Almost every city in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been shaken by a series of mass demonstrations that started Feb. 4. Government officials have been forced to resign amid mass workers’ uprisings and assemblies in a country that was once part of the former (socialist) Yugoslavia.
Since Feb. 4, almost every city and even large towns in Bosnia-Herzegovina have been shaken by a series of mass demonstrations and mass assemblies calling for an end to the privatizing and looting of the remaining industry. These mass actions have forced government officials to resign.
The upsurge began in Tuzla, a major industrial city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, against the privatization and closing of formerly state-owned factories. Thousands of largely unemployed workers took to the streets and stayed in the streets in a massive and determined occupation. (BBC News, Feb. 7)
Demonstrations and mass protests quickly spread to more than 30 cities of Bosnia, including Sarajevo, the capital, and Zenica, Mostar, Jajce, Brcko, Doboj and Srebrenik. The heads of four regional cantons — Tuzla, Zenica, Sarajevo and Bihac — have been forced to resign. Government buildings were set on fire in Zenica, Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo.
The contrast between the imperialist posture regarding Ukraine on the one hand and Bosnia on the other indicates the different content of those two distinct struggles. Top United States and European Union politicians back the Ukraine rightists’ violence against the state, and the corporate media give the protests favorable coverage. For Bosnia there is only limited corporate media coverage of the mass assemblies and as of now no political support.
In Ukraine, once a republic of the former Soviet Union, rightist demonstrators demand alignment with the EU and NATO, the U.S. commanded military alliance. Thousands of Western supported and well-funded nongovernmental organizations and right-wing, religious and even fascist groupings — back the protesters.
In Bosnia, a country of 3.8 million people, and throughout the former Yugoslav Federation, there are few illusions that economic and political integration into the economies of the EU and U.S. imperialists will improve life.
In the two decades since the U.S. imposed the Dayton Accords, U.S. and EU imperialism has fractured the former sovereign Yugoslavia into seven puppet ministates and systematically looted it of almost all of its industries and resources. In Bosnia, the violent process of privatization and the selling off of entire industries for scrap metal has resulted in an official unemployment rate of 44 percent, with youth unemployment of over 75 percent, according to a United Nations survey a year ago. (BBC, March 4, 2013)
What has marked the recent mass actions in Bosnia is the working-class character of the demands, the calls for unity and against ethnic and nationalist divisions. This is an important departure from the chauvinist and separatist political movements that German and U.S. imperialism backed during the Bosnian Civil War of 1992 to 1995.
The current protests started in the industrial town of Tuzla after four state-owned companies were privatized and sold off after promises that Western capital investments would modernize factories. As in industries throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe, however, the new owners quickly downsized, declared bankruptcy, moved the equipment and sold the remains for scrap, leaving workers unpaid and without jobs or pensions.
Workers who had been picketing for months against the selling of their factory took to the streets on Feb. 4 to demand a reversal of privatization and payment of their health care benefits and pensions. Thousands of workers responded in an action that grew into a mass occupation. By Feb. 7, workers had seized the government building and demanded that the local government resign. (Reuters, Feb. 7)
After the local government resigned, a mass assembly put forth a “Declaration by the Workers and Citizens of the Tuzla Canton (tinyurl.com/mrtqo2a)
The declaration called for annulling the privatization agreements, restoring production, returning the factories to workers’ control, confiscating illegally obtained property, recognition of seniority and secure health insurance for the workers, and equalizing the pay of high-paid government officials to that of workers in the public and private sector.
News of the workers’ action and the Tuzla declaration spread quickly to other cities. Graffiti and signs reading “EU Out” and “Death to Nationalism” plus red flags are the symbols in many cities. At this time the call is for unity among the ethnic groups that have been brutally divided.
A danger that this mass workers’ uprising faces is that many political operatives and Western funded NGOs and “civil society” groups will attempt to hijack the movement and refocus the mass anger. Some groups have already raised slogans calling for faster and more complete integration into the EU as the solution. Maintaining independent workers’ demands is the challenge of every revolutionary movement and spontaneous upheaval.
The other immediate threat is of U.S. and EU military intervention. A U.S./EU appointee, the “High Representative,” currently Austrian bureaucrat Valentin Inzko, oversees all the multiple layers of government in Bosnia. This appointed, foreign official holds almost absolute authority to remove any public official at his personal whim or to enforce binding decisions. This dictatorial power has functioned for two decades to create favorable conditions for foreign businesses.
That Inzko is Austrian recalls the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s rule over much of the former Yugoslavia, including Bosnia, before World War I. High Representative Inzko has ominously warned of sending EU troops to prevent Bosnians “from looting.” (Radio Free Europe, Feb. 17)
Roots of the protests
The roots of the present protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina go back to the breakup of the Yugoslav Socialist Federation, which was based on the socialist idea of “brotherhood and unity” among the distinct nationalities of six republics and two autonomous provinces.
In 1991, the imperialists recognized separatist demands for independence from the Yugoslav Federation by right-wing nationalist groups in Croatia and Slovenia. As in Syria today, the U.S., German and French governments funded chauvinist militias and separatist movements to inflame ethnic and religious differences. In multiethnic Bosnia this spiraled into a devastating civil war. Bosnia’s Serbian-origin population was especially targeted and demonized. The resulting civil war ripped apart relations among the many nationalities of the Yugoslav Socialist Federation.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism was particularly anxious to justify the expansion of NATO, a U.S. commanded military alliance, into Eastern Europe. The wars in Yugoslavia, especially the civil war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, were the immediate pretext for NATO’s expansion.
In 1995, the Clinton Administration carried out 3,515 bombing sorties against Serb targets in Bosnia, declaring that this was a “humanitarian war,” and then forced the various sides into “Peace Talks” in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accords stationed a U.S./NATO force of 60,000 in Bosnia.
Claiming that the only way to end “ancient ethnic hatreds” was to set the most divisive ethnic relations in stone, the U.S. created a totally fragmented and powerless political landscape.
The Dayton Accords established in Bosnia two autonomous regions, the Muslim Croatian “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and in two separate pieces, a Serbian “Republika Srpska” (not to be confused with the neighboring country of Serbia). The Federation was divided into ten cantons, each with a full-fledged government, and one separate city, Brčko District, which officially belongs to both entities but is governed by neither.
Over the entire convoluted structure is an appointed “High Representative” who can overrule any law passed by any of the 150 competing ministries. The entire structure was built in order to keep those who actually live in Bosnia as far away as possible from the political process.
In 1999, after 78 days of NATO bombing in the neighboring Republic of Serbia, the province of Kosovo was ripped from Serbia and thousands of NATO forces were stationed in five separate segments of Kosovo. This was once again colonial reconquest through endless fragmentation.
Today’s mass actions are challenging the violence of corporate looting, ruin and desperation. Can this new movement stay united and focused against EU and U.S. corporate power? Will it be able, through united actions of all the nationalities, to raise the struggle to get NATO out of Bosnia and out of the Balkans?
This is a big challenge. But the demands and example of the workers in Tuzla may become a new chapter in the long history of resistance in the Balkans. Only a united workers’ movement can challenge imperialist division and ruthless capitalist exploitation.
Sara Flounders, who was in Yugoslavia with an International Action Center solidarity delegation during the 1999 US/NATO bombing, is a co-author and editor of the books “NATO in the Balkans: Voices of Opposition” (IAC, 1998) and “Hidden Agenda: U.S./NATO Takeover of Yugoslavia” (IAC, 2002).