Bosnia: A litmus test for Left nuance

by Armin Halilovic on March 6, 2014

Leftism and protest

Many of us, having been alive for long enough to notice the trends, have grown weary of paying attention to world or local political events past what is necessary to categorize it in broad template. Even with comrades who are out protesting, they admit to me that it is more about being seen, or even out of habit, than it is about genuine ideological conviction. Maybe it is the consequence of outrage fatigue or a bitterness with the stubborn refusal to better know history. Maybe it is much simpler than that: we communists are expected to not only know the facts surrounding these events, but are expected to understand the relations involved, and to give cogent answers about them. Of course, we are communists foremost because we believe good can be done most fruitfully through the application of communism as praxis, the interaction between theory and praxis being regulated by Marxian analysis and in turn producing an answer which can be scaled to the necessities of the single conversation, the personal map or the strategic guide. When people are fighting and dying, something always wants us to provide an answer as to why and what should be done about it. We are asked for an elegant narrative. Even discounting the unreliable nature of the ‘fact’ being transmitted from a Syria, Ukraine, or a Bosnia, as we will see, history does not deal in elegant truths. While we have become jaded, it is not to say that a protest cannot be understood in a useful way to us anymore, or that important information cannot be gleaned from it. Something has happened in the Balkans that has rejuvenated my will to engage with protests. I hope I am not alone.

Starting in the week of the 4th of February, protests erupted in an increasing number of Bosnian cities1, starting in Tuzla. In Tuzla, 6 cantons were home to about 2000 protesters. This ratio is essentially repeated for the remaining locales. Arguably the most interesting thing about them is that demands were not only quick to follow the first waves of action without much prompt (the first general demands came on the sixth day of the protests, according to Reuters), but that the demands were, and to this day remain, quite pragmatic. Owing to various factors, the complex history of the area and the relatively small amount of diaspora intellectuals, I’ve yet to see much analysis on the situation.2 Protests in solidarity have appeared in Austria, the Netherlands, etc. Despite this, the vast majority of people I speak to indicate that they have heard little to nothing about the protests, that the ordeal is overshadowed by the goings-on in the Ukraine, and so on.

While Bosnia’s upheavals are dwarfed in scale by Occupy, the ‘Springs’ and the events in Ukraine, their importance should not be underestimated. An idiosyncrasy of the Yugoslav spirit, Rade Šerbedžija, an actor said to be a ‘Serb from Croatia with a Bosnian last name’, known for his roles in American cinema, was present at the Sarajevo protests on the 22nd of February. As somewhat of an outsider, he gave his lucid, and in my opinion, correct thoughts on what was going on:

I came here, as I always go to any place where I see injustice and broken people, who are in misery. And it isn’t my wish to point the finger — these are issues for this country and its people, they know who — I don’t, I don’t live here, and don’t know who these people are whom they are calling out, but I do know that these people are right — above all, have a right to answers. [...] This looks like the start of something. One day we might see, when we see the actualization of broader social movements, and new thoughts are born, in Europe and in the world — [this protest] might be remembered as a significant thing.

Protests against corruption?

With up to 88% of Bosnian citizens supporting the protests, the nation seems to agree with Sarajevo-based journalist Aldin Arnautović:

To be against the demonstrations, the plenums or whichever other facets of the current protests, means nothing more than to have a significant interest coinciding with the existing system. Those against the protests are those who have something to lose, those who have ‘made it’ in it, or those with undisclosed interests. What possible argument could critics find against these protests [...] when after 10 years, after the hungry people of their native canton have exhausted all democratic means for change that the average Swiss man would’ve enjoyed the fruits of for 5 or 6 generations?

Arnautović provides an excellent introductory narrative for the initiated on the backdrop of the protests, which culminated to this point as a reaction to scenes of flagrant corruption:

Okay, so some don’t like the demonstrations, some are against the plenums. But what honest person can say that in these times, they do not think that rebellion is a good thing? A cry in opposition to systematic destruction? Only  those who prefer the situation as it is. It is easier to govern on the airwaves or in cafés and to argue how things should or shouldn’t be there, easier than it is to admit: ‘My mother works for the government’, or ‘My old man has a military pension, and even arranged disability status for himself’, ‘My uncles live comfortably with their own private businesses and are on a first-name basis with the mayor’, [...]. Okay, sure, people like this exist. But isn’t it better for them to then at least be quiet? Not to flaunt their suspiciously acquired class privilege? [...] It seems it is all much easier for these people to fabricate things to keep us all busy with, than it is for them to stand by their neighbour. To stand by him who has nothing. By him who stands at the crossroad inconveniencing us, hoping that someone will notice that he has no tomorrow. Because he only has today. And he is the one from whom things were taken in this unjust distribution, so that you and I, dear friends, would have ours.

But what do we mean by corruption? Corruption in Bosnia has been identified as one of the dominant causes of its postbellum inability to create functioning state institutions.3 According to a Gallup Agency poll, Bosnia ranks in with the world’s most corrupt countries.4 “Citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina rank corruption as the fourth most important problem facing their country, after unemployment, the performance of the Government and poverty or low standard of living,” claims a UNDOC paper on the subject.5 The level of corruption has only increased since the paper was published.6 My own immediate experience is no stranger to it. Trying to cross the border to get into the country, having driven for most of the day and night, one is subjected to subtle variants of corruption. One time in the late 2000s, my father was asked by a police officer stationed at the border, whether he had seen the sign that denoted the preceding area as a 30 km/hour zone. The officer promptly informed him that he was caught on camera, speeding in that area (plausible, as the normal speed limit for such a location is 50 km/hour — but there was of course, no camera). Rather than make a fuss and risk having to expend your already waning energy assisting the police in the search — and unloading — of a car fully and meticulously packed with gifts for the extended family, you are offered the opportunity to ‘make it right’. Anywhere between €10 and €50 euros is the going price, depending on whether the officer likes you or not.

Of course, this experience pales in comparison to the daily struggle of actual citizens. Under conditions of mass unemployment, corruption becomes a class issue. The report echoes Arnautović‘s monologue at certain points: “recruitment in the public sector is also an area of concern: among those hired in the public sector in the last 3 years, a significant percentage (14%) secured a job with the help of a bribe.”7

Političari lopovi

But one cannot take ‘anti-corruption’ struggles at surface level. Center-right liberal parties, defining themselves by their dedication to battling corruption in Bosnia and their pro-Western solutions to it, have made for an interesting case study in hypocrisy.8 Fahrudin Radončić, notably the current Minister of Security, has long been respected by Bosniaks for his unremitting critique of Milošević during the war. He has likewise been very vocal about corruption in the country.9 But despite coming out in careful defense of the ongoing protests10, Radončić has long been associated with shady dealings in and outside of politics. Wikileaks cables from the American Embassy in Sarajevo pulled no punches painting the media magnate in his true colors: corrupt, shady, self-interested, and personally unpleasant.11 Already owning the largest and most widely read newspaper in the country, among his other goals are his intent on solidifying power over the country’s judiciary, to shield him from possible prosecution… yes, for corruption.

A few words on theory and its obstacles

But before I move on to analyzing the Bosnian protests, I must first say something about the attitude of Western communists to the protests of recent years. Protests across the world have become a focal point — in the most broad sense of the word — of useful analyses, of pipe dreams about localism finally being wedded to revolutionary practice, of various forms of (intersectional) dialogue among comrades and others. Most importantly, from Occupy to the Arab Spring, to the current Bosnian protests, they have instilled my generation with a renewed need to rethink common leftist sticking points. This time though, rather than being able to vacillate uselessly or to double-down on abstract principles, opportunities afforded to Western leftists by the Otherized nature of most recent political upheaval, we are forced to think within the confines of a material and pragmatic world. Existing conceptions of anti-imperialist and anti-nationalist thought, positions not even held by those whose ideology we claim to be continuing, are proving to be insufficiently convincing.

There are very few cases in which I feel, so far, that an actual materialist analysis of relevant situations has been presented. Raising important questions among comrades about imperialism and intervention is impossible without a new sense of self-awareness and independent thought. One is quickly buried underneath trite references to Mao, vulgar anti-imperialism. You’re sure to hear that regardless of ‘temporary’ benefit to the people, ‘eventually’ conditions will warrant another upheaval, another ousting of the dictator we installed, helped to power or passively enabled, and so on. In the case of anti-imperialism, nowhere has there been an opportunity to discuss the full spectrum of positions from inside and outside the countries involved without the escort of an arsenal of caveats. One feels ingrained into the participants a sense of ominous hypervigilance. How did the ruthless criticism of everything existing lose its meaning, especially in our current context — which is defined by nothing as much as it is by a lack of a dignified revolutionary state to defend and a lack of even an overarching, agreed upon set of practical communist theories? There seems to be little effort in even recognizing the traces of a genuine dialectic in these descriptions of events.

The Bosnia debacle

Bosnia itself can be seen as an example of this. After the fall of communism, the first time in the modern era an independent Bosnia was home to political upheaval, I feel as if no lessons were truly learned from its trouble. The tragic history of Yugoslavia’s destruction has become merely a litmus test for anti-imperialist naiveté, a buoy for underread leftists to grasp onto. Struggling to find significance in their own complete irrelevance, they compensate with an equally ruthless and principled as confused statement of anti-imperialism. After Milošević  died, the tiny Dutch New Communist Party (NCPN) released a statement stating that Milošević would go down in history as ‘a brave warrior for the political and economic independence of Yugoslavia’; Edward Herman drew into question the Srebrenica massacre death toll, going so far as calling the happenings there ‘a gigantic political fraud’. Previously, anti-imperialism had died a liberal death already in the hands of Herman’s friend, when in defending ‘freedom of speech’, Chomsky appeared on camera as a bobblehead, sitting across a mouthpiece of Serbian state television. Their topic of discussion was the apparently obviously fabricated nature of Bosnian Serb-held concentration camps. It is interesting to note the similarities between the ‘anti-imperialist’ narratives of then and now. Of course, it was felt necessary by comrades to distinguish themselves from ‘Western’ interests by denouncing interventionism. In doing so however, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. In defense of the mere perception of an existing communist ally being victimized, whether or not such an ally actually exists — often a view firmly rooted in ‘Marxist idealism’ (Binh) — we became little more than a contrarian joke.

Žižek writes in a controversial piece:

But it’s not only NATO that depoliticized the conflict. So have its opponents on the pseudo-Left. For them, the bombing of Yugoslavia played out the last act of the dismemberment of Tito’s Yugoslavia. It acted out the end of a promise, the collapse of a Utopia of multi-ethnic and authentic socialism into the confusion of an ethnic war. Even so sharp-sighted a political philosopher as Alain Badiou still maintains that all sides are equally guilty. “There were ethnic cleansers on all sides,” he says, “among the Serbs, the Slovenes and the Bosnians.” Serbian nationalism is worthless. But in what respect is it worse than the others? It is more popular and it goes back further in time, it has more weapons at its disposal and in the past it doubtless had more opportunities to act out its criminal passions . . . Certainly, Milosevic is a brutal nationalist, just as much as his colleagues in Croatia, Bosnia or Albania . . . From the beginning of the conflict the West has been on the side of the weaker nationalisms (the Bosnian, the Kosovar) and against the stronger nationalisms (the Serbian and, by means of subtraction, the Croatian).

It seems to me that this represents a leftist yearning for Yugoslavia lost. The irony is that this nostalgia considers the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic to be the successor of that dream state — i.e., exactly the force that so effectively killed that old Yugoslavia. The one political creation that represented the positive heritage of Titoist Yugoslavia — its much prized multicultural tolerance — was “Muslim” Bosnia12. One could even say that Serbian aggression against Bosnia was aimed at those that clung despairingly to Tito’s legacy, to the idea of “brotherhood and unity.” It’s no wonder that the brilliant commander of the “Muslim” army, General Rasim Delic was an ethnic Serb. It’s no wonder that throughout the 90′s, “Muslim” Bosnia was the only place in the former Yugoslavia where Tito’s portrait still hung on the walls of official waiting rooms.

Neither Belgrade nor Washington…

To an extent, though, the distinguishing was necessary, despite Žižek’s narrative. Western media most definitely did engage in a demonization of the Serbian people to the point where (civilian target) NATO bombing of them was deemed justifiable, public consent for it having been manufactured by those media campaigns. To once more point to the naiveté of some comrades though, the question of the justifiability of the NATO bombing campaigns has never been properly answered with: “Which one?” In popular anti-imperialist discourse, Operation Deliberate Force and Operation Noble Anvil are conflated into one single ‘bombing’, characterized by imperialism and nothing else. My father, having been a Yugoslav officer and a communist before the war, and having been a concentration camp survivor after it, never supported the NATO bombing operations of Serbia proper. Despite 14 months of being imprisoned, being beaten, despite weighing 48 kilograms at the time of his exit from the country, he declined any form of nationalism that wasn’t Yugoslav and by extension refused to be burdened with a grudge against the Serbian people. The fact that Operation Deliberate Force was directed against military targets in Bosnia and was important in ending the Bosnian war is a tragic casualty of propaganda war (and this naiveté). Our rejection of third-campism, while absolutely necessary as a starting point, was reactionary and superficial in essence. Rather than recognizing propaganda for what it was and making light of it, we desperately grasped at any narrative that would paint the West in a bad light — ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. Fundamental understanding of the Balkans, analyses of multi-ethnic socialist experiments, conversations on the merits and demerits of Titoist economics, the prospects of communism within the borders of Europe, even just interesting anecdotes about the exploits of Tito and Moša Pijade all seemed to be ignored in favor of a competition to state the obvious: that capitalist powers engage in imperialism.

It is now that upheaval has descended on the Balkans again that I feel drawn to writing this piece. This time, we have a new chance to improve over the frankly embarrassing way that we drew our lessons (or lack thereof) from the last time. This is no war, of course, but neither is the situation in the Ukraine (yet). Rather, it is the purpose of this piece to acknowledge the Bosnian protesters and explain their plight. Moreover, if their voices are to be heard, they must be heard with new ears. Occasionally, I poke and prod polemically at the idea of anti-imperialism as it has slowly expired in the last twenty years. Although there is no Western intervention in Bosnia yet, the situation might warrant one in the near future. Above all, the protests themselves provide an alibi for us to discuss these issues. If the playing field is to be Bosnia, analyses should not be biased by mistaken beliefs carried over from the past. This is not to say that a certain anti-imperialism isn’t our starting point in questions of geopolitics. But I sincerely believe that Bosnia is a case study in our remarkable lack of nuance and analytical sophistication, for lack of a better term. Once more I want to stress the nature of these protests as events around which these issues can and should be discussed. A solid theoretical approach to protest becomes an increasingly more relevant topic in this age of the ‘Springs’. It is on this note especially that a more detailed discussion of Bosnia is warranted.

The protests cut at the heart of Europe

Žižek often notes how there is a tendency for the West to think about pockets of discontent, fundamentalism, etc. as mere temporary obstacles in the path of some generally meliorist force — compare the Fukuyama thesis. For Žižek, this is the wrong way to approach the world. These disturbances, protests, riots, various terrorisms, are not remnants of another era, living on borrowed time. They are on the contrary, part and parcel of the same totality that produces their obverse. One will never exist without the other. The particular manifestations of that totality are constituted by an underlying dialectic, planted in the soil of political economy. For this reason, the anti-establishment nature of the Bosnian protests suggests that its coordinates can be said to exist broadly within the scope of a struggle against capitalism, and specifically against economic liberalization. It is not difficult to find evidence for this viewpoint. Quoting EastEthnia:

to take a specific example, let’s look at Tuzla, where the protests began. The local chemical factory SODASO used to produce 80% of the table salt consumed in Yugoslavia, 208,000 tonnes of it in 1991. By 1999 it was producing 21,000 tonnes. Privatised in 2002, by 2013 the company employed only 422 people, down from 2500 in 1998. That local government building that was at first defended by police with batons and tear gas, then overrun by citizens and then set ablaze? That’s the former SODASO headquarters, being used by the local government as the company languishes in receivership.13

This struggle’s apparent manifestation is a critique of injustice (albeit viewed in the form of corruption, nepotism and such) and its declared alternative is a call for equity, particularly through so-called plenums.14 Plenums are general assemblies. As Balkan Insights writes of them: “the participants are defining their rules, moderating the plenums by themselves, and, after summing up, sending their demands to cantonal assembles.” Ruling party members of the SDA currently in government have been called on to resign. In Sarajevo, the resignation of the entire Federation government has been demanded. Almost everywhere, plenums have demanded that those arrested in the context of the protests be released and that any prosecution of them cease. Human Rights Watch has weighed in with the protesters, and has stated that violence against protesters should be investigated, following reports of undue use of force. An investigation into the credentials of public officials and directors of cantonal agencies was demanded by protesters. Those who are unfit to be in their position are asked to resign. Existing public officials’ financial privileges are among the more universal targets.

In some cities, demands were made that the city or canton plenum be granted its official public space. In others, citizens have pushed for the creation of ‘expert governments’ (though commissions would be more fitting), consisting of representatives of plenum members or other knowledgeable citizens.15 Plenums additionally have contained calls for wage decreases for Bosnian parliamentarians who, despite being present at meetings barely 14 days in a month, receive around twice as much as their Montenegrin and Serbian counterparts, and nine times the average Bosnian wage.16 Strikingly, criticism has been lobbed at the trade unions for having ‘sold out the workers’.17 The interesting outcome of all this is that plenums have been accepted in some cases , or have spawned dialogue between politicians and citizens.18 Although Sarajevo’s first plenum was not accepted, the last one was. It included the demand for an ‘expert government’.19

Reactions

We understand a protest materially by examining its outcome in relation to its constitutive interests. Such is with the Ukraine where — if its nature was not yet obvious — after taking the parliament, protesters hung white power and US Confederate flags on the walls and balconies. In Bosnia too, examples of hooliganism were quickly sought out by Western-leaning mouthpieces in order to produce rhetorical space for a ‘reasonable’ opposition to the protests.20 As always, such spokespersons are prepared to ‘understand’ the protests, but not their violence. The class character of the Bosnian protests, however, does not allow itself to be so misrepresented. Watching youthful elements of a protesting crowd throw objects through a council building, a man commented to a reporter: “I too have children of this age. I’m sorry for all the children who have been a part of [this vandalism]. But these children and their discontent were created by the inaction of our government. They weren’t born hooligans. There are those hooligans who populate our institutions, but these hooligans were born here on the streets.”21

Attempts at manufacturing public opinion about the protests have been rampant and organized, ever since it became clear that the protests would not abide by the limits set by the established order.22 One politician, Rasim Omerović, whose resignation was requested by close to 500 attending protesters, was booed after yelling out to the protesters: “I am doing my job according to the law. Why are you here? Present yourselves to me, who are you?” Although it was likely not intended as a reply to Omerović, Senad Hadžifejzović ‘s monologue on the 22nd of February can be read as a remarkably poetic response to Omerović:

They lie, lie and lie. So here, we are calling out the politicians. Come out, you cowards, and say publicly what it is that you are lying about secretly. Come out, state your name and say it. Do you scum want me to demonstrate how a person presents themselves? I am Senad Hadžifejzović, and am not a member or sympathizer of any political party. I have no political ambitions because I am a journalist and am not stupid; I do not steal, I do not lie. I am Senad Hadžifejzović and 7 days ago, it was exactly 40 years ago that I wrote my first text, and as a child, became a journalist. The text was published in the great, Yugoslavian paper Borba. I am Senad Hadžifejzović and have been on the radio and the television for a full 35 years, performing exclusively live, like I am right now. I stand behind my name, behind this television station and behind these kids. I am younger than any of the politicians on the scene and my name was known when they were nobodies. I am wise enough to know that politicians come and go and that one should not get attached to them. They are trains. I have seen off generations and generations of politicians. Some into their graves, some into retirement, some into obscurity. I am waiting to see some off to prison. I believe I am a brave man. I know there have been many braver, but they died protecting what politicians today are stealing and destroying. I have a viewpoint, I have an ideal, I have a conception, I have an editorial policy: her name is Bosnia & Herzegovina. My name is Senad, her name is FACE. Her name is Bosnia & Herzegovina. But you, scum, you without name or surname, as long as you do not show yourself, as long as you do not state your name and surname, to us you will be called: [son of a bitch].

This statement is not without weight. Hadžifejzović has been a popular name in Yugoslavia even since before the war. Aside from hosting a popular youth radio show in the 80′s, he became the face for a popular Sarajevo-based daily news program, for which he would reprise his role 1134 times over 10 years. He now hosts an independent talk show called FACE, where this excerpt was taken from.23

Concluding thoughts

In comparing the Bosnian protests to its contemporaries (Occupy, the London riots, Euromaidan, and so on), I feel that the commentators who have chosen to denote it as a ‘Bosnian Spring’ are most accurate in the description of its spirit, although probably not descriptive or predictive of its size, severity or life expectancy. Yet we have seen this common meme of the ‘Spring’ also used to disparage any sufficiently critical popular uprising, to point to its excesses, to the violent and lawless conduct of a few bad apples that spoil the bunch. This was especially noticeable in the UK riots, right down to their shorthand. The overt transparency of this spiel is almost comical in nature, and makes it readily apparent once more, insofar we had forgotten, that comrades will have to compete with hegemonic interest in the manufacturing of public opinion. As an aside, it is a kind of overwhelming hopelessness that arises from the contradiction of modern ‘free’ press which is owned by interests opposed to your edification, or conversely too small to do its job in ubiquity, that helps to give rise to the conditions that the media must then muffle away, reframe. This hopelessness plagues Bosnia particularly, where on top of everything, the unemployment rate swings comfortably around the 45% mark. Youth unemployment is almost 60%.

So how will we remember the Bosnian protests and what will we learn from them? What is important to remember in your reading and future theorycrafting is that unlike the Ukraine, there is no fascist presence at the head of the Bosnian protests. Unlike Occupy, material gains have been made and will likely continue to be made as more and more plenums are accepted and passed in legislative process. I believe it warranted to fall back on Šerbedžija’s hopes about great social movements, though. With totality in mind, it is likely that Bosnia will never play the role that Western European countries currently do. In the way the game is set up now, Bosnia is doomed to an existence as a second class state like its Eastern European cousins (even after their inauguration into the European Union). But this protest is the sound of European political economy grinding and gnashing, as it is starting to be subsumed by its own contradictions. To quote a famous Slovene: things cannot go on as they have.

It seems that although Tito’s portrait no longer hangs in the waiting room, the spirit of bratstvo i jedinstvo is alive again. Bosnia is once again the object of an almost Yugoslav unification, a levelling of ethnic and religious conflict in favor of commonality, so far untainted by anything but increasing optimism. Examine Bosnia in the light it deserves. It is time to rethink our bets on faultlines of revolutionary potential and re-imagine our archetype of the revolutionary agent — his name might end in -ić.

Notes

1 Wiki notes that they have spread to: Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar, Jajce, Brčko, BihaćDoboj, Prijedor, Travnik, Bugojno, Donji Vakuf, Kakanj, Visoko,Breza, Gračanica, Sanski Most, Cazin, Živinice, Goražde, Orašje,Srebrenik, Bijeljina, Prozor and Tešanj.

7 The report’s chapter on Public sector recruitment covers this phenomenon extensively on page 31.

12 With the story of my father’s “Yugoslav nationalism” and ZIzek’s statement here, this short analysis of the anti-nationalist bent of the protests in Bosnia is relevant: http://www.dw.de/zajedni%C4%8Dki-protiv-nacionalizma/a-17418935

14 One should note that the philosophical framework of the protests is still rooted in the concept of (socioeconomic) justice, as any liberal framework is. Thefull plenum demands of the Tuzla canton can be found here: http://bhprotestfiles.wordpress.com/2014/02/13/announcement-of-the-plenum-of-citizens-of-the-tuzla-canton/

19 Whether this is a good thing is a wait-and-see matter.

22 Although the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful in all locales.

  • Matthias van Trigt

    This is a great read, maybe you could throw in a link to a People’s History of Bosnia or something similar?

  • louisproyect

    Of course, it was felt necessary by comrades to distinguish themselves
    from ‘Western’ interests by denouncing interventionism. In doing so
    however, the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. In defense of the mere perception of
    an existing communist ally being victimized, whether or not such an
    ally actually exists — often a view firmly rooted in ‘Marxist idealism’
    (Binh) — we became little more than a contrarian joke.

    I really don’t understand the point being made here at all. Is the “Marxist idealism” a reference to Binh or those he was polemicizing against?

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