SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnians swept up the rubble Saturday after protesters set fire to the presidency and other government buildings in the country’s worst social unrest since its devastating war. But the next steps in attempts to clean up are far from clear.
A few hundred people continued to protest peacefully in the capital, Sarajevo, and other cities, angry about the nation’s almost 40 percent unemployment rate and rampant corruption.
Local governments in four cities, including Sarajevo, resigned amid the unrest, one mayor fled the country and politicians appeared on TV acknowledging mistakes and promising to change before general elections in October. But ordinary Bosnians have many reasons to be skeptical.
The privatization that followed the 1992-95 war decimated the middle class and sent the working class into poverty as a few tycoons flourished. Corruption is widespread and high taxes for the country’s bloated public sector eat away at residents’ paychecks. Bickering among politicians along ethnic lines means very little functions smoothly and has hampered the country’s ambitions of one day joining the European Union.
“This was a long accumulated dissatisfaction,” acknowledged Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdzija. “The kids who did this were born in a post-war society and watched their parents being ripped off by tycoons in criminal privatization. They grew up with no hope for a bright future, watching poverty and injustice.”
He called prosecutors to “wipe off the dust” on corruption investigations and trials. Other leaders blamed each other, the war or the badly designed constitution.
The violence started early this week in the northern city of Tuzla, a former industrial center, where thousands of factory workers vented their fury over the dubious privatization that left them without jobs and earned salaries. Images of police beating and arresting members of the crowd prompted protests in over 20 cities.
Some 200 policemen and 100 protesters were injured in Friday’s clashes as protesters smashed government buildings, cars and streetlights. Almost 100 people were detained, many of them teenagers. Protesters also set upon local government buildings in Zenica, Mostar and Travnik.
On Saturday, people showed up in Tuzla with brooms and cleaned up debris. Many other people stayed home.
“I think this was done by hooligans, not real demonstrators,” said Ivica Murgic, a retired Sarajevan. “I can’t understand why the buildings had to be burnt.”
Reforms have been held back by Bosnia’s complicated political system. The war that killed over 100,000 people ended with no winner, but with a peace agreement that divided the country ethnically into a Bosniak-Croat federation and a Serb republic.
Each has its own government and parliament and they are linked by a central government, parliament and presidency. The Bosniak-Croat Federation is further divided in 10 cantons — each with a similar set of institutions.
This means that nearly 4 million people are governed by over a hundred ministries on four different levels of government — an expensive and ineffective system that Bosnia’s Serbs have defended over fears that centralization would decrease their autonomy.
Friday’s protests occurred almost exclusively in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, where salaries and pensions are higher.
German diplomat Christian Schwarz Schilling said people in the Federation enjoy more freedom, while the Bosnian Serb part is under the thumb of its president.
“There is neither freedom of media there, nor the freedom to express your opinion without fearing you might fall out of the window afterward,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Saturday.