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Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

Getting beyond déjà vu

The results of the recent elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina have had a familiar ring to many. Nearly twenty years on from the Dayton Agreement, the results of the October ballot reasserted the electoral strength of the main nationalist parties, the very same parties (and in some cases individuals) that emerged in 1995 to lead BiH through twenty years of political stagnation and declining living standards.

Bosnia elections 1

For scholars, activists and onlookers this provokes a question: how can we interpret the meaning of these repeated electoral endorsements for ethno-national politics? For years (and in particular immediately after the end of the violence in 1995) international intervening agencies in BiH have used elections as a barometer for the emergence of more moderate forms of politics. But this forlorn hope overlooks the structural complexity of 1995's Dayton Agreement that created the conditions for the continued rule of ethno-national parties through the establishment of ethnically-aligned territories within BiH and embedded these identity labels into the constitution of the state. As Peter Lippman outlined in response to the 2010 elections, these voting outcomes point to the paradox of Bosnian politics: that while there is no credible alternative to peaceful change through electoral politics, the structural arrangements created by the Dayton constitution have created long-term paralysis. This should not be a surprise, the Dayton agreement was designed as a peace accord to end the violence, not the blueprint on which to establish a state (even if this has transpired).

European assistance to Bosnia

The stagnation of the Dayton Bosnian state leads to inevitable consideration of the possible locations and levers for political change in BiH. This activity is in itself a mark of the elaborate and experimental nature of BiH politics, from the outside it has been used as a laboratory for post-Cold War protector status, as rules of laws, policing systems, financial instruments and military bodies have been improvised to perform a coherent and functioning state. Inevitably, then, one of the first 'sites' to consider is the international realm, since the Dayton Agreement has cast such a shadow over the operation and architecture of BiH politics it seems sensible to look at the possibilities of political reform through international agencies.

But the international realm is not what it was. The possibilities of conditionalities attached to closer European integration have lost any minimal powers of persuasion, and demands to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights and implement constitutional reform remain unmet. Consequently, the language surrounding further EU integration has turned to one of deadlock and stalemate, rather than charting creative constitutional possibilities for the Bosnian state. The language of European integration unites the political parties in BiH in the same way as the language of Dayton did in the 1990s: it is flexible enough to be interpreted in ways that strengthen parochial politics framed in the vagaries of democratisation and human rights.

Bosnian elections 2

In the face of such paralysis within both state and international political spheres, commentators have pointed to the possibility (and necessity) of change 'from below'. Consequently, for Florian Bieber it is not the elections that will bring about change but the four long years in between. From this standpoint it is civic action, pressure from protests and internal political party changes that will be the handmaiden to state transformation. Certainly the events of February 2014 point to the possibilities of street-based activism, where the emergence of locally-orientated 'plenums' sought to re-engage an electorate with the possibility of direct democracy. Such pre-figurative action has seen the emergence of deliberative democratic institutions connected to forms of social education and consensus building. Of course, such actions are not beyond the potential for rendering in ethno-national terms, for example Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik described the protests as evidence for the popular desire to break up the country.

One of our key tasks within the YouCitizen project is to illustrate the complex positioning of the many young people participating in such action and insert it into the wider canvas of citizenship practices in BiH (and, in turn, study similar processes in Lebanon and South Africa). These are not actors simply operating 'from below', but have rather forged multiple connections with different centres of political and power, both within and beyond the borders of BiH.

One of the initial findings is the interconnected nature of youth activism, where organisations are not isolated actors orientated in a separate sphere from the imagined 'international community' or domestic political agencies but instead exist in a web of connections (a point vividly illustrated in the networks of civil society traced by this project). Studying these networks in isolation could tell a story of the co-option of youth organisations through the agendas of influential donor agencies or the prominent role of 'gatekeeper' NGOs. But the evidence from the interviews conducted in the field, and the example of the protests surrounding the JMBG protests in 2013, point to a different role of these links and relationships. Instead, we see a cohort of young people who have learnt a series of political skills (in rallying, pressurising and organising) through internationally-sponsored initiatives, though these are now providing the techniques to demand more from the BiH government.

These creative mobilisations, so evident in the response to the floods and the education initiatives that co-existed with the raw outrage of the 2014 protests, illustrate the possibilities for youth in a stagnating electoral democracy. Not so much 'from below' as below, alongside and above the normal operation of politics. It is perhaps in these individuals and groups that we must look to break the déjà vu of Bosnian electoral politics.

Alex Jeffrey - Cambridge, UK

17 December 2014

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