On 7 July 15,000 people gathered in the central square in Banja Luka to protest over the death in suspicious circumstances of David Dragicevic, a twenty one year IT student. It was the 104th such daily demonstration to be held since David Dragicevic’s death three months previously. There is no sign of slackening support for the demonstrations, and they are increasingly have the potential to undermine the position of Milorad Dodik’s government in the Republika Srpska as elections approach in the autumn.
The Death of David Dragicevic: David Dragicevic disappeared after meeting friends on the night of 17/18 March. His body was found 6 days later in the shallow waters of the river Crkvena close to the centre of Banja Luka. In a press conference given shortly afterwards the police stated that Dragicevic appeared to have fallen in the river and drowned. They came to this conclusion in spite of the fact that he had multiple bruises on his body. Protests were initiated by Dragicevic’s family who were convinced that the facts about his death were being covered up. They demanded and secured a second autopsy. This was carried out by a doctor from the prestigious Military Medical Academy in Belgrade. He concluded that David Dragicevic had only been in the water for three to four days. This showed further inconsistencies in the police account of events, and raised questions as to what had happened in the two days immediately after his disappearance. This served to fuel the developing protest movement.
The Demonstrations Begin: The demonstrations were non-political in their origins. They were organised by David’s father, Davor Dragicevic, and a group of his friends. They involved protests in Banja Luka which gathered at 6:00 pm each evening under the slogan ‘Justice for David.’ The daily attendance at the protests initially numbered between around 150-200 people. The demonstrations drew support both from those angered by David Dragicevic’s case and also from others dissatisfied with the parlous social and economic state of the Republika Srpska. The demonstrations soon began to grow in size. A rally which took place on 21 April was attended by 10,000 people. The protest movement also developed a strong on-line presence. In April its face book page had 90,000 supporters. By early July this had risen to 330,000. The movement seeking justice for David Dragicevic became increasingly hard for the authorities in the Republika Srpska to ignore.
The Government Reacts: The initial response by the authorities to the demonstrations was broadly conciliatory. Milorad Dodik, the President of the Republika Srpska and leader of the governing Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), held a meeting with Davor Dragicevic to discuss the protestors’ demands. He also turned up at one of their demonstrations. Responsibility for the investigation was changed to a different police department, and a new team of officers were appointed. No actual answers as to what had happened to David Dragicevic were forthcoming, however, and the protests continued.
As the sustained nature of the protests became apparent the attitude of the authorities hardened. On 11 May Dragan Lukac, the Republika Srpska Interior Minister, threatened to take legal action against Davor Dragicevic and Slobodan Vaskovic, a journalist, over statements they had made holding him responsible for David Dragicevic’s death. Rumours were also spread suggesting that the demonstrators were being manipulated by foreign intelligence agencies seeking to undermine the Republika Srpska. Several days before the 7 July demonstration the website of the Republika Srpska official broadcaster published an article which stated that the rally would be attended by ‘criminals.’ The article also provided the names and personal details of a number of opposition activists and individuals who were otherwise in dispute with the authorities. The nervousness felt by the authorities over the demonstrations also appears to have prompted them to take steps against other unrelated opposition activity. On 20 June Drasko Stanivukovic, a young opposition activist, was arrested whilst attempting to organise a protest against increases in the price of petrol.
The Demonstrations Gather Support: As the demonstrations continued they began to attract support from outside of the Republika Srpska On 15 May Davor Dragicevic took part in a protest meeting in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. He appeared alongside Muriz Memic, whose son, Dzenin, had also died in disputed circumstances in February 2016. According to the authorities in Sarajevo Dzenin Memic had died in a traffic accident. His family had always maintained that he had in fact been murdered. The 7 July rally in Banja Luka was also attended by Spasenija Arandjelovic from Tuzla whose daughter, Danijela, had died under suspicious circumstances in November 2002. Amongst the demonstrators at the rally were people who had travelled from Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, and other towns across Bosnia in order to take part in the protest.
The Parliamentary Committees Findings Rejected: In response to the on-going public protests an investigatory committee was formed by the Republika Srpska Assembly The five member committee was dominated by the opposition and headed by Branislav Borenovic, the leader of the Party of Democratic Progress. The committee concluded that there was reason to believe that David Dragicevic had been murdered rather than having died accidentally as the authorities continued to maintain. After a day’s debate, on 3 July, however, the pro-government majority in the assembly rejected the report’s conclusions.
Political Implications: Elections are due to take in Bosnia at state level and in both of the entities, the Republika Srpska and the Federation, on 7 October. Milorad Dodik will be seeking election as the Serb representative in the Bosnian state presidency. Zeljka Cvijanovic, the current Prime Minister, is the ruling party’s candidate to take Dodik’s place as President of the Republika Srpska. In previous elections Dodik and the SNSD have maintained their hold on power through control over state institutions, including the police, media, and economy, and the presentation of an image of himself and his party as the protectors of Serb national interests within Bosnia. The daily protests are presenting the population of the Republika Srpska with an alternative narrative, unfiltered by the politicised media, of an administration under Milorad Dodik which is corrupt, dysfunctional, and predatory. The protests have also acted as a focus for others with a broader range of discontents, including the current state of the economy in the Republika Srpska… Milorad Dodik and his party must be acutely aware that the protests are acting as a catalyst for anti-government feeling which, in the run-up to the elections, may be transformed into support for the opposition. This will be of critical importance in what are set to be closely contested autumn elections. Although the demonstrations were initially focussed on a specific case in the Republika Srpska they have increasingly attracted the support from people from across Bosnia. Supporters of the protests from the Federation are able to see their own entity and local administrations providing similarly politicised, hierarchical and unaccountable forms of governance. The demonstrations may provide some additional impetus to reformist opposition parties in the forthcoming elections beyond their original Banja Luka epicentre.