'Death to nationalism' is message of Bosnia uprising
A feature of revolutionary times is when people’s movements decide to take matters into their own hands and throw up new forms of democracy. That’s what we are witnessing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where people of all ages – from teenagers to the very old – are engaging in an experiment in self-government.
The first people’s uprising of 2014 began in Tuzla, north-east Bosnia, an impoverished industrial city of 200,000 on February 4. The town has an unemployment rate of 55%, the highest in the country, while youth unemployment runs at 63%.
As the city administration handed in its resignation, a revolutionary organisational body called the “plenum” made its appearance. The idea of plenums quickly spread around the country, as one website explained:
All over Bosnia, protesters are organising ‘plenums’, places where people can gather and try to formulate their demands. The participants are defining their rules, moderating the plenums by themselves, and, after summing up, sending their demands to cantonal assembles.
In doing so they are shattering the clichéd image of a former Yugoslavia entirely riven by ethnic and religious conflicts. And the plenums revive a hidden but powerful aspect of former Yugoslavia’s history, hitherto buried under nationalist propaganda and image-making. As Mate Kapović writes:
The most impressive and symbolic picture of the first few days of the rebellion was the one depicting a burning government building in Tuzla, the city where it all began, with the graffiti ‘death to nationalism’ written on it. Since nationalism has long been a favourite refuge of the country’s political elites, who used it to justify their political and economic oppression, this was indeed a powerful message.
The legacy of the Dayton Agreement, imposed by Nato and Bosnia’s presidents in December 1995, were, as the campaigning movement Bosanski Kongres says, “enormous labyrinths of government bureaucracy, with parliaments, prime ministers and presidents for each and every entity, canton and district”. Consequently, an impoverished population of under four million people was burdened by taxation to support a bloated bureaucracy.
Following the February 4 street protests, this dysfunctional state has gone into meltdown. Prime ministers in the cantons of Bosnia and Herzegovina handed in their resignations, but not before sending out security forces to brutally beat up demonstrators.
Given the historic former ties with neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, corrupt political elites throughout former Yugoslavia are terrified that the “Bosnia revolution” could spread. Solidarity demonstrations were held in Serbia, for example.
The Balkan spring was heralded three years ago, at the height of the Arab spring and global occupy movements by Facebook protests. What has made Bosnia special – then and now – is that, as Kapović notes, “it was the first time that openly anti-capitalist messages were displayed in any of the post-Yugoslav countries”.
Until now, the image projected by the media about Bosnia-Herzogovina has been dominated by cruel ethnic and religious conflicts which have undoubtedly shaped its history. It was in Srebrenica that some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serb forces in July 1995, despite being under UN protection.
It was the assassination of Habsburg scion Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that sparked the outbreak of World War I a century ago. Today, the same area of the world can send a different kind of signal. Plenums of the kind being developed in Tuzla and elsewhere look back to the experiences of soviets in pre and post-1917 revolutionary Russia, the post-war Yugoslav and Hungarian workers’ councils, and more recently, the Occupy movements that swept the world in 2011-2012.
Plenums, like people’s assemblies, offer democratic forms of decision-making, ownership and control in place of top-down, capitalist state bureaucracy. Thus the people of this small but crucial state can be a real inspiration everywhere.
A World to Win secretary
17 February 2014