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By Itar-Tass correspondents Denis Dubrovin, Maria Fedorova
BRUSSELS/BELGRADE, February 12. /ITAR-TASS/. Violent protests raging in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the start of February coincided with a new surge of demonstrations in Ukraine. The two countries, their protest stories and the underlying motives have little in common, save for what is on the surface: bitter clashes with the police, captured buildings, burning cars and hundreds of casualties. The first week of protests in the BiH affected more than 300 people - both protesters and police. The authorities of Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica resigned following the clashes.
And even these similarities and coincidences end where the European Union’s reaction to the events in the two countries begins. As for Ukraine, the EU immediately placed entire responsibility for the clashes and casualties on the police, demanding an investigation and punishment of those guilty, as well as freedom of speech for the protesters.
Meanwhile, in the BiH the head of the EU mission in Sarajevo Peter Sorensen called upon the protesters to observe order, saying they were free to express their discontent and views in a non-violent way only. Even more dissonant was Sorensen’s appreciation of the police and anti-terror services’ efforts under extremely difficult circumstances, as they dispersed the crowds with water cannon, rubber bullets and stun grenades.
Itar-Tass turned to Russia’s Permanent Representative at the EU Vladimir Chizhov for comment on this double-standard approach.
“The state of affairs in the BiH was discussed at the latest meeting of the EU foreign ministers on February 10. Yet this resulted in no practical conclusions, nor did it offer any assessment of the police’s methods, usually labeled disproportional when employed elsewhere. I would not judge how proportional were the Bosnian police’s actions, it should be within the EU’s competence, since the Bosnian police is closely supervised by the EU and NATO, so they bear the ultimate responsibility,” Chizhov said.
It is the BiH’s European integration that is of interest in the context of heated discussions over Ukraine’s integration. The BiH is a recognized candidate for joining the EU. Furthermore, it was the promise of eventual admission addressed to the BiH, as well as the other Balkan states that underlay the EU plans for a peace settlement in the region following the civil wars of the 1990s.
In 2008 the BiH signed a stabilization and association agreement with the EU that liberalized trade with the Union. In other words it was a package of special trade measures similar to what the EU is now dictating to Ukraine. One fundamental difference is the plan for the BiH envisaged ultimate admission to the EU, whereas the arrangements offered to Ukraine do not stipulate such a possibility.
So what can we see after five years of free trade and close cooperation between the BiH and the EU? According to Eurostat, the BiH is Europe’s poorest country, with the income per capita just about a quarter of the EU average. The BiH foreign trade balance is firmly in the red. In other words, imports from the neighbouring Balkan countries and the EU countries exceed its exports. Lastly, unemployment in the country stands at above 40 percent.
In other words, despite its quick integration with the EU the BiH is far from due economic prosperity it was supposed to show, contrary to the fine promises from the officials in Brussels. According to the political leader of the current protests, head of the Bosnian Udar union Aldin Siranovic, the results of European integration and free trade with the EU for the BiH tend to prove the grimmest predictions (which Ukraine also heard over the past few months), such as the imminent collapse of local industries that would be unable to survive the inflow of European goods.
“For years we have been witnesses to gradual destruction of industrial giants that once employed 5,000 - 10,000 workers. Dismissed people gather in front of the Tuzla Canton’s government building hoping someone would turn an attentive earn to their demands, asking for such essentials as bread. They are just being looked at from the windows, they being are laughed at, they are expected to grow tired and just leave for good by themselves,” says Siranovic. He recalls the many months he spent watching this outrage, seeing his own wife’s desperate efforts to find a job, and his heart “was aching at the sight of the authorities’ disregard of their own people.” At one point Siranovic decided to found a group called Udar (Blow or Punch) in the social networks to urge people to join the workers in their peaceful protests.
The clashes have affected a total of 348 people - 187 police and 161 protesters. Most casualties were recorded in the capital Sarajevo, 144 police and 138 demonstrators.
Naturally, amid these protests, the largest since the early 90s, many local and European politicians have been warning of the threat of nationalism and the risk of breaking the frail peace in the Balkan region. The threat is undoubtedly there. It is always there where people take to streets and the leaders of protests lose control of the crowds.
However, the protests in the BiH stem directly from the deteriorating economic situation. Neither European support for the reform process, nor the liberalization of trade with the EU will help. Chizhov agrees: “The Western media are not quite fair in their attempts to present the protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina as a result of the country’s failure to properly understand its past. The current tumult has no nationalist undertones. It is a purely economic protest with political demands. We, Russian-speaking people, can understand much of the slogans being shown on the TV, even though they are written in Latin letters. The issues that the protesters are urging their leaders as well as the EU to set their eyes on is very easy to guess.