Class and democracy in Bosnia's protest movement

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2014 - 8:41

Over the past month in Bosnia-Herzegovina, mass protests originating in workers’ struggles have evolved into autonomous citizens’ plenums calling for radical social and political change.

Since the close of the Balkans war in 1995 an increasingly corrupt, nationalistic bureaucratic class married to a project of economic neo-liberalism has developed in the country. The dire social consequences have been the seed-bed of a new “movement of the dissatisfied”.1

Jasmin Mujanovic describes the political economy of the Bosnian elite as “accumulation through dispossession”, disguised by indignant ethno-nationalistic rhetoric.2 He echoes the Marxist geographer David Harvey, who argued that capital’s “inability to accumulate through expanded reproduction on a sustained basis has been paralleled by a rise in attempts to accumulate by dispossession”,3 the continuing primitive accumulation of capitalism through predatory behaviour.

BiH is a clear example of this, a culture of multinationals buying up industrial capital on the cheap, facilitated by the bureaucracy, only to asset-strip them, reduce employment levels, and increase the rate of exploitation drastically before selling the gutted industries off once again.4

The result has been an extraordinarily high level of structural unemployment, strong black market participation by the labour force, and soaring inequality, all overseen by a corrupt politico-bureaucratic class linked to a transnational oligarchy accumulating capital at the expense of the mass of workers.

Moreover, the existing channels of struggle have been discredited in the eyes of many working class people. The Social Democratic Party, governing since 2010 in coalition with nationalist parties, has also proved impotent and corrupt.5

One striking worker from Dita, a detergent factory in Tuzla, a key industrial centre of BiH, spoke of the conservative nature of the trade unions as a major barrier — “the union abandoned us. They were the first to abandon us. They told us to stop complaining. That we would lose our jobs, etc.”6 When the union declined to support the Dita workers despite the failure of the owner to pay wages for 27 months, and being left to survive on loans kindly granted by the factory owner himself, the workers fought back on their own, through wildcat strikes and hunger strikes.

This was the context for the strike by workers at five Tuzla firms, firms which went bust after privatization and asset-stripping; their protests began at the beginning of February, triggering what has become known as the “Bosnia Spring”.7

Violent clashes with police in the days left around a hundred protesters injured, leading to a wave of sympathy and the broadening of the movements’ social base. Stef Jansen, a Belgian anthropologist with an interest in BiH, and a participant in the Sarajevo plenum, distinguishes the recent protests from previous fragmented action:

“This time, protesters joined forces... it wasn’t that the workers from one company wanted one thing, the pensioners another, the farmers another still. It was a wondrous moment, and I don’t know where that moment came from... when all those people realised that they have the same problem, that they could publicly speak about it and that they could put it on the political agenda.8

A number of outrages against labour have boosted the protests, including an assault by thugs with baseball bats on the president of BiH’s Union of Independent Labour Unions, Josip Milić.9 By 7 February, local government offices had been torched. As Mujanovic reports, “BiH’s three Presidents, two entities, one special district, ten cantons and internationally appointed High Representative — the entirety of its bloated bureaucracy — witnessed the storming of their government offices in the cities of Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica, Bihac and Mostar.”10

In stark contrast to unrest in Ukraine, nationalistic sentiments have been roundly derided as one of the pillars propping up the regime and blinding the eyes of the people. Expressions of solidarity across national dividing lines are common: “We, the workers, are here from different nations, but we are all united.”11

Spontaneous self-governance arose in the form of the plenums, organised (particularly through social media) by committees which then dissolved themselves immediately. Moderators are elected for the duration of each plenum, subject to recall, and voting on the publishing of specific demands follows discussion and speech-making.

As Rudi Supek, a prominent Yugoslavian Marxist of the Praxis school, wrote in 1981, “It is significant that whenever the working class acts spontaneously against bureaucratic regimes, it creates councils as its form of government … The seizure of factories and the creation of workers’ councils reflect the nature of the revolutionary movements of the working class’.12

The positive working class character of these councils is clear, despite the protestations of liberals who see only the venting of steam, the idea that the people had found their voice for its own sake, and not for the purpose of material changes in society. The blogger behind the Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files drily commented on such an attitude: “Well, damn it, it seems that the buildings of the cantonal governments went up in flames because they wouldn’t let us have plenums earlier!”13 Interviews have highlighted the underlying causes: “Class differences are huge … Nowadays we have just rich people and poor people … What is happening now is a product of poverty, dissatisfaction and revolt’.14

The radical democracy does not transmute the protesters into liberal democrats. Serbian philosopher Zagorka Golubović, also of the Praxis school, wrote quite rightly that “Socialism and democracy must become one, otherwise there will be no socialism.”15 The importance of the plenums lies not only in their fact of existence, but in the social demands they are being used to fight for, and in what they have the potential to become.

Common demands include the protection of protesters, the resignation of office-holdiers and the establishment of a non-political government of experts in the various local cantons, until new elections are held, the equalization of government wages with workers’ wages, the reversal of privatisations and the inclusion of workers in the management of public and private companies.16

Mostar’s plenum raised demands for the employment of social workers in schools and increased support for unemployed mothers, while Zenica called for the support of students and the protection of the local environment,17 as the gutted and downsized steel mills have become far more pollutant than “even at the height of their Yugoslav-era production”.18 Prijedor’s plenum demanded the realisation of conditions required for the creation of independent trade unions in all private enterprises.19 Even the Belgrade Police Union threatened to join the protests, and the Serbian Veterans’ Association called for a “showdown with the tycoons who created empires in our country and abroad at the cost of the suffering workers and by manipulating all of us”.20

However some of the rhetoric of Titoism has re-emerged, particularly in the call for “self-management”21 and in the anti-nationalism of the protesters, but it appears in a radicalised, bottom-up form which changes its character completely. In seeking an end to “the larceny of this society cloaked in politics” through the realisation of economic, political and social demands, the desires of the plenums can be seen as necessary preludes in order to prepare for their over-arching goal: “a society based on social justice and welfare”, the building of “something new for all of us’.22

Where will this movement might go next? A call by one citizen at the Sarajevo plenum for a nation-wide “People’s Assembly of BiH, that would be an alternative parliament of the people”, was met with thunderous applause.23

According to Mujanovic, “the key organisers in Tuzla ... already form the basis for an interim government, one composed of the representatives of students and workers.”24 In Sarajevo, the plenum has already created twelve working groups focusing on specific departments, with one more overseeing cooperation among all the canton’s workers, in order to prepare organised pressure on the non-party government of experts they seek.25 Moreover, it urges citizens “not to enter into negotiations with the government, but rather, following Tuzla’s example, to come to the plenum and open discussion of equals.”26

Jansen, however, discourages this kind of thinking, writing, “I don’t believe that the plenum could replace political structures in this country which is part of a bigger, global system … I definitely believe that it could exist as a parallel and additional form of political activity.”27

The official structures of state could never tolerate the existence of dual power in BiH for any protracted period of time. Defining the plenums as a loyal opposition correcting the mistakes of neoliberal “democracy” in order to maintain social order denies the centrifugal forces of which the plenums are, up to now, the most sophisticated expression and contradicts the militant demands of the workers who flock to the assemblies and onto the streets.

The successful organisation of a national plenum along the lines advocated by the speaker in Sarajevo would be an enormous step forward, and we should orientate ourselves towards it in the same manner as Karl Marx in relation to the short-lived British Labour Parliament of 1854, which arose in similar circumstances.28

Formed initially out of the attempt of striking textile workers in the North West to create a national support network for trade union struggles, Marx wrote “the mere assembling of such a Parliament marks a new epoch in the history of the world.”29

“If the Labour Parliament proves true to the idea that called it into life, some future historian will have to record that there existed in the year 1854 two Parliaments in England, a Parliament at London, and a Parliament at Manchester — a Parliament of the rich, and a Parliament of the poor — but that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.30


1. Commentario Politica

2. J Mujanovic, Al-Jazeera online

3. D. Harvey, ‘The “New” Imperialism: Accumulation by Dispossession’, Socialist Register (2004).

4. J. Mujanovic, Why does ArcelorMittal hate Bosnia?

5. Commentario Politica, op cit.

6. LabourNet

7. The Economist Online

8. Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files

9. Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files

10. J. Mujanovic, Al-Jazeera online, op cit.

11., op cit.

12. R. Supek, ‘Rightist Revisionism and Eurocommunism: A Yugoslav Marxist View’, in G. Schwab (ed.) Eurocommunism: The Ideological and Political-Theoretical Foundations.

13. Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files [Accessed 2.3.2014]

14. LabourNet, op cit.

15. Z. Golubović, ‘Stalinism and Socialism’, PRAXIS International 2 (1981), 126.

16. Jasmin Mujanovic, The Demands of the People of Bosnia-Herzegovina (English)

17. Jasmin Mujanovic, op cit.

18. Jasmin Mujanovic

19. Jasmin Mujanovic, op cit.

20. Jasmin Mujanovic, op cit.

21. LabourNet

22. Jasmin Mujanovic, op cit.

23. LabourNet, op cit.

24. J. Mujanovic, Al-Jazeera online

25. Sarajevo Times

26. Jasmin Mujanovic

27. Bosnia-Herzegovina Protest Files

28. R. Groves, Marx and the Labour Parliament of 1854, Labour Monthly
29. K. Marx, Letter to the Labour Parliament, 9.3.1854

30. K. Marx, Letter to the Labour Parliament, op cit.

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