But while the destruction evokes the Balkans turmoil of the 1990s, when more than 100,000 people died, it is not a result of war. Rather, Bosnians, diplomats and analysts say, it is an unintended consequence of what ended the conflict: the 1995 Dayton accords, which were negotiated under muscular diplomacy by the United States and bought nearly 20 years of peace but imposed what turned out to be a dysfunctional government structure that has impeded economic progress and left citizens increasingly angry and frustrated.
The long-simmering frustrations of Bosnians erupted a week ago not only in Tuzla but also in a dozen other towns and cities across the country, including the capital, Sarajevo, where the national presidency office bears scars, too.
Ethnic divisions fueled almost four years of war in the 1990s. Today, if there is one thing that unites many of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people — Bosniaks (or Muslims), Serbs and Croats — it is their disgust with the hydra-headed presidency and multiple layers of government that developed to appease the nationalist sentiments of all sides. But the terms of the accords were in time supposed to be replaced by a more streamlined system. They were never supposed to remain in force this long.
This impoverished industrial city of 200,000 in Bosnia’s northeast has the highest unemployment rate in the country — around 55 percent — and it was the fount of the anger that erupted last week, startling Bosnians and outsiders alike.
The system established under the Dayton accords has only helped cement “corrupt, nepotistic and completely complacent elites,” said Damir Arsenijevic, 36, a psychoanalyst who has studied and lectured in Britain, participated in Occupy protests in Oakland, Calif., and is now a prime mover in nightly Tuzla discussions about the way forward.
Workers in Tuzla had protested for months against the botched privatization of four factories, once part of a proud array of industry stretching back to pre-Communist days. Pictures showing police officers beating protesters on Feb. 6 drew crowds into the streets the next day in Tuzla, Sarajevo and two other towns where government buildings were burned, and rocks were hurled at the police.
“Our leaders do not even take it as alarming that 63 percent of young people here are jobless,” said Edin Plevljakovic, 23, a student of English literature in Sarajevo. “We have neither strong politics, nor a very potent elite,” he added. The result? “Bedlam.”
John C. Kornblum, a retired United States ambassador who drafted the Dayton accords as the diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke negotiated them, noted that the complex mechanisms they put in place were intended primarily to secure peace, but they were also supposed to be replaced in three years with a more streamlined governmental structure.
A serious attempt at change in 2005, he said, was hindered in part by nongovernmental organizations reinforcing the Bosniak leaders’ desire for a unified state, which the Serbs and Croats will not allow.
Diplomats have tried in vain to get Bosnians to heed a 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, which in effect challenged the three-way setup of the national presidency, made up of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat, as discriminatory. In addition to the presidency, the country consists of a Muslim-Croat Federation, a Serbian Republic, 10 cantons in the federation and the separate city of Brcko.
Until the 2009 ruling is observed, Bosnia’s structure means it cannot advance toward the European Union, which neighboring Croatia joined last year and Montenegro and even Serbia are waiting to do.
“I’m a Croat Catholic, but that is what I am at home,” said Sonja Kladnik, a 78-year-old pensioner. “When I leave the house, I’m a citizen. I am sick and tired of this Serb, Croat, Bosniak. We have seven or 10 or however many levels of government and three presidents. We should have just one. Enough with this nationalism! But nobody is listening to me.”
In interviews in Sarajevo and Tuzla over four days this week, the popular anger was palpable.
“Let’s stop importing! Let’s make our own things! We want a better future!” said one of the many posters plastered at street level on the ruined government building in Tuzla. About 200 people stood or crouched, listening to recordings of local rappers whose lyrics of revolution and rebellion are much admired here.
Breaking with the prevailing political patronage, which has enabled wartime leaders to dole out jobs to their cliques, the protesters are demanding governance by technocrats outside Bosnia’s scores of political parties. The protesters have prompted the resignations of four cantonal governments, but so far no broader change.
With her neatly buttoned blue coat, turquoise scarf and discreetly modish black shoes, Emina Bursuladzic, 58, seems an unlikely rebel. Like many others in this largely rural country, with little tradition of street protest and an abiding horror of bloodshed after the war, she disavows the violence.
But over the past seven months, she has fought to preserve the remnants of Dita, once the provider of detergent for all Yugoslavia. She and her co-workers stood vigil outside the local government offices, pursuing a vain quest to sue the owner they say came in 2008-9 and stripped their chemical plant almost bare.
Deep down, it was not just the months of unpaid wages, or the plundering of the workplace Ms. Bursuladzic has served for 38 years that stirred her ire, she said. It was the humiliation.
“People inside this building used to look out the window and laugh at us,” she said.
Her co-worker Snjezana Ostrakovic, 29, in faded jeans and a cheap jacket, bitterly recalled standing in temperatures well below freezing and accosting a local government worker, who she said simply ridiculed her pleas for help in feeding her two sons, 5 and 2.
Tuzla’s industry was built on coal and salt mines. A workers’ uprising of the 1920s is still memorialized in a 1956 statue of a miner dropping his pick for a rifle, gazing out at the giant power plant that still belches steam toward the dilapidated shells of Tuzla’s factories. They arose under Josip Broz Tito, the Communist leader remembered in Bosnia as a guardian of ethnic harmony rather than — as elsewhere in former Yugoslavia — a brutal repressor of nationalist or political dissent.
The rusting plants almost certainly had no future anyway. But locals are furious that they seem to have been sold off cheaply to the well connected, who then reaped profit by hawking scrap or land. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, privatization has enriched a few. In Bosnia, there is the added twist that it followed war.
Ms. Bursuladzic’s plant still functions. But she said the work force is just 100 now, down from about 340 when the new owner arrived, and from a Communist high of around 1,000. Emphasizing that she is relatively comfortable — her husband works, her son is a doctor and her daughter an engineer — she said “my fight was bound to end like this,” leaving her an outcast from what she held dear.
As if on cue, the rap music playing at the protest outside the government building here cut to a spliced-in speech by Tito.
“Here in Yugoslavia,” he intoned, “we have to show that as a country we stand together. That the minority is for the majority, and the majority for the minority.”