Monday, February 10, 2014

Class Revolt in Bosnia

BOSNIA and Hercogovina has shaken by an eruption of public anger aroused by privatisation, factory closures, profiteering and unemployment. This has been the country's crash course in free market capitalism, as people tried to rebuild their lives after the bloody war of two decades ago which left it saddled with a US and EU backed peace accord preserving its division in two.

Perhaps the brightest sign to come out of this seemingly spontaneous outburst of protest and riots is that it cut across the ethnic division and boundary, encouraging people to come out for unity. This may not be a homogenous political upheaval, but it is a movement of class.

The movement began, fittingly, in Tuzla, the mining and industrial town in north central Bosnia where people steadfastly resisted not only Serb nationalist forces in the war, but the influence of sectarian religious elements and Bosnia's governing SDA. Tuzla has a tradition of resistance going back to the 1920s struggles against the Yugoslav monarchy and rising again in partisan war against the Nazis in World War II. It was the partisans who proclaimed Bosnia a republic for all its people, and it was for this multi-ethnic character that the people fought when Yugoslavia came apart. At least a quarter of the population were of mixed origin anyway.

The end of the Bosnian war brought new problems, of US occupation, EU pressure, and those who had done well out of the war hoping to do better out of privatisation, and trusting a war-weary working class would not put much fight. What has really angered people however is that these new bosses have not even been after production and modernisation, but simply made a fast buck closing factories and selling assets.

 In Tuzla, the trigger this week was the sudden collapse of four formerly state-run companies that employ thousands in the city. The companies were privatised but the new owners sold the assets, sacked the staff and filed for bankruptcy.

On Thursday in Tuzla, workers from Vladom TK took it to the streets to demonstrate peacefully to put a stop to their factory being shut down and to save their jobs. Riot police attacked them to break their demonstration and beat the people who called the protests. They arrested their union leaders. One of them, Sakib Kopić, from “Polihema” union, spoke to local journalists by phone while he was under police arrest: “They keep us here for more than an hour, and nobody tells us anything.”

The government arrested Aldin Širanović, one of the leaders of the group called “Stroke,” which together with another group called “Revolt” helped people organize. He was released after a few hours, and said he was severely beaten under arrest. Union leader Sakib Kopić said he saw Širanović broken by the police: “Blood was pouring from his nose. They did not take him to hospital.”
“They were given the order to remove us from the streets, and that’s it. Then they started to attack us. Lots of people got injured. I saw a child of 15 years old who was all bloody, and who was crammed in one bus. They did not let him out. Doctors wanted to help him, but the cops locked the boy in the bus,” said Kopić.

People’s fury exploded. Some 5,000 local residents, including students from the technical college, joined the workers and set fire to government buildings, tires and police cars. “You have really hungry people who decided to do something,” said Dunja Tadic, a woman from Tuzla. ”People here are not living lives, they are simply surviving. Maybe 15% of the population lives well, mostly those who are stealing and their relatives. They destroyed the so-called middle class. All in all I don’t see how it can be any better here.”

Hana Obradovic, an unemployed philosophy and political science graduate who participated in the protests explained: “Our government sold state companies for peanuts, leaving people without their pensions or social security, Their families have nothing to eat, while our politicians sit in these institutions and steal from people.”

At one point some of the 5,000-strong crowd stormed into a local government building and hurled furniture from the upper stories. "The people entered the government building," said Mirna Kovacevic, a student who witnessed the protests. "They climbed to the fourth floor and started to throw files, computers, chairs from buildings. They burned parts of the building …
"Four storeys are blackened. People have burned the stuff that was thrown outside … Some people are trying to put the fire out. It's hectic."

On the walls of government buildings in Tuzla people wrote “Everybody to the streets. Death to nationalism!”. Throughout the Bosnian war, while the Muslim SDA party headed the government, Tuzla was run by mayor Suleiman Beslagic's Social Democrats, non-nationalists. 

But the fires lit in Tuzla this time spread through the country. On Friday night, the scene was enacted in Sarajevo, the capital, as fire raged through the presidency building and hundreds of people hurled stones, sticks and whatever else they could lay their hands on to feed the blaze. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon trying to disperse the crowd. Buildings and cars were also burning in downtown Sarajevo and riot police chased protesters.

"It is about time we did something," said a woman in her 20s who gave her name only as Selma. "This is the result of years and years of not paying attention to the dissatisfaction of the people."

"Everyone is here because everyone has a problem with this government," said a twentysomething male protester who did not want to be identified. "Young people don't have jobs. Older people don't have pensions. Everyone is fed up."

In Zenica, another central Bosnia city, protesters set fire to part of the local government building.

A fire at the National Archive of Bosnia, thought to have destroyed documents from the Late Ottoman and Austrian periods of rule, is less hard to justify, adding a sad sequel to the Serb incendiary attack on the National Library of Bosnia at the start of the war. But it is not certain this was the work of demonstrators or clear what its purpose would be. 

Although the protests were largely confined to the Croat-Muslim half of Bosnia, there was also a rally in Banja Luka, the main city in the Serb half of the country. About 300 activists and citizens staged a peaceful march to call for unity among all Bosnia's ethnicities. "We are all citizens of Bosnia and we all have the same difficult lives here," organiser Aleksandar Zolja, president of the non-governmental organisation Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, told the rally.
In Brcko, a demonstrating crowd held the mayor hostage, while in Bihac people took over government buildings.  Elsewhere, police intervened at the mansion home of an SDA politician who was brandishing a gun at the crowd. But in Mostar, demonstrators were even-handed, attacking the premises of both the SDA and the Croat nationalist HDZ party.

On 7 February, Bosnian Federation Prime Minister Nermin Nikšić held a press conference, with prosecutors, and accused hooligans of creating chaos.  Bakir Izetbegović, one of the country's three presidents and leader of the Party of Democratic Action said, "I believe that people want a change of power. I believe that within three months we should offer citizens a chance to choose who they trust, because it's obvious that this isn't working anymore".

In the Serb held part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, president Milorad_Dodik said he was "proud of the citizens in Republika Srpska" for not falling for provocations that could make the unrests in the federation spread further. He has also expressed suspicions that there might be an underlying political project that intends to somehow make the recent unrests expand into Republika Srpska.

European Parliament member Davor Ivo Stier said that  "When people who set things on fire in Mostar are yelling 'This is Bosnia!', it incredibly reminds me of the Chetniks during the agression against Croatia yelling 'This is Serbia.'. When Zlatko Lagumdžija accuses the European parliament because of a resolution which condemns centralism, it is clear just how much the centralist elites are against the European peace project. Croatia and the EU cannot be passive towards this downward spiral of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is time to show leadership. End to centralism! End to violence! It's time for an European path of Bosnia and Herzegovina!", he commented on his Facebook profile the riots in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

(Zlatko Lagumdzija is leader of the Social Democratic Party and currently Bosnian Foreign Minister)

Davor Ivo Stier,  a Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) politician, and Croatian member of the European Parliament, was born into a Croatian expatriate family in Argentina—his paternal grandfather was a colonel in the fascist Ustaše who left for South America after World War II.He  returned to Croatia in 1996 and worked as a diplomat in Washington and Brussels.

When he talks about fires and violence in Mostar, it might be unkind to visit the sins of the father upon the son by remembering the crimes of the Ustashe during World War II. But talking of Mostar and fires, we cannot forget the more recent war, when so much of that historic town was reduced to rubble under fire from both Croat nationalist and Serb Chetnik forces either side. Such criminal, barbaric conduct does not seem to have hindered Croatia or Ivo Stier's "European path".

As we approach the centenary of an incident in Sarajevo, and the events it helped ignite, I see the Austrian government too has expressed concern over these riots and said it might reinforce its troops  in Bosnia. But that's enough history for now.

Rakovsky centre solidarity statement

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