Bosnian workers rebel against corruption and poverty

A media silence on Bosnia
A media silence on Bosnia

While western newspapers, radio and television news programmes have been full of events in Ukraine you have to search very hard for any coverage of protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina writes Geoff Ryan. Regional assemblies have been invaded, with their erstwhile occupants chased out to the accompanying chants of ‘thieves, thieves’. Regional governments have resigned. Yet virtually the only time Bosnia has had a mention has been in relation to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the outbreak of the first world war – usually in dreadful attempts to justify British participation in the war.

Perhaps the reason for the silence is that the protests in Bosnia, in contrast to Ukraine, have been largely led by the working class, have demanded an end to privatisation, have rejected nationalist arguments and have begun to develop forms of direct, participatory democracy. ‘Take to the streets. Death to Nationalism’ proclaim slogans on the walls of towns and cities in Bosnia. All of this is, of course, anathema to the capitalist class of the European Union and the United States who would be far from happy if workers elsewhere started to follow the Bosnian example. Hence the media silence.

It is no surprise that the Bosnian revolt began in Tuzla. Tuzla is an industrial city with a mixed population of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks along with people of other nationalities not recognised as forming the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. During the war launched against multi-national Bosnia by then Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb allies Tuzla remained a bastion of working class internationalist unity. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks fought alongside one another in the militias organised by the Tuzla miners and other trade unions. It was this opposition by the Tuzla working class to the various nationalisms that were trying to tear Bosnia apart that in 1993 led International Workers Aid to Bosnia to concentrate on raising support for the Tuzla region.

In Tuzla demonstrators were attacked by police. The demonstrators fought back, in the process burning down several government buildings. In Bosnia, unlike in Britain, the media has been far from silent. Attempts were made to portray the demonstrators as drunken thugs, accusing them of looting, burning government archives (comparisons being made with the Nazis burning of the Reichstag) – none of which actually happened.  The media smears backfired and the protests spread to Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Bihac and other cities throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, the protests have so far been largely confined to the Bosniak-Croat Federation. In Republika Srpska the uprising has been portrayed as solely Bosniak as well as a threat to Serbs. Despite the nationalist rhetoric there has been a small demonstration in Banja Luka, capital of Republika Srpska as well as protests expressing support for the struggles in the Federation in the Serbian capital Belgrade. There have also been support activities in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro though, as yet, these remain on a small scale.

Hostility to the uprising was also expressed by Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic. On a recent visit to Mostar he asked Croats to keep away from the protests. In his view the problem is that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not sufficiently European (i.e. pro-EU). And he is, in fact, right: the demands raised by the protestors throughout Bosnia are undoubtedly incompatible with the demands of the EU.

The protests certainly call for an end to corruption (which Milanovic piously believes will be ended by kowtowing to the EU). However, they have also called for an end to privatisation, including demands for renationalisation of some enterprises – not something the capitalist EU will welcome. Nor will well-heeled EU officials be too keen on the demand that government officials be paid the same as workers in the public and private sectors. Other demands to abolish pay offs for those voted out of office, abolish perks such as cars for officials and the Sarajevo proclamation ‘Against the economic model which favours the rich’ are the stuff of nightmares in Brussels and Strasbourg. As yet the protestors have not formulated clear anti-capitalist demands but the logic of their campaign takes them in an anti-capitalist direction.

More worrying still for EU governments is the way in which the protests have begun to organise. Starting in Tuzla, and rapidly spreading to other towns and cities, the workers organised plenums. The plenums are a form of direct, participatory democracy which potentially give everyone in an area the possibility of expressing their opinion on what needs to be done and then voting on it. In some ways they are like the forums adopted by the Occupy movement but are more willing to make decisions.

There are a number of problems with the plenums; in particular they often cover an entire canton, which makes it difficult for people from outlying areas to participate if the plenum only takes place in a major city. In the cities it may be impossible for the whole population to participate. But these are not insuperable problems: there are certainly ways of ensuring the maximum possible participation.

Of slightly more concern is the decision of some of the plenums to ban political parties from taking part. As yet it is unclear exactly what this means. Does it mean that members of political parties are banned from participating (which I would oppose) or does it mean that members of political parties participate as individuals with no more rights than those not affiliated to a party (which I could support).

Whatever the weaknesses of the plenums they do pose a significant challenge to capitalism and to capitalist ways of organising. They need the widest possible support.

We should not underestimate the level of hostility to developments in Bosnia amongst the capitalist class, particularly in Europe. The EU High Representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, has already threatened to send more troops to Bosnia if the authorities there are unable to bring the protestors to heel. Inzko’s threat is a stark reminder that Bosnia-Herzegovina may be sending a team to this year’s World Cup in Rio but it is not an independent state. It remains a state artificially divided into the Croat-Bosniak Federation and Republika Srpska as a result of the settlement imposed at Dayton, a settlement that essentially rewarded Milosevic for his war of aggression: at a time when western governments backed Milosevic and didn’t consider him (or Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic) as a war criminal.

It is also subject to the EU High Representative under whose rule corruption has been endemic, mafiosi have enriched themselves and the Bosnian people impoverished. So much for the rosy future predicted by Croatian prime minister Zoran Milanovic: if Bosnians would just embrace the EU. The same EU that has presided over the immiseration of the Bosnian working class who suffer 45% unemployment, lowering of wages and constant threats of losing jobs. The uprising shows the people have now had enough. They are showing that an anti-capitalist direction is possible in eastern Europe and need all our support.

For further information contact the Bosnia Solidarity Committee on Facebook.



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