It isn’t dead. You wouldn’t know that by the news from Bosnian media today, however, one year to the day since the largest and most violent anti-government protests in Bosnia’s recent history took place. They took their cameras to the squares and city centers around the nation, filming the small crowds gathered to mark the anniversary, pining about the low turnout, low interest among the people, and lack of changes in Bosnian society. Nothing could be further from the truth.
February 7th 2014 marked a new era in Bosnian politics. It marked a point of no return: the Bosnians have found a way out of the deadlock of postwar nationalist bickering. However, the fight to achieve a society based on solidarity and social justice is far from over. It has just barely begun. But, it has begun.
For the first time in 30 years, Bosnians of all nationalities gathered by the hundreds and thousands to protest the deplorable conditions of postwar capitalism. Regional governments fell, government buildings burned, and the first, grassroots organizing known as plenums began. People came by the thousands, packed into public spaces, buildings, cultural centers and discussed what has oppressed them all these years, and what promises to oppress their grandchildren for years to come. This is not a thing anyone in Bosnia can forget. They need no commemorations to know that a true political opening was created last year.
The government panicked. Not because the movement was ready to take over its functions, it wasn’t, but because the people found the means to bypass the nationalist divisions of the last twenty years to unite over economic demands. The protests started in Tuzla, among the striking workers of Tuzla’s many destroyed factories and spread from there to the widest swaths of society in a matter of days. The government, Bosnia’s 21st century robber barons, and their media declared an apocalypse: the National Archives burned to the ground! The protesters caught with dozens of kilos of speed! The hooligans and junkies are protesting! They’re trying to do what they couldn’t in 1992! It’s treason! It’s terrorism!
And yet, it was so easy to see through all the noise that the protesters hit a nerve. For, all three nationalist elites were in a state of panic – accusing each other of plotting their demise in these protests. That proved just how much the movement was on the right path. And the elites weren’t far off. They were just wrong on who was doing the plotting.
The plenums went on for weeks. In the grievances expressed in these forums, economic despair dominated. Groups were formed to deal with different aspects of the movement. The workers planned their next move.
And then the waters came. In May 2014, a third of the country was hit with the most massive floods in recent memory. Many cities found themselves under water. The massive flooding didn’t respect boundaries, the Federation was under water, the RS was under water, and so were parts of Croatia and Serbia.
Bosnians, good neighbors that they are, helped each other: rafter clubs were rescuing people from the flood waters; neighbors from “the other side” took their less fortunate neighbors in; and the protesters and organizers jumped in as best they could, gathering supplies, driving them to the flooded areas, helping those whose lives were in danger.
The government did nothing. Minister Lijanović in the Federation glibly said: “We didn’t have to. People helped each other.” The damages are close to 1.5 billion Euros; 30% of industry and agriculture is completely destroyed. And Bosnia is now in the middle of its typically vicious winter.
Those who died in the floods are to be chalked up to victims of capitalism. The flooding was a direct result of unregulated harvesting of wood from Bosnia’s forests. Nusred Drešković, a professor of climatology at the University of Sarajevo lists three main reasons for the catastrophic floods: 1) climate change that has created ever more drastic changes in weather patterns, 2) failure to rebuild, maintain, and build new flood protection installations along all major river basins in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 3) destruction of forests and illegal construction in mudslide prone areas.
The flood waters might have tampered the protests, but they haven’t stopped them. Workers in Tuzla are still out on the streets every week. Following the protests, they united in a cross-sector union Sindikat Solidarnosti, to better address the systematic destruction of their once self-managed factories. The other groups from the plenums have continued to work, albeit in less media limelight. A good number of them have united in an activist network stretching across the country, discussing their goals and building a strategy together.
The government knows this. They have not eased, but actually stepped up repression, now that the media no longer pays any attention to the subject. They are practicing retroactive policing, issuing tickets for blocking traffic during the protests months after the fact, choosing the least active and most vulnerable among the protesters, and wisely staying away from the leaders. But, their efforts have been undermined by the solidarity that has built this movement from the beginning. The activists have organized and coordinated legal defense; they come en masse to the proceedings; and one case after the other is dismissed.
And meanwhile, the victims of Bosnian capitalism are piling up. The miners killed in a preventable accident; a homeless man freezing to death; a pensioner blowing his brains out on the steps of the presidential palace in Banja Luka; construction workers killed because of unsafe working conditions, etc. There is a sense in Bosnia that the other shoe is going to drop. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but it will happen. And then all bets are off.
In the meantime, the movement is far from dead. Two major struggles lie ahead: the new Labor Law and the set of new austerity measures called the Compact for Growth and Jobs. Both documents promise to be deadly for Bosnians – the 46% of Bosnians that are unemployed; the flooded Bosnians; the homeless and hungry Bosnians. The movement knows that. It grew out of one such realization: that the nationalists care least about their own people; that they are happy to sell every last bit of Bosnia to the highest bidder, and that the way to fight this corrupt and impossible system is not to confront nationalists on their turf, but to bypass them, deny them the platform to peddle their xenophobia. And to do that in the name of social justice, for which the current path of neoliberal development of underdevelopment in Bosnia must change.
However, the ‘bad Samaritans’ of international financial institutions have no intention of allowing such changes to Bosnian economic policy even if the local elites could be made to endorse such an approach, as the recent EU produced Compact for Growth and Jobs indicates. The Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina – effectively the gatekeepers to the promised EU accession for Bosnia – produced in May 2014 this document detailing six urgent measures ‘that would re-ignite the process of modernizing the economy.’ It reads as a brochure for deepening the neo-liberal measures already responsible for the devastating conditions on the ground in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the last twenty years.
The Compact ‘advises’ reductions in government expenditures; ‘efficiency improvements,’ i.e., cuts in the health and pensions systems; increase in sales taxes; elimination of seniority in labor contracts; ‘harmonizing’ labor legislation; ‘reforming’ collective bargaining; improving the business climate by ‘streamlining tax procedures;’ ‘stronger insolvency framework to make resolution faster and restructuring easier,’ i.e., allow for even faster criminal privatizations; and raising the effective retirement age. As the Compact reads, these ‘reform measures would be implemented by governments after the October  elections. They have been endorsed by the International Financial Institutions and the European Union who have plans at the ready to assist with their implementation and to provide financial assistance to alleviate their short-run effects.’ These short-term effects would be a drastic drop in the already extremely low standards of living in Bosnia.
To make matters worse, the June 2014 IMF Letter of Intent endorses the new labor laws, which are to, at a minimum:
(i) require all collective bargaining agreements to be time-bound, and with sector-specific collective agreements applying only to those enterprises and workers that want to be part of the agreement; (ii) allow differentiated wage setting based on skills, qualifications, experience, and performance; (iii) reduce disincentives for hiring; (iv) step up labor inspections and increase penalties for labor law violations; and (v) protect workers’ rights consistent with ILO labor standards and EC labor directives.
The fight over the new labor law is building as the unions are actively opposing many of these provisions, including one that would invalidate all collective agreements unless they are modified to agree with the new law, thereby denying decades of hard-won labor rights and protections. As Kenan Mujkanović of the Metalworkers Union says:
“We’ve seen a similar process in Croatia and Serbia, where the [IMF and World Bank] and rating agencies claimed an unacceptably high index of legal protections for workers, as they claim this about us now. […] Recently, the British Ambassador in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Edward Ferguson, said that the high price of labor in BiH is the cause of our low competitiveness, and a barrier to new investments and job creation. This claim hardly deserves serious consideration, as we know that the average salary in the real sector is between 500 KM and 600 KM, while the consumer basket for a family of four is 1,800 KM a month. However, this statement also clearly points to the interest and significant role the international community plays in the creation of future conditions in labor relations [in Bosnia and Herzegovina].”
The movement is not dead. In the ebb and flow of organizing for social justice, there will be times when masses will be out on the streets, but there will be many more hours spent on quiet organizing; mobilizing at the smallest community level; gathering signatures for petitions; bringing people to public hearings and meetings; educating the public about what is possible and what is necessary to better our lives and our futures. All of that hard work goes on in the background, while the media gleefully reports on the failure of protests and the disappearance of the movement. But, the movement is simmering in the background and its time will come.
In the meantime, it needs our material and political support; it needs help from many sides if it is to succeed. But it needs not commemorations and ceremonies. It need not mourn, except for the dead. But it needs to keep fighting like hell for the living.