How normal are activists?

Throughout our travels through BiH, one of the things that kept crossing my mind was the question of how representative of Bosnian-Herzegovinians were all these meetings we had arranged. We met with all kinds of activists and NGOs and international organizations, but the question remains: do they really speak for the people, especially the youth?

I ask myself this question, because I recognize that the people we meet with are inherently those who stand out, those about whom we were able to find contacts even while we were still in Germany those most active in making their opinions noticed. Because I consider myself to be (somewhat of) an activist, not to mention my nearly decade-long attachment to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I still have to recognize that my own views are not necessarily the norm, and certainly aren’t so objective. Those locals we met with who are more engaged in political/civic movements, or are at least aware of the issues, might be more of a fringe element than I would like to hope.

In order to try to gain a hint of insight into this issue, I took it upon myself to talk to a few “normal people” along the way, trying to see how their own perspective on Exit vs. Voice plays out. In many ways the following three share similar visions (both good and bad) for life in BiH, but there are also differences to be found – BTW I’ve tried to make them more anonymous, just in case they don’t want to get in trouble for what I write here, especially if I misinterpreted them in my interview, not to mention the frighteningly-Orwellian aspects of the disturbing new law monitoring RS citizens’ input on social media. Just to be safe, I also decided not to post their photos I took of them, even though they all agreed I could post something on our blog about their comments:

  • D., 24, who moved to Sarajevo 5 years ago from Konjic, knows a few foreign languages, has a job at a hostel and is currently studying psychology…
  • M., 27, born and raised in Tuzla, speaks a few more languages than either of the other two (useful for work at a hotel), has worked abroad (even in Afghanistan of all places!) and is finishing up studies in journalism.
  • A., 29, born in Bosanski Petrovac and moved to Banja Luka in 2005 to study economy, and meanwhile uses knowledge of English working at a hostel.

Regarding Voice, of the three, only D. participated actively in recent protests, being there every day for JMBG demonstrations in 2013, though A. did take part in student protests when at the beginning of studies. As for the 2014 protests across FBiH, there was a difference of opinions, including about the violence and riots that happened in some cities. M. thinks that it wasn’t right for the buildings to be attacked and burned, because in the end it’s not the politicians that will pay for the damage, but rather the innocent citizens. On the other hand, A. feels it’s a less clear issue: while against the violence in general and not thinking it’s so effective what those “hooligans” did, A. emphasized that these buildings were built by their parents’ generation, and therefore belong to all citizens, so it remains within citizens’ rights to do with them what they want. Meanwhile, D. expressed skepticism about the violence, hinting at political parties’ (in)direct involvement in instigating the violence – in several of our official meetings during the week this issue all came up, with one person saying it was an “open secret” which everyone knew exactly which party paid for, supplied or encouraged the hooligans to burn buildings.

Concerning protesting in general, D. felt it was particularly important that prominent people, artists, musicians, etc. stand alongside the people, because their influence on the more passive members of society could play a role in making the protests even more effective. M. who only watched the protests on TV, would participate in them personally only under the “right conditions”. A. says that many people fail to participate for fear of losing their job (either taking time off from work, or pressure to not harm the image of their workplace), whereas activist-types are often either people who don’t have jobs (and therefore have time to do it), people whose job is to protest or the ones who must protest in order to fight for their own rights. Furthermore, frustration with the entrenchment of the status quo remains a significant issue brought up by all three interviewees – that many “normal” people fail to go out onto the streets simply because they feel hopeless for anything to actually change for the better – every time some unrest happened in the past, reforms were promised by the authorities, but little actually came of it, and in many cases the only visible change is that one politician is demoted (not fired!) and another takes their place – as someone at one of our meetings mentioned, there’s no citizen who can out-wait a politician.

When I asked about media influence in terms of demonstrations, D. and A. each said that they don’t trust traditional media at all, complaining of its quality, but above all, decrying its lack of independence. This, of course, is what could be expected, since many of our formal meetings mentioned the same things: that TV/radio stations function as propaganda mouthpieces for government institutions, that newspapers are controlled by the political party affiliations of their management, that all of them focus overwhelmingly on the same topics (e.g. Dayton or corruption of the opposition) and that idealistic journalists seeking to uncover truths are suppressed, reined in or fired. Surprisingly enough, the journalism student M. actually wasn’t as critical of BiH media, feeling that BiH media are more independent than most people give it credit for, and that not enough importance is actually given to the importance of media within the country for uncovering some truths.

As for the other side of the coin, Exit, none of the three was particularly optimistic. A. doesn’t plan to leave the country, but still easily understands why young people do, because it’s simpler and faster – as someone at one of our official meetings mentioned, it says a lot about how badly the situation in BiH is perceived, that going through all the bureaucratic and logistic hassles of moving elsewhere is perceived as the easier choice. D. would like to leave, but really only to experience more of what the outside world has to offer and earn enough money to return to BiH and make it a better place. On the other hand, M. sees no future at all for in BiH, wanting to leave as soon as possible (even to go back to Afghanistan!), but one of the primary reasons is not so much for economic reasons, as social ones, complaining about the difficulty of being properly insured and knowing that local healthcare infrastructure is inadequate.

So, do I have an answer to my question? As Germans would say: “Jein”. Among the three young people I interviewed, M. clearly represents Exit, while the more optimistic D. obviously leans towards Voice. A. seems to fall in between, though I hesitate to say A. is representative of Silence, because I get the feeling that it wouldn’t take much for A. to rise up eventually, because it’s clear which things are wrong and some solutions of how to fix them. Since I suspect that the majority of youth in BiH are closer to A. in their perspectives, I can only hope that, like it already has for D., the spark to drive the rest of BiH to raise their own voices will come soon. Otherwise, I fear all of the potential BiH might lose as youth follow M.’s footsteps across the Sava, Drina, Una or whatever borders are most convenient to escape the economic stagnation and political madness wrecking this wonderful country.


George Stiff


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