The Mass Popular Uprising in Bosnia-Herzegovina: 20 Years After the War

by Gal Kirn

Year 1995, Dayton, Ohio. The end of three year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is announced, the end of the war that in the most brutal ways materialized the idea of “end of history” with the global triumph of liberal democracy and transition to capitalism. Many “ordinary” citizens thought everything was going to be better. Two decades later, BiH seemed to be one of the last places where any kind of political uprisings or emancipatory politics could take place. A collective sense of despair, passivity and helplessness prevailed. But this month, nineteen years after Dayton, the biggest protests in recent decades have taken place in the region.

The movement first emerged in the city of Tuzla on February 5 (click here for some videos of the actions). After a peaceful start, the tension with police escalated into violence and eventually the burning of the government (canton) building on February 7.

Protesters carried all different ethnic flags. By various means, including graffiti, they spread such messages as “I am hungry in all three languages” [meaning Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian], “Death to nationalism,” “Who sows hunger, reaps anger,” “Resign all,” and “For social justice,” among others.

The images of police violence and popular discontent circulated over the social media and in the following days, spontaneous protests spread to Zenica, Bihač, Sarajevo, and also to Mostar and Banja Luka (capital of Republika Srpska). In the space of a week, more than 30 cities all across the BiH joined the wave of protest!

People were stunned, but encouraged by so many parallel protests. The government buildings in Mostar, Sarajevo and some other places also began burning. This time the political violence was not ethnically motivated, but opened up a space and deployed a strategy that targets the systemic violence of the dominant order. In one of the high points of the Tuzla protests, police officers dropped their shields and joined protesters in their public outcry.

For the first time in the history of BiH, mass protests traversed ethnic political lines and use a new political language that points to the issues of social justice, direct democracy and political radicalism. Despite criminalization and immense pressure, thousands of people kept protesting in front of the government buildings, blocking the roads and coming together on different squares. The protesters consisted of marginalized youth, workers, unemployed, students, socialists, pensioners, war veterans — an increasingly colorful palette of social groups started participating and organizing.

Apart from the continuing protests on the streets and the anti-nationalist stance taken by protesters, what is perhaps the most fascinating and the most precious part of these political mobilizations is how quickly (few days after first uprising) protesters started building up popular institutions from below that are known as “plenums.”

Plenums have a long history within the council (soviet) movement, and can be defined as a sort of general assembly. These had already been used in the region during the occupation of Croatian universities. In the current situation they empower citizens and articulate the political demands of protesters.

According to Eric Gordy, the key political demands that first came from Tuzla workers included the “investigation of illegitimately obtained public property, elimination of special privileges for the political class, and formation of a new government that excludes participants in the existing one (which has since resigned).”

In the last week we have witnessed a proliferation of different groups and plenums in different cities, which share many of the same central demands. They resolutely promote citizens’ democratic rights to the city and dignified life, a call for resignation of the political class and advocacy for the formation of politically unbiased transitional government appointed by the plenums.

In the case of Tuzla, the plenum has given the cantonal authority a deadline of March 1 to adopt different demands. As one of the protesters in Tuzla, Damir Arsenijevi, explained, these plenums not only present a new political platform, but are also becoming spaces in which people for the first time come together as political beings and invent new language by diagnosing the situation.

More than 700 people participated in Tuzla’s second plenum. This collective political process has enabled protesters to develop a larger understanding of subjectively felt injustices, and to construct a system of “dual power” that undermines the established order of the Dayton BiH.

Explaining the current post-Yugoslav uprisings

In Yugoslav times, Tuzla was one of the most prosperous industrial cities. It was very surprising for many commentators that the protests erupted and were spreading in such manner. However, the Tuzla protests are not so surprising if viewed in relation to the earlier worker and trade union protests against the privatization that brought even more difficult socio-economic situation. Many bankruptcies and lockouts unfolded a few years ago (see also Emin Eminagic’s analysis)

The protests took place at Dita, Polihem, Poliohem, GUMARA and Konjuh — five major factories that formed the core of chemical, furniture and other industries in the region. The Tuzla protesters were also the ones that — quite typical for a highly ethnically mixed region — had previously promoted a strong antinationalist stance (Boris Vasev has published a good report including many interviews with Tuzla workers which has not been translated to English). As one of the protesters and workers from Konjuh, Osmin Ukic, says “in work, we are all brothers and sisters.” This political perspective has infected the large majority of protesters in recent weeks.

But apart from the specificity of the local conditions, the start and contours of the current uprising in Tuzla share many structural and political features of the uprisings in Maribor, Slovenia in late 2012. It is important to note the internationalist dimension of these uprisings, and in what way they open the door to an alternative imaginary and politics in the post-Yugoslav context.

I have already written about the Maribor uprisings and their importance for the mass uprising in Slovenia. Here I would like to draw some comparative points, suggesting that Maribor is the Slovenian Tuzla, and conversely,Tuzla is the Bosnian Maribor.

It is noteworthy that both cities in Yugoslavia were very important industrial centers, employing a relatively big industrial working class that is ethnically very mixed. Similar in size, a bit above 120 thousand inhabitants, the times of independence and postsocialist transition brought a deep devastation that left a huge scar on the urban landscape, overlaid upon the the postwar experiences of the split community.

Let us not forget that in 1990s, during the first Five-Year Plan of de-industrialization and deregulation in Slovenia, more than 25% of the population became unemployed. Bankrupt and deserted factories became the ghosts that haunted the transition, which was full of social insecurity but full of post-industrial dreams. All these processes were taking place in both Tuzla and Maribor from the late 1990s onwards.

There is one obvious and important difference in the social basis of revolt in Maribor and Tuzla: The Tuzla canton was much more devastated than Maribor, which enjoyed the status of the European Capital of Culture, seemingly reaching a “successful transition” as a member of EU. But despite the largely ideological investment in Maribor’s creative capital, the infrastructure and productive capacities remained fundamentally weak in the region, while the austerity packages and corrupt local politicians pushed people on the streets in late 2012.

The Legacy of the Dayton Agreement

The end of the war in BiH in the 1990s and the signing of the Dayton Agreement symbolized the end of Yugoslavia and defeat of self-management socialism. But it was also a serious setback for the “liberal” political imaginary of multiculturalism, the idea that community life in coexistence with different ethnic groups is possible. It is not a coincidence that the war ended outside Bosnia under the heavy political tutelage of the US, and of course, a brave new European Union (EU).

Multiculturalism was killed at the doorsteps of Europe before the real processes of new European integration started. European “neutrality” during the war for a long time supported the expansionist and nationalist policies of Great Serbia and Croatia that partitioned Bosnia into two parts. Much more problematic was the peace treaty in Dayton that retrospectively legitimized the policy of ethnic cleansing and imposed a future political system that was nothing more than that of an EU protectorate, with clear neo-imperial connotations.

The political accords partitioned the state in two major parts: Federation BiH (Croat and Muslim) and Republika Srpska (Serbian). Overlaid on these is Br?ko District, a unit that is formally part of both entities. The quasi-federative structure is actually a Kafkaesque labyrinth welded in a complex web of federal ministries and 10 cantons with their own ministries. The federative entity has a shared presidency, with veto for all three constitutive nations that stalls any major reform proposal. This has been keeping the ethnic divisions alive up until now.

The political infrastructure is crucially reflected in the massive administrative apparatus. In economic terms, the administration costs represent 70% of the whole state budget! We are not speaking of a simple dual structure on the axis between federation and canton. For example, how are we to imagine a clear educational policy in the country where there are thirteen Ministers of Education!

These formal absurdities are not without consequence for everyday life. To give an example from Mostar, a city divided between Croats and Muslims, the ethnic principle and separated educational policy means that a high school would in the morning be open for Croat pupils, and in the afternoon for Muslims. The pupils would be taught by same people, but from different history textbooks. Ethnic groups are not supposed to mix, and continue to live in separate parts of the city.

This type of structural frame re-activates the second part of the famous Clausewitz saying for post-Dayton BiH: not that war is a continuation of politics by other means, but the contrary truth that politics is continuation of war by other means.

In postwar times, the logic of ethnic nationalism has been coupled with privatization processes that have proved to be a social disaster. Some of the most drastic “achievements” have been brain drain, extreme class stratification, bankruptcy of the majority of industries in the region, soaring unemployment rate of more than 25% and 63% among youth under 25, growing debt dependency, and patriarchal-religious re-traditionalisation. So much for the democratic transition.

In this context, getting a job in the governmental apparatus has been one of the only secure and privileged positions one could get. But distribution of those jobs was according to presupposed ethnic and (ruling) party lines. “Ethno-nationalist” vocabulary was continually used in order to obfuscate neo-imperial and class issues.

Imperialism reloaded

The current uprising comes as a major challenge for the ruling class. The government representatives of BiH have been deeply perplexed, and fear the consequences of the revolt. What has disturbed the core of their functioning is that for the first time, the historical stage has been overtaken by a strong anti-nationalist stance.

The media and party public relations machinery have tried their best to discredit protesters as “hooligans,” “drug dealers” (framing some to be dealing large amounts of speed), provocateurs, and Chetniks. This reflects the fact that many government representatives continue to sustain their political power through the old mentality of ethnic prejudice. Other members of the local political elites have already resigned from their posts.

Local politicians have been joined by neighbouring high representatives rushing to condemn the people’s uprising. Croatian prime Minister Milanovi visited Mostar to reassure Croatian political interests in the region and condemn the irrational protest. According to Andreja Zivković, First Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia Alexander Vu?i? “called in party representatives from Republika Srpska to warn them not to cause any trouble, thereby demonstrating not only the continuing expansionist ambitions of the Serbian political elite, but also the fundamental class solidarity of the Bosnian political elite.”

From liberal and conservative commentators in BiH to regional and European representatives, there was a concerted effort to raise fears that the conflict would escalate into a new war. A variety of conspiracy theories were disseminated. But unquestionably the cherry was reserved for Valentin Inzko, High Representative of the international community in BiH, who told the Austrian media that: “Austria will increase its troops there, but if it comes to escalation we would have to consider the intervention of EU forces.”

This statement bluntly exposed the real position of BiH: that of a protectorate of a neo-imperial EU. Not much later, the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davatoglu flew over to Sarajevo giving the support to the BiH government and calling it to act immediately to stop the protests.

It is quite telling that all this is happening in the year we mark the centenary of  the first World War (WWI). Many commentators continue to argue that the Balkans were the powderkeg that ignited the war, attributing the start of war to the assassination of Habsburg Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip. The little detail about the repartitioning of the colonial world among the Great Powers that was the true basis of the conflict among is rarely mentioned. In fact, long before WWI Bosnia was a hotbed of national liberation struggles against the occupying Habsburg monarchy. This same spirit of rebellion infused a successful antifascist partisan struggle in WWII that liberated Yugoslavia from the Nazi occupation, relying on its own forces.

The current popular and democratic politics is aligned with the anticolonial partisan tradition, showing a mirror to Europe so its imperial and postcolonial legacy may be recognized. Thus the events in Bosnia will have impacts in the whole region.

Two lessons learned…

on the lessons learned and the conclusions of comrade Kirn, read the whole article on the website of New Socialist