Monday, March 10, 2014

Bosnia rebellion: an interview

This is an edited version of an interview I conducted with Matija Medenica of Marks21 about the insurgent social movement in Bosnia.
This uprising in Bosnia seems to be a serious repudiation of the Dayton settlement.  The one thing that rulers of former Yugoslav states all seem to have had in common, and shared with the EU, is the commitment to neoliberalism.  This looks very much like a class-conscious, popular rebellion against that programme.   I suppose the first question is, why now?  Can you outline what you think are the bases of legitimacy and control for the Dayton regime until now, and why these have broken down?  Is this linked to the politics of austerity in the European Union?
First, it is important to notice that Bosnia and Herzegovina have already witnessed mass violent outbursts of anger towards the authorities during the past decade, including setting up street barricades and stoning the local government buildings. Last year’s ‘bebolucija’ was only the latest wave, with people protesting fatal effects of what Dayton Bosnia turned out to be – ethnically divided, impoverished and privatised country where poor ‘raja’ can’t find a decent job while the complicated state machinery – populated by competing national elites playing zero sum games and vetoing each other over everything but the IMF deals – is so detached from the people that it will let an infant die due to bureaucratic idiocy that grew out of the Western sponsored peace arrangement that ended the war but at the same time made Bosnia the most dependent neo-colony in the post-1989 Drang nach Osten.
Bosnia is among the poorest countries in the region, with youth unemployment at almost 60%. That’s literally generations of people whose daily lives depend onengaging in any sort of activities strictly forbidden by the system (blackmarket economy etc):
“With a continuous rating downgrade for ease of doing business, with diminished foreign investments and credit rating downgrade as a consequence of permanent political crisis and lack of economic development, Bosnia and Herzegovina youth unemployment rate, according to the official data, reached over 54% in 2012 and 57.9% in the first half of 2013. Enormous debt, 235,000 unemployed persons without any work experience and over 10,000 closed companies in the last year are only some of the consequences of such a situation which have a significant negative impact on unemployment.”
The final say is reserved for the unelected Office of the High Representative (OHR), the face of the ‘international community’ that works “to ensure that Bosnia and Herzegovina evolves into a peaceful and viable democracy on course for integration in Euro-Atlantic institutions“.
Add to this the last several years of EU’s policies towards its periphery. As Živković notes:
"Moreover the political class of Bosnia and the EU do not just stand together in defence of privatisation, but have also been imposing an IMF austerity programme now in its fifth year to make the workers of both entities pay for economic collapse. Under the two Stand-by Agreements, budgets have been frozen, public sector pay cut repeatedly, consumption has collapsed, growth flatlined and external public debt has doubled, reaching 32% of GDP. Normally unable to agree on any federal legislation, the federal government last year passed the IMF-inspired Global Fiscal Framework (GFF) for 2014–16, which sets parameters for the entities’ budgets and hardwires cuts to reduce the budget deficit for the next two years, rendering neoliberal austerity immune from democratic challenge at the forthcoming elections. And since, as the IMF admits in its latest country report, none of this will actually restore growth and thus revenues, legislation is planned to raise the pension age, increase labour flexibility, and continue with privatisation."
Back in 2009, The International Crisis Group’s report on Bosnia admitted that the Dayton democracy lost legitimacy and that a simple removal of the OHR would intensify the on-going crisis – brought about by extensive privatisations andother neoliberal Troika measures. (See also this for an example of the political stalemate) So, a new strategy was needed and the West demanded recentralisation. No need to go into details here, I think Andreja explains it sufficiently in his article.
In short: among ex-Yugoslav states Bosnia has had one of the most devastating ‘transitions’ to being part of a global market economy, directly overseen by the West and implemented by the nationalist politicians within a complex ethnically divided system. In the Bosniak/Muslim majority part of the country (FBiH – Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) the only card Bosniak politicians can play is the nationalist card of Serbs or Croats blocking this or that decision from taking place: but the material basis for this argument is weak, ie. ordinary Bosniaks are not afraid anymore of falling under Serbian or Croatian domination. That is I believe the most important factor in why the Bosniak part of the country has seen more class conscious and more radical protests (not only within BiH but regionally), while Croatian and especially Serbian constituencies are much quieter – silenced by the idea that any unadvised move could change things for the worse.
So, what is the real social depth of the movement we have seen, and what are its prospects?  What kind of political articulations are available to help organise and direct this struggle, beyond the initial ‘high’ of spontaneous rebellion?
All I can say for sure is that the movement is definitely genuine in its spontaneity. It is being run through city-wide ‘Plenums’ (direct democratic citizen assemblies, open to everyone except those claiming to represent any political organisation). This is also interesting because this institution had been (re)discovered as a tool of struggle during the student occupations at the University of Belgrade back in 2006, then became much more popular once the students in Croatia took it to another level in a series of occupations in 2009. I’m saying this in order to point out how these ‘spontaneous’ wide movements in the Balkans (and more specifically in ex-Yu) cut through the national borders, but also across the lines that used to effectively isolate struggles of one group of ‘transitional losers’ from another.
It is widely recognised that the Bosnian uprising started as a workers’ protest. This is true and important on the level of initial ideological characterisations the movement, but not so much more than that. There was no visible engagement of workers’ organisations. On the first night of protest, Josip Milić, leader of the Alliance of independent trade unions of FBiH was taken in for questioning. In mid-February he was brutally beaten up and hospitalised. When visited by members of Plenum he called them ‘my revolutionaries’ etc. – he himself is seen as one of the leaders of the uprising – but the Union as such did not join the protests.
A slogan emerged on the regional left calling for ‘all power to the Plenums’. But this shouldn’t be taken too optimistically. Plenums are not Soviets (of deputies). They are discussion platforms where different people get the opportunity to share their opinions and vote on the course of struggle. It is there where the left has a great chance to test its demands and general approach (see for example reactions to the speech of Goran Marković, editor of the leftist Novi Plamen, when he calls for cross-ethnic solidarity, limiting PM’s salaries to average worker’s wage, re-introducing self-managing bodies in enterprises etc).
Damir Arsenijevic writes:
"The plenums have given citizens a forum to vent their anger at the everyday terror they endure. That is, the worker who has not been paid for almost four years but is forced to go to work every day, with no health benefits, or has to watch his wife die in agony because he cannot afford healthcare. The student who was forced to give huge bribes or sell her body to pass an exam. The woman whose son was severely beaten by the police because he took part in a street protest, and who came to the plenum at Tuzla and asked her son to show his bruises to the gathering of more than 700 people."

So the left has its audience in place, practicing solidarity outdoors and indoors. There is only one left-wing group, called The Left (Lijevi), mostly versed in student struggles. I spoke to some of them the previous weekend and to be honest I’m not so sure that they are using the situation the best way they can. They are frontlining but also dissolving into the movement – much like the left in Serbia during its first important test (the student occupations in 2006) or in Macedonia in 2011 against police brutality. Bound by the formal rule demanding from participants not to ‘promote’ any political parties, activists of The Left are usually silent about their political background.  I fear they lack political experience in order to gain what they rightfully should.
Plenum is a step in a good direction, but it is necessarily an ad hoc instrument that should primarily serve the purpose of struggle. But the fact that it offers a platform for all the silenced voices from below can also make it hard to struggle at the same time (speaking from personal experience in similar settings). People tend to go on about their personal stories which at first build others’ resolution and morals, but then gradually become boring and numbing. Direct democracy is also something to be practiced. We see that despite the good will, plenums in various FBiH towns didn’t break the fear of Serbs in Republika Srpska, thus challenging the imperial divide and rule strategy. To my knowledge they raised no concrete demands that targeted the national question and neo-colonial rule in Bosnia.
So right now it seems it’s slowly fading. There are regular protests and meetings, but usually not bigger than a few hundred people, and generally less political than at the beginning (checking if the masses are shouting ‘thieves, thieves’ is how you easily spot an unsuccessful protest in ex-Yugoslavia; that’s what they’re shouting now). This leaves the most prominent activists to state repression (you can get a picture if you Google translate this article), isolates them from the movement and lowers the chances of them building any sort of more permanent structure (organisation). Our experience in Serbia, primarily in student and workers struggles, is the one of intense police and para-state repression, which seems to be the case in Bosnia as well. The left will need to produce in-depth analysis and lessons to combat these problems in future settings, because Bosnian example is indeed the best case scenario of how a spontaneous uprising in the region can look like.
What makes Bosnia so very different from other, neighbouring states?  There have been popular movements, for example in Bulgaria: but nowhere as self-consciously class-based.
I believe I partly already answered this question so I would only like to say something about cultural hegemony, because that is something where Bosnia really stands out. Bands and artists such as Dubioza Kolektiv and Frenkie gained enormous popularity by mixing reggae and hip-hop with verses that openly attack the status quo, call for general strikes, for burning down the IMF and Brussels, for legalisation of marijuana, against nationalist divisions etc. And I’m not talking about the ‘underground’ kind of popularity. Every kid from Macedonia, let alone Bosnia, can sing you at least one Dubioza song. So a by-product of Dayton neoliberalism was a resurgence of the left in popular youth culture.
Also, divided into cantons, Bosnia has no central city that hosts bureaucracy and where different grievances can be directed to. So, for example, groups of striking workers would not be sent to Sarajevo to protest, rather they could find all the answers they needed at the local, cantonal level. This kept the spirit of the community alive and might be important in forming the general attitude towards fighting outside official channels.
As if to dramatise the link between imperialism and neoliberalism, the Office of the High Representative has spoken of the deployment of EU troops to contain the insurgency.  Paddy Ashdown, the former High Representative, has openly called for external intervention.  The language used is very familiar: the ‘international community’ must not abandon Bosnia, and so on.  Yet, far from abandoning Bosnia or the other former Yugoslav states, the EU, the IMF and so on seem to have taken an inordinate interest in determining the future of the Balkans.  Indeed, in the report of the International Commission on the Balkans in 2005, it was argued that the region had only two alternatives: subsumption into an expanded EU, or the perpetuation of colonial control; in reality, two forms of empire.  Can you describe the actual role of the external powers in Bosnia and the Balkans more generally, and suggest a way out of these false choices?
For some time now there’s been that talk, on the imperialists’ side of table, of how the Dayton agreement needs to be overcame – so as to centralise the country because this ethnically decentralised system has been basically defunct from the beginning. But reshaping the Agreement in this way would be an attack on the position/rights of Serbs, because they might not have the same treatment under a majority Muslim rule. So the divide and rule tactics of the Great Powers still plays a central role, and it is obvious that the popular ‘strategy’ of the new regional left that proclaims the way to solve the national question is not to engage with it at all is not only naïve but disastrous.
Now, if Serbs and Croats might have something to lose with the new deal from above, and thus tend to believe that even a corrupt Dodik is better than nothing, Bosniaks do not have that issue. They have seen the naked truth of betrayed hopes, after the USA intervened on the side of Bosniaks in the Yugoslav war. Their elites have been servile to the EU and NATO, their citizens didn’t attack EUFOR troops that remained on the ground long after the last bullet had been shot, they mostly kept quiet about the racist and sexist jokes that solders and other representatives of the much proclaimed “Western values” have been disseminating. Bosnia suffered the same IMF neoliberal policies as the rest of former Yugoslavia. It is the part of the EU dependent periphery, part of the pool designated for exports of finance and goods, where debt is used as the tool for making any decision comply with the wishes of the creditor, rather than the voting population. In Bosnia this has only been much more obvious because they don’t need to go to Brussels every now and then because they already have Brussels in their homes – and it’s obvious it doesn’t care for ordinary people’s welfare.
Balkans is important from the geopolitical perspective, as grounds of competing US and Russian funded pipelines that should bypass the divided Ukraine and provide EU with gas. It is also, as mentioned, a territory designated to enter the EU on its push towards East. But it is also a region where Russia still plays a significant role, primarily via Serbia, and we have seen how resolutely Putin can act on regional level. The national question is still hot, with competing Great Powers sponsoring competing nationalist elites. The two biggest common issues of all the Balkan countries are debt slavery and imperialist control. Presence of two imperialist powers and lack of organised progressive forces makes it hard to act in a way that will not actually work for at least one side, and there is no country strong enough to win against any imperialism. Therefore we have been developing the old strategy of the Balkan socialists – the Balkan Socialist Federation – in order to connect the struggles against debt slavery and imperialism.  This article by Živković and I on the history of the subordination of the region provides some the perspectives for the struggles ahead.