Bosnia: “Death to nationalism! Factories to the workers!”

Submitted by Matthew on 5 March, 2014 - 12:36

Protests continue in Bosnia, taking the form of a widespread revolt. The artist Damir Niksic says: “It’s a new paradigm, a new Bosnian example. In other words, we do not talk any more about nationalities, tribes, races and nations. We are now talking about the proletarians, the unemployed, the reserve army of labour. “

“This is no longer a riot, it’s a social revolution”, says Sakib Kopić, president of the Polihema union.

Demonstrations unite Muslims, Croats, Serbs and “Yugoslavs”. Demonstrations with similar social demands are taking place in at least 36 cities across Bosnia, which since the war of 1992-5 and the Dayton Agreement of 1995 has been intricately divided into Muslim, Croat, and Serbian areas. There have even been protests in Banja Luka, capital of the “Serbian Republic” within Bosnia.

The angry protesters have attacked all the nationalist parties, setting fire in Mostar to the offices of both the Muslim SDA and the Croatian HDZ.

The uprising began in Tuzla, one of the industrial centres of former Yugoslavia. It was sparked by a demonstration of workers calling for payment of back wages.

A factory had been sold after the end of war to an old friend of the director. After asset-stripping it, he went bankrupt. A court upheld the workers’ claim for back wages, but the judgment remained on paper.

On 5 February workers from four factories which had been privatised and then shut down organised a protest. The sacked workers were joined by fans of the local football team and unemployed. The demonstration led to clashes in which about twenty people were wounded. On 6 February demonstrations continued in Tuzla, and led to clashes between police and protesters resulting in 130 injured. Dozens of protesters tried to attack government buildings.

On the same day organised demonstrations of support took place in Zenica, Mostar, Sarajevo and Bihac. The government announced that on 7 February all schools would be closed, and claimed that “those responsible for the events in Tuzla were just hooligans”. Yet on the 7th, mass protests took place in thirty cities.

Bosnian Muslims , Croats and Serbs went onto the streets — and in many cases hand in hand — against both federal and local governments. A union leader said: “I saw 15 year olds being beaten up by special police. The police are attacking unarmed people. If necessary, we can also arm ourselves. I repeat , we did not intend to arm ourselves but if we are forced to do it we will do it”.

In Sarajevo the headquarters of the local government was on fire. In Mostar protesters stormed two government buildings. In Banja Luka, capital of the “Serbian Republic” within Bosnia, there was a great demonstration of support for the mostly-Muslim protesters of Tuzla.

All the leaders’ efforts to play the card of nationalism to stop the spread of the protests have so far failed: “I’m hungry, in three languages”, was the inscription on a banner in Sarajevo. (Before 1991, “Serbo-Croat” was recognised as the common language across Yugoslavia. Now nationalists insist that it is in fact three languages, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian).

In the old Yugoslavia, Tuzla became a major industrial and cultural centre. From 2000 to 2010, the old publicly-owned enterprises were privatised and sold to individuals who stripped the assets, stopped paying the employees... and then shut down.

For example, the detergent business Dita formerly employed 750 people. According to the privatisation contract of 2007, the new business owner was committed to maintaining jobs for three years and production for five years. The new boss has not fulfilled his commitments and has not made the compulsory social security contributions for the workers; they cannot retire because they do not have the contributions record. A police investigation in 2010 showed that the new business owners had broken the law, but the case remains blocked.

The Sontaso factory in Tuzla produced 80% of the salt of Yugoslavia until 1991. In 1999, production had fallen to one tenth, but still 2,500 workers were employed. In 2002 the factory was privatised, and in 2013 only 422 workers were left, all of them unpaid.

The local government offices in Tuzla set ablaze in February still carried the insignia of Sontaso: it was once the firm’s headquarters. The protesters splashed the slogan “You must all resign. Death to nationalism!” on the building.

The massacres between communities stopped at the end of the 1992-5 war, but only to be replaced by a merciless war against the poor under the auspices of the Dayton Accords, the US, the European Union, and the international organisations.

Bosnia’s working class has been devastated by a massive program of privatisations, put through by a divided state ruled by rival national bureaucracies under the supervision of a transnational imperial bureaucratic elite.

Unemployment has reached 44%. Even those who are working get 250 to 450 euros per month. One Bosnian in five lives below the poverty line.

As well as the protests spreading within Bosnia, for the first time since the break-up of Yugoslavia, solidarity marches have been organised in the capital cities of the neighbouring states with slogans like “One working class. one fight”. While the protests in Belgrade, Zagreb and Skopje were just a few hundred strong, the symbolism was very strong.

The leading politicians of the three ethnic groups in Bosnia all rushed out statements in the first days of the protests, each group claiming a conspiracy to hit their particular ethnicity.

The prime minister of Serbia visited the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, where local politicians claimed that Serbs would not participate in the demonstrations, and the Serbian Republic remained an oasis of stability. The protests in the Serbian area have in fact been smaller, but surveys have shown that 78% of Bosnian Serbs are sympathetic to the demonstrations.

In Serbia itself unpaid rank and file factory workers, not under the direction of any union, have blocked railways and highways.

The Croatian foreign minister visited Mostar, trying to influence the Croats who are the majority of local residents. His Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, meeting the whole leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina, stated in Sarajevo that Turkey would help with loans to calm the protests.

But the protesters have already forced the resignation of at least five local governments.

The movement includes a medley of views, and procedures reminiscent of the “indignant citizens” movements in Spain’s and Greece’s squares.

Demands range from calls for capitalist modernisation and a cleansing of the capitalist system from corruption through the formation of a government of technocrats under popular control, to such working-class demands as self-management of factories and resources for unemployed mothers.

There are also differences in demands from city to city. The most advanced demands come from the assemblies of Tuzla and Mostar.

The popular assemblies are held regularly and are open to everyone. They decide issues by vote, and appoint their designated “representatives” as and when needed, mainly for statements to the media.

They do not involve the “ whole population “, only the most active part. But that active part is not a negligible minority. Hundreds or even thousands of people are involved in assemblies.

Marina Antic writes:

“The plenaries are valuable structures of ‘primitive accumulation of power’ through which the vanguard of the working class can coordinate and plan its action. Potentially they can become organs of self-organisation in the hands of the working class and the popular majority...

“Bosnia is like a society coming out of depression”.

All assemblies demand the fall of their local government, while many call for the overthrow of the central government. In the political discourse of the insurgents, the target is not only a government party, but the whole political system. So far the emphasis is on “nonpartisan”, “capable” “independent” technocrats who have not “exercised governmental power at any level.”

This is the “anti-politics” that has characterised many movements internationally in recent years. It reflects a protest against the whole “political elite” which has served the interests of the capitalist oligarchy; but simultaneously it highlights the fact that capitalist ideology and its values dominate the workers’ consciousness, even in the most advanced sections, and does not disappear automatically even in riots. After years of neoliberalism, the myth of the “capable technocrat” remains a reasonable alternative to the professional politicians in the minds of many people.

However, in Tuzla, the assembly demands that the local provisional government of technocrats “submit weekly plans and reports for work for approval by the assembly”. In Sarajevo, the assembly required the postponement of the formation of the local government of the canton until the views and demands of the assembly were made clear and demanded that “the new local government should be coordinated with the demands of citizens”.

In Brcko, the assembly called “for a government of experts”, but said: “There will be no agreements behind closed door. There is only the assembly where all citizens together will decide on the solutions to the problems we all face”.

The assemblies accompany the call for a new government with a program that this government should implement. The direction of that program is towards economic equality.

Recognition of pension and social security rights of workers. Investigation and punishment of all economic crimes. Confiscation of illegally obtained private property. Cancellation of projected privatisations and revision or review of completed privatisation schemes.

Re-employment of all workers being made redundant when factories shut down. Recruitment of more workers in schools. Resources for unemployed mothers. Increased pensions. More jobs. Favourable conditions for organising independent trade unions in private enterprises. Free health care for all.

One demand from Tuzla has a weight all of its own: For all factories to be returned to the workers, to be placed under public scrutiny, and to resume production.

The Dayton Agreement has institutionalised national divisions that bloodshed Bosnia, and resulted in the creation of a complex system of governance which puts political life in the hands of the “national” parties, with the EU playing the role of the omnipotent referee.

The majority of the participants in the protests are Bosniacs (Muslims), but that is largely because the large industrial center have a Muslim majority. All the demands have a class character and challenge the national divisions. The slogan “They must all resign! Death to nationalism!” is at the forefront,

The first international reaction came from the High Commissioner for Bosnia-Herzegovina, who said that in the event of an escalation of the unrest, the mobilisation of military units from the European Union should be considered to restore order.

EU and US representatives have blandly reassured the protesters that they share their anger and frustration against their national leaderships but condemning the violence of the “hooligans”.

The EU is worried, though in Bosnia there are still strong illusions about the benevolent nature of the EU, seen by a lot of Bosnians as a catalyst to democratise the Bosnian state and cleanse it of its vices and corruption.

Despite the role of the EU and IMF in imposing neo-liberalism, no demand in any assembly has yet been directed against the international “protectors.” Although it was they who created the fragmented, dysfunctional structure of Bosnia and nurtured the local bureaucratic elites, the international elites have been left, for the time being, untouched by the protests.

So far the Left has almost no presence in the protests. A small role is played by the New Socialist Party and some leftist autonomous collectives. Yet the protests may be is a prelude to the strengthening of the Left, provided that it is responsive to the protesters’ legitimate demands.

It would be naive to argue that everything will automatically evolve for the better in Bosnia and propagate throughout the Balkans. But these moments of concrete examples of self-organisation, class politics, internationalism are vital for the whole of the left and the working-class movement.

Only the rise of workers’ struggles and the rebirth of the Left can break the vicious cycle in the Balkans. In some parts of the Balkans, groups of the anti-capitalist left are trying to pick up the threads from the Balkan revolutionary Marxists of the early 20th century who saw the unity across the Balkans as the working-class response to the competition from local bourgeoisies and the intervention of imperialist patrons from West or East.

For the slogan of a socialist federation of the Balkans to gain strength, particular political responsibility lies on the shoulders of the Greek movement and the Greek left.

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