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Bosnia in revolt

Adam Blanden asks whether the social movement can win in the Balkans

March 25, 2014
11 min read


Not long after the first stirrings of revolt began in Tuzla last month, the western liberal press was already lining up to praise the boldness of the Bosnian people. As they spread to Sarajevo, targeting the western-backed federal government along with the ‘neo-colonial’ Office of the High Representative, the movement raised the spectre of a new social settlement not only for Bosnia but the previously ethnically-divided Balkans as a whole. Writing in the Guardian the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek expressed his admiration for this sudden expression of ‘political maturity’:

‘In one of the photos from the protests, we see the demonstrators waving three flags side by side: Bosnian, Serb, Croat, expressing the will to ignore ethnic differences. In short, we are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites: the people of Bosnia have finally understood who their true enemy is: not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them from others. It is as if the old and much-abused Titoist motto of the “brotherhood and unity” of Yugoslav nations acquired new actuality.’

These were high hopes indeed. With youth unemployment at around 60 per cent, and extraordinarily high levels of political corruption, it is tempting to bracket the Bosnian protests with other recent popular revolts over similar grievances (namely, Egypt and Turkey). It is quite natural for those on the left to understand rapidly spreading public anger in terms of the classical ‘revolutionary wave’ (with 1848 the paradigmatic example). It hasn’t just been the popular press lining up to indulge in another round of glorious spectacle: an editorial in the latest New Left Review mentions Sarajevo as part of a ‘ricochet effect’ – from Egypt to Turkey to Ukraine via the streets of Zagreb, Sofia, and Bucharest.

Situating the movement

While it is quite true that almost all the states on Europe’s periphery (as well as a good many at the core) have experienced major social unrest since the onset of the 2008 crisis, the patterns of development connecting them are hard to map. Understanding the localisation of political protest requires more than acknowledgement of widespread capitalist crisis. The ‘linkages’ between the crisis-stricken, though largely peaceable core, and the collapsing, rebellious periphery are crucial here. Not only this, but ‘situating’ the Bosnian street movement – popular, egalitarian, internationalist, anti-austerity, and anti-corruption – will require a closer look at the specific conditions which produced it.

Thus the political situation at the heart of the European Union takes centre-stage in a configuration of political forces which, though dangling the carrot of membership before the eyes of Bosnians, continues to exclude them (the same could be said of Ukraine). That wider political context will also dictate the extent to which the spontaneous radicalism of the protests can lay down roots, successfully avoiding the pitfalls of ethnic nationalism and close alignment with either Russia or the EU.

In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina a deep sense of alienation of the people from the state has taken hold. The people are organising in urban plenums which, in their model of deliberation, do indeed resemble the spontaneous sounding-boards of Greece’s Syntagma Square. Less a question of cronyish local elites siphoning off public funds, however, this alienation is one between Bosnians and the very form of the state itself. Designed and implemented by European and US diplomats during the long Bosnian war, the Dayton settlement relied on the classical Great Power logic of ethnic partition.

As the American historian Susan Woodward has written, one historical curiosity of the post-Dayton Bosnian state was its mirroring, in microcosm, of the flawed federal Yugoslav state model that had preceded it: divided along ethnic-republican lines, and consequently fated to endless bickering among ‘national elites’. We can now add to this description of mirrored political weakness a crucial set of economic flaws, which have reproduced themselves throughout the Balkans in the post-Communist years. Writing for LeftEast, Andreja Živković and Matija Medenica describe the history of Balkan economic dependency on the Great Powers:

‘In the Balkans as a whole, the attempt to industrialise to ensure independence from the Great Powers increasingly detached the region from dependence on the Soviet economic zone and led it into dependence on the EU. The most important point to grasp is that the entire history of the market in the region has been one of external linkages of dependency at the expense of internal linkages between economies. This is best understood if we imagine the Balkans as a bicycle wheel: as a set of spokes attached to the central hub, but having no connection among themselves whatsoever. This is why from an economic point of view it has always remained in a semi-colonial economic relationship of poverty and backwardness, which in turn has opened it up to Great Power military domination.’

By making internal economic linkages between Balkan states impossible, western capitalism has been able to coerce the Balkans into a series of debt traps. In less elevated language, this amounts to a policy of imperial ‘divide and rule’. Does the pursuit of the opposite – an integrated, federal economy of the Balkans – hold out a feasible social alternative to domination by either the west or Russia? Is it possible to radicalise anti-state protests in Bosnia, transforming them into calls for major economic transformation and federal Balkan integration, thus erasing the shadow cast by the ethnic conflicts of the past?

The Western account: blame local elites, enforce free markets

According to the New York Times, which ran a major piece on Bosnia’s economic ‘shackles’ back in 2010, Bosnia suffers most acutely from endemic political corruption. The paper took former foreign minister Mladen Ivanic at his word: ‘The main problem is the political system, not the economic system.’ Words like ‘fiefdom’ were bandied around; egregious internal trade tariffs between cantankerous ethnic tribalists were clucked at; moves to centralise the prone federal form were proposed, all to little effect.

Essentially, this was a rehash of age-old western discourses about feckless Balkan tribalism, entirely ignoring the region’s long-term integration into imperial jurisdictions and capitalist financial markets. There was no acknowledgement of the ‘debt trap’ in which Bosnian people found themselves. Nor was there any due paid to the processes whereby various Balkan peoples had been deprived of the ability to develop independent, effective states and complex, socially integrated market systems (the supposed benefits of westernisation and modernisation). Thus, even if the protests manifest themselves as rallying cries against the dysfunctional state, they have every opportunity of transforming into a wider movement against economic subordination and exploitation by EU markets.

The former Yugoslav states have, since the end of the 1990s conflicts, been met with a stark choice: either Russian imperial tutelage or EU-sanctioned and managed free markets. The former has meant a powerless clientelism with diminishing returns; the latter, highly conditional tranches of foreign capital but long-term indebtedness and increasing reliance on western imports. Critics are right to point out that this is the same as the choice faced mid-century when, under Tito, Yugoslavia stage-managed financial openness to western commodity and financial markets. However, the outcome, following the Dayton Accords and the pointless Nato bombing campaign against Belgrade in 1999, has come to seem strangely predetermined. Despite its old school territorial posturing (most recently in the case of Crimea), Russia is no longer in a position to offer substantial trade returns to Europe’s periphery. This might, after all, explain Putin’s rashness: a sort of grab-it-while-you-can recklessness that attests to a narrowing geopolitical brinkmanship.

EU integration of the Balkans has categorically failed to ameliorate long-term economic stagnation and political corruption. The story not told in the western press is that it was precisely marketisation and financial integration of the Balkan states that created the mess in the first place. The logical solution to the problem, as articulated by activists like Andrea Zivkovic, is the re-emergence of support for a Balkan-wide regional federation, dependent on neither the neocolonialism of the EU nor the imperial domination of Russia. Similarly, though in a very different ideological tone of register, the Serbian anarchist Andre Grubacic has long been advocating the cause of ‘no state, no nation: Balkan federation’.

Yet despite Zizek’s aforementioned optimism, the protests, as Zivkovic writes, are yet to really take hold in Republika Srpska – the Serbian enclave within Bosnia – and it is difficult to see exactly how ‘Brotherhood and Unity’ might emerge spontaneously among the divided ethnic republics, let alone in the wider Balkans.

Further revolt can and will take place. Even when the situation was quiet, at the end of 2013, I predicted unrest targeted at both the Bosnian state and the enforcement of western-backed austerity. That such spontaneous street movements have emerged should come as no surprise. But unity may continue to elude Balkan peoples.

Can a new force emerge?

What makes the uprisings in Bosnia – and street marches in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia – institutionally weak? No social force exists in any of these states which is central enough, and yet at great enough risk of marginalisation, to challenge EU or IMF-backed austerity (at home or elsewhere). Given the highly stratified, divided nature of Balkan economies and their lack of close intra-regional integration, there is little chance of cross-cultural pollination taking place spontaneously. The alternative – that of a state-managed turn to autarchic regional policies to promote market integration and independence from the EU – would seem to a bit outdated. It is also unlikely that Balkan domestic markets could reasonably support the intensification of internal trade necessary to underwrite such regional integration and autonomous growth.

In the comparable case of South America, where largely left-of-centre governments have promoted regional integration with each other above bilateral free trade agreements with the US, such active policies have been shown to produce real political results in resisting US militarism. Yet even then the more radical of the South American states have struggled to implement market-defying ‘socialist’ policies. South America is also economically very different to the Balkans, even if there are certain geopolitical resonances (both being Great Power peripheries). The South American states boast several highly successful export-driven economies – most notably Brazil – while the Balkan states mostly lack profitable natural resources and competent managerial elites. The one major state in the region, Turkey, is usually seen as pursuing its own circuitous path to EU membership. Thus the notion of an etatist bloc looks distant at best.

The possibility remains that, in Greece, a long-term member of the EU as well as a member of the eurozone, a party of the radical left could take power with the support of a broad alliance of the working and salaried middle class. In terms of impact on the political inertia of Balkan society, this could be truly galvanising. Yet, in the face of unshakeable regional dominance by the core states of the EU (especially Germany, the fiscally conservative industrial juggernaut of European capitalism), little chance of a deeply integrated, successfully autonomous Balkan market has emerged.

Though I do not advocate the EU, for structural reasons it remains the only developmental option available for states on the European periphery. No amount of internal social activism – or autarchic industrial policy – can defeat this sobering fact. But just as the Trotskyist theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ identifies contradictions in the capitalist mode of market creation, so too does it prove there’s ample space for shifts at the highly developed core to have magnified effects on the periphery. A small political change – say, a shift in the balance of class forces in Germany; a Pink-Red-Green governing coalition (in which Die Linke played a strategic enough role ahead of the war-mongering Greens) – could yet provide space for unforeseen, even unforeseeable, transformations elsewhere.

It doesn’t necessarily take successful insurrection in the heartlands of western capitalism for major shifts in the balance of class forces to be reflected; and it only requires narrow electoral shifts at the core to make major transformations possible elsewhere. Should Bosnia’s plenums still hold some popular sway come that day, it is possible a genuinely challenging political force could emerge.

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