The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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APR 2014 Issue
Field Notes

On the Revolts in Bosnia-Herzegovina

The perspective of yet one more nationalist clash at the gates of Europe, in Ukraine, doesn’t seem to displease the world’s masters and those who write for them. The spreading patriotic fever, from the Maidan to Crimea, has diverted and stifled the few emancipatory aspirations visible in the popular revolt against a system of corrupt thieves. What was predictable and possible has become inevitable, and fearsome.

Things are going differently, at least until now, with the revolt gripping Bosnia-Herzegovina. This movement began in the first week of February with workers’ demonstrations against the consequences of privatization and an increase in unemployment. These demonstrations took place in Mostar and especially in Tuzla, an industrial city with a long tradition of struggle dating from the “socialist” era. Tuzla was also one of the rare places where the nationalist madness had little following, even in the worst moments of the war of the 1990s.

One witness to these demonstrations noted that “We see lowpaid or unpaid workers standing shoulder to shoulder with strikers occupying workplaces whose managers have taken off with the cash-box, lots of unemployed, and a few students waiting for unemployment, joined, of course, and in the front lines, by angry young people.”1 The revolt spread to other cities, finally involving all Bosnia-Herzegovina; there were even a few solidarity demonstrations in Croatia, Macedonia, and Serbia. If the Ukrainian scenario seems to satisfy the old bourgeois maxim that every revolt leads to new forms of oppression, the example of Bosnia-Herzegovina shows, to the contrary, that it is the social content of a struggle that limits or enlarges its possibilities.

For two months now, mobilizations, strikes, occupations, and experiments in self-organization have flourished in this Balkan region.2 This determined and creative movement has essentially constituted an action-based critique of nationalism and the political class in power, while seeking new forms of representation. The reorganization of social life is in fact a necessity, given the long process of destruction of the local economy and the impoverishment of society that neoliberal newspeak calls “the policy of privatization.”

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, this policy was initiated around 1989, under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (it’s worth remembering that the chief economist of the Bank at that time was the same Joseph Stiglitz today recycled as a master thinker of a left in search of a master). Privatizations and restructurings proceeded to devastate hundreds of thousands of proletarians, soon transformed into easy prey to the inter-ethnic butchery of the 1990s. The Dayton Accords of 1995 put a stop to the massacre and sealed the process of dismembering the country into national entities, as easy to govern as to pillage for the different nationalist clans transformed into new ruling classes. All of this took place under the protection of hundreds of international bureaucrats and functionaries and thousands of U.N. representatives, all charged with assuring the honorable business of peace, and well paid to do so. The Bosnian state became a protectorate of Western capitalism, to the point where a discerning observer of the local scene doesn’t hesitate to write that the installation of a “predatory economy was not a collateral damage of the Bosnian war, but its purpose.”3

Two decades later, the situation is catastrophic: an economy bled dry, demolished, and pillaged by a bankrupt, corrupt state, under the protective and complicit eyes of the Western democracies. In this desolate scenario, ethnic clientelism took the place of the social state and “submission to all existent ethnic segregation became the only strategy to survive.”4 The result: “Those who stayed in Bosnia know the meaning of free markets better than any Western student of economics.”5 It is precisely this concrete, daily understanding that is driving the current revolt.

At the very moment when a good number of Ukrainians are letting themselves be seduced by the discourse of patriotism and national identity, the movement expanding through Bosnia-Herzegovina is making the rejection of nationalism the center of the struggle. Nineteen years after the end of a war that killed more than 100,000 people, nationalism is being denounced as a tactic justifying the breakdown and pillage of society, of its infrastructure, factories, and other productive forces, for the profit of the new bourgeoisies issued from the bureaucratic mutation of “really existing socialism.” Indeed, the construction of national and ethnic identities contributed greatly to weakening resistance to privatization, delivering the workers, “by way of national reconstructions promising them a better future, to their worst enemies.”6 In other words, privatization is here only the continuation of war by other means.

In a society that has paid dearly, in spilt blood, for its submission to the deadly values of nationalism, it is remarkable that this social construct has cracked so rapidly. As the author of Return from Bosnia notes, everything suggests that “this ‘ethnic’ aspect has lost its dynamism and is exhausting itself, even if it survives as a tissue of scars more or less under the skin, depending on the region.”7 In Bosnia today—and this will be repeated in Ukraine and elsewhere—the nationalist gangs push themselves forward as local capitalist mafias laying hands on different branches of the economy, in compliance with the major Western capitalist business groups.

Among many others, three examples demonstrate the keen understanding of this matter to be seen in the movement currently spreading over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The first dates to March 5, when demonstrators in the eastern zone of Mostar, the so-called Muslim zone, attempted to join up with those of the western part of the city, the so-called Croatian zone. The police stopped them by blocking the bridge connecting the two areas.8 The same bridge that was bombed during the war to cut the city in two was blocked by the police to prevent the unification of struggles. It would be hard to make clearer the connection between war and politics.

I owe the second example to the text just cited, Return from Bosnia, which reports the words of a worker speaking during a mass meeting in Mostar in reaction to “a speech praising the multi-ethnic diversity of the country.” His response: “Fuck your multi-ethnic stories. Before the war no one knew who they were and we were better off.”

For a third illustration, we have the events, heavy with significance, at the beginning of the revolt, on February 7, at Mostar, the only one of the erupting cities that lies right on the line between Croats and Muslims.9 On that day, demonstrators began by setting government buildings on fire. Then they attacked the headquarters of the nationalist political movements, setting fire to the offices of the H.D.Z. (the Croatian nationalist party) and that of the S.D.A. (the Muslim nationalist party). A nice bonfire!

After this first phase of anger, the demonstrators opted for ridicule, mocking the local governments, the national government, and politicians in general by organizing “public funerals for the governments,” mass happenings celebrated in the streets.10 Most importantly, they initiated spaces for discussion and debate, and then opened mass meetings, the “plenums.” At the initiative of strikers, students, and a few political activists, the first of these assemblies met at Tuzla on February 11; they spread rapidly throughout other cities and towns.

The plenums began by taking on the role of collecting, presenting, and discussing the demands addressed to various governmental units. But, despite police repression, the demands rapidly became more radical, while the balance of forces appeared more and more favorable to this movement. Henceforth, plenummembers demanded the liberation of arrested demonstrators, the equalization of politicians’ salaries with workers’ wages, the end of the privileges and subsidies of the political caste, and even the firing of corrupt politicians—which is to say, of the near totality of the political class. And indeed, in many localities the politicians resigned, to be replaced by “non-party” officials elected by the plenums. As the representatives chosen by workers on strike complaining about unpaid wages—or fired as a result of privatizations—used the plenums to create a synergy of solidarity and to build a network of struggles, some posed the question of the self-management of enterprises, and attacked the unions linked to the government. The movement thus laid down deep social roots and in early March a federal coordination of plenums was set up. Workers were not alone in these organizations—far from it: the assemblies were characterized by a real mixture of generations and by a strong presence of women, a sign that this was a wave sweeping over the whole society. Everybody agreed on the rejection of nationalism: the banner decorating the meeting room of the Mostar plenum read, “Freedom is our nation.”

Better yet, the contamination spread and solidarity crossed recently erected frontiers. People demonstrated in Belgrade (Serbia), Zagreb (Croatia), and in Skopje (Macedonia), with slogans unimaginable only yesterday: “The nationalists are the servants of the capitalists,” “Bosnian hooligan, I love you,” “Entrepreneurs = slavers, Workers = slaves,” “Down with nationalism, nepotism, and corruption,” “No war between peoples, no peace between classes. One class, one fight.” At the end of February, 2,000 Serbian veterans demonstrated at Banja Luka (the Serbian zone of Bosnia-Herzegovina) to protest against privatizations and their social consequences. Their representatives recognized the principle of the plenum and sent an elected delegate to the Sarajevo city government—a strong gesture, given the virulence of anti-Bosnian propaganda in the Serbian areas.11

The vitality of the movement for self-organization, and the rediscovery and practice of direct democracy, constitute the principal strengths of the movement, the sources of its energy and creativity.12 However, direct democracy is not easy; it is a road with many cul-de-sacs and wrong turns. We can only advance haltingly in reconstructing political activity, remembering to be suspicious of politics, and uncontrolled—and therefore uncontrollable—forms of representation, striving to limit the delegation of power as one can. For example, take this passage from a plenum meeting in Sarajevo on February 17. The order of the day:

No one can represent the plenum, but we must choose people who will physically take our complaints/demands to the authorities. Thirteen volunteers stepped forward; we had decided in advance on a delegation of seven so as not to be too many … We thus had to decide who would go, who wouldn’t … The 13 volunteers presented themselves one by one. … They presented themselves very soberly—name, first name, activity, and two or three remarks. Most were unemployed, a few proles with jobs, a few retired, two emigrant workers returned to Bosnia, one from Sweden, the other from France. I remember three women. (Women were numerous in the assembly, and took part more often in the discussions.) Once everyone had spoken, the girl with the microphone called on the ‘citizens’ one by one for the assembly to decide. The first two were booed off the platform, then the others were accepted or rejected following a procedure that was a little random and unsteady, but always very democratic. They were asked: ‘Is this what you want or not?’ with the questions coming in no particular order. Rejections came only after several rounds of questions. Certain people, already known, were applauded and immediately chosen. At the end of this meeting, which lasted a while, one of the ‘chosen’ took the mike from the girl who was running the discussion and said, ‘Listen, … I was chosen, and I don’t want to change the decision about myself, but why not send everyone?’ Applause. The girl took the mike back and put the proposal to a vote. It was thus decided that all the volunteers would be members of the delegation.13

At the start of the movement at least, “real, participatory democracy was constantly invoked.”14  As time passed, ambiguities, weaknesses, and limits appeared. It seems that two currents coexisted, supported each other, and clashed with each other within the movement. The first did not go beyond a critique of political corruption, and had the aim of cleaning up politics and its institutions. From this point of view, the institutions are not the issue—they need only be taken in hand by “good” political leaders.  Clearly, this view continued to regard politics as a separate, specialized activity. This attitude took concrete form in a proposal that seemed to carry the plenums, of a “government of experts,” justified by the goal of efficacity. Of course, this path pleased the professional political types; it was also supported by the preexisting political organizations, including the former partisans of the old communist party, as well as by representatives of a new left that was present and active in the plenums.15 Is this a sign that the new strata of the modern middle class, carried along by the movement, are seeking their place in political life, hoping to displace the old nationalist gangs? This cannot be excluded, and indeed is inevitable. But the fact that the professionals of politics advanced under the cover of anonymity shows that the legitimacy of the plenums rests on their spirit of “real, participatory democracy” and on the energy of the autonomous struggles. Political manipulators must be prudent.

The second current in this movement is probably more of a minority. Burned by past experience, suspicious of manipulation, and pervaded by a lack of belief in politicians, it demands another mode of governing the community’s affairs, giving priority to the principles of direct democracy and insisting on the control of delegated power. Very critical of institutions and the central government, this current tends to be limited by a localism that limits the force of its critique.

This deep divergence of visions manifests itself not only within the plenums, but extends more or less to the whole of society and even, perhaps, to the strike committees in occupied enterprises on strike.16

We should therefore avoid looking at Bosnia through rose-colored glasses. The state power remains intact (and strongly supported by the Western democracies) despite its crisis, fears, and fragilities. And only an active minority of society has mobilized in opposition. Everything will depend on the movement’s ability to keep control of its organs, as well as in its capacity to protect itself from the new political personnel who aspire to take over. Above all, it’s a matter of watching out for the so-called “government of experts,” whose first measure will probably be to void the power of the plenums of its substance, which rests to a great extent on the links they maintain with the collectivities in struggle, the strike committees, and occupied enterprises.

Commenting on the situation in Ukraine, a commentator remarked that the country “has a tradition of leaders, not of discussion.” This is the basic problem. During the 1920s, revolutionaries critical of the vanguard party model that Lenin and his friends sought to impose on the whole European left denounced its “basic principles: the unconditional authority of the leader, strict centralization, iron discipline, continual training in correct opinions, combativeness and devotion, complete dissolution of the personality in the interest of the party.”17 The eight decades of Stalinism and state exploitation that followed sufficiently proved the correctness of this critique. That this strange “totalitarian socialism” later gave birth to a savage capitalism just as totalitarian, has not altered much: the Leninist principles have remained dominant in those societies.

What the populations of the former Soviet bloc are experiencing today is largely determined by the nature of this new form of state oppression and the cult of leadership. What is happening in the territories of the former Yugoslavia, however, represents a curious departure from this rule. The return of the past in the collective consciousness is taking a dissident form, expressed in a critique of nationalist totalitarianism and feeling around for a mode of self-government.

But, as Richard Schuberth correctly emphasizes, “The situation in Bosnia is far from just a local problem, it is a local reflection of the global conflict.”18  The ongoing revolt in Bosnia-Herzegovina says much about the global state of our societies. It is one further step taken in the series of recent movements that concretely demonstrate the aspiration to a different world, seeking self-government for social emancipation. This movement, with its struggles and plenums, points to the future. It affirms a kinship with Occupy and the Spanish Indignados. It is quite different from the nationalist excitations of the Maidan and Crimea, whose energy derives from the irrationalities and hatreds of the past as much as from the stupidity of the present. The Bosnian way supports a precious hope, as it shows that, even after the barbarism of war and fratricidal massacres, it is always possible to return to humanity. This is an encouraging message, needed at a time when we often too easily despair of the state of the world. Cornelius Castoriadis liked to remember that the human race could do better. In Bosnia-Herzegovina today, it seems clear that we have not forgotten how to learn.

Paris, March 25, 2014


  1. Retour de Bosnie,
  3. Richard Schuberth, Bosnia as a medicine, March 6, 2014
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Retour de Bosnie.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  13. Retour de Bosnie.
  14. Ibid.
  15. NPA
  16. The information available at present is too fragmentary for me to be able to formulate a strong opinion on this question.
  17. Otto Ruhle, Fascisme brun, fascism rouge (Paris: Spartacus, 1975), p. 44.
  18. Richard Schuberth, Bosnia as a medicine

The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2014

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