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Behind closed windows: a discussion on the recent protests in Bosnia

The poet Goran Simic and the historian Srdja Pavlovic discuss the protests in Bosnia and what they mean for the future of the country.

Goran Simic. Photo supplied by author. Goran Simic. Photo supplied by author.

Srđa Pavlović teaches at the University of Alberta. He is Montenegrin by birth, and a cosmopolitan by way of life. He is a prominent historian, whose work has been pivotal in discussions about the political situation in the Balkans, and especially with regards to the political manipulations in the region that we, amongst ourselves, call the “Former Yuga.” A rigorous analyst of regional history and politics, he is also a rebel, and a vocal opponent of those who work on revising and whitewashing our history.

As the protest started in Tuzla and then swept through Sarajevo, Mostar, and many other cities and towns, where the humiliated citizenry realised that political masochism does not fills one’s empty stomach, Srđa and I corresponded about the Plenum phenomenon. Would the years of frustration with corruption and ethnic politics, and a desperate need for change manifest themselves so clearly in Tuzla and Sarajevo, had the citizens not decided to serve Molotov Cocktails in the proverbial Cocktail Salons of the elites in power? I have attended the Plenum in Tuzla couple of times. It is tempting to think that this popular protest against the political oligarchy in Bosnia and Herzegovina opens up many possibilities for altering the political system, which has forced us to the bottom of the European economic scale.

Goran Simić : Protests are still under way. I have not witnessed such desire for economic and political change since 1992.

Srđa Pavlović: Yes, protests are still going on but I am afraid that while they may seem legitimate and important, their basic demands could potentially lead to problems. Namely, it seems to me that it would be necessary to better define the character of the protests when it comes to their position vis-a-vis the structural issues in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I think that it necessary to present a new model of how to structure the state.

G.S.: I see no participant of the Plenum who would desire to grab power and take advantage of this situation. Political parties that are currently in power would like nothing more than to see a new political party emerge out of all this.

S.P.: I did not mean to accuse anyone of wanting to grab the reins of power. I meant to problematize well pronounced and well founded desires for change without the pursuit of deep systemic reforms. This is how the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina appears from where I stand – i.e. North America. Demands to lower the salaries of politicians, eliminate the so-called “white bread”, and revisit cases of earlier gangster-like forms of privatization are all perfectly legitimate social demands. I am not sure, however, that such demands could be met without first enacting systemic change. Such change should be preceded by a recomposing of the current political landscape. 

I am not sure if that would mean the revising of the Dayton Agreement (maybe not such a bad thing to consider, after all) and the current cantonal division. It is, nevertheless, important to clearly define and manifest a desire to enact systemic change and socio-economic reforms that should encompass the entire structure of the state. No one should be above that regardless of how much money a person has or how highly he or she might be positioned in the federal governement.  I think that at some point in the very near future, Plenums would have to either become a functional mechanism through which achievable political aims could be voiced and carried out or create such a mechanism. Enthusiasm and ideologically coloured activism are great and all-inspiring (”com’e bella giovinezza”) but are not enough to reform and run a state.

G.S.: It is obvious that things are already changing since those in power seem rather concerned and scared for their positions.Their pants are shaking. All those things are included in the program.

S.P.: I am eagerly waiting for Plenums to finally define the primary objective that is, I am convinced, the condition sine qua non of an all-encompassing reform: taking over the power. Protesters in Bosnia and Herzegovina would have to be clear on that point: taking over the power in order to enact deep structural and systemic reforms. Failing that, the enormous energy that now carries the protesters forward would produce one thing, and one thing only: a still born. Does anyone in the Plenums talk about the necessity to take over the reins of power?

G.S.: Plenum is insisting on respecting and applying the laws I mentioned in our earlier conversation. It also insists on appointing to positions of power people who are honest and whose CVs are not tainted by scandals. 

S.P.: I understand that but wonder about the mechanism through which one brings such people to the positions of power. How to do that in practical terms? Do you create a shadow government that offers an alternative policy, and then compete in the elections? Do you storm the government buildings, install your appointees to state offices, and call it a revolution? Do you send a written request to the current rulers asking them politely to step down?

G.S.: For now, the goal is to dismantle the hierarchy of thieves. When the flow of money stops, half of them will give up.

S.P.: I agree, Goran, but an important question/realisation remains to be addressed: the hierarchy of thieves cannot be separated from the structure/system/institutions whose disfunctionality enabled corruption and thievery. To destroy that hierarchy and build new mechanisms of control and accountability, it is necessary to thoroughly reform the entire existing system. Otherwise, bringing in new and honest people becomes a waste of time, energy and resources because those new and honest experts would have to work within a system adjusted to tolerate and enable thievery and corruption.

G.S.: Well said. Are you suggesting the Plenum becomes a political party? It seems to me that those in power would be happy with such a development. They control all the mechanisms of state and the new party would be their sacrificial lamb. Until now, the Plenum has been a voice of the popular protests, but you are right to ask about the new FORM it should take. At the moment, I see no desire to take that next step.  

S.P.: I am aware that becoming either a political party or assuming some other functional form that would be recognizable to future partners in a dialogue means a terribly uneven and unfair face-off against structures that have money and control the state apparatus. I still think that desired changes cannot be achieved through the current form of the Plenum. At some point (and that point is closer than we think) the Plenum must start acting in a pragmatic fashion and become politically operational and efficient. Simply put, I am thinking about the technology of power takeover while counting on direct support of the external forces (EU).

I think that parties in power see this reluctance on the part of the Plenum and, I am sorry to say, are waiting for the Plenum to vent out. Once the excitement subsides and fewer and fewer people keep coming to the Plenum, the ruling kleptocrats would ‘graciously’ invite the protesters to address their legitimate demands and proposals for change through the existing state institutions. All that, while previously mentioned hierarchy of thievery remains intact. I am truly afraid of such a scenario playing out in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Srdja Pavlovic. Photo supplied by author. Srdja Pavlovic. Photo supplied by author.

G.S.: The revolutionary fervour persists and the messages of support are coming in from all sides. An international body that would assist the protesters in defining their future course of action is in the making.  It is, however, worrying that the international community is still not proactive in this crisis, as if it is waiting for a new partner for dialogue to emerge from the events. It is behaving much like the ruling parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I believe that the lack of a proactive approach is further complicating and delaying the taking of that ‘next step’ I mentioned before.

S.P.: Yes, that next phase and a new form are of great importance indeed. I am fully aware of the extent to which the traditional party structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and in the entire region) have lost legitimacy. I also agree that the Plenum adopting those forms might not be the best option. Still, Goran, I am convinced that the Plenum has to plan for that ‘next step’ right now. The organizers might be well advised to look for non-standard forms through which social grievances and the efforts of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina to regain political agency could be channelled. Such form is essential for any systemic reforms to take place. I know that it is not popular talk about the technology of governing at the time of great revolutionary fervour. Then again, the revolt currently articulated through the Plenum would soon have to be translated into actionable policy in order to produce expected results.

If I were to resort to using the terminology from the leftist ideological chest, I would say that in the very near future the Plenum would have to self-dissolve. That self-dissolving or “translating” into a different language of change would have to take a form the EU could recognize. That is how one becomes a partner for dialogue with the massive bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in Brussels, like any other bureaucracy, is not used to talk through non-standard forms of political activity. Such bureaucracy, simply put, does not speak the same language as the Plenum. in Bosnia and Herzegovina today the Plenums and protesters are writing the alphabet of a new political language of direct democracy.

Still, for pragmatic reasons, it is necessary to seek techniques of translating this new non-traditional political language so it becomes understandable to the EU bureaucracy. What ever we might think of its nature, intentions, and its democratic inclinations, it is clear that no meaningful long lasting structural reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina could be achieved without the help and direct involvement of the EU. I am not sure how to construct this new non-standard political form that would be recognized by the administration in Brussels but I am convinced that such form is needed.

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None of us is immune to defeatism, and I have no doubt that each of us often mauls over the worst-case scenarios. I am reminded of the verses by Jorge Luis Borges   “I'm trying to bribe you with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat... .” I think that calling for change is an invitation to step out from the bottom of the hole. Srđa Pavlović’s thoughts on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina would not console those sceptics whose only mantra is “to avoid violence at all costs” but it is, at the very least, an invite to consider our options. It is also a cautious reminder that we should self-reflect before the politicians in power import and give us thousands of Chinese-made whistles, and then leave us on the streets and squares to vent out our frustration. I am absolutely sure that sitting in the silence of their walled mansions and behind their glass-stained closed windows they will not hear our voices.

About the authors

Dr. Srdja Pavlovic teaches modern European and Balkan history at the University of Alberta. He is the Research Associate of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies (U of A) and the author of Balkan Anschluss (Purdue Univ. Press, 2008). His upcoming book is entitled It Could Have Been Spring: Case Studies of Active Citizenship and Direct Democracy.

Goran Simic is a Bosnian writer of poetry, plays and short stories. His poetry has been translated into more than twelve languages and was included in several world anthologies, such as Scanning the Century (Penguin, 2000) and Banned Poetry (Index of Censorship, 1997), and in numerous anthologies in Canada and the former Yugoslavia. His work has been featured in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, and Salmagundi. He is also the co-founder of PEN Bosnia and Herzegovina.


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