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From The Socialist newspaper, 19 February 2014

Bosnia: mass protests show potential of working class to overcome division

Niall Mulholland

A revolt of workers, students, the jobless and war veterans has swept across Bosnia Herzegovina, in protest at dire economic and social conditions and institutionalised ethnic division.

The protests began in the northern town of Tuzla and quickly spread to the capital, Sarajevo, and other cities and towns.

These inspiring mass movements are testament to the ability of the working class to recover from even the most serious setbacks and to once again take to the road of collective struggle for social change.

For several weeks, sacked workers in formerly industrial Tuzla demonstrated following the privatisation of a string of state-owned companies which were stripped of assets and allowed to collapse.

The protests then grew as laid-off workers were joined by youth and the unemployed. In response, the Tuzla government sent in the riot police, causing violent clashes.

This only spurred the Tuzla protesters, who held a larger demonstration on 4 February calling for the resignation of the local government, for a reversal of the privatisations and for pensions to be paid.

On 7 February, tens of thousands marched on Tuzla's cantonal government and municipal buildings, which were burnt.

Although most protests have, so far, been in mainly Bosniak (Muslim) areas, demonstrations spread to over 30 cities and towns across the federation.

Police used rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators in Sarajevo, where protesters set the presidency and cantonal buildings ablaze.

Both Croats and Bosnians protested in Mostar, a town associated with some of the bitterest fighting during the 1990s civil wars.

The uprising stunned the local ruling elites and the European Union (EU) establishment. The governments of the cantons of Tuzla, Sarajevo, Una-Sana and Zenica-Doboj resigned.

Mass privatisation has led to massive de-industrialisation and dependence on imported goods and services.

But common grievances among protesters also include opposition to the entire ruling political elite and the corrupt government structures.

Government

The multi-layered system of government for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina arose from the 1995 Dayton Agreement following three years of war and 'ethnic cleansing' which saw over 100,000 people killed.

The 1992-1995 war was the last stage in the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the restoration of capitalism.

In the decades after World War Two, Yugoslavia experienced economic development and a significant rise in living standards, albeit under a Stalinist system of rule by a parasitic bureaucratic elite over the state-owned economy.

For their own imperialist ends, western powers (German imperialism, in particular) helped provoke the three way civil war in Bosnia between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians (Muslims) and, along with Moscow, supported rival factions of the old elite competing to get their hands on wealth and power.

As the warring armies fought to a standstill, the US and Nato intervened to impose the Dayton Agreement, dividing Bosnia into the 'entities' of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (inhabited mainly by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats), the Republika Srpska (Serb republic) and the Brcko District, which formally belongs to both entities.

Each entity is divided into cantons. The ten cantons each have a prime minister and a cabinet. But this complex system of government does not signify genuine democracy.

The EU High Representative, currently Vladimir Inzko, is invested with dictatorial powers, such as the power to remove public officials from office and to enforce binding government decisions.

What is, in effect, a Western neocolonial protectorate was indicated last week when Inzko threatened military intervention by the EU to end the mass protests.

'Ethno-centric' politics

Bosnia's complex power-sharing structure also sees the legitimising and institutionalising of ethnic-based politics.

The various "ethnic veto points" allow nationalist politicians to paralyse the federal government over many issues.

No official recognition is given to voters who may want genuine cross-ethnic, working class-based and socialist politics.

Yet the yearning for an alternative to right wing 'ethno-centric' politics is indicated by many of the slogans at the recent demonstrations. "I am hungry in three languages", declared one banner.

The bloated, bureaucratic, authoritarian, corrupt and inefficient governing apparatus is a hate target of the protesters.

The political elite from all parties are detested for having siphoned off billions of dollars meant for 'aid funds' and capital investment.

Although they cynically pit one ethnic group against another, the right-wing political elites agree on the need to impose neoliberal attacks against the population and on which EU accession for Bosnia is conditional.

The ruling parties of Bosnia Herzegovina have colluded with the EU to impose an IMF austerity programme on working people.

Five years of cuts have led to a cut in public sector pay, a freezing of budgets, a dramatic fall in consumer spending and a ballooning of public debt. Over 60% of those under 24 years are unemployed.

Now growing numbers of Bosnians have seen through the main parties' nationalist and ethnic smokescreen to their neo-liberal agenda.

In an attempt to play the ethnic card to stop the full force of the revolt reaching the Republika Srpska, its president, Milorad Dodik, describes the demonstrations as a Bosniak-Croat plot against Serbs.

But this has failed to prevent protests in Serb towns, such as Banja Luka, Brcko and Prijedor. Even the Bosnian Serb war veterans' association attacked Dodik's comments.

They accuse those in power of "attempting by any means necessary to preserve a state that is based on crime, corruption, nepotism, and on a horrendous education system whose consequences are already being felt".

The basis for cross-ethnic, class solidarity in Bosnia and throughout the Balkans can be gleaned from the slogans and demands put forward by protesters.

Hundreds attended a solidarity protest in Croatia's capital, Zagreb, where a banner read: "No to war between the people. No peace between classes!"

The 7 February 'Declaration by the Workers and Citizens of the Tuzla Canton' put forward radical demands that mark a clear rejection of the market economy.

They called for secure health insurance, the annulment of the privatisation programmes, the return of the factories to the workers, to put everything under the control of the public government and for a workers' wage for government representatives.

Limitations

Protesters have reportedly set up assemblies or plenaries throughout Bosnia, with the Tuzla Plenum even making appointments to local government.

Yet the revolt's largely spontaneous character and the acute lack of working class organisation and independent political leadership means there are serious limitations to the movement at this stage.

This can be seen by other demands put forward by the Tuzla protesters, such as the call for "the establishment of a technical government composed of expert, non-political, uncompromised members".

This may seem to protesters as a way of removing corrupt, self-serving politicians, but as recent "technical governments" in Italy and Greece showed, they were not neutral arbiters but fundamentally served the austerity demands of big business.

A 'non-party, technical' government in Bosnia would come under immense pressures from right-wing nationalist forces and the EU's pro-big business interests.

Given the lack of real workers' democracy under the former Yugoslavia, followed by the horrors of wars and capitalist restoration, it is to be expected that the workers' movement is very weak.

Still, workers, students and the jobless have no choice but to rely on their own self-organisation, building assemblies or councils of mass struggle that can democratically decide at local, regional and national levels, the next steps to win their goals.

United workers' action

The weapons available to the working class of Bosnia and across the region include strikes and general strikes.

Coordinated working class action in the Federation and Republika Srpska is needed to unite all workers and to cut across the poison of nationalism that the ruling elites will surely unleash to defend their interests.

A strong class appeal to the rank and file of the police can help neutralise state oppression.

A strong, united workers' movement would extend and develop the most progressive demands put forward today in Tuzla, Sarajevo and elsewhere, fighting for the immediate ending of the IMF austerity policies, the kicking out of the EU High Representative and an end to all imperialist meddling.

The building of a mass workers' party with socialist policies could offer a real alternative to all shades of reactionary nationalist parties and local gangster-capitalism.

In place of Bosnia's corrupt, ethnically-divisive government structures, an independent workers' movement would struggle for a genuine constituent assembly and a majority workers' government.

Bringing the privatised industries under democratic public ownership, as part of a planned economy under democratic workers' control and management, would greatly encourage working people across the Balkans to follow suit.

On this basis, working people from all ethnic and national backgrounds could democratically and peacefully decide their common future, as part of a free and equal socialist federation of the Balkans.

The mass protests of the last few weeks are the first important steps towards these goals.

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