Building A Movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina
It’s been more than fifteen years since the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the country still struggles. The constitutional structure that was part of the agreement to end the war has brought serious problems to most aspects of society: the state is not properly functioning; the government jurisdictions are unclear; the chances for blocking the decision making processes are vast, and the potential for corruption and misuse of power is outstanding. Add to that the fact that we are frequently brought to the brink of war by ongoing ethnic tensions - and you’ll understand why most people here feel a mixture of apathy and disempowerment.
Why isn’t civil society helping? First, it’s not united. Second, civil society has no real connection to the citizens and the people don’t trust it. Third, the level of expertise of civil society stakeholders is not sufficient. Fourth, as a consequence of this all, civil society has no real leverage over other stakeholders, especially the decision makers. And finally, there are not many victories that civil society can celebrate.
Several civil society initiatives have tried over the years to work on improving the situation in order to create a real and sustainable impact using different tools and methods. However, not until about 10 years after the war did it manage to win a battle. Among several other initiatives, the civic movement “Dosta!” - meaning “Enough!” in our language - has risen up as a leader in grassroots organizing and civic activism in the country (disclosure: I'm the president!). It was the first group in BiH to organize protests, live massive actions, rallies, sit-ins, blockades and similar actions for different causes. Also, it was the first group that managed to get anyone dismissed from the government in BiH for being unaccountable and misusing the power.
How did we do it?
The Tools and Tactics
“Dosta!” is a pioneer in using new technologies for civic organizing and activism in both the country and the region, and is now a recognized and well-known stakeholder in BiH. “Dosta!” was formed in the end of 2005 as a result of a meeting of several online activists from a local internet forum that decided to, rather than continuing to comment on stuff online, go offline and do something different with their lives. Here's what worked:
Connecting support from prominent figures to our ongoing protests:
The first big event for the movement was the pre-election campaign for the elections in 2006. It culminated with a big concert with several thousand people some months before the elections, and with a blockade of the capital, Sarajevo, in a protest against police brutality. We organized that protest entirely with mobile phones and SMS due to the need for a quick response action. The big rise in public approval the movement accomplished with organizing a public campaign against the city and cantonal (regional) government of Sarajevo.
The protests went on for several months with several thousand people on the streets every week, with support from prominent people, media and general population. In the end, the government didn’t resign immediately, but just a month or so later, they totally lost the election, the major was removed from the office and the cantonal prime minister was forced by his party to resign from his position due to the total loss of the elections.
Finding a message that we knew would resonate with people:
BiH consists of two entities – Federation BiH and Republika Srpska. Both of them have a government and a parliament (as does the state level, 10 cantons in Federation BiH and District of Brčko, giving us 14 governments and 14 parliaments in a country of some 3.5 million). The Prime Minister of Federation BiH, mr. Nedžad Branković, since he went into office in 2006, was known mainly for his corruption and misuse of power - but no one was doing anything about it.
We had an idea of making him an example of somebody in our strive for accountability, since he was the best possible target for a campaign. The campaign was the first totally online campaign in BiH, which came as a total surprise to the government, since by 2009, when it took place, they were used to protests from “Dosta!” and prepared for it.
For a message, we chose one specific thing that we thought was most appealing to the people in BiH: the fact that, due to privileged position he had, he bought a 150 square meter (more than 1500 square feet) apartment for only 450 euro (650$). We chose this after trying several other approaches that we found all failed. We used different media to make this fact heavily visible. As a breaking point, there was graffiti written on the building where the apartment is, saying: “Give back the apartment, you thief!”
Mr. Branković responded heavily to this, which (he probably didn't expect this) gave a chance to us to create a backfire effect and start a big campaign. He started with police actions and interrogations of anyone that could have been connected with this, the police was guarding the building, there were patrols all over the city and the parliament even discussed the matter. This gave us an incentive – we started a campaign that was mostly online. First, we started a Facebook group (most Bosnians are on Facebook) saying “I wrote the graffiti!” in order to make fun of the big fuss over one writing on the wall and asked the people to support with their name and picture saying they were the ones.
We had over 7000 people join the group within 2 days. Then it turned into a really big campaign – people called and emailed the police saying they did it, people printed T-shirts with the message and wore them around, some prominent individuals wore the T-shirts on TV and in public and people even organized themselves and bought 10 billboard positions with the message. Even a bigger mistake was when the government ordered the dismantling of the billboards – all the media, even international, covered it and they were totally disgraced. In the end, the Prime Minister was forced to resign by his party.
Forming a coalition:
After the movement gained credibility and visibility, it was time for the other fragments of the civil society to get involved. One of the groups connected to the movement was one called “Why not." It's group that is committed to antimilitarism, civic participation, government accountability, socially engaged culture and, of course, use of new technology. Why not began working in synergy with “Dosta!” Together we have developed several online tools that changed perception of the political and social dynamics in BiH by both citizens and decision makers.
We focused mostly on the time when most people are interested in politics: elections. We aimed to change the pre-election rhetoric and way that people are thinking about it. We chose two points where we would like to make a difference and developed three tools for the elections:
1. Educating people on the elections and giving them as much information as possible so that they would understand the thinking and ideologies of the different parties
2. Making people aware that it's all about checks and balances and being accountable to the people that elected you.
So, our first tool was a web portal on the elections – – a portal that offered information on elections from a technical, practical and expert side, as well as information on all political parties, candidates and civil society involved in the election process or even the hour-to-hour news on anything related to elections.
Then we developed a quiz-type sort of a tool called Glasometar – that made it possible for the citizens to, by answering a set of around 50 questions, get an idea which party is closest to their thinking and how the parties perceive their ideologies.
Finally, the most important and interesting site was the one promoting accountability by fact-checking both the statements and the promises of the government. We produced a site that measured the statements of public officials for consistency, truthfulness and accomplishment of promises made by statements, as well as pre-election promises of governmental political parties made in their pre-election programs. Istinomjer. It was made based on a politifact truth-o-meter type of sites, and its biggest success was that it was published just five days prior to the pre-election campaign in BiH, so it was a total media sensation, and it framed the whole pre-election campaign to a big extent and even changed the campaign rhetoric.
The movement “Dosta!” and“Why not” are mostly working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we are also expanding in the region and trying to share our experiences and ideas with the people around. Also, several spin-off and friendly organizations have come out of the movement and its work, but also several new movements and groups, especially in other parts of the country, have started their work, so at the moment there is a potential for a real group of movements starting in BiH in the next period. On top of it all, several organizations have started significant monitoring, media and public projects that would improve also that part of the work.
There is a long way in front of the BiH civil society, but also to BiH as the country, but the perspective, at least from the civil society side, looks brighter every day.
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