SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — A top EU official said Tuesday the bloc is shifting its focus in Bosnia from constitutional changes to economic and judicial reform — issues at the root of three weeks of protests.
Protests against poverty, unemployment and corruption have failed to provoke action from local politicians preoccupied with inter-ethnic bickering that blocks the country's path toward EU membership.
The EU mediated between Bosnia's leaders for years without success on eliminating discrimination from the constitution, a condition for further talks about membership. The latest negotiations failed Tuesday morning with the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Stefan Fuele, withdrawing as mediator and heading off to meet representatives of the protesters.
"It is a shame for politicians through inaction to fail because the rest of the region is moving forward toward the EU and because citizens are calling politicians to be accountable," Fuele said.
The European Commission will focus on new initiatives to promote better economic governance, a national economic reform program and action to tackle the country's nearly 40 percent unemployment rate, Fuele said.
In nine cities, people have organized Citizen's Assemblies where they discuss problems and articulate demands. Fuele, who called the protesters "brave people," met with representatives of the assemblies from Tuzla — the northern city where the protests started — and Sarajevo.
The Sarajevo Assembly handed its demands to city authorities on Tuesday and gave them 72 hours to form an expert government, slash their own salaries and start revising the privatization of public companies. If not, protesters threatened to completely block the capital on Friday.
Privatization in Bosnia produced some wealthy tycoons but threw hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
Protests started in Bosniak-dominated areas of the country with sporadic gatherings in Serb parts. On Tuesday, however, more than 500 people gathered in Banja Luka, the Bosnian Serb capital. Protests there started with war veterans demanding benefits, but more people joined to express their grievances.
"I came here to protest against everything," said Desanka Lovric, wiping away tears. She said her monthly retirement benefit is not higher than 100 euros ($138).
Irena Knezevic contributed to this report from Banja Luka