Bosnia: Still Waiting for Spring

Bosnia: Still Waiting for Spring

Early this year, Bosnians rose up against their dysfunctional government and the kleptocratic neoliberalism it enforces. But their invigorating experiment in direct democracy has since lost momentum. What’s left of the Bosnian Thaw?

Protests in Sarajevo, February 22, 2014 (#plenumsa / Flickr)

Bosnia, which flickers in and out of the West’s attention like the smile of the Cheshire Cat, made three brief appearances in the course of 2014. With the riots of February, the floods of May, and the general elections of October, the country claimed more headlines this year than it has in some time—in the twenty years, in fact, since the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian war.

As usual, the news was riddled with depressing clichés, most of which were (unfortunately for Bosnia) quite true. The country still suffers from the aftermath of the 1992–95 war, which killed upwards of 100,000 people—several thousand of whom still rot in undiscovered mass graves—out of a population of 4 million. The war drove nearly another million Bosnians into exile and shattered an already stagnant economy. After two decades of peace, the economy is still in ruins, with an official overall unemployment rate of 44 percent; prospects for integration into the European Union are more remote than ever; and 80 percent of young people say they would leave the country if they could. On the plus side, every month a few more bodies are located, exhumed from the mass graves into which they were dumped by the ethnic cleansers, and reburied in hallowed ground.

The country as a whole remains sunk in a political coma, paralyzed by the impossibly complex constitution that resulted from the peace agreement of 1995. The Dayton Constitution established two ethnically based “entities”—no one knows what else to call these freaks of political nature—tenuously linked by a powerless central government that stays deadlocked under a three-member presidency. The presidential Cerberus consists of one member from each of the country’s so-called “constituent nations”: the Bosniaks (formerly known as Muslims), the Serbs, and the Croats, whose political representatives are permanently, to their mutual benefit, at odds—hence the assurance of deadlock. Political power at every level is in the claws of demagogues and bandits, whose only goal is self-enrichment and only policy the mongering of fear. Segregated educational systems keep Bosniak, Croat, and Serb children locked in antagonistic mythologies, ensuring that the coma persists. Yet all of that seemed to change in February of this year.

In the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent, two prominent Bosnian authors and I wrote: “Young Bosnians—at least those unable to emigrate—may yet follow the example of their peers elsewhere in the world and turn their iPhones into weapons of protest.” At the time, it was more a wish than a prediction, but something like it came to pass eight months later, when the country’s most serious social upheaval in twenty years erupted in the industrial center of Tuzla and spread rapidly to the capital and other major towns. As we predicted, the movement, which was launched by Tuzla’s unemployed workers, swept through the country on the wings of social media. The initial riots in early February, enlivened by the torching of a few government buildings (including the seat of the presidency), gave the ruling ethnocratic elites their first real scare since 1995 and prompted the resignations—most of them soon withdrawn—of a number of regional governments.

The immediate aftermath of the riots was encouraging: open public assemblies called plenums prompted an outpouring of rage and debate while maintaining a reasonably civil climate within. It looked like the gestation of a genuine civil society. The uprising—since it failed to survive through the spring, let’s call it the Bosnian Thaw—was remarkable for the absence of ethnic antagonism. There was no reference to so-called “national” claims or grievances. It was rather an outburst of rage against a larcenous and incompetent political elite and against the manipulation of ethnic anxieties—the pitting of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs against each other so as to sustain their respective elites in power.

The slogans on the signs and banners made the non-ethnic, civic nature of movement explicit: “Freedom is My Nation,” “Death to Nationalism,” “We are Hungry in All Three Languages.” The last slogan, with typically Bosnian concision, proclaimed the futility of ethnic distinctions in the face of common distress. At the same time, it mocked the pretense that Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, though mutually quite intelligible, are completely separate languages (as nationalist ideologues insist).

There was excited talk, both in Bosnia and in the international press, of a “Bosnian Spring,” a spontaneous popular uprising that would sweep away the corrupt ethnocratic regime. Cynics, meanwhile, observed that the various Arab “Springs” had not, so far, been very fruitful. Skeptics recalled that such moments of anarchic euphoria—“the comedies of revolution,” as Leszek Kołakowski once called them—are always transient, rarely lasting longer than a few months at most. Unfortunately they were proven right.

By mid-April the mirage had faded. As the skeptics had foreseen, public enthusiasm for endless discussion, however democratic, gradually dwindled. One after another the plenums fizzled out, and before long, what organizing efforts remained were abruptly shoved aside by the second major event to rock Bosnia this year: a series of catastrophic floods. Some 90,000 people were displaced, and the authorities’ failure to provide adequate relief, despite receiving $1 billion in international aid, revealed yet again their incompetence and indifference to popular distress. Bosnia’s political honchos were concerned instead with the upcoming quadrennial elections, in which 7,877 candidates would compete for 518 legislative offices to rule a country marginally smaller and markedly worse off than West Virginia. (Bosnia boasts the highest-paid legislators in Europe relative to median income.)

Grassroots political activity in Bosnia has pretty much subsided since the Thaw, and neither outrage at the flood response nor the charged political atmosphere around the elections has yet provoked a new wave of protests, let alone political organizing. Still, there is a general sense, as there was in France after June 1968, that “nothing will ever be the same.” For one thing, the uprising contributed to the welcome collapse, in the October elections, of a degenerate Social Democratic Party (SDP), which had become, under the autocratic Zlatko Lagumdžija, another venal patronage mill, despite its progressive and multi-ethnic pretensions (see our Summer 2013 article in Dissent). The plenum movement was a creative experiment in direct democracy whose demise holds lessons for Bosnia’s next left. Above all, the people who engaged in the plenums—the plenumasi, as they are called—have gained experience and perspective in practical politics and direct democracy.

The wider context of the Bosnian Thaw is starting to look familiar—namely, the mounting but still inchoate and ambiguous resistance to the cocktail of austerity, deregulation, tax cuts for business, service cuts for the people, and servility to the deified Markets now widely known as “neoliberalism.” The workers’ revolt in Bosnia was triggered by the larcenous privatization of public assets carried out over the past two decades at the behest of Bosnia’s Western babysitters—the European Union and the United States, operating through the Office of the High Representative, USAID, and the World Bank—which produced a bonanza for the kleptocrats and left at least a quarter of Bosnia’s labor force unemployed, and perhaps another fifth reduced to doing odd jobs.

Margaret Thatcher famously bragged that her greatest achievement was New Labour, by which she meant her success in forcing the Labour Party, under Tony Blair, to abandon its tepidly progressive agenda and move sharply to the right under its new label. Clones of Tony Blair now lead all the major parties of the European center-left: François Hollande in France, Pedro Sánchez in Spain, Sigmar Gabriel in Germany. Thatcherism reigns supreme. It has become what the French call la pensée unique: “the only (permissible) thought.” But the “pensée unique” is under assault from both the right and the left: from the right, in the form of xenophobic populism, and from a left that seems, both in vision and style, increasingly anarchisant. In France the right-wing National Front seems likely soon to outstrip the Socialist Party. More hearteningly, left-wing alternatives are gaining ground in Spain (Podemos), Germany (Die Linke), and Greece (Syriza).

In Bosnia, the main accomplishment of the Thaw, thus far, has been the virtual destruction of the Social Democrats. The SDP, hitherto the strongest party in the country, was devastated in the general elections of October and driven from the government, where it had maintained its shaky predominance by cutting sordid deals with the Serbian and Croatian tribal chiefs. The SDP’s miserable performance in office peaked with the government’s paralysis in face of the summer floods: as of November, the victims of the disaster had still received little or no assistance. But the SDP was also discredited by its hostility to the February uprising. Most Bosnians either supported or sympathized with the protesters that the SDP, in chorus with the rest of the establishment, slandered and vilified. The SDP’s debacle, and the probable eviction from political life of its cynical and pretentious leader Lagumdžija, has cleared space for a genuine alternative, although that alternative has yet to appear. Bosnia is still waiting for its Spring.

What then remains of the Thaw? Like the French uprising of May and June 1968, Bosnia’s brief experiment in radical democracy failed to transform the structures of power. But its psychological effects should not be underestimated—the insurgent enthusiasm, anarchic creativity, cross-class solidarity (inspiring although transitory), and most of all, the uplifting sensation of a straightened spine. The moral repertoire of the plenumasi has begun to evolve, and while the plenums themselves have given way to more diffused activism, the conversations continue on social media.

The rebels of the Bosnian Thaw were a heterogenous lot, ranging from unemployed industrial workers to academics enraptured by Žižek and Negri, Lacan and Derrida. Friction and suspicion were no doubt inevitable. But this cultural diversity, if it can be successfully negotiated, will also be a source of power, reflecting the breadth, depth, and intensity of popular discontent.

Above all, the uprising revived a sense of dignity and solidarity unknown in Bosnia since the days of the anti-fascist partisans in World War II. The plenumasi—workers and academics alike—will not soon forget that heady whiff of freedom. We ended our article last summer with a reference to the Bosnian notion of the raja—a community transcending ethnicity, composed of the neighborly, the good humored, and the humane. “If there is hope for Bosnia,” we wrote, paraphrasing George Orwell, “it lies in the raja.” Today we can be more precise: if Bosnia has a future, it lies with the plenumasi.

William Hunt founded, in 1989, the St. Lawrence Solidarity Project to support democratic culture in postcommunist Europe. He has traveled frequently to Bosnia, working with independent media, civic NGOs and educational institutions. He is currently writing on George Orwell.