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Bosnia: The beginning of a new working class revolution?

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The “worst case scenario” for all Bosnian politicians is in the making. Workers, youth and the unemployed have started to rise up against the corrupt politicians of all the leading nationalist parties, whether Croat, Bosnian or Serb, and the whole crony system through which they have plundered the country since the end of the war and the US/EU-imposed Dayton agreement of 1995.

The current wave of mass protests, demonstration and attacks on ministries and the local offices of the nationalist parties started on February 5 in Tuzla. The protesters assembled in front of the cantonal government building after a number of bankrupt companies announced the sacking of some 10,000 workers - in a town of 120,000 inhabitants! They demanded compensation and the repayment of healthcare and pensions contributions after the privatised companies for which they worked failed. Their rally was joined by unemployed, students and youth.

The protesters occupied local governmental buildings and demanded that the authorities speak to them and guarantee jobs in the companies. The politicians, whilst expressing their “sympathy” and “understanding”, refused and the demonstration and the police clashed. At least 10 people were hospitalised.

This was the spark that led to a countrywide explosion, particularly in the Bosnian/Croat entity of the country. Over the next few days, there were demonstrations and clashes with the police in most towns: Zenica, Bugojno, Cazin, Bihac, Banja Luka, Brcko and also the capital, Sarajevo.

As in Tuzla, where the authorities refused to meet with a delegation of the protestors and thereby inflamed their feelings even further, other members of the political elite demonstrated their distance from the ordinary people. All the bourgeois politicians heading the country blamed their respective rivals for “manipulating” the people who, they suggested, would otherwise have little reason to protest.

Suad Zeljkovic, premier of the Sarajevo cantonal government, was one of the most striking examples of this mixture of ignorance, cynicism and idiocy. On Thursday, February 6, he said: “In Sarajevo, no one has reasons for unrest and actions like this. There is not a single unpaid salary, nor does any sector of society have reasons for dissatisfaction”.

The next day, he was proved very much mistaken when thousands gathered in the capital to demonstrate their very deep dissatisfaction and more than 100 were injured in clashes with the police. In Tuzla, the cantonal government building was burned down. After the first days of protest, three of the 10 cantonal governments Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica, resigned.

United by hunger and poverty

The social reasons for the protests are simple. The vast majority of Bosnians, be they Muslim, Croat or Serb, are united in poverty and hunger. 40 percent are unemployed. Youth unemployment had already reached 58 percent in 2011. The average wage is around 420 Euros per month.

The privatisations of the past decades have further disrupted a country devastated by a bloody civil war and then plundered by its own “elite” and the European and US imperialists. Privatisation often just means new owners buying enterprises for next to nothing, stripping them of any wealth and resources and then abandoning them. Non-payment of wages is “normal” for many workers.

What happened in Tuzla, the threat of 10,000 job losses, is not unique, but rather the most striking example of what happens throughout the country. Redundancies and privatisations are announced everywhere. This does not “only” mean further job losses – in Bosnia it also means loss of all social insurance rights and benefits.

The misery does not only affect the urban working class and middle classes, but the countryside, too. There, productivity is low, debts are high and credit expensive. Many peasants are forced into subsistence farming, as in many Eastern European countries.

The poverty of the many goes hand in hand with the wealth of a few. Whilst workers earn only a few hundred euros a month, a manager gets around €20,000 for his “work”.

Parasitic state structure and EU rule

In addition, the country, with around 3.8 million inhabitants, has an extremely large administrative apparatus. After the civil war, the country was divided into two semi-states; the Bosniak-Croat-Federation with around 2.4 million inhabitants and the Serb Republic with 1.3 million; the district of Brcko, with around 100,000 is under direct federal control. In addition, there are 10 cantons, which also have their own “parliaments” and “governments”.

Finally, on the national level, there exists a parliament with two houses, the federal parliament and the “chamber of the people” and a presidency composed of a representative of each nationality, whose chair rotates every 8 months.

All this adds up to an extremely large structure, a multiplicity of regulations. In addition, the Dayton Agreement, on which this is based, also requires automatic representation of national parties, even if they fail to win seats in elections.

So, three major national parties and some “social democratic” counterparts have divided the posts and political influence between themselves for almost two decades. Elections are effectively little more than an entitlement to wealth (starting with a quite high revenue of €3200 per month for each of these officials, almost 10 times more than the average worker's wage.

Therefore, it is little surprise that none of the established political parties wants to change this system, since it secures their and their close supporters' access to wealth.

The other major effect of this system is that it paralyses the country. Every major reform can be blocked easily at different levels. Only those, like privatisations, that allow joint plunder by the capitalists and bourgeois parties, get through.

However, the undoubted corruption inherent in this system, and the political parties that divide the state apparatus between themselves, are not a Bosnian invention. They are the result of the Dayton Agreement, which was imposed by NATO, the UN, the US and the European imperialist powers after the war in 1995.

It was the Western powers who actually installed the system that they now blame on the Bosnians. In addition, in 1997, the Dayton Agreement and the “Bonn Powers” agreed to impose a party above the Bosnian system: the “Office of the High Representative”, who represents the UN and “supervises” the implementation of the Dayton Agreement.

Currently, an Austrian diplomat, Valentin Inzko, holds this post. He has the right to overrule all decisions of the Bosnian institutions. He can sack elected representatives, impose laws or even establish administrative offices, if it seems necessary to him.

Inzko’s powers are very real. In cases where Bosnian politicians and institutions paralyse each other, which are frequent, it is he who can, and does, make political decisions for the country as a whole.

His power is strongly tied to the currently 1,000 strong foreign military force (EUFOR), which the EU has run since 2004, when it took over responsibility for ensuring “security” from NATO.

In short, Bosnia is a UN-protectorate, administered by the EU, de facto an EU colony. The overvalued currency of the country is tied to the Euro at a fixed rate. One of the few things the Bosnian federal government could pass, was to agree to the IMF austerity programme, which led to a freezing of the budget, further constraints on consumption and a further increase in public debt. As the IMF itself admits in its latest country report, none of this will actually restore growth and thus revenues. Instead, legislation is planned to raise the pension age, increase labour flexibility and continue with privatisation.

Hypocritical as imperialists are, Inzko declared that the “protests are justified”. But, of course, it was not the imposed political system that was to blame, it was the “incompetence” and corrupt nature of the Bosnian parties. What a tragedy! From Afghanistan to Bosnia, the well intentioned plans of the imperialists for creating “new democratic orders” are constantly sabotaged by the greed and short-sightedness of their puppets.

In the same interview, Inzko also made it clear that he intends to defend that order. If the Bosnian police and military forces prove unable to establish order and “…if the hooliganism continues, EUFOR [EU] troops may be asked to intervene”, he threatens.

Whether Inzko's masters in Berlin or Paris are so keen on sending several thousands of soldiers into Bosnia in order to crush working class protest is doubtful. That would destroy what remains of their fake “democratic” credentials amongst millions in the Balkans and risk a massive expansion of protest and solidarity throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. However, one should not for a minute underestimate the EU's and the US' preparedness to intervene openly if the mass demonstrations and actions develop further towards a pre-revolutionary, or even revolutionary, situation.

The Bosnian protests do not only threaten the rule of the reactionary parties in the country and their clientelist system, they also threaten the entire imperialist imposed order and rule over the country.

As one could observe from February 8 onwards, the police have started to move not only against protestors on the street but also important leaders, like Aldin Siranovic from Udar, were arrested and beaten up in Tuzla, which led to another protest demonstration of around 6,000.

The development of the protests and their demands

Whilst the protests that developed in Tuzla were not led by existing mass organisations, they were also not simply an isolated or entirely “spontaneous” eruption. Last summer, Sarajevo saw an outburst of anger when a child died after she was not allowed to leave the country for medical treatment because her parents could not get a passport.

Now, this anger has spread across the whole country. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are being united “by hunger”, as one of the leaders of the protests, the Banja Luka economist Svetlana Cenic expressed it: “It is the nightmare of political elites that people unite in protests. They will do everything so that people do not unite; they will be telling those in Banja Luka that they cannot support those in Sarajevo and vice versa.”

She is certainly right, that there is no guarantee that nationalist or other demagogues might be able to derail or divide the movement. The very reality of the danger can be seen by the fact that the protests are much weaker so far in the Serbian part of the country where, in cities like Banja Luka, only a few hundreds have attended the rallies.

Nevertheless, the movement is clearly moving beyond the national divisions and even beyond the Bosnian borders. In the last few days, we have also seen solidarity actions in Croatia and Serbia and also the first protests in Montenegro, which were inspired by the Bosnian events.

From the very beginning, the demonstrators and activists have been developing and extending their demands and slogans. Although these differ in detail between different regions and towns and reports so far are still fragmentary, it is clear that there are some features in common.

Key demands are a halt to privatisations, a re-nationalisation of privatised companies, confiscation of wealth appropriated from “criminal privatisations” and work and social insurance for all.

Beyond this, there are demands for the resignation of governments on federal and cantonal levels (where they have not already resigned); an end to the enrichment of state officials; cuts in wages and expenditure for the state administration; equalisation of wages and income in the private and public sector and also the abolition of the cantonal structure or the banning of nationalist and religious-based parties.

However, unsurprisingly, some of the demands raised also express the immaturity and illusions of the movement, in short, a lack of political leadership. So the “declaration of the workers and citizens of the Tuzla canton” from February 7, calls for “cooperation with citizens, the police and civil protection, in order to avoid any criminalisation, politicisation and any manipulation of the protests”.

Likewise this resolution, like many others, calls for the “establishment of a technical government, composed of expert, non-political, uncompromised members.” In similar vein, others call for a government without politicians or political parties.

Perspectives and programme

Obviously, it is difficult to predict the tempo of development of the Bosnian struggle. But is clear that, unlike many of the movements in Eastern Europe in recent years, it is a movement deeply rooted in the working class.

Most of its key demands are directed against the capitalists and the bourgeois and pro-IMF politics of the different governments and political parties. This is also expressed in the many slogans against “politics”, “politicians” and “governing parties”. Clearly, for the Bosnian worker, youth or peasant, politics is a dirty business.

The other important factor is the internationalist character of the movement. It rejects the nationalist parties, those who have divided the workers and the poor for decades with the same nationalist lies, and who have enriched themselves by this.

Like in other countries on the Balkans, foremost in Bulgaria, we are now seeing the emergence of a new militancy of the working class, starting to revive from dramatic defeats of the 1990s. Obviously, a number of the demands raised reflect the immaturity of the movement and need to be challenged. For example, the demand for “a government of experts”, if it were based on the existing or slightly reformed state structure, would turn out to be just another capitalist government, implementing IMF-dictates and neo-liberal policies.

However, the current movement has obviously raised important social and political issues, which pose the question of the social and political re-organisation of Bosnian society as a whole.

One key question obviously needs to be the question of demands to stop the further impoverishment of the working class and the youth:

- No to all privatisations, re-nationalise the privatised companies, nationalisation without compensation of all the large Bosnian or foreign companies and banks under workers' control! Progressive taxation of the rich, their profits and wealth!
- For a programme of useful public works in order to bring people into work. Divide the working hours amongst all.
- Social security for all, including free health care and free education. Minimum wages, unemployed benefits and pensions, set by committees of the workers, peasants and poor.

In order to enforce social demands, however, the movement itself needs to be built up and generalised throughout the country. For this, a political general strike that involves all the cantons and states is needed. To organise such a strike and to lead the movement beyond that, elected action committees are needed in every factory, in every workplace, in every estate, town and in the countryside.

These councils of action need to be generalised and co-ordinated in the cantons and on the federal level. This needs to be done on the basis of working class democracy, that is, election by majority, with full accountability and recallability by the rank and file.

In order to protect actions from the police or provocations, self-defence of demonstrations and of strikes or occupations needs to be built up.

As the movement has already started to show, in cantons where the local administration has resigned, such a strike would inevitably pose the question of power.
As the movement develops, therefore, its immediate social demands need to be combined with a programme for the reorganisation of the country and the struggle against its neo-colonial status as a whole, around demands such as:

- Publication of all treaties, opening of all business books and accounts of the companies, the different ministries and cantonal administrations, the EU, the IMF. Cancel the foreign debt and repeal the IMF-programmes!
- In the EU and other imperialist countries, the working class needs to campaign against any financial blackmailing of Bosnia or any military threat against the workers uprising!
- Scrap the Dayton Accord! Imperialists out of Bosnia! Immediate withdrawal of the “High Commissioner” and of EUFOR and all other foreign troops and advisors!
- For an emergency plan, based on the needs of the workers, youth and peasants and under working class control in order to get the economy going again and to set priorities of investment according to need.
- Investigation by workers' commissions of the criminal activities and corruption of state officials. Reduction of pay for state employees and elected officials to the average wage.
- The Bosnian political system has been imposed by imperialism, it can neither meet the needs of the people, nor solve the key democratic questions (like the national question). In order to address this, we call for the convocation of a constituent assembly.
- Elections and campaigning for such an assembly must be controlled by committees of workers, peasants and the poor; not by the current state apparatus or by the nationalist parties or the bourgeois media.

In its totality, such a programme raises the question who, which class, is to rule in the country – the imperialists and capitalists or the working class in alliance with the peasantry?

Organs like action committees or control committees have to develop to become workers' councils, soviet-style bodies that are not only organs of struggle but also the emerging organs of future, non-capitalist society. Such bodies not only have to be built in the factories and the estates, but also in the army, we call on the “ordinary” soldiers to side with the workers and to create soldiers' councils and to help build up workers' militias for the defence against any counter-revolutionary threat.

Only such soviet type bodies can be real, solid foundations for a workers' and peasants' government to carry out a social transformation that does not only end the corruption and neo-liberal politics but the real cause of misery in Bosnia; capitalism.

The development of the working class struggle in Bosnia, not to mention the working class revolution, is already a turning point for the political life of the region today and, hopefully, for the whole of Europe tomorrow.

Such a movement must not and cannot be confined to Bosnia as we can already see. At the end of the day, the democratic and social issues, and the imperialist domination of the Balkans, cannot be solved just by the struggle in one country. A successful revolution in Bosnia, as important as it is, would have to go beyond the national boundaries, would need to be, and will be, a starting point for the struggle for a Socialist Federation of the Balkans.

We have outlined a brief programme at the end of our article for one good reason. The situation in Bosnia is ripe with revolutionary potential. But it also acutely poses the question of the creation of a political instrument of the working class, of a revolutionary working class party. The “revolutionary left”, as in all other countries, is weak and fragmented. The few militants face tremendous tasks. With our proposal, we want to contribute to the necessary debate as to how the current mass upheaval of the workers and youth can be developed, how it can develop into a successful working class revolution.