intense and violent crackdown. Rallies were banned, and the police went after the protestors ! That’s when Restart tried its hand at parody and put on a protest with toys on a bench on Krajina Square since real protests had been banned. The police came an arrested me even for that ! I think that despite everything you can’t call it a failure. On October 5, 2018, we put on the biggest demonstration Banja Luka had ever seen ! That just goes to show how sick of it all people were, how much they wanted change. The problem is that a powerful societal campaign like this had no political voice at the general elections that were held two days later. For the vast majority of people, these elections were a mere formality because none of the political forces had any desire to change the system. In spite of all that, Milorad Dodik and the SNSD lost 10,000 votes just in Banja Luka. The problem is that there’s no prospect of responding to this desire for change.

CdB : A candidate from the opposition was just elected mayor at the November 15 municipal elections…

S.B. : Yes, but don’t think that SNSD lost ! Milorad Dodik’s party still dominates the city council. The only candidate of his who was defeated was the mayoral one.

CdB : Milorad Dodik and his SNSD really do seem to have a tight grip on Republika Srpska. How do you get out of that situation ?

S.B. : There are two solutions in theory. Either a new political party emerges that is able to embody this desire for change – one that gets actual support from the EU while still maintaining the people’s trust, or the Dodik regime makes a mistake the way Milo Đukanović in Montenegro did when he tried to impose his religious law. That is how the most entrenched regimes sometimes fall : by making a mistake, by thinking they’re stronger than they are. If change is supposed to come from the ballot box, there are still some conditions that absolutely must be met : changing the election laws and freeing the public broadcaster, RTRS, from political oversight. Without that, it is fanciful to expect even minor change. And, of course, the EU and United States would have to send a clear and firm message.

CdB : Why does the EU continue tolerating the Dodik regime ?

S.B. : Listen, Dodik came to power in 2006 because people voted for him ! He was excellent in the opposition, but then he was just allowed to build a system of power that was absolute, corrupt, and clientelist. No one has any illusions about what his regime is, but yes, everyone tolerates it. The United States even blacklisted Dodik and Nikola Špirić, but that didn’t have much in the way of consequences. The international strategy regarding Dodik is wrong. The European Union didn’t want to confront him out of fear that he would get closer to Moscow, but then Dodik got closer to Russia anyway and the Europeans are helpless. That kind of wrongheaded strategy is reminiscent of the 1938 Munich Agreement against Hitler.