For decades the population of Bosnia has been reproached for a body politic in paralysis. Now they are back on their feet, to the dismay of their politicians and the chagrin of international administrators who hold a trade monopoly in those wheeled walkers referring to themselves as “Western Democracy.“
Our bright and alert Foreign Minister would like others to be on the alert as well. So, recently he found words of solidarity for the instigators of the “Bosnian Spring”: “This is a wake up call, foremost for the political class in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They (sic!) must overcome the stillstand in the land, and advance European reform processes.” This class has a lot to lose. But Sebastian Kurz’ incorrect plural unintentionally reveals the existence of a new political class, the class of people with nothing left to lose.
Starting with the Austrian Foreign Minister and moving on to the ORF correspondent from Sarajevo and diverse commentators who take on Bosnia-as-a-profession, we hear the same old story about what’s going on in the EU protectorate: The public is fed up with nationalistic slogans and corruption. Unemployment, stagnation, and archaic stubbornness were preventing Bosnians from being as successful and happy as we are. All that was really needed was to drive away a parasitic layer from the feeding trough of power for democracy to finally erupt. It doesn’t occur to us that the resentment of many Bosnian-Herzegovinian citizens might not only be directed at their “political class,” but also at international administrators and the scope of various EU- and IMF- austerity programs, which have had a hand in increasing their misery.
A Worthy Tradition
The image of Bosnia as a cauldron of nationalistic unrest, which since the 90s has dominated our perception, conceals another, much more significant tradition: Bosnia has always been an especially fertile ground for social resistance. Regular peasant uprisings (the last in 1870) constantly united people across denominational boundaries. The movement, Mlada Bosna, at the beginning of the 20th century, was by no means an offshoot of Greater Serbian nationalism as it has been re-construed today, but a confluence of intellectual anti-colonialists in which social anarchism played an important role. And finally, Tito’s Partisan army found in Bosnia its main base for action and recruitment.
It is no accident that the civil unrest of the last weeks originated in the city of Tuzla. The ancient Bosnian antagonism between the working-class Tuzla and the snobbish middle-class Sarajevo has become proverb by now. Class consciousness within Bosnia was always strongest in Tuzla with its heavy industry and mines, all knives meant to fillet the Tuzlaci along ethnic lines, shattered.
Back in Yugoslavia at the end of the 60s, the call to reinvigorate the Communist Party as well as for independent unions came not just from students, but from the mine workers of Tuzla. In 1984, 10,000 pitmen from the mine in Kreka near Tuzla donated a day’s wages to the striking miners in Great Britain. This example caught on throughout the country.
Tuzla was the only city during the war which did not succumb to ethnic frenzy. Even though Serbian paramilitaries ravaged surrounding Muslim villages, the Tuzlaci kept a cool head and dismissed the concept of collective punishment which is to the destruction of a society what oxygen is to a blaze. After the war, the independent miner’s union remained a strong bastion against privatization.
More and more, in Western media, Bosnia-Herzegovina gained the nimbus of a failed state made up of corrupt officials and a flock of paralyzed sheep, who kept on voting for their nationalistic wolves. It was no way to run a country! This judgement is a choice example of complete arrogance, especially if we consider that it was often the international investors and trustees who equipped the wolves with the tools for shearing and slaughtering and who did a good amount of fleecing, too. There is a general consensus about the drawbacks of the Dayton Peace Treaty: it was a mistake to cement the nationalist status quo and to accept ethnic elites as political decision-makers. So far, so good. In the defense of the Internationals, we must concede that at first no other cooperation partners were at their disposal because Bosnians with socialist, anti-nationalistic, or cosmopolitan identity had been driven away, killed, or silenced.
Meanwhile, the biggest blunder was believing that the civil war ended in 1995. In economic terms the war has been raging on for 19 years now, and across all national borders. What we have here is just the local, culturally specific franchise of a global civil war model: the war of the profiteers versus the losers. Those who have not fled Bosnia know better than any business student in the West what a free market really is.
Subordination to the prevailing ethnic segregation is the only means of survival in a society where social as well as bodily security have been privatized. Politics there happens solely on a cliental basis. Housing, humanitarian aid, infrastructure services, grants and permits, exemptions from often arbitrary ordinances, social benefits—all are distributed according to affiliation with power networks which in turn form an ethnically segregated market. This is how nationalistic voters are created, not through a bond with Allah or a firm belief in the legend of a lost battle.
Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market (where everything is supposed to turn out fine) was a brass-knuckled fist in Bosnia as in other places where socialist economies were destroyed or had self-destructed. For forty years, Yugoslavian state socialism tried to drum Marxism into its citizens in vain. It was only after capitalism had come to them that they finally grasped the true meaning of what Marx meant by “original accumulation.” Since post-socialist transition country-reality never bothered to read Foucault or Ulrich Beck (as clever countries in the North manage to do) their political economy functions in an embarrassingly vulgar Marxist way. And if there is an outbreak of freedom and democracy there, then it doesn’t happen as it did in Sweden, but more like it had in Lincoln County, New Mexico in the days of Billy the Kid or in Carinthia under Haider and Dörfler.
It’s not that Bosnia was pacified in order to provide market forces with a general framework in their gamble for prosperity. The war itself was a swift proposal in the bidding process for the Yugoslav national assets, and was not—and on this point there is now general consensus— a reawakening of age-old archaic culture clashes, but simply—and on this point there is by no means general agreement—a strategy to acquire the state’s estate. The most effective ideology for this end was the fairytale narrative of a common ethnic identity. All wars, as Voltaire well knew, are plundering raids, and the shadow and pillage economy was not the collateral damage of the Bosnian ethno-war but its aim. The first rule of war is to disable civic order and to make room outside the law which then can be stripped bare under pretense of military necessity. The only winners were the racketeers on both sides of the front line who minted the misery of the civilian population into start-up capital for themselves. They formed the core of the new entrepreneurial class with whom the EU and IMF invested their billions for the purpose of pressing on with privatizations and crushing the last vestige of social benefits.
Criticizing the West’s shared responsibility and its interest in the wars of the 1990s is often shrugged off as conspiracy theory. The statues of Mock and Genscher, posed as heroes, stand alone in the Sierra of Brač and are gnawed at by the winds of Bora, Jugo, and Maestral. They might be forgotten but a system, which for 30 years has been fueling the fire needed to turn land cleared by slash-and -burn into fertile sales markets for Western exports, is not. And people who criticized this system could be vilified as naive and unworldly leftist radicals only until one of the highest officials of this system, former director of the World Bank, Joseph Stieglitz, became a whistle-blower himself and started humming an identical tune. In 1989, when IMF and World Bank prescribed for the Yugoslav government an austerity program containing the usual niceties —currency devaluation, salary freezes, cuts in government spending, dissolution of workers’ self-managed enterprises—over 600,000 people lost their jobs within just a few months. Now finally, Milošević and Tuđman could roll up their sleeves and cook up nationalists from these human ingredients, using local recipes and all. One of the IMF and World Bank measures required the disengagement of Bosnia from the federal transfer payments which up to then had provided an equilibrium between economically stronger and weaker Yugoslav republics. All of a sudden, Bosnia was on its own, i.e. barely capable of survival while Western voyeurs, wavering between concern and fascination, were treated to a display of lab rats scrambling for rationed food in a “European” cage. Thus the second step in the industrial production of nationalism. Step three, however, sure as hell works: rage and a desire for revenge on account of murdered friends and relatives who were not killed as human beings, but as Croats, Serbs, and “Bosniaks,” which in turn transformed human beings into nationalists faster than UN-Observers can keep up with their inflating concerns.
The utter bewilderment German children and grandchildren felt about the apparently primal aggression and pre-modern tribal barbarity of those faraway Balkan desperados surely was one of the most repulsive aspects of these wars, considering that it was their fathers and grandfathers who had given the term bestiality a hitherto unimaginable dimension.
Big Gangs and Small Gangs
A strong pillar of the Bosnian economy is the peace-keeping business—a huge apparatus of administration and international military forces plus investors and over 12,000 NGOs (cue: humanitarian money laundering) which have created a semi-colonial setting with blackmail and bribery at the center of an economy that somehow refuses to resemble the ideal image of a free market but is more akin to rent capitalism. Which is one of the reasons why a thicket of 800 politicians and 150 government ministries is thriving. This kind of thing grows by itself in the absence of a reasonable constitution and the presence of lots of fertilizer from the free West. Politics in Bosnia (but not only there), means diverting international money flows into the whirlpool of one’s own clientele. Add to that an equally puffed up protectorate bureaucracy as the country’s biggest job provider which, paying wages prevailing in Western Europe, creates two classes of workers who only share one thing equally, regardless of the discrepancies in their wages: prices of consumer goods, which have been inflated as a result of this, are equally high for both.
The most fatal mistake of the international administration was that while it laid down the constitutional framework in an authoritarian manner, it left the democratic process totally in the hands of the war profiteers. We can draw parallels here to the ruling style of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which preferred dealing with Bosnian feudalism over any other political counterpart and in the process managed to keep the illiteracy rates unchanged for 30 years. Although the international community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in schools since 1995, it neglected to de-nationalize the curricula. Hence the propagation of ethnic hatred, an intangible the oligarch’s business is based on, is guaranteed in future generations.
The Bosnian situation is by no means a local problem, it is just the local branch of a global connection. Just as the warlords of the world cannot get by without arms traders like Mensdorf-Pouillys, the hajduks (highwaymen) of the unfettered market need loans and investment opportunities. This is where big gangs such as the Hypo Alpe Adria and Raiffeisen come in. 90 per cent of the Bosnian financial sector is in Austrian hands. And we mustn’t forget the heroic dedication shown by the the Novomatic Group as they make sure that not a single cent is lost on its redistributive way from small into big pockets. And in the Balkans, too, these Alpine crime syndicates aggressively prefer to open their gambling dens right next to schools.
All this is enough to make the allegedly passive Bosnians sick and tired. The first signs of this became apparent in 2012, when the veterans associations of the Federation collected money for their former adversaries in Republika Srpska, after both had their pensions cut by their own political warmongers following IMF orders. Or take the case of the commemorative ceremonies in Srebenica that same year, when family members of the victims, for the first time, tried to prevent local politicians as well as representatives of the international community from getting up onto the podium, who, when they finally did manage to speak, were greeted by a barrage of catcalls and jeers.
These protests are very likely more than just acts of impulsive outrage. They are quickly growing into an organized political movement with clear ideas and goals. These people are not talking about democracy; they seem to want to take it into their own hands. They are demanding a government of experts, workers’ self-management, and a review of all privatizations. The nationalistic elite is in a state of utter panic, we can tell by their hysteric moves to hold on to their respective constituent flocks by demanding that each member state of the Federation be ethnically pure. Because once the members of the three denominations go back to being what they always were—Bosnians, then it’ll be high time for the nationalistic magnates to throw in the towel and pack their bags.
Indeed even their international cooperation partners appear barely able to suppress their unease. For decades now they have been demanding more democratic initiatives from the Bosnians, as if dealing with developmentally-challenged children. But the democracy they are witnessing in these days of February somehow does not seem to be what the IMF and the EU have in mind. The Bosnians want genuine democracy, not the “post-democracy” obedient Westerners have long gotten used to. On a regular basis, the West hands down its worn discourses to the periphery. Initially it was leftover World War II ordinance—nationalism— which blew up and killed 100,000 Bosnians, and now the West’s stale pseudo-democracy is up for grabs. Even Bosnians could see how much this democracy had shrunk in times of crisis, that it has shriveled to a euphemism for disenfranchising and dispossessing the citizenry for finance capital’s benefit. And Bosnia’s army of the unemployed will hardly consider the stingy level of German welfare benefits a fitting tribute to the working stiff.
The “High Representative” Valentin Inzko perfectly embodies the inner turmoil of neo-liberal self-deception. An old leftist-romantic impulse urges him to whisper messages of solidarity while his institutional super-ego threatens with EU tanks.
However, the Balkans are forgiving. Notwithstanding our best efforts to corrupt its manners by our profoundly Byzantine ideologies and duplicitous business practices, it’s the Balkans, through their application of a concrete democracy that alone is worthy of the name, which may teach us how to behave in polite society.
The Bosnian spring could turn into a powerful social movement. That would not only mean winter for nationalism, but also autumn for international patronizing. We can only hope that the dispersing seeds of this Bosnian Spring will find their way into the democratically destitute EU.
Richard Schuberth, born in 1968, is a writer. His “New Dictionary of the Devil”(Neues Wörterbuch des Teufels) was released recently by the publishing company Klever Verlag. Already in 1998, with his satirical grotesque play “Friday in Sarajevo”, did he try to come to grips with the causes and contradictions of the Bosnian War.
Translated by: Ida Cerne
Edited by: Joe Weinkirn and Gay Giordano