The Plenum Has The Power – Challenges in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen the greatest upheaval in 20 years over the last month. Following on from ‘Tuzla is the Spark’, Søren G writes about the development of the movement, the challenges it faces, and the need for solidarity.

Since the explosion of riots, plenums and protests in February, Bosnia has been largely ignored by the mainstream media. For the left, which can usually be counted on to provide some alternatives, it has been also been largely eclipsed by events in Ukraine. Of course the geopolitical conflicts that have developed as a result of the Euromaidan movement and political tussles in Crimea are serious questions, but we should not ignore what remains an important struggle against neoliberal corruption and class injustice. Moreover the strength of anti-racism and anti-nationalism as the binding force of the movement is a potent antidote to the fascism that is increasingly staining Europe, not least Ukraine.

Last Sunday evening people packed into a gallery space in Bethnal Green, East London to listen to Skype calls from across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), hear about the development in the struggle and talk about building practical and political solidarity.

Of course, every set of workers in struggle, every movement of citizens striving for social justice deserve solidarity, but BiH is a relatively small country with just under 4 million citizens. So what makes events there important? Arguably they represent a maturation of the politics of bottom-up democracy; a growth that is related directly to Tahrir square, Los Indignados and Occupy Gezi.

The successes of the plenums, the organs of direct democracy that sprang up in the wake of the anti-corruption riots in February, are real. Four canton governments have fallen and been effectively replaced by a fluid and open group of citizens. That is, not representatives of the plenums, but the plenum itself, now represent the most serious democratic body in those areas. Plenums have spread across the country with fourteen meeting regularly, including in the semi-autonomous Brčko District. Now, no-one’s saying that BiH is in a situation of ‘Dual Power’, on the verge of an anti-capitalist revolution, but this seems significant. Alongside the evacuation of local government, and the resignations of dozens of senior politicians across BiH, plenums have also lead to the end of ‘Golden Parachutes’ – payoffs for politicians to ‘ease the pain’ of losing office.

Moreover the use of plenums to make demands is effectively breaking international law. The Dayton Agreement, imposed on BiH by the EU and the UN after the end of the conflict on the nineties, is what hamstrings the entirety of Bosnian politics to a bureaucratic ethnic superstate. By having democratic organs where the major ethnic parties are not guaranteed a seat, activists have directly violated Dayton. They’ve broken a 20-year political deadlock in a few weeks.

The movement does, unsurprisingly, face problems and obstacles. Sandro, who spoke on Skype at the solidarity meeting last Sunday, is an activist from Banja Luka,  the capital of the Republika Srprska (RS). RS is the majority-Serb entity within BiH, so it has its own government and laws and its own political dynamic. Sandro admitted that he was pessimistic about the possibilities for the growth of the movement in the immediate term in RS. A group of several hundred war veterans protested against the RS president and their own group’s president for social demands that echoed the movement in the rest of BiH. However, Sandro felt that because the veterans’ protest was seen as acceptable, and was using some of the language of nationalism, it was difficult to generalise their activity to other workers and unemployed citizens.  The fact that RS has been a more centralised state from the start has allowed for more aggressive and rapid privatisation, a fact which has left many people bewildered and more receptive to nationalism than in other places. There’s no denying that people are at breaking point, however, as this anecdote from another Banjalukan shows.

In Mostar, a city divided right down the middle by ethnicity, it has taken a great deal of bravery to come out to Spanish Square at the city centre every week and organise the plenums, with the risk of anger from powerful ethnic forces on either side of the river. What is most concerning is the level of tiredness. The plenums, of course, have no elected representatives. But there are some who have been leading the action in an organic way, from the bottom up, and the task of organising that level of democracy is taking its toll. Of course, the hope and excitement expressed in the plenums, so directly counterposed to the corruption and the unaccountability of the mafia-neoliberal elite, cannot be compromised upon now. Mass democracy is exhausting, but the life-blood of resistance.

More crucially, the ruling class has gathered back some of its strength after the initial shock of being faced down by a class in revolt. To some extent, its possible to see the relatively slow response to the movement as an indication of both how bureaucratically sluggish the BiH state is, but also the absolute novelty of a movement of this scale. They are now stepping up their counter-offensive to make up for lost time. Not only are they attempting to mobilise nationalism, and thus the fear of another ethnic conflict, but also the police and the judicial system. Two activists are currently being processed for terrorist charges for their involvement in the protests and riots in Sarajevo.

We are of course used to seeing this kind of exemplary sentence in Britian as a means of punishing those who cannot help but lash out in desperation. The ruling class and the police know that finding lawyers to represent these kinds of cases is incredibly hard. That’s not just because of the risk for lawyers in taking on charges of terrorism. Also the pool of potentially sympathetic lawyers is confined to each specific canton, due to the fact that each of the many sections of BiH has its own legislative powers. The daily harassment of protests by police, and bureaucratic manouevres to prevent plenums and marches taking place, is taking a toll on people. Nidžara from Sarajevo said that, whilst the plenum was at one point attracting more than 1200 hundred people, only 300 people felt comfortable coming now because of intimidation from police, the media and bosses in their own workplaces.

This hasn’t stopped plenum activists from attempting to organise. On 6 April, the day commemorating Liberation from fascism, plenums are aiming to get delegations from across BiH to march in Sarajevo before coming together for a ‘plenum that will cover the entire federation’.

The memory of imperialist intervention makes it impossible to stop thinking about what the ‘international community’ will do. The presence of ‘fact-finding’ agents from the Foreign Office in Plenum cities, and the circling of hawkish international ‘peace’ envoys should encourage us to be vigilant to a re-invasion by stealth. However, such a move is by no means certain, however much interest capitalist powers have in the region.

Solidarity with BiH plenums is therefore important. There are no easy answers, though money certainly helps. Small acts of solidarity, that can seem tokenistic or symbolic, do matter, and are seen by people who are active, and those who need encouraging to be active. Images we took of students and workers at Goldsmiths holding a banner expressing solidarity were shared in plenum groups and by activists across BiH. These shares didn’t come without their fair share of cutting remarks about spelling mistakes, but that small effort made a difference nonetheless.

At the meeting in Bethnal Green activists committed to building a ‘BiH Solidarity Working Group’ that would endeavour to co-ordinate support for the plenums and spread information about the movement to spaces where the mainstream media has failed to. Hopefully they’ll have an online presence up soon, with guides to actions and initiatives. In the meantime, if you can get any group of people to take a photo with a message of solidarity, or if you can pass a union branch motion, post it to the plenum pages, either for Sarajevo, Tuzla or Mostar, or to the page for Bosnians in Britain.

In 1984, miners in Tuzla organised to collect ten thousand days’ wages from workers to send to striking miners in Yorkshire pits. Bear in mind that this was during a period of huge inflation, rampant unemployment and high costs of living. Children at schools bought stamps to pin to their lapels to show solidarity with the British miners’ strike. Whilst a small part of the history of that incredible dispute, it hasn’t been forgotten.

In situations where people are engaging in difficult but powerful struggles against injustice, solidarity always makes a difference. The alternative is a world where individuals are left to look on and wring their hands in pity. The story of the miners in Tuzla is beautiful because it completely upends the way we’re encouraged to look at people living outside the core capitalist zones. Instead of voiceless victims that stare sullenly at us out of the television screen, whilst reporters drone on about ‘an ingrained tradition of violence in the region’, the story shows ordinary Bosnians as agents of their own destiny. Where mutual aid trumps pity – not charity but solidarity. Despite having very little, Tuzlans sent that money to miners because they knew that solidarity was power. That remains as true now as it was in 1984. Given that the prospects for transformative social change in the rest of Europe aren’t as strong as they could or should be now, we should recognise that we have a shared interest in the Bosnian movement, and give solidarity where we can.

Links and further reading

Andrej Nikolaidis – a good and short article on the memory of the role that the EU played in the 1992.

Sarajevo Culture Bureau – ‘On the protests’ – – useful if you want to learn more about the interests of the ‘international community’ and the way that they’ve set up the Dayton Agreement

Denis Dzidic – ‘Politicians play war games with Bosnia’ – more detail on the ways that politicians are evoking, and therefore potentially provoking, the threat of war with their use of nationalism. –

Interview with two plenum activists from Tuzla on the equivalent of Newsnight with the  Bosnian Paxman, half an hour, but very good –

BiH protest files – Summary of events for the Week Ending 9 March – BiH protest files remains the best resource for english speakers to get news on the movement; this article sums up what’s been happening in a more detailed way.



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