More than a fight for a park: How urban spaces in Bosnia-Herzegovina become arenas for contestation of ethno-nationalist politics
6th Mar 2020 by Anne Kirstine Rønn
The loss of urban spaces has sparked several social movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans over the past years, from the famous 2013 Gezi park protests in Istanbul to the less known 2005 Peti Park demonstrations in Belgrade, and the fight over Varsavska Ulica street in Zagreb. In all of these cases, the conversion common spaces into private, often commercial projects, sparked popular contestation, which evolved around issues beyond the right to the city (Bieber, 2013, p. 37; Brentin & Bieber, 2018, p. 3; Fagan & Sircar, 2015, p. 160). Movements defending common urban spaces in Eastern Europe and the Balkans have been interpreted as reactions to the failure of representative parliamentary democracy (Milan & Oikonomakis, 2018, p. 116), and to widespread corruption, gentrification and neoliberal hegemony (Štiks, 2015, p. 139).
In Bosnia as well, the loss of common urban spaces has sparked social movements, which have focused on wider political and economic issues, particularly corruption. Corruption is widespread in today’s Bosnia, from federal to local level government and it is widely seen to be facilitated by the extra-legal and de-centralized governance structures, which emerged in the post-war period (Belloni, 2020; Divjak & Pugh, 2008, p. 73; McMahon & Western, 2009). Corruption is particularly endemic in the context of urban planning, where the granting of building permits is usually done on a clientelistic and discriminatory basis (Divjak & Pugh, 2008, p. 375). Moreover, the lack of strong government and urban planning systems has provided rich opportunities for developers to engage in non-compliance with official development (Pobric & Robinson, 2019, p. 285). These developers often expropriate cultural heritage sites and public green spaces, which are of value to cities’ residents. Meanwhile, the state and city institutions often refrain from intervening due to the influence of personal connections (Pobric & Robinson, 2019, pp. 285-286).
Despite widespread power abuse and corruption, Bosnia-Herzegovina does not have a historical tradition of collective action against the political establishment, which transcends ethno-national cleavages (Milan, 2018, p. 834). Rather, the political landscape in Bosnia is shaped along the three largest ethnic groups; Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats, and the parties, which represent these groups, use clientelist practices to ensure loyalty from their constituents (Bieber, 2018). Yet, within the past decade the country has started to witness a new form of contention, which emphasizes the rights of citizens rather than the interests of ethnic groups (Milan, 2019). The mobilizations for preserving urban spaces, which I explore in this essay, are therefore not only anti-corruption movements. They can also be seen as belonging to a new form of contention in Bosnia, which challenges the hegemony of ethno-nationalist politics.
This essay explores how the loss of urban spaces can challenge ethno-nationalist politics, by focusing on the construction of frames, which is the articulation and interpretation of grievances (Snow et al., 2014, p. 30). More specifically, the essay investigates how the loss of urban parks can facilitate narratives of accountability and non-ethnic citizenship. The essay investigates two different mobilizations that have reacted to the loss of public green spaces in Bosnia’s larger cities: the Picin
Park protests, which took place in the city of Banja Luka in 2012, and the smaller Hastahana Park campaign in Sarajevo, which started to get traction with the public in 2019 and is still ongoing at the time of writing. It asks two questions: 1) How have activist framed the loss of the parks? And 2) Do park movements have a potential to contribute to a wider contestation of ethno-nationalist politics in Bosnia? The essay argues that while the Picin Park protest and the Hastahana Park campaign differ on a number of aspects such as scope and ethno-political context, they are both examples of how public spaces can be used to promote a frame, which links the loss of public spaces to a lack of political participation and rule of law and to a new notion of right-based citizenship which transcends ethno-nationalist divides.
About the Picin Park and Hastahana Park movements
Picin Park was a green space in the center of the city, which is considered the informal capital of the entity of Republika Srpska. Although it was rendered as vacant space on the municipal map, it was used as a park by inhabitants of the city (Wimmen, 2018, p. 20). The demolition of Picin Park in Banja Luka began in May 2012, when a construction firm named Grand Trade began preparing for the construction of a business-residential complex. Grand Trade was owned by the investor and tycoon Mile Radišić, who had previously served as member of the City Council and was considered a close associate of Milorad Dodik, who was president of Republika Srpska in 2012 (Milan, 2019, p. 63). In response to the demolition, a Facebook group called Park Je Naš (The Park is Ours) was created, which grew to have 40,000 subscribers (Wimmen, 2018, p. 20). Meanwhile, on the ground, citizens and NGOs started holding protest for the preservation of Picin Park, the largest of which gathered some 2.000 people, and a network of NGOs petitioned the municipality to put the project on hold (Wimmen, 2018, p. 20). However, these efforts, which lasted until September the same year, did not manage to prevent the construction of the commercial facilities on the park site.
The Hastahana park is, at the time of writing, still a green urban spot in the center of the Bosnian capital, which has sports facilities and a playground and hosts social events throughout the year. Initially, the Hastahana park was planned to be the location of a new museum, commemorating Sarajevo’s survival under siege during the 1992-1995 war (Dzidic, 2015). However, in September 2017, the mayor of Sarajevo launched an initiative to sell a portion of the park to an commercial investor, and in November 2019, a majority in the municipality voted yes to sell this portion to the Central Bank, which plans to build a business facility and parking spaces on the location (Avaz.ba, 2019). The selloff sparked anger among many locals. Since 2017, a group of Sarajevo residents has therefore been fighting against the municipality’s plans, by attending public hearings, organizing small protests and issuing online statements. So far, the campaign for Hastahana Park has been much smaller than the Picin Park campaign in Banja Luka. Yet, it has started to gain more traction with the public in 2019, where several newspaper articles, mostly local, have been published on the issue. Whereas there have been few smaller protests, a main part of the Hastahana group’s recent activity is centered around their Facebook platform, which currently has 3343 followers
Framing the loss of parks
The campaigns to preserve Picin Park and Hastahana park differ on certain aspects: they have taken place in different regions in Bosnia with different political and ethnic composition, their scope of mobilization vary, and they used different contentious repertoires. Nevertheless, there are significant similarities in the ways they frame the loss of urban spaces. More specifically, three common elements can be found in the frames used by activists in the the Picin Park protests and the Hastahana Park campaign.
First, both parks are presented as examples of neglection of the right of people to influence decision over the use of public goods. In the case of Picin Park, this is illustrated in the following statement from an activist bulletin: “We are dissatisfied with the arrogant attitude of the authorities and institutions towards economic, social and ecologic needs and rights of [female and male] citizens!” (Milan, 2019, p. 65). Likewise, a member of the Hastahana Park group describes how one of the central messages in the campaign is that representatives do not listen to the needs of the people. The activities online and on the ground are therefore a way to say, “we are here” and “we are not listened to.” The neglection of the right of people to influence is also reflected in the Hastahana group’s Manifest, which is published on Facebook and asks “can anyone tell us that our common interest is less important than the interest of a private investor?” Unlike the Picin Park, Hastahana is formally recognized a public park under the control of the Sarajevo Centar municipality. The activists therefore stress that Hastahana is formal property of the people of Sarajevo, and that any decision about constructions in the park should be based on consultations with them. In fact, residents had already been surveyed in 2017 by the Association of Architects in BiH. This survey showed that nearly 97 percent of citizens surveyed do not agree with the decision to do construction on the Hastahana Site (Radiosarajevo.ba, 2019).
Second, both park movements seek to draw attention to the fact that the authorities do not follow rule of law when granting building permits and selling off urban land. In Banja Luka, the conversion of the Picin park was considered to be illegal by the activists, and the NGO, Center for Environment Health (Centar za Životnu Sredinu), which was assisting the activists, published a list of procedural irregularities to invalidate the legal status of the construction project (Wimmen, 2018, p. 20). An example of such legal issue is that the regulation plan of the area was changed to allow for the construction project to be realized on the Picin Park site (Cvjetićanin, 2016, p. 162). The legal aspect also plays an important part in the ongoing campaign to preserve Hastahana Park in Sarajevo. In their communication, the Hastahana group seeks to create awareness about the different mandatory procedures, which the authorities have not taken in relation to the park. One of the important legal issues is that the municipality has divided the park area into three separate pieces of property, which they are not legally entitled to do, according to the activists. Another legal problem is that the Municipality, by allowing for the construction of skyscraper on the site, violated the Sarajevo Urban Plan regulations, which restricts high level construction in Sarajevo due to air pollution’’(SarajevoTimes, 2019).
Finally, both park movements emphasize their identity as local citizens. Even though there were NGOs involved in the Picin Park campaign, the protesters emphasized that they were first of all citizens of Banja Luka. In some cases, they went even further and presented their identity as citizens as one that defies ethnic boundaries. This is evident in the following part of the group’s manifesto, which is reads: “Under the disguise of ethnic interests, this oligarchy puts profit above people, personal interests above justice (…). The system makes us unequal on the basis of our nationality, race, and most of all on the basis of the class and economics. We have become mute, blind, without any rights, scared poor people” (Belloni et al., 2016, p. 53). Likewise, the activists from the Hastahana Park campaign explicitly stress that they are just a group of Sarajevo citizens, who have a piece of land taken away from them. In other words, their actions are not about politics, and that they do not represent any formal organization. Moreover, the right to the park is also presented as a right of citizens to live their daily life. This is illustrated in following quote by one of the group’s members, who was interviewed for al Jazeera Balkans: "The struggle for Hastahana is more than a fight for the park - it is a fight for the normal life of us and our children in this city."(Maglajlija, 2019).
The role of urban spaces in the wider contestation of ethno-nationalism
The cases of Picin Park and Hastahana Park have illustrated how the conversion of green urban spaces into commercial property can be a catalyzer for broader frames, which emphasize Bosnian people’s rights to influence and rule of law and promote a notion of citizenship, which is based to rights rather than ethnicity. During my field work in Bosnia in Summer and Autumn 2019, activists who contested the ethno-nationalist elites tended to present the such ideas of rights-based citizenship as a key to challenge the role of ethnicities. Likewise, similar ideas have been promoted during larger protests such as the Protest and Plenum Movement, which took place in 2014
Still, the two movements have had a limited reach and have failed to engage participants across the country’s regions (Cvjetićanin, 2016, p. 153). This raises a broader question of whether and how the movements can be considered significant contestations of ethnic politics in Bosnia. This essay argues that the park movements can contribute to future contestation of ethno-nationalism in two ways.
First, the allow activists to develop experiences with mobilizing citizens and confronting the political elites. During my field work in Bosnia, several non-ethnic activists tended to view mobilizations such as the two park movements as steps towards creating stronger civil society networks rather than failed attempts to create mass scale changes. As one activist highlighted, smaller mobilizations can capacitate activists to better manage large scale mobilizations in the future. Importance of activist capacity has been highlighted in previous studies of non-ethnic activism in Bosnia as well. For instance, Milan and Oikonomakis (2018, p. 126), argue that resonant mass-movements not appear out of a vacuum but are products of tireless grassroots work. An example of such buildup of experiences from the Picin Park protests is the use of walks around the city instead of traditional demonstrations in the city center. Since walks are not legally considered as demonstrations in Banja Luka, this proved to be a successful way of avoiding the bureaucratic procedures necessary to get a permit to demonstrate in a public space (Zahumenská et al., 2015, p. 53). In 2018, activists used walks again during a series
of larger protests in the city, which were triggered the murder of a young man. The second contribution is that the park movements can serve as symbols and reminders of resistance against the political establishment. For example, (Fagan & Sircar, 2015, p. 160) argued that the Picin Park protests can have symbolic importance for future mass mobilization in Republica Srpska. This argument is supported by my interviews with activists in Banja Luka, who consider the Picin Park protests to have a symbolic value for more recent non-ethnic activism in Banja Luka. Being minor in size, the Hastahana Park campaign has arguably been less symbolic to non-ethnic activism in Sarajevo. Nevertheless, it feeds into the broader narrative about citizens’ rights and can been seen to have spark consciousness among the local residents living near the park. Still, the challenge for non-ethnic actors in Bosnia, as argued by (Bieber, 2013, p. 38), remains to build an agenda for change to which all citizens of Bosnia can rally around.
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 The Dayton Peace Agreement divided Bosnia into two main entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska. Sarajevo is located in the Federation and has a majority of Bosniak inhabitants. Banja Luka is the largest city of Republika Srpska, where Serbs constitute the minority.
 Facebook page for the Hastahana Park. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/parkzasvenas/
 Interview with member of the Hastahana Park group, Sabina, November 30, 2019, WhatsApp
 Manifest Hastahana park. Published, June 13, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.facebook.com/pg/parkzasvenas/about/?ref=page_internal
 The argument was highlighted during several interviews with non-ethnic activists conducted by the author during fieldwork in Sarajevo and Banja Luka in August and November 2019.
 Interview with activist and member of the NGO, Crvena, Ines, November 19, 2019, Sarajevo
 interview with organizer, in the “Justice for David” movement, Aleksandra, November 21, 2019, Banja Luka.
 Interview with activists and member of the NGO, Getto Vesna, November 21, 2019, Banja Luka and interview with organizer, in the “Justice for David” movement, Aleksandra, November 21, 2019, Banja Luka.
 Interview with member of the Hastahana Park group, Sabina, November 30, 2019, WhatsApp