Politicians in Bosnia have been trying to stir up bad memories of the 1990s conflict in a bid to undermine and discredit the nationwide protests against economic hardship and corruption.
“Armed paramilitaries will lead protests into Republika Srpska”, “Tanks seen on border”, “Protests aimed at hiding truth about Bosniak war crimes”: these are just a few of the sensational headlines seen in Bosnian media over the past few weeks.
Since the protests began on February 6, some politicians and NGO representatives have been making provocative allegations about the arming of protesters and raising fears of a return to war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The protests started in the town of Tuzla when people took the streets to show their discontent about corrupt privatisations of formerly state-owned companies. Over the days that followed, they grew bigger and turned into a more widespread expression of public anger about economic hardship, culminating in the burning of several local government buildings in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and Zenica.
But Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska, has alleged that the protests were actually intended to destabilise his territory – a view echoed by Bosnian Serb Veterans’ Union official Pantelija Curguz.
“Whoever planned this is not happy because the protests have not been massive in Republika Srpska. Now they are planning to include some extreme organisations – paramilitary formations like the Sunni Legion and the Green Berets, who we know from the war,” Curguz told a press conference in Banja Luka.
Leading Bosnian Croat politician Dragan Covic also made similar claims, calling the protests “an attempt to focus attention away from war crimes committed by Bosniak forces” during the 1992-95 war, because their start coincided with news that Serbia was investigating former Bosnian Army commander Naser Oric.
However all these allegations, and others like them, have proved to be completely unfounded.
One of the participants in the protests in Sarajevo, Hana Obradovic, said that such statements were attempts to control the media agenda by using nationalist rhetoric ahead of elections in the country later this year.
“We have been seeing classic media spin,” Obradovic told BIRN.
She said that it was to be expected that politicians would try and twist the narrative of a popular uprising into a story about violent hooligans threatening fragile ethnic peace in Bosnia’s much-divided society.
“Bosnia is a fertile ground for wartime propaganda, which is connected to the early 1990s conflict. We have ‘seen’ fake ‘tanks’ on the border, we have heard about the [false rumours about the] Green Berets,” she explained.
“This is all media spinning the story, and they are instructed to do so by certain [political] centres which will reveal their true goals in October, when the elections come,” she said.
Security expert Vahid Karavelic, a former Bosnian Army general, also insisted that there was nothing in the protests which could in any way suggest that a renewed outbreak of conflict was imminent in Bosnia.
“There is no fear of a new war,” Karavelic told BIRN.
“What is happening is politicians blowing everything out of proportion and this means the pre-election campaign has started. Politicians should stabilise and calm down the difficult situation which has created the protests, but over the past 20 years we have seen that politicians here do not have the honour required to do this,” he said.
At the last general elections, the predominant narrative from Republika Srpska politicians was about the need to hold a referendum aimed at seceding from Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Bosniak leaders spoke of the need to abolish the Serb-led entity and form a centralised government.
Over the past few months, as election year approached, the media was again filled with stories about unpunished war crimes and threats of constitutional changes which would be harmful to one or another ethnic group.
The situation as regards media ownership in the country – with leading media outlets either directly owned or heavily financed by political parties – enables these stories to be blown out of proportion in order to disguise pressing economic problems, such as the official unemployment rate which is currently almost 30 per cent.
Bosnian sociologist Esad Bajtal believes that politicians in the country have also been using scare stories about the possibility of armed conflict in an attempt to frighten people away from protesting, in a bid to maintain the status quo.
“The media is being used as a transmitter. They are using the war story to calm people down, so they are submissive and easier to rule. But that won’t happen now,” Bajtal predicted.
But with the protests continuing and elections approaching in the autumn, it seems likely that the flow of unsubstantiated rumours in the media will continue too.
By Denis Dzidic
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