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Bosnian 'Baby-lution' Gains Force As Protesters Unite Across Ethnic Lines

SARAJEVO -- In a rare show of unity in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are joining forces to say the government’s nationalist politics have put the country’s most vulnerable citizens at risk.

Every day for the past week, thousands of protesters have gathered at midday outside the parliament building in Sarajevo, calling on lawmakers to put aside ethnic fixations and address a legal gap that for months has left Bosnian babies without identification numbers or access to medical care.

The so-called "baby-lution" has been remarkable not just for its mounting turnout but for the diversity of its appeal.

In a fractious region where Serbs rarely see eye-to-eye with their Muslim and Croat counterparts, the Sarajevo protests have won surprising supporters in Serb strongholds including Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska, as well as the Serbian cities of Novi Sad and Belgrade.

Milenko Kindl, a resident of Banja Luka, traveled from the Serb entity with 20 of his friends to attend the Sarajevo rally.

"We came here to express our support to the citizens of Sarajevo in their fight to preserve equality and the state," Kindl says. "We came here to show that some politicians from Republika Srpska are lying when they say Serbs do not feel safe in Sarajevo -- because as you can see, I am here, and my colleagues from Banja Luka are here, and everyone here has greeted us as if we were family."

Unusually Unifying

Bosnia's ethnic groups have occasionally come together for past protests to demand veterans' compensation and improved conditions for students.

But the current demonstrations have proven particularly unifying among ordinary Bosnians, whose frustration has mounted as lawmakers have repeatedly allowed political and ethnic calculations to stall a law on personal reference numbers, or JMBs – an essential form of identification without which Bosnian newborns cannot qualify for health insurance or passports.

Young people have finally realized that their fate -- and the fate of their country -- is in their hands.
Zdravko Grebo, Sarajevo law professor
Lawmakers from Bosnia's separatist-minded Serb entity have argued JMBs should include a special digit designating whether a baby has been born in Republika Srpska or Bosnia's other political entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation. Croat and Bosnian Muslim lawmakers oppose that proposal.

Such standoffs are common in Bosnia, whose postwar political system is based on a notoriously complex power-sharing arrangement between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. Each of the entities is governed by a president, government, and parliament. Bosnia as a whole is then ruled by a joint parliament, government, and a tripartite presidency.

Critics have blamed the Byzantine political thicket for keeping Bosnia at a bureaucratic standstill for years. But recent media reports about a critically ill baby prohibited from traveling abroad for treatment because she had no identification number proved deeply provoking and spurred the launch of the "baby-lution" protests last week.

One protester, accompanied by his young son Dzan, said the thought of a parent being unable to help an ailing child had prompted him to act.

"We're not fools. Imagine two young parents having a sick child, God forbid, and being unable to get treatment because the child doesn't have a personal reference number or the health-insurance identification it needs in order to see a doctor," he says. "And all of that is happening because someone is sitting inside this building and thinking of ways to divide us."

'Country's Fate Is In Their Hands'

Protesters have said they will not abandon the parliament protests until the JMB law is adopted and parliamentarians have agreed to create a state fund for critically ill children.

Bosnian lawmakers earn six times the average Bosnian salary, prompting demonstrators to call on the parliamentarians to feed the fund by taking a 30 percent pay cut.

Lawmakers initially sought to harness the protests to push through a series of parliamentary reforms. But Zdravko Grebo, a Sarajevo law professor, says the protesters have firmly rejected being used as fodder for a fresh round of political one-upsmanship between the warring sides.

"They’re refusing to have a leader; they’re not allowing anyone to breathe down their neck," Grebo says. "I'm glad to see so many young people here. They've finally realized that their fate -- and the fate of their country -- is in their hands."

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The "baby-lution" has inspired a certain exhilaration in Bosnians, many of whom have not ventured out to public demonstrations since before the war.

Hundreds of protesters have flooded into Sarajevo from Bosnian cities like Mostar, Zenica, and Goradze. Students and pensioners have joined in the demonstrations, which also feature a sizable child contingent and a festival atmosphere with colorful banners, balloons, and music.

Damir Imamovic, a popular Bosnian musician, said many citizens – worn down by rising unemployment and government impasse – are simply asking lawmakers to do their job rather than hiding behind dusty political divisions.

"We showed that we're able to dismiss attempts by politicians to spin citizens' voices for the millionth time, to shift blame and interpret everything as nationalistic excess," Imamovic says. "I keep receiving calls from friends in Paris, Washington, Scandinavia, the media. They keep calling and asking, 'Is it true?'"

RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report from Prague

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