Bosnia on fire: a rebellion on Europe’s periphery

by Mate Kapović on February 12, 2014

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With its radical demands and popular assemblies, the rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina shows that the global cycle of struggles is far from over.

 

On Friday, February 7, government buildings were on fire all over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its people, silent for a long time, finally decided to speak their mind. And when they did, what came out was not just words — it was a roar. It was fire, stones and heavy fighting with the police. The most impressive and symbolic picture of the first few days of the rebellion was the one depicting a burning government building in Tuzla, the city where it all began, with the graffiti “death to nationalism” written on it. Since nationalism has long been a favorite refuge of the country’s political elites, who used it to justify their political and economic oppression, this was indeed a powerful message.

Prime Ministers of cantons in Bosnia and Herzegovina started handing in their resignations, one by one. On Sunday, February 9, the Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović went to Mostar — a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a large Croatian population — to meet with the Croat leaders there, while the President of the Republic of Srpska (the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Milorad Dodik, was summoned to Serbia to meet with the first Vice-President Aleksandar Vučić (the unofficial leader of Serbia). The reasons were clear. Both the political elites in Croatia and Serbia are afraid, among other things, that what some already call the “Bosnian revolution” may spill over the borders into their countries.

Explosive Anger

The economic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is undoubtedly terrible. The country was once known for its many factories and a strong working class — even the coat of arms of the former Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (part of Yugoslavia) used to feature factory chimneys. Now, many of those factories are closed, the rest are privatized by foreign corporations or a newly formed capitalist class, and in some of them the workers are working but are not receiving their salaries (which is quite common in the post-Yugoslav economy). The country has an unemployment level at about 45%. Neighboring Croatia and Serbia are not in such a bad shape, but still their elites have a lot to worry about as well, since the general situation is also very far from being even mildly satisfactory. For instance, youth unemployment in Croatia is at almost 53%, second only to Greece and Spain in the EU.

The explosive and in some cases quite violent rebellion in Bosnia and Herzegovina certainly had its own local reasons — rampant poverty, vast inequalities, a huge bureaucratic apparatus and the political and capitalist succubus at the top. However, this uprising is also an integral part of the global uprisings we have seen in the last couple of years. After the beginning of the economic crisis in 2008 and a few years of initial shock, a wave of great protests and uprisings began in 2011 with the Arab Spring, the indignados in Spain and Occupy Wall Street in the US. Last year, we saw huge uprisings in Turkey and Brazil. Former Yugoslavia was not spared in this wave.

Already in 2011, there were large “Facebook protests” in Croatia that went on for a month in March. Although quite politically heterogeneous, it was also the first time that openly anti-capitalist messages were displayed in any of the post-Yugoslav countries, and the protests in many ways anticipated the indignados and OWS, sharing with them a clear common zeitgeist. In 2012-’13, Slovenia was shaken by a popular “Slovenian uprising” that hugely influenced the public discourse in the country and gave rise to new political forces (such as the potentially promising Initiative for Democratic Socialism). In 2014, it was time for Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were the last to react, but their response was by far the most powerful.

A Social Rebellion

Since the rebellion began, almost all the analysts have insisted that it had been inevitable and that they had been sure all along that something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Of course, this is not true. Although the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina was indeed catastrophic, prior to all of this most analysts would have claimed that this kind of uprising was impossible because the people are passive, inert and divided by nationalism. But, as is often the case, there was an unpredictable spark and it all grew quickly from there.

The uprising began in Tuzla in the North-East of the country; a city with a long left-wing and working class tradition. “A different city”, as is often claimed, because nationalism has never firmly established itself there, unlike the rest of the country. So it’s no wonder that it was this city that found itself in the eye of the storm. There, the workers of a number of privatized factories (like Dita, Polihem and Konjuh) have been protesting peacefully for various reasons for quite some time. However, on Wednesday, February 5, they were joined by the city youth, the unemployed and other people — and the protest rapidly began to escalate, spreading in the following days to most of the country. The most prominent actions occurred in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar and Bihać, which are among the largest cities in the country, with the majority of violent clashes and burning occurring on Friday, February 7.

The protests were clearly spontaneous and had social demands at their roots. Many protesters claimed that they simply have nothing to eat, that they have been unemployed for ages, and expressed deep contempt for the criminal political and economic elite. Although the rebellion has occurred mostly in parts of Bosnia inhabited by the Muslim Bosniaks (which Croatian and Serbian nationalists were happy and quick to point out), the rebellion was clearly — some provocations, acts of sabotage and stray people aside — a social and not a nationalist rebellion. Of course, as is often the case, the protests are very heterogeneous, with large numbers of football fans joining the militant wing of the mobilization as well. Today, the protests continue mostly in those parts of the country where the Bosniaks are predominant, but there are a number of exceptions as well. In Mostar, the city in the South-West of the country, both Croats and Bosniaks were involved in torching the headquarters of both the Croatian and Bosniak main nationalist parties (HDZ and SDA). Ethnic Croats have also protested in Livno and Orašje, while ethnic Serbs organized a couple of smaller scale protests and gatherings in Prijedor, Banja Luka, Bijeljina and Zvornik.

Although the protests are clearly social, the national question, used to their advantage by the political elites (although not completely unfounded in the case of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina), is still a great problem. Many Croats and Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still suspicious and afraid of the protests taking a different political turn, quoting, for instance, the Islamist turn of the Egyptian revolution (although this kind of scenario is highly unlikely in Bosnia and Herzegovina). This fear is actively fed by the political elites and the media, which are trying to prevent protests in the Croat and Serbian parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In that quest, a wide array of conspiracy theories have gained some popularity. Thus, Bosniak nationalists and politicians claim that this is all a plot against Bosniaks; Croat nationalists and politicians claim that it’s all a plot against Croats; and Serb nationalists and politicians claim that it’s all a plot against Serbs. It’s also very significant that Croat and Serb nationalist intellectuals and media are silently cooperating in a desperate attempt to prove that we are dealing with a “Bosniak spring” only.

Beyond Nationalist Claims

Still, not everybody is prone to such nationalist propaganda. For instance, one union from Drvar (with most members of Serb nationality) have given their support to the mostly Croat protesters in Livno. Also, the organization of the veteran soldiers of the Serb part of the country have openly pressured their president Milorad Dodik to start dealing with social problems, injustice and privatization crimes. However, in Bijeljina (in the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) the protesters giving support to the rebellion were met with a counter-protest by the Serb nationalists. The same happened during a solidarity protest in Belgrade in Serbia (at the same time, the police union in Serbia proclaimed that in the case of the protests spilling over borders to Serbia, they will not act against the protesters). In Croatia, however, activists on both the left and the right are organizing protests in the coming days inspired by what is happening just across the border.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina remains very tense. Some left leaning intellectuals and public figures are giving their support to the protests, but most of the media and the entire political class is united against them. There are a lot of nationalist claims, conspiracy theories, fake manifestos, false statements, fabricated reports and narratives. The elites and regime intellectuals are trying as hard as they can to maintain the status quo. Still, there is a lot of confusion in liberal, conservative and nationalist circles. The establishment’s analytical apparatus is not really equipped to deal with this type of development since it cannot really perceive the working class, the unemployed and the poor as an active political subject. To this, we should add the usual petty bourgeois moralizing about burned buildings, “hooligans”, unnecessary violence, and so on. The liberals and conservatives are calling for “peaceful and dignified” protests, in spite of the obvious fact that without violence none of this would have happened, and in spite of the fact that the careful coordination between politicians and the media has clearly shown what bourgeois democracy and the “freedom of the press” really stand for: protecting class privilege.

As always, the media have made a case of pointing out that the protesters don’t know what they’re doing, that they have no clear goals or political program. This is not true. The protesters’ demands are becoming more and more clear by the day. For instance, the workers and protesters of Tuzla — who are most progressive, politically coherent and articulated — have demanded more equal wages, health protection for the workers; legal action against economic crimes; the confiscation of illegally obtained wealth; a reassessment of the privatization process of the Dita, Polihem, Poliolhem, Gumara and Konjuh factories; the nationalization of the factories and the resumption of production under workers’ control; cutting down the privileges of the political elite; and so on. Of course, it is still difficult to tell how this nascent political program will develop and what parts of it are just rhetoric.

The “Plenum” of Tuzla

One of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the mobilization is the appearance in Tuzla — right at the center of the rebellion, where the former government handed in its resignation some days ago – of a revolutionary organizational body called the “plenum”. This plenum (or general assembly) is very similar to the original Russian soviets. The protesters are using them in order to reach collective decisions and demands in a direct democratic manner. What is interesting is that the idea of the plenum, as a political body for democratic decision-making, originated in the 2009 wave of student occupations in Croatia, while the Croatian student movement itself got the idea from the 2006 Belgrade student movement. This, in other words, is a fine example of post-Yugoslav left activist cooperation and mutual inspiration.  The protesters in the capital Sarajevo and in the town of Zenica are now trying to organize a plenum as well.

Some of the demands of the Tuzla plenum, accepted by the remnants of the old government, were to form a new transitional canton government, made up of candidates suggested by the people of the region but excluding the people already compromised by taking part in previous governments or being members of the old political parties. The newly elected government should also have much lower wages and no additional privileges. The plenum is open for everybody to participate, discuss and vote, except for the members of the old parties and government (which essentially makes this “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, speaking in classical terms). Of course, while this kind of democratic decision-making is highly commendable, for now it seems mostly like a temporary phenomenon, which could be highly problematic when scaled up to the whole city (or even canton). The session on Monday, February 10 of the Tuzla plenum had, according to participants, approximately 200 people in attendance, while the population of Tuzla is about 130.000 people.

Beyond “Core Parochialism”

It is impossible to tell how these events will unfold in the future. One thing is certain, though: Bosnia and Herzegovina (and the region as a whole) will not be the same after this. One could say that a lot has already been achieved (at least symbolically), especially when one considers the fact that in Bosnia and Herzegovina — and in former Yugoslavia in general — there are no real mass organizations of the left. Now, after just a week of protests, popular ideas and the public discourse are already beginning to change. The elite will definitely be more afraid of the people in the future, not just in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One can only hope that all of this will feed into the formation and growth of progressive forces and organizations in the country.

The dramatic developments of the past week have caused quite a stir in the country and among its neighbors. In the West, however, the events have so far been largely ignored. While the international media devote a lot of attention to Ukraine, where the EU and the US have concrete vested interests, the social upheaval in Bosnia and Herzegovina (which is, admittedly, a much smaller country), is largely ignored. Clearly the rebellion of workers and the unemployed is not a very positive development from the point of view of Europe’s neoliberal status quo, especially since neighboring Croatia is the EU’s newest member. What is curious, however, is that the European Left also remains largely silent. This is not very laudable for a political force that revels in its own internationalism.

The Left in the developed countries of the West should work much harder on overcoming its own “core parochialism”. Left internationalism and global solidarity cannot just be a theoretical exercise; it must be practiced as well. Radical and progressive social forces in Europe and North America should not just satisfy themselves by looking at “selected topics” in their own immediate environment. It’s not just that the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina need international support; it’s also that their rebellion constitutes a very interesting and important development for the international left. It shows that the global cycle of struggles that began in 2011 is still very much alive.

Mate Kapović is an assistant professor at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and a left political activist.

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