Can Europe Make It?

Bosnia and Herzegovina: putting social justice on the agenda

This is a revolt, not yet another NGO or academic report assessing BiH’s progress on its ‘Road to Europe’ or to NATO, nor a bland press statement from the Office of the High Representative, the supreme agency of foreign intervention in BiH.

Stef Jansen
18 February 2014

A young Bosnian protester. Demotix/Aurore Belot. Some rights reserved.

Tuesday 11 February 2014, five days after the start of a popular revolt against the ruling political caste in a series of towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). As I sit down for my shave in BiH’s capital Sarajevo, I ask the barber, M, a woman in her fifties, what she thinks of the events. “Terrible,” she says, “to see those buildings burn... It sends me back to the war straight away. If you have lived through that once... Never again.” These days foreign and local media coverage has focused on the burning of some government and party buildings in a number of towns across BiH. M’s fear, rooted in war experiences, goes hand in hand with the moral panic that often emerges when groups of mainly young men (some in Sarajevo speak of ‘hooligans’, while others, like M, prefer to dismiss them as balavci [‘snot-noses’]) escalate a peaceful demonstration to smash windows, set fire to buildings and fight with the police. Unlike on the occasion of previous dignified civic protests, this time politicians in four cantonal governments in BiH were frightened into resigning.

When pressed by her daughter, who is applying shaving foam, M soon links the protests to themes on more familiar ground in our conversations: scathing criticisms of the entire ruling political caste. Stubbing out her cigarette, she says: “How could people not revolt? When they don’t have jobs, they don’t get any social allowances, their pensions are miserable… Without a bribe you can’t even get a doctor to look at you... While ‘they up there’, they have villas, limousines, salaries of thousands of marks... and who knows what else they take on the side!?” M does not participate in the demonstrations, but this is what the revolt is about: an explosion of widely shared, accumulated fury with a ruling caste whose tentacles permeate every sphere of life in BiH and whose reproduction, we should note, is paid for by the lion’s share of the country’s IMF loans.

Significantly, the protests started in Tuzla. As in other towns in BiH, Tuzla’s industries have been decimated by the combination of the 1992-1995 war, the disintegration of Yugoslav economic networks and brutal dispossession through (crooked) privatisations.

Social property, a specific Yugoslav phenomenon, was turned into state property, and then into private property. With around half of the country’s population officially unemployed, and many others effectively without pay or social protection while employed on paper only, Tuzla is not very different from most towns in BiH. Yet, possibly due the fact that it has retained some of its leftist traditions (in Thatcher’s day, its miners organised in solidarity with British miners), including some trade union activities, it was in Tuzla that workers, unemployed people, pensioners, students, academics and other civic activists first besieged the seat of the cantonal government, demanding resignations and formulating a range of socio-economic demands.

The government resigned and a citizens’ council is seeking, amongst other things, a new government of non-party affiliated experts and a set of concrete measures in the field of employment and social benefits.

Since the initial revolt in Tuzla, street protests are being organised in many towns across the Federation of BiH—one of the ‘entities’ of which this deeply divided country consists. What dominates conversations I have or overhear, as well as the slogans I hear or the banners I see on the streets of Sarajevo or on TV and internet portals, is indignation at poverty, inequality and partocratic corruption by the ruling caste. This is a socio-economic revolt.

This in itself is not new. The spaces in front of government buildings in Sarajevo very regularly see demonstrations and protest tent camps by small groups of (former) workers of one firm or another. They tend to focus on the non-fulfilment of legal entitlements (salaries, social protection, pensions, etc.) and on the privileges of the ruling caste. So what is specific about these protests? Let me lift out three dimensions.

A first specificity is that this revolt is universalist in nature. It is not limited to one particular firm, sector or interest group. While only sometimes using a class vocabulary, protestors raise questions of poverty and inequality across the board. In particular they decry crooked privatisations through which members of the ruling caste have accumulated fortunes and solidified their positions of influence over the last twenty years.

Much of this emerges as plain fury against the ‘thieves up there’. This is, after all, a revolt, not yet another NGO or academic report assessing BiH’s progress on its ‘Road to Europe’ or to NATO, nor one of the bland press statements on the same topic from some embassy or from the Office of the High Representative, the supreme agency of the foreign intervention in BiH. In front of the cameras, people shout out the amount of their salary, pension or benefit (if any) and the number of employed people in their household (if any). Some wave their pension slips. They contrast this with the salaries, the limousines and the villas of political functionaries and simply state: “Enough already, things can’t go on like this”.

A second specificity concerns the demography of the revolt and its main addressees. Unlike in earlier universalist protests, there is a strong presence of workers and unemployed. With some exceptions, trade unions are absent, which is unsurprising given that union leaders are largely incorporated into or beholden to the ruling caste.

Very importantly, the most active centres of the revolt are former industrial towns outside of the capital. There, average living standards have deteriorated most and very few avenues for employment are available outside of public institutions controlled by political parties. Furthermore, most of the protests target cantonal governments, the institutional organs that, officially, are responsible for most socio-economic questions (employment, many benefits, but also education and health care, etc).

A third specificity lies in some of the experimental forms of this revolt, particularly in the aftermath of the resignations of officials. Following the example of Tuzla, many towns now see attempts to actively construct alternatives through open citizen’s councils that practice forms of direct democracy. While they (perhaps unwittingly) recall some of the theory of Yugoslav socialist self-management (if much less of its practice), they also resemble some forms of alterglobalist political action in Latin America and elsewhere in Europe.

This raises the question of geopolitics and global embedding. Commenting on the social revolt in BiH, EU and US politicians ritually repeat the need to help the country on its way to EU and NATO membership.

Is this not a good time to ask who exactly in BiH would be helped by that and how much? Unlike in many other demonstrations, there is currently no attempt to enlist the help of the so-called International Community. Partly this is no doubt because the revolt is targeted directly against domestic politicians. Yet it also shows that there is no illusion that ‘the foreigners’, as in-country officials are called here, would be likely allies in a struggle for increased democracy, social justice and the reduction of social inequality. Oblivious to social questions and shielded from them by their own tax-free salaries and expense accounts, they find themselves squarely on the other side of the fence.

It is of course difficult to foresee how—if at all—this revolt will play out on the longer term. Any attempt to develop an authentic move towards greater social justice in BiH will face serious challenges. I will schematically identify three of them.

A first challenge—ever-present in BiH—is posed by attempts to translate this social dissatisfaction into ethnonational resentment. This has been a key strategy for the ruling caste in BiH for over twenty years now and, all too often, it has worked. It will take careful and sustained work to prevent this from happening again.

A second challenge is populist co-optation. Already factions of the ruling political caste are seeking to use the energy of the revolt for their own purposes. No doubt, they will do their utmost to contain it and thus to maintain their privileges. Unlike many domestic commentators, particularly highly-educated ones, I personally do not think populism can and should be excluded as a productive element of this struggle for greater social justice. Given the country’s history, I understand their reluctance. Yet the question, I believe, is not whether populism will play a role, but who will succeed in channelling it and how.

Related to this, as we saw in the case of barber M, a third challenge lies in the fear factor. The experience of war lies so close under the skin of many who have lived through it that any indication of violence, chaos or even simply instability may lead a large number of them to go for stability, even if this means the stability of misery. As the well-worn saying goes: “Just let there be no shooting”. It will be a great struggle to avoid sinking back into such understandable resignation and an even greater one to mobilise broader layers of the population into breaking it.

Let me close with a call on foreign commentators and analysts to go against the usual reflexes when addressing issues in BiH. In terms of identifying problems, this means resisting the tendency, whenever something happens in BiH, to try to find out whether it is a Bosniak, a Serb or a Croat happening, or perhaps a trans- or anti-ethnonationalist one.

So far, with regard to this revolt, such questions miss the point. It only reproduces the ethnonationalist matrix that paralyses the country. Instead, led by the actual events, let us provide grounded analysis of local and global socio-economic issues in support of domestic attempts to politically articulate questions of social justice.

In terms of identifying ways forward, it means resisting mantra-like prescriptions of the catch-all remedy of Euro-Atlantic integration. Direct democracy and the reduction of social equalities are hardly priorities anyone could associate with either the EU or NATO. In fact, the overall Gini coefficient of income inequality for BiH is significantly lower than in, say, the UK or the US.

We have a window here to critically address the specific socio-economic dynamics of BiH’s incorporation into a global neoliberalising context, beyond self-evidence (‘there is no alternative’) and the fear factor (‘it’s the only way to prevent a descent into renewed war’). Let us finally have that conversation, in BiH, and, importantly, outside of it. For the questions of social justice raised on the streets of BiH these days do not stop at the country’s borders.


This piece was originally published on BalkanInsight on February 13

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