The Presidential Palace in Sarajevo in flames on February 7, 2014. All Photos by Minel Abaz.
Anger erupted in the industrial Bosnian town of Tuzla two weeks ago after the closing of the Konjuh furniture factory, one of about a dozen companies that have shuttered after the government privatized many industries over the past few years. Coalitions of workers, students, retirees, and other citizens started marching, shouting-down politicians, clashing with police, and eventually trashing government buildings.
Bosnia and Herzogovina, BiH for short, has seen few economic booms in its short history. And with unemployment sitting at a staggering 44 percent for years (57 percent for young workers), disaffection has spread onto the streets.
As images of anger and police brutality emerged from Tuzla, protests began taking on momentum across the country. On February 7th, hundreds of people surrounded the Presidential Palace in the capital city of Sarajevo and set it on fire. There were similar protesters of varying sizes and intensity in front of government offices in across the country—including one in Banja Luka in Republica Sprska—notable because its Serbian population is generally considered at odds with Croats and Bosnians.
Last Saturday, Al Jazeera reported 300 protesters were injured—mostly in Sarajevo, where video surfaced of police officers pushing dozens of protesters over the ledge of an embankment to a canal.
Informal protest groups formed, including UDAR and Revolt, formed to help organize the protests and set up citizen’s councils known as plenums. Demands from these meetings are still to be determined, but most call for resignation of politicians, cuts to their salaries, and expanded funding of services for workers and the unemployed.
Several regional officials, including Sarajevo Canton’s Prime Minister, has resigned. Others have fled the country. A recent poll shows support for the uprising in the three territories at 88 percent—a surprising number considering supposed inter-ethnic tension that characterizes the divided nation since it was born out of the ashes of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia.
Writing in the Guardian, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek not only sees the Bosnian Spring as potentially breaking the downward swing of the uprisings, but even imagines a Balkan rebirth of the General Tito’s slogan for the socialist Yugoslavian State—“Unity and Brotherhood.”
But are the protests really as anti-nationalist and class conscience as we might hope? Or are they merely an outlet to the rising frustration and narrowing options for BiH’s youth? I talked to Minel Abaz, a student activist and organizer from Sarajevo, to find out.
VICE: Tell us a bit about your perspective on the protests. How did they start, what were some decisive moments, and where are they heading?
Minel Abaz: They started like any other workers' protest which was held after the Bosnian war in the 90s, so no one expected it would grow to something so massive with the support of organized citizens.
And then there was the most crucial moment of all, when the government (primarily in Tuzla) sent to the workers and citizens the special units of the police which brutally attacked the protesters, which became the spark that still stirs protests in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, and Bihać, which ended in violence, and burning of government institutions.
Now we see protests heading to more solidarity and overcoming ethnic factors in the lower class, and, I hope, to demands for more economical and social justice.
What’s the mood like in Sarajevo?
It’s been a quieter. It's been a few days since the violent confrontations, but people are still on the streets every day looking for a better life and more equal society. Some cities, like Tuzla, has already started a kind of people's government, outside of parliamentary political parties, made of workers, students, academics. They are having directly democratic plenum every day.
We are trying to do something similar in Sarajevo. The Prime minister and the entire Sarajevo Canton resigned, and it’s very important to provide an alternative to this. On February 12th, we had the first plenary session with between 500 and 1,000 people. but our demands have not yet been fully adopted.
I’ve seen videos of cops pushing protesters into a canal and government buildings on fire. Could you describe these events?
I have a friend [that was pushed over the embankment], I was with him a few hours ago. His leg is broken, but he is OK.
And yes of course i've seen buildings on fire, I was there. That was last Friday. Protests began at the president around 1 PM. Forty-five minutes later clashes with police started, and they managed to push us away from government buildings. After a while of waiting, people gathered together, and just rushed to the police. Skirmishes with the police lasted until 2:40 when protesters managed to get to get to the government building. At 2:50 the building was set to flames.
You mentioned you’re involved in antifascism. Is there a right-wing or fascist element to the protests?
I didn't see any fascists, but some patriots and nationalists were there. No one reacted to them, beacuse they were protesting like anyone else. They didn't shout any nationalist messages or something similar, only those against governement and police.
Would you describe what’s happening as a revolution?
Revolution? I don’t know. It started like that, because all the anger exploded in one day. But I think this won't be revolution, because workers and citizens are still unorganized, and still ideologically non-oriented.
Does to uprising in BiH relate to what's happening in the Ukraine? Or what happened in Turkey, Greece, Slovenia last year? Or even to what happened in the Middle East during the Arab Spring? How do you think it fits into a global context?
I wouldn't say it has to do with the protests in Ukraine, because that’s fracture between the EU and Russia. But it is related to protests and happenings in Turkey and Greece mostly, and even with protests in Slovenia and Egypt. But I would say, that protests in Bosnia are most similar to protest in Turkey, because a wide section of people—the lower class, workers, students, pensioners, war veterans—are against the injustices of the ruling paradigm. Although there are no demands yet,we see a deep stratification, social antagonisms.
As Žizek said, and as happened in Turkey—even if the protests gradually lost their intensity—there will remain a spark of hope, because people have lost all confidence in the system and the institutions of the system, and because these protests can be good opportunity for overcoming imposed, dominant ethno-national divisions, and strengthening class consciousness, and the needs of the self-organization of workers and workers' struggles.
Some commentators, including Lily Lynch and Slavoj Žižek, have excitedly noted an anti-nationalist and pro-worker character to the protest, shattering the ethnic divisions encouraged by leaders and the EU. Are these valid claims?
Yes, of course. That is the main cause of protest, a pro-worker ideal, which was recognized in other cities. As professor Asim Mujkić noted, the uprsing began in a former industrial cities—first in Tuzla—because these areas feel the consequences of privatization.
Besides this pro-worker character of the protests, workers and other citizens are also united against police brutality, and therefore against elites who, under the guise of nationalism, are robbing and privatizing everything for 20 years.
So 20 years was that period, but now, the workers and other social categories are waking up, furiuous, and rising up against the nationalist and capitalist elite, and the entire system.