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Two Decades From War, Unrest Simmers Anew In Bosnia


This has been a season of protest and discontent in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Yesterday, thousands of protesters rallied in several towns demanding the resignation of a regional government. The issues include everything from unemployment to public corruption and government dysfunction. Twenty years ago, Bosnia was the scene of a sectarian civil war that claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.

In those days, the warring factions were orthodox Christians Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. The settlement of that conflict entailed the system of separation, federation and decentralization and many people say that the solution of the 1990s is at the root of the problems today. Well, Matt Robinson is in Belgrade. He's a correspondent for Reuters. Welcome to the program.

MATT ROBINSON: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, anyone who remembers the days when the old Yugoslavia fell apart and Bosnia descended into war hears Bosnia and thinks religious or ethnic conflict, are these protests there now defined by a religious group?

ROBINSON: They're not. It's true to say, though, that the protests have been focused on mainly the Muslim Bosniak community in the federation, which is one-half of Bosnia.

SIEGEL: How violent have these protests been?

ROBINSON: Well, they got very violent last week. On Wednesday, it started in Tuzla. People were lobbing stones, fighting with police and then, on Friday, it really took a nasty turn and you had government buildings in Tuzla and Sarajevo and a couple of other cities set on fire by protesters, pitched battles with police in Sarajevo. I arrived on Friday evening and buildings were still burning.

I mean, the city was full of smoke and tear gas. This is unprecedented in Bosnia since the war. The violence has subsided over the past few days. I think, in part, because people were shocked by what they saw and it reminded them of the war. But at the same time, you have a new generation coming through that was born during or even after the war and they're fed up.

SIEGEL: Is youth unemployment in Bosnia especially high?

ROBINSON: Yes. It's about 70 percent. People don't see - particularly young people don't see a future for themselves. They're looking to get out or in recent days, they're looking to vent their anger.

SIEGEL: That's youth unemployment. And unemployment more generally?

ROBINSON: Well, some figures go up to 45 percent.

SIEGEL: I gather that the people in Bosnia face a problem, the privatization of what were state-owned companies. It's controlled by people who are politically well wired.

ROBINSON: Yes. I mean, the privatization process in Bosnia has amounted to smash and grab, really. They haven't been able to attract any serious foreign investors because of the political makeup of the country, this labyrinthine system that was set down in 1995 in the peace deal. A lot of the factories get sold into local hands to people who are politically connected. They then close down these factories and sell off the parts to make a profit.

SIEGEL: Now, the way that the war in Bosnia was ultimately ended entailed dividing Bosnia-Herzegovina into two federated states, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic. And then, I gather within the Croat-Bosniak Federation, there is still more governments.

ROBINSON: In the federation, you have 10 districts. Each one has its own prime minister and a Cabinet of ministers. So in Bosnia, you essentially have 11 or 12 prime ministers. You then have about 120 ministers all receiving fairly generous salaries and creating a bureaucracy that is stifling the business climate, stifling investment and making it very difficult for your average Bosnian to get by.

SIEGEL: And so the calls actually are, in part, for smaller government or fewer governments or just different governments?

ROBINSON: At the moment, it's for a different system. No one really knows what it should look like. They need to streamline certainly the federation, the Bosniak-Croat Federation, reduce the bureaucracy of the red tape, the huge cost of this state system, this public sector. What you do at the state level between the federation and the Serb Republic on the other hand is a lot more contentious. The Bosniaks want a centralize system. The Serbs really would like to get out of Bosnia, and the Croats would like their own entity, they'd like a third entity in Bosnia.

SIEGEL: Matt Robinson of Reuters in Belgrade, thanks for talking with us.

ROBINSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.