I had the opportunity to speak with Emir Hodžić, a human rights activist who has been involved in the protests and plenums that have been taking place in B&H for the past month. The widespread citizen unrest and exasperation was fueled by over nearly 20 years of corruption and a dysfunctional political system that benefits the few and disenfranchises the majority of its citizens. For the first time, the active call for change is coming from the citizens themselves, who regard their political leaders as ineffective, full of false promises and empty words.
By: Medina Malagić
1.Where do you see hope in B&H today?
From this perspective I see hope in the citizens themselves. We have seen rejection of party politics based solely on ethnicity during the last year’s JMBG protests, and we are seeing socioeconomic protests this year with similar calls. People have suffered during the war, and for the past 20 years of “cold peace” people have watched things deteriorate.
It is clear that the political “elite” is using nationalism for their own personal gain, creating the artificial crisis that allows them and their cronies to plunder with impunity. Resolving the issue of the “non-constitutional” population, implementation of the judgments of the European Court for Human Rights, and a myriad of other pressing issues in this country will be achieved once the political elite is held accountable for their incompetence and involvement in criminal activities.
It would be wise for the international community, which is partly to blame for the political deadlock in BiH, to also listen to the people on the streets, and be more proactively involved, including appropriate sanctions for the corrupt politicians. For example, if there was political will in the EU (as EU delegates often accuse BiH politicians), to help bring change to Bosnia, they could easily speed things up by, for example, ordering investigations into the origins of capital and properties in the EU countries owned by BiH politicians and their cronies.
2.You have been involved in a multitude of activist causes in B&H. How have those experiences served to motivate you to continue the struggle?
There are many people and institutions that have been active for years. Every one of those people are motivated by the current hardship suffered by the majority of people in the country. We have all been wronged in this country, and most of the people are realizing that only through solidarity and cooperation we can achieve positive changes. Stories of people that experienced, and are still experiencing, far greater injustice than I, continue to motivate me in my activities.
3.Who or what have been the main obstacles so far in the civic uprising in B&H? Who or what have you identified as opponents?
Opponents are obvious. We are talking about the political “elite” that is using the war, the traumas, and the post conflict distrust, for their own personal gain. The easiest way to sell off state property while taking a cut, misappropriating budget funds, employing their cronies and giving them pieces of the pie in return for their loyalty, is under a smokescreen of artificial crisis you were an agent in creating.
Some of the local media has revealed themselves as an obstacle in getting an accurate message to the general population over the recent events. Most of the public service broadcasters and corporate media are staffed with co-opted, or politically aligned, directors or employees.
As a result, many citizens are still reluctant about publicly joining in the protests. While many citizens support the protests, and are well aware of corruption and criminal elements in the government, there are those who are easily frightened by reports of hooliganism, terrorism, and other inaccurate portrayals of socially and economically disadvantaged demonstrators.
4.In your involvement in the plenums and protests, do you see these happenings as a real threat and challenge to the power structures? What have you learned about ‘how the system works’, and what is currently being done behind the scenes to dismantle the incipient B&H social uprising?
I don’t speak for the plenums, and as a citizen and a demonstrator I have partly already answered this question. People have been forced to self organize due to the vast mistrust in most political parties and the ethnocracy they live in. Plenums are one way to articulate the concerns and demands of the people trying to stand up to corruption and nepotism in our political system. They give a voice to the people that feel abandoned or deceived by their government. That voice is an obvious threat to the current political elite, as their demands are calling for the dismantling of a corrupt and criminal system. This is why there have been many attempts to discredit the work of plenums, that is, demonstrators trying to self organize. The police has also tried to intimidate demonstrators, send false reports, and even plant false evidence and/or charges, as we have seen with the infamous “12kg of speed” report.
5.Do the protestors see themselves as active agents of change?
Protestors are active agents in change. Just look at how the political discourse has changed since all this started happening. Politicians are bending over backwards to prove themselves as champions of the fight for social justice and against corruption. This is all due to the people becoming agents of change. Words will not be enough this time. Politicians must prove with their deeds that they got the message.
6.Do you think that the plenums are the key to raising and developing the level of citizen engagement and forging communal bonds in B&H, rooted solely in common socio-economic concerns?
Plenums were born precisely because people felt the need to get actively involved in finding a common solution for their problems. People feel deceived by politicians who represent them mainly because they come from one of the “constitutional” ethnic groups, and claim to fight solely for the rights of that particular ethnic group, while at the same time they get enormously rich alongside their political counterparts.
Plenums are the voices of the street. The impoverished, the disenfranchised, the workers who haven’t been paid for years, pensioners who dig in the trash for food, the marginalized youth, and those voices have been loud and clear.
7.After 20 years of civic stagnation in B&H and ethno-nationalist based political platform that serves to reinforce the status quo and social and economic inequality, fear, how do you deal with the fear and pessimism among citizens?
Fear has been a weapon of the political self-appointed “elite”. And even today we are seeing political elite using fear in order to divide the public into “us” and “them.” For 20 years the political elite has ruled using the same tools, and many civic attempts at changing the way politicians behave have fallen on deaf ears. War trauma, followed by the deterioration of almost every aspect of society, including the economy, has left many pessimistic in the idea that anything could be changed. However, most of the people demonstrating today are either in poverty or on the brink of it and feel they have nothing to lose.
People demonstrating today feel they have already changed a lot. Everyone knows it is a long road ahead, but as protests have spread to many different cities, and citizens have organized themselves, they found that solidarity and cooperation in their common struggle is the only way to force change.
8.What has been the role of the B&H media in all of this? How has B&H media perceived the social uprising in B&H, i.e. the protests, plenums?
I have partly already answered that question above. There were some that reported impartially and accurately, however, there were many that did not. Those that did not, have their reasons for it. Almost no one reported stories of police siding with the demonstrators, as some police have, for example, in Tuzla. Earlier in February the police have brutally beaten some detainees, planted evidence, intimidated people on the street, and almost no one reported this in the media. Nor did they publish reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on these events. Selective reporting, or even false reporting, has been a big problem during the protests. Mediacentar has recently done an analysis on inaccurate reporting for those interested.