Sølvi Goard reports on the protests erupting in Bosnia.
The uprising in Bosnia, seemingly bursting from nowhere, is possibly one of the most important things to happen in Europe so far this year. Burnt out police cars, anti-nationalist graffiti on government offices and rooms stuffed with unemployed youth and striking workers attempting direct democracy; these are the images of a genuinely social revolt. It is the most significant political development in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the end of the conflict in the 1990s and the imposition, by the UN, of the Dayton Agreement – a kind of super-bureaucratic and barely workable apartheid that makes Bosnian parliamentary politics almost impossible to explain.
What began with a strike demonstration in the North-Eastern town of Tuzla has become a movement involving tens of thousands. Joined by unemployed youth, the demonstration targeted and occupied the local ‘canton’ government building, covering it in graffiti and then starting fires. Whilst the demonstration was directed against the privatisation of industries in Tuzla the spirit of the demonstration, which was both fiercely scathing of inequality and brazenly anti-nationalist, struck a chord across the country. Similar demonstrations were called in Zenica, Mostar and Sarajevo, with similar displays of anger and police brutality.
Whilst the majority of the demonstrations are taking place in predominantly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) areas, the tone of the demonstrations has carried across ethnic lines. Nationalism and ethnic division certainly haven’t disappeared overnight, but the protest in the Republika Srpska (the Serb entity within Bosnia) capital Banja Luka, and the statement of support to the movement from Serb war veterans seems significant. This was more evident in Mostar, a mixed Bosniak/Croat city, where the demonstrations were made up of both ethnicities, who directed their anger towards the Canton Government against both ethnic ruling parties.
As Canton government officials have fled Zenica and Tuzla, local assemblies of workers, students and unemployed have begun to act as the democratic organs of the movement, but also of the towns themselves. Fiercely egalitarian, and vigilant against being sold out by any of the parliamentary parties, these plenums have begun to issue demands for a more just and equal society.
The common description you hear of Bosnia from liberal commentators is that the country is inherently a basket case because of it’s ‘deep-felt sectarian and ethnic divides’. It is of course true that the Dayton state is complex and self-serving, consuming 66% of tax income just in running itself, and acting therefore only in the interest of an overlapping business and political elite. There are no real opposition or workers’ parties because the main three bourgeois parties were set up in order to represent ethnic groups. If you want to understand how the federation, entities and cantons work you can read Wikipedia. The crucial point is that, whilst the institutional structure is confusing and incredibly bureaucratic, the particularities of the Dayton state are simply not enough to explain the uprising. It is the deep levels of unemployment, the apparent and shameful level of corruption and inequality and the inability for any section of the ruling class to present themselves as an opposition that have fed the rebellion.
The inequality in Bosnia is made sickeningly obvious by the Sarajevo skyline: glistening skyscrapers for media and corporate magnates, who are also often involved in politics, whilst many buildings remained un-repaired from the war, and most Bosnians barely have enough to eat.
The inadequacy of the federation, entity and canton system is then doubled by the presence of the ‘International Community’. This is not simply manifested in the number of troops stationed in Bosnia, but the array of international institutions like the EU and the UN that have maintained buildings, staff and responsibilities; a self-reproducing layer that sees itself as safeguarding Bosnia from another conflict, with great cost to Bosnians themselves.
Bosnians have been suffering under the crushing weight of IMF sanctions and neoliberal elites for decades now, an experience common to countries that aren’t great centres of capital accumulation. This track by the Mostar group Dubioza Kolektiv was popular a few years ago; the charge of ‘shame’ levelled against a system which has ‘all this democracy, yet only bureaucracy’, where people are ‘slaves…lower layers, broken machines’ who live only in order to fund the lives of ‘rich bastards’ clearly spoke to young Bosnians, across ethnic lines.
(Lyrics can be found here.)
If this has been affecting people for years, that of course means that we have to ask why this is happening now. Certainly the ruling parties, especially in the Federation, have been in crisis for the last few years. However the ‘Baby Revolution’, an indignados-style movement in Sarajevo last summer against the withholding of citizen ID numbers for newborns, seems to have been more important. Bringing the wave of mass urban self-activity that has been sweeping Europe since 2011 to Bosnia for the first time, it appears to have crystallised years of resentment into people taking political agency. By confronting the ruling class directly over their corruption, over unemployment, over inequality, over the shameless use of nationalist paranoia, Tuzlans have inspired Bosnians of different ethnicities in to action, ignited their imagination of a more just and equal society.
The fact that protests have spread seems to be aided by, rather than in spite of, the absolute rejection of nationalism has tremendous significance. Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, Svoboda in Ukraine; the ascendance of conservatism, racist nationalism and fascism in eastern Europe is terrifying. Anything that disturbs that needs to be grasped and supported in any way it can be. In spite of the breakup of Yugoslavia the states and the citizens remain very much interconnected. These demonstrations, against social problems that are shared across borders, have ramifications for Croatians, Serbians, Montenegrins, Kosovans and Macedonians also. The fact that we saw (albeit small) solidarity demonstrations this week in Beograd, Zagreb and yesterday Skoplje shows that potential.
A quick glance at the deep state of disarray this uprising has provoked shows how effective the demonstrations and plenums have been. In Tuzla and Zenica Canton Government officials have simply fled, in the latter case dumping their limousines in canals on the way. The head of police for the Federation has resigned. The full force of the state has been used against the protesters and yet the uprising continues. Moreover the rhetoric, the arguments, being used by the ruling class are laughable. Laughable in the sense that the leaders of the different ethnic parties almost echo each other in spite of their supposed difference of interest, but also in their desperation. The SDA (Party of Democratic Action, the Bosniak party) and HDZ (the Croat party) have both attempted to whip up fears of a renewed ethnic conflict. Republika Srpska president Dodik and HDZ statements both claimed that protests in Croat or Serb areas were simply ‘organised by Bosniak associations’.
Indeed, whilst the Serb and Croat ruling class attempted to blame Bosniaks for the ‘hooliganism’, the Bosniak ruling class sought to claim that ‘outside influences’ were attempting to besmirch the reputation of Bosniaks. Sadik Ahmetovic, Vice President of the SDA, in an interview with Oslobodenje, compared the burning of the national archives and the attack on the presidential building to the burning of the National Library and the shelling of Sarajevo by the Yugsolav National Army in 1992 – a level of shrill exaggeration that displays a deep crisis in the Bosnian ruling class factions.
The level of paranoia is quite obviously detached from the real arguments of the movement, and yet still extremely dangerous. It’s worth remembering that the wars of the nineties were precisely due to power struggles between different factions of the ruling class, who adopted and fostered ethnicity and factionalism as a means of winning those fights. Of course many of those people are dead or in the Hague now. But just because the current generation have been ‘approved’ by the international community doesn’t mean that their interests are different.
However the movement is significant for that; precisely the ability for it to win a general anti-racist politics on the basis of a shared experience of misery at the hand of local, national and international neoliberal elites. It is building grassroots democracy in the vacuum left by discredited local elites. How the movement relates to the national state remains to be seen, although plenums have called for specific national reforms and the selection of a technocratic government, they have also begun discussing how to achieve ‘a society based on social justice and welfare’.
It’s been barely two weeks since this started and would therefore seem a bit unfair to pass judgment on the movements ability to live up to its ambitions. That said, the crisis it has caused in the ruling class, and the ease with which it has generalised, demonstrates that the Bosnian movement has real potential. It is only the masses that have shown the ability to break the deadlock of Dayton.
Thinking through how we express solidarity with Bosnians needs to be about more than just being glad that it’s happening. We need to account for the complicity of our ruling class in their misery. Given the ominous declaration of the highest representative of the international community in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko that the use of troops remained an option, we of course need to be vigilant to intervention on the sly, and of British troops in blue helmets being used to quell a revolution. Additionally we need to recognise that these international institutions of the ruling class have been practicing what Bosnian and Serbian Marxists have termed neocolonialism. If the Bosnian movement takes up the demand for the EU, the OSCE, the UN and NATO to leave, we need to think about how we support that call from a country which plays a relatively major role in all of those organisations.
Our solidarity shouldn’t be contingent on protests being peaceful either. Plenty of liberal commentators have been wringing their hands at the sight of government buildings burning. The spectre of ‘violent hooligans’ is one we should only recognise in the guise of armed riot officers. Compared to the violence inflicted on the daily lives of Bosnians by raw capital accumulation over the last few decades, a burnt out office is truly minor.
The plenums are going to face difficulties. How do they work together across Cantons, how do they avoid being sold down the river? The way that they relate to the idea of power will of course be significant, especially if, or more likely when, the ruling class manages to rally its forces, or those of the ‘international community’, to restore law and order. The lessons of these debates will be important for us all. Showing, perhaps, the shift from bitterness to action over the last few years this track by artist Frenkie, seems to have become an unofficial anthem of the Tuzla protests. The line from the title, “nemam više šta izgubit, idem ih rušit! ”, “I have nothing left to lose, I’m going to wreck them!”, which could easily describe to the feelings of working class youth across Europe, should make our rulers sweat.
A site made by the movement for documenting the processes and announcements of the Plenums, as well as analyses from activists.
Testimonies from a variety of different Bosnians who have been witness to the protests – even with Google translate its understandable and powerful.
Includes good videos of the plenums.
Important analysis of the role of imperialism and the Dayton agreement.
Another analysis from Roar mag that puts the protests in context of the wider European uprising.
Jasmin Mujanovic writes very well in this piece about the use of nationalist rhetoric from the ruling class.