New Series of Violent Veteran Protests in Sarajevo: Greed, Government Disrespect or Election Game?

Violent vet protests in Sarajevo (photo: EFJ)

Last Wednesday, war veterans from the Bosnian Army (ARBiH) and Croatian Defence Council (HVO) marched in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, protesting for more rights and a unified register of all demobilized fighters. After a deadline they gave to lawmakers in Bosnia's Federation entity expired on September 5 without any results, the protesters gathered in front of the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the other being the Republika Srpska). Each has its own government and the two are linked by weak central institutions. Accompanied by strong police forces with shields and helmets, the several hundred veterans blocked the main street in the city and began to cause a riot, clashing with security forces. The Bosnian media reported a few incidents and said that police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, some of whom were carrying batons. The Federal Ministry of Interior told that two veterans were detained and a number of people were hurt in the scuffle.

Bosniak and Bosnian Croat war veterans are demanding payment of 326 Bosnian marks (€170 or $195) per month in benefits for unemployed veterans, and say every former soldier should also get up to three marks (€1.5 or $1.8) for each month they served during the Bosnian War (1992–1995). In addition, they are seeking the establishment of a single, unified registry of veterans in the Federation, defining who were members of the Bosnian Army and the Croatian Defence Council, all for the purpose of weeding out many people who have falsely declared themselves to be veterans. Beside payments and purging all fake names, their third demand is that the government cut funding for about 1,600 veterans associations, which they say are not handing out benefits in an equitable fashion. They say they want the government to make payments directly to individual veterans. Earlier this year, the Parliament was due to adopt a law that would meet the veterans' demands, but has failed to adopt it so far.

A repeated scenario

The protest proved to be the seventh in the series this year and its always the same scenario. At the end of February, war veterans have blocked roads in various parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including in the towns of Tuzla, Zenica and Doboj, as well as the main road from Sarajevo to Konjic, provoking chaos and leaving thousands of people trapped in their vehicles in freezing temperatures. Police dismantled their barricades after two days. In mid-April, fewer than hundred veterans joined the disorganized protest in front of the Federation Parliament, asking MPs to respond to the same demands. A month later, a group of several hundred veterans gathered around the Parliament, where barricades were set up to prevent veterans' forceful entry into the building. Strong police presence was also present in and around, but everything was peaceful and there have been no violations of public order and peace. After a discussion by the House of Representatives Board on whether to include the veterans' demands into the session agenda, the Board voted in favor of it. This meant that the discussion about war veterans would begin with a presentation on the activities of the Veterans' Affairs Ministry aimed at improving the status of the veterans living in this entity, as well as their demands.

The situation escalated once again in early and late July when veterans blocked the main roads in Sarajevo, in a protest they staged right before the Parliament session at which the Law on the Rights of Veterans was supposed to be discussed and adopted. The House of Peoples (an upper house) scheduled a discussion of the Draft Law on the Rights of Veterans and Members of their Families which was adopted earlier at the House of Representatives (the lower house) along with a number amendments to the draft. The law was discussed under significant international political pressure since several weeks earlier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned a Bosnian region's authorities against new legislation, saying it could threaten long-term financial stability. In the meantime, thousands of vehicles are unable to move from the center of Sarajevo and there was great tension between both drivers and veterans. Several journalists were attacked by a group of violent protesters after refusing to stop taking photographs, and the photojournalist was taken to the hospital afterwards.

A proven method

The aforementioned series of protests is not surprising given that its an election year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. General elections are scheduled for October and voters will elect the national Presidency and House of Representatives, as well as the Presidents and legislatures of the two entities. Using the veterans as a political card is a calculated appeal to emotion because the vast majority of citizens are solidarized with them and there are few who can sharply oppose their views. After all, its also a proven method used in neighboring Croatia from 2014 to 2016. There, the veteran group initiated a public protest that lasted 555 days, camping in tents on the major city avenue, and even though their (official) demands were not met, the hidden goal was accomplished - Prime Minister Zoran Milanović has suffered an electoral defeat.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.