Popular uprisings in Bosnia & Herzegovina

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Bosnia, which has never recovered from the war of 1992-1995, has recently been shaken by mass popular uprisings. The uprisings began in the former industrial powerhouse of Tuzla on 7 February and have since developed into a working class-led, non-sectarian mass movement of tens of thousands of people against corruption, nationalism, privatisation and unemployment. Citizens’ plenums – assemblies of direct democracy – have been established from which existing trade unions and political parties are banned. The continuing progress of the movement will depend on new organisations emerging that represent the struggle of the oppressed majority.

Bosnia has an unemployment rate of 44%, with youth unemployment at over 57%. Many officially employed workers are working for no pay. More than a fifth of Bosnians live in poverty. The economy was devastated by the destruction of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the civil wars of 1991-2001. More than 100,000 people died in Bosnia alone. The US-engineered Dayton Agreement of 1995 divided the former federal state of Bosnia along ethnic lines into the Croat-Muslim ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and the Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), as well as the ‘neutral’ Br?ko District. The economy was further weakened by the IMF structural adjustments.

Bosnia and Croatia had been each other’s main trading partners since the destruction of Yugoslavia, but Croatia’s entry into the EU seriously undermined this. At the time, Croatia took more than 17% of Bosnia’s exports and supplied more than 17% of its imports. Bosnia is no longer permitted to sell food to Croatia. This problem has been compounded by an increasing dependence on imported goods and services caused by mass privatisation by the local oligarchy. Neighbouring Serbia is currently engaged in EU accession talks.


Tuzla, Bosnia’s third-largest city and most populous canton, has been at the heart of the uprisings. Tuzla is known for its history of labour militancy. In 1984, 10,000 miners at the Kreka colliery near Tuzla, gave one day’s pay a month to support the British miners’ strike of 1984-1985. It is now home to about one fifth of Bosnia’s unemployed.

Demonstrations began in Tuzla in early February over unpaid wages to workers of companies which filed for bankruptcy soon after privatisation. Police used tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets, but the protesters defended themselves. A group of younger protesters eventually stormed the main government building and set it alight. Some special police unit commanders ordered their officers to remove their helmets, lower their shields and support the protest. The Dayton-appointed High Representative for Bosnia, an Austrian named Valentin Inzko, responded by threatening to send Austrian and other EU troops to Bosnia.

In eight of the ten cantons of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, protesters have formed representative plenums. On 7 February the Prime Minister of Tuzla Canton (Sead ?auševi?, SDP*) and the whole of the Zenica-Doboj Canton government resigned, followed by the Prime Minister of Sarajevo Canton (Suad Zeljkovi?, SDA**) the next day.

The first Tuzla representative plenum declaration of 7 February set out a basic political programme for the uprising. It opposed any ‘criminalisation, politicisation or manipulation of the protests’, and called for the establishment of a government ‘of professional, non-partisan and uncorrupted members which so far, have not had any mandate at any level of government’. It called for the salaries of the new government to be brought in line with other workers, and for its work to be overseen by ‘all interested citizens’, as well as the renationalisation of all privatised factories. It remains to be seen whether these plenums can act as an arena for the most radical sections of Bosnian society to organise, or if they will be narrowed and controlled by the very same interests which so decisively discredited the trade unions and existing political parties.

The resistance of the people of Tuzla quickly spread to the other cantonal capitals of the Federation, such as Sarajevo and Mostar, with some of the major cities of Republika Srpska also organising protests and citizens’ plenums. Solidarity demonstrations have taken place in major cities of the other former Yugoslavian republics, such as Belgrade, Zagreb and Podgorica. On 18 February several hundred former state workers in the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia chanted ‘Bosnia’ as they demonstrated in front of the Union of Trade Unions of Macedonia building in Skopje in response to recent weak reforms.

The ruling class and the mainstream political parties in the Federation are trying to misrepresent the protests as a Bosniak ethnic rebellion against their Croat neighbours. In the heavily-centralised Republika Srpska, President Milorad Dodik has attempted to portray the developments in the Federation as an attempt to destabilise Republika Srpska, in an effort to prevent the local populations from also rising up. Local fascists have been mobilised in the process.

We should take inspiration from the resistance of the Bosnian working class. We must give them our solidarity as they attempt to navigate between libertarianism and reformism to replace the barbarism and corruption of the recent past with a fairer, socialist future. Similar conditions to those in Bosnia exist across the Balkans and eastern Europe. The ruling classes of Europe will be watching Bosnia anxiously.

Andrew George

* SDP BiH: Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

** SDA: Party of Democratic Action, a Bosniak conservative political party.

For videos from the plenums with English subtitles, visit: http://bhprotestfiles.wordpress.com


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