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Lessons from Bosnia — Part 4
Citizen Activism vs Lobby
In the previous article, I showed that democracy is NOT a bad idea. Sure, it might be harder to put into practice than dictatorship, where you have one guy giving out orders, and anyone who disagrees is simply removed. It doesn’t take a genius to make that happen. And you do not have to be all that smart to see the limits and dangers of that system. At the same time, we humans didn’t survive this long on this planet because we’re pretty or strong, we survived because we used our heads. Hence, it would be reasonable to assume that when we’re not using our heads, things will go badly for us. In short, the ‘smarter path’, even if it is harder, is a wiser choice.
Democracy is basically the ‘citizen voice’. If we assume (like we often do) that voting is the voice of the citizens, we’ve lowered democracy to hearing the most important voice only every few years. And, as we’ve seen in the previous article, voting depends on the system; i.e. what choices are available. In fact, the previous article shows that voting might not even mean support, a vote could be cast for A just so that B doesn’t win. Hence, representative democracy is no proof of the true voice of the citizens.
However, in a democracy, citizens are free (or at least should be) to express their opinions any time they want. The most common ways are protests and petitions. In Bosnia, we’ve also had many meetings, even debates, with various officials. However, in the age of social media, the voice of citizens has never been more alive.
I have no idea how many petitions I’ve signed in Bosnia or for Bosnia, I honestly doubt any of them had much of an effect. However, I have used some as evidence that people support an idea or cause of action. So I do always say “Sign all the petitions you agree with because it doesn’t cost you a thing, and you never know when someone will use that to fight for a real change.”
Protests are a different story. For one, they ask for more from ordinary citizens. Being present in person is considerably louder than a signature on a petition, but it requires far more time, especially if the protest goes on and on, as some do. Some protests last for months. Secondly, protests could change. Organisers need to know about protests and why this is a big no, but as I will show, in Bosnia there are so many problems, that sometimes it is impossible to resist adding another issue.
Why protests are ‘louder’ than petitions is partly because of the media. When we think about it, the voice of citizens should be the voice of citizens whether they cast it as a signature or being present in person. In fact, because petitions are written and then signed, they cannot change. Every signature is in support of what is already written. Hence, for our leaders, petitions should be worth a lot more. However, petitions hardly ever feature in the media. It’s got to the point where many are asking if the media is part of the government rather than part of the ‘citizens’. And yet again, we must ask: Are we in a situation of government against the citizens? Media is probably the easiest way to examine this, and in Bosnia we have journalists who are popular among the people, but not popular among the government officials. But, then again: Who are the citizens? Are journalists citizens? What about members of the armed forces?
There have been many protests in Bosnia. Majority of them are considered too small to mention. However, we’re a small country. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, has (according to Google) 275,000 people. If 1% show up to a protest, that’s 2,750 people. In a city of about 10,000,000, 2,750 is only 0.0275% of the population. In other words, in a city of 10,000,000, 1% of the population is 100,000 people. Hence, a protest of 2,750 people in Sarajevo is equal to a protest of 89,800 people in places like London. Yet, when it comes to reports, protests are judged on the number of people who attended. It is interesting to note that when it comes to our government officials no one is asking how many votes they have, they only ask if ‘they have won’. In Bosnia, there aren’t that many votes to go around, yet our officials are treated with great respect no matter how many votes they got, our protests will not be treated with respect unless we have an impossible number of people present.
One of the biggest protests that took place in Bosnia was for JMBG — Jedinstven Maticni Broj Gradjana = Unique Identification Number of Citizens. Our government wanted to use this to divide citizens even further (I believe I mentioned that our government is desperate to keep the citizens of Bosnia divided so that they can stay in power), and people were not having it. Frustrated that they have to fight the government in a country of social issues to leave well enough alone, organisers of the protest increased their demands and this resulted in the masses abandoning the protest. People who left the protest didn’t do it because they didn’t support the additional demands, it was because they didn’t believe that the demands will ever be met, so they considered their presence a waste of time.
However, that protest was almost insignificant compared to the biggest protests that took place in Feb 2014. This is where I got heavily involved. As I explained earlier, I didn’t mean to, but that’s how things turned out.
The first issue I’d like to address is the violence. People who came to the protest in 2014 did not intend to be violent, nor did they become violent. It happened out of frustration and anger. But the benefits of violence were only too clear very early on. For the first time, people were being heard. Maybe even respected. After this revelation, they wanted to be violent. Who wouldn’t?
I remember speaking to a police officer who was badly injured during the protests and he brought up a number of important issues. He said:
1. I’m a citizen too, and I am on the side of the people, but my job is to obey the law, and arrest anyone who doesn’t. I support every demand, but what will we get if we just kill each other?
2. If we were to throw out the officials from their office by force, who will replace them? The one who elbows the best? Is that our future?
3. I forgive, because I understand. I am suffering too, and so is my family. We need more understanding between us.
4. I can’t raise my voice the way everyone else can or I will lose my job, maybe even end up in prison. Do you know what happens to police officers who end up in prison?
I felt sorry for him. But it was a lesson I’ll never forget. Police are there to protect. I’ve never met a person who regrets that we have a police force, even when they claim that the police are against the citizens and they only protect the government. This is not a problem if the government and the citizens are on the same page, but yet again, we have this clash between a government and the people.
On the one hand, the government is seen as the ‘head’ of society, so naturally to protect the society means to protect the head. But what happens when the ‘head’ needs examining? When the ‘head’ is psychotic in their greed? When the ‘head’ doesn’t know it is part of a body, and without the body it will not survive?
What happens when the people do not see their government as a ‘head’?
In Bosnia, as I explained earlier, we have three tribes. No one sees the government of Bosnia as a ‘head’. And now that people no longer live in a dictatorship, they do not feel that the government should have the right to tell them what to do, like a ‘head’ would. So, the government becomes the arms. Maybe the legs too. Only then we can talk about our government in terms of how useful or useless they are.
Considering the level of dissatisfaction among the citizens of Bosnia, proven during the Feb 2014 protests, we can say that the government is a bunch of arms, too many arms, taking energy, to do harm. So how is the country surviving?
I’d call it ‘citizen activism’; one very common yet hardly ever mentioned form of citizen activism.
We’ve all heard about ‘the word-of-mouth’, and the power it has in terms of marketing. You know, if you want to sell a product, get people to recommend it to their friends and family. In Bosnia, this is how the society leads itself. Our government has created so many obstacles and hardships, injustices and suffering, yet people are keeping the peace. Many foreigners who learn about the situation in Bosnia wonder how peace is being kept here. And the simple answer is that people choose it.
There are groups who threaten the peace, there are even politicians who talk about how they will start a war if their demands are not met, and perhaps, someday, one of these groups, led by one of these politicians will think they have the power to win, and they will start a war. So far, that has not happened because the people of Bosnia choose peace no matter what kind of hardships the government sector is causing them.
I thought that officials in Europe would appreciate this. In terms of ‘the value of democracy,’ it does not get better than this: war cannot start because people choose peace. That’s as great as it gets. Right? Unfortunately, officials in Europe seem more inclined to push the people of Bosnia harder, otherwise, why would they send someone like Christian Schmidt to head the OHR?
Christian Schmidt did the unthinkable in any democracy. One minute after the ballots closed, he changed the way the votes would be counted so that one political party would win. A few months later, he suspended our constitution for 24 hours so that members of that political party would be in power. The same political party that openly supports a convicted war criminal and claims he should have another chance, while he himself has said that murdering innocent people was worth it and he would do it again. The political party in question is one of the tribes and the one with the least number of voters. It is also worth noting that between the three tribes that Dayton has used to set up our system, one of the tribes has many political parties to choose from, and the other two (particularly the one that Mr Schmidt pushed into power) have very few options. When people have fewer choices, it is less likely that the government will represent the true voice of the citizens. Naturally, more choices means more competition, so we can expect a government that is closer to what the citizens are about. However, this isn’t so clear in Bosnia because two out of the three tribes do not have so many choices, and then a European came and supported the one that had the least competition and the least number of votes.
A number of European officials commented that they expected the people of Bosnia to rise up and create a revolution after what Mr Schmidt did. It means that they have no idea what’s really going on in Bosnia. So, where do they get their information? The lobby groups.
I will talk about ‘the power of foreigners’ in a future article. It’s not even just the OHR. The ambassador of the US, for example, has given himself far too many liberties. For now, we will look at the voice of the citizens, and some secret groups who talk about Bosnia in some secret meetings. We assume they promote themselves as the voice of the citizens, but maybe it’s all about the bribes; i.e. various officials who abuse their power (break the law) and should be arrested by the police, NOT protected by them. But citizen awareness is the next topic. We will need to look into how the ‘keeping secrets for national security’ is really being used. We will be asking: What kind of punishment should an official who accepts a bribe face? Is jail time enough? Or maybe they should be stateless and not locked up at all?
So we have the completely transparent voice of citizens on one side and completely secret meetings on the other. One would assume that in a democracy, the transparent, open, blunt voice of the citizens would be more respected. I know when I went to these meetings, and I spoke only about the things that citizens told me about, my assumption was that they would check if what I said was true and then take it as the will of the citizens of Bosnia.
In fact, I assumed that I was invited only because I knew the voice of the citizens. Well, I am now at the stage where I think all those meetings were a complete waste of my time. And the main reason why I feel like that is because of Mr Schmidt. If Europe could send someone like him to head the OHR, they did not hear a word we said to them over the years. Not a word!
So who are the people that they did hear? We don’t really know. They’ve never had a protest. So someone who has never organised a protest has received everything they wanted, at the expense of the people who were in a protest, ready to burn the institutions down. Hence, Europe has sent a very clear message to the citizens of Bosnia: you are worthless.
Now, the word on the street, so this is unconfirmed information, but in Bosnia, this proves to be true very often, and in this case it makes sense, that it is a combination of bribes (paying money to officials to make whatever decision you tell them to make), booze parties (getting friendly with those in power), and locals who work for the international institutions. In case you are wondering if the international institutions employ only the best in the country, the answer is a big, fat NO! They employ the people that locals already working there tell them to employ, the locals who are already connected to Bosnian political parties.
In other words, when we look at the voice of the citizens, we are far from equal. Media coverage will give ordinary citizens a greater voice. It’s almost like a validation. Then we have people in various positions: 1. Police officers, 2. Employees of various institutions, 3. Friends and family of those in power, and 4. The rich who can afford any decision they want.
For the true voice of the citizens to be heard, all four of these MUST be equal. A government should not pay more attention to an article than to a protest or a petition. And to hear the voice of someone they consider a friend more than the voice of reason and masses, is childish. In Bosnia, unless you’re in one of these groups, you might as well not have a voice. What kind of effect has this had on citizen action? Very negative.
And even if you are in one of these groups, your voice might still mean nothing if the lobby groups are against you. Lobbying has become a business that has no place in a democracy. Yet lobbying in Bosnia, and against Bosnia, gets funds from the Bosnian budget. Again, because Dayton gave power to the enemies of Bosnia.
Democracy, in its simplest form, as a voice of the citizens, is a juggling act like no other. Consolidating all the different voices into one decision that at least the majority will be happy with and no minority will suffer, is an act of great wisdom. This cannot happen when there are too many governments with all sorts of intentions, especially a desire to stay in power. It cannot happen if the citizens have a voice only every few years, and even then their choices are limited by a system. Hence, there is a need for constant citizen action as a corrective mechanism that those in power should appreciate and not brush aside as a nuisance. This cannot happen if some people are respected more than others, and decision-makers do not use common sense. There are so many things that can be decided just by using common sense. And it cannot happen if the leaders want to be the ‘head’ of a society. If the ‘decision-makers’ heard the people of Bosnia, many of the problems we have today would not exist. Instead, they’ve chosen to not hear the people, and they keep creating problems instead of solving them.
In short, citizen action in Bosnia has deteriorated greatly over the years, especially recently. What does this say about our democracy? Well, it means we don’t have any. We knew this all along, however, we thought that Europeans and Americans, being so pro-democracy, would never send a dictator, let alone support him.
And, to be honest, this silence reminds me too much of ‘calm before a storm’. I was far more comfortable when people came out, shouting, screaming, and sometimes even fighting. That was a normal response to what they were going through day in, day out. This is NOT normal.
The big question is: Can citizen activism save Bosnia now? My hope is that it can. Not through protest or petitions, clearly those are a waste of time, but through ‘word of mouth’. It’s lucky that in a democracy, the ‘head’ of a country is its citizens because I have more faith in the citizens of Bosnia than in all the international and local leaders combined.
In summary, these are the lessons from Bosnia about citizen activism:
1. Lobby groups should be prohibited. Governments can get information from activists, and they are well known because everything about them is transparent, but even so, all the information should still be checked.
2. Citizen activism is a vital part of democracy. It is there as a corrective factor. Leaders who do not respect this should not lead a democratic state.
3. Just like with voting, ALL citizens must have an equal voice in citizen activism. There should be no privileges for buddies, or journalists, or money — money must be taken out of the equation.
4. Freedom of media, and the role of the media, are vital. However, no article should be a decision, only information, and NOT the only source of information. This goes for everyone; the leaders as well as the voters. And, having the freedom of media, and exercising the freedom of media are two very different things.
5. Social media platforms are so important for the ‘voice of citizens’, every country should have their own version of the ‘Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner’ online.
6. Protests should not be judged only by the number of people who attended. Leaders should have enough wisdom to decide which protests are worthwhile and which are not, because there could be a whole bunch of reasons why people did not turn up, including promotion and how many people knew it was happening. Besides, how many people do you expect to turn up for ‘child protection’, or ‘disability’, or ‘genocide survivors’, or an issue like that where people are physically unable to attend?
7. People need to know that their voice is heard. If people know they’ll be heard through peaceful action, they will always choose peaceful action.
8. Dialogue among people is vital. The change or the effect may not be measurable, but it is there. We depend on each other more than we care to admit. And our collective choices shape our society. We shouldn’t waste the freedom we have in a democracy because we feel tired or fed up. We all count. And we all need understanding. We are all citizens, even our leaders.
9. If you do not want to get involved with politics, then you must accept that politics will do to you whatever it wants. It’s as simple as that. You have only yourself to blame.
10. People are the superpower. It’s like that saying ‘Oceans are made of drops’. But social change is a process and a balancing act. There is always something creating problems and something that’s solving them. Silence can be a cause of problems. AND! Do not expect a change overnight. Do not think that you don’t matter. You never know. Each person matters. You matter.
PS This article is very, very brief. In the talk, and for those of you who’ve been following from the beginning you know that these articles are written to become talks in London as soon as we find a space, we will talk more about citizen action, more about the protests, petitions, as well as the fact that the genocide in Srebrenica would have been swept under the carpet if it were not for citizen action. We will also talk about places like Stolac, where a lack of citizen activism has caused bigger problems. In short, all articles will be much richer in a talk, but this one in particular.