On protests in BH, quickly and darkly

tuzla-smoke-bosniaTwo vignettes

Conversation 1 was with the waiter in a large Sarajevo hotel, where we were generally a bit sheepish to be attending our conference (the deciding factor was that it was big enough for all of the participants, the down side was its odd business history and the fact that the main conference room was also where Radovan Karadžić liked to hold his soirees with the media). A colleague and I had heard that the employees of the hotel had not been paid for several months, so we asked. It was true, he told us. Most of the employees had remained at the hotel through a series of ownerships and bankruptcies, and had often faced periods of reduced pay, no pay, or something in lieu of pay. So what were they working for? They wanted to keep the hotel going in the hope that one day it might become profitable again, and they wanted the employer to keep making contributions to the pension and medical care funds.

Conversation 2 was with a group of postgraduate students in Tuzla. Most of them had or were seeking work as schoolteachers. And they were only able to get short-term jobs. Why no permanent jobs in schools? Because available workplaces are distributed among the local political parties, who fill them with their members and put them on one-year contracts. The effect of this is that no young person can get a job except through the services of a political party, and no young person can keep a job except by repeatedly demonstrating loyalty to the political party. You can probably imagine the wonderful effect this has on the development and teaching of independent, critical thinking in schools.

I could go on with vignettes. I have lots of them. But these sorts of scenes might be thought of as the background of the protests that began earlier this week in Tuzla, developed into police violence by Thursday afternoon, and spread across Bosnia’s larger entity partly in the form of mob vandalism by Friday.

By Saturday morning it looks a bit of a part-triumph (some useless politicians resigned, and some police officers withdrew their loyalty) and a bit of a horrid mess (among the things that were burned in the protests were valuable documents, both ones related to the dubious activity of the targets of the protests and possibly a hugely valuable portion of the BH archive). So what brought this about, and what does it suggest for the near future?

A permanent, parasitic political class made in Dayton

At the root of every political problem in BH is the way that the state was established through an agreement that was brokered between large-scale killers and international powerwielders in Dayton in 1995. The killers were offered a great deal: take a break from killing folks, and we will finance you, guarantee that you occupy political office forever, and design a system that absolves you of all accountability. The citizens weren’t at the talks, and were not offered much of a deal, just the killers’ fantasy that every one one of them was a manifestation of one of three never-coinciding groups that somehow exhaust all of the possibilities that are around with regard to identity and interest. Think of the Dayton constitution as an outline for the plot of a Star Trek episode. They even named one of their entities “the Federation.”

Over the two decades since Dayton, the immovable political class that it established has taken every opportunity to demonstrate its irresponsibility and utter uselessness. Last year’s JMBG protests were catalysed because of the inability of parties in the parliament to reach an agreement that would allow state agencies to issue identity documents to newborns, resulting in the death of a young child who was prevented from crossing the border to get urgent medical attention. The response of high- (and long-) ranking government officials was to accuse citizens of endangering their security.

These feats of concern are carried out by politicians who are the highest paid in the region.  In addition to the generous salaries they award themselves, officeholders are able to further supplement their earnings by claiming pay for membership in boards, commissions, consultative bodies and so on. This in an environment in which unemployment among young people exceeds 60%. The Daytonian political class has established an enduring model of officials who believe that citizens exist to serve them, and act on that belief.

A narrow-reach economy of patronage

One of the mantras of the political class, encouraged by its international overseers, has been privatisation. In the broad context of an environment where most of the companies where most people used to work took the form of “social property,” that meant taking goods that had been built through public investment and transferring them into private hands. And since private owners do not have the obligations that social owners have, this means a lot of publicly subsidised asset-stripping, budget-skimming and credit-bouncing. Many of the institutions that used to employ people have not done so for years.

To take a specific example, let’s look at Tuzla, where the protests began. The local chemical factory SODASO used to produce 80% of the table salt consumed in Yugoslavia, 208,000 tonnes of it in 1991. By 1999 it was producing 21,000 tonnes. Privatised in 2002, by 2013 the company employed only 422 people, down from 2500 in 1998.  That local government building that was at first defended by police with batons and tear gas, then overrun by citizens and then set ablaze? That’s the former SODASO headquarters, being used by the local government as the company languishes in receivership. It is probably not too difficult to imagine the anger attracted by a building that has come to symbolise how once a big functioning industry provided a livelihood for people, and now a bigger functionless bureaucracy lives off them.

A willfully blind international “over”sight

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Dayton-made institutions were designed not to represent citizens and designed not to function. There was some sort of earlyfukuyamesque idea that eventually they may develop a responsive democratic state, but in the meantime the “international community” provided some institutions to oversee them. There is a High Representative who can (but generally does not) nullify government decisions and replace officials. There is a Constitutional Court whose membership is made up of one-third foreigners which can reverse decisions by other courts and the parliament. And of course there is the whole set of conditions related to conditionality, through which the European Union is supposed to be able to offer a range of incentives and sanctions based on the promise of eventual membership in the EU.

There have been some periods in which the international overseers of BH’s government took an active role. But not lately: the tendency has been for institutions like OHR to think of the dominant politicians as potential clients who can be turned into protégés and eventually gain the capacity to carry processes forward. So the internationals were silent about the JMBG protests, silent about these ones (though they regretted that angry crowds used a little force – what did we pay for all that police equipment for?), and will be silent about the next ones and about any effort on the part of citizens to be treated as citizens.

When OHR and related institutions were seen as overly active, this was a problem since there was a sense that they were impeding the development of institutions. At the other extreme they are also satisfying nobody, as they have become the guarantors of the unimpeded power of the useless elite. As long as they wait for that tapeworm to transform itself into a cuddly little puppy, they aren’t helping.

You want a taste? Here’s a nice essay by a former OSCE official who rearranges the words “bold,” “customized,” “imagination and determination,” “dual integration,” “buy-in” and goes on to say zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz……………..

What do people want?

This is not, at least in its gentler daytime incarnations, one of those protest movements that shouts a lot and has no orientation. Well, the part of it that has been setting stuff on fire may be, but there are meaningful parts of it that have been engaged in a different kind of articulation.

The six demands from the Tuzla workers,  include investigation of illegitimately obtained public property, elimination of special privileges for the political class, and formation of a new government that excludes participants in the existing one (which has since resigned).

The eleven original demands of the Tuzla protesters, published by the group “Jer mi se tiče,”  include social welfare and the right to work.

There are a few other documents with lists of demands out there, and there will a be few more over the next few days, but they have some themes in common. They want an end to the self-serving of the political class, they want to be able to work, and they want social rights improved across the board. None of them are basing any claims on nationality, religion, or any of the other divisions that characterise BH in the stubborn international stereotype of it.

What will people get?

They say that it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. But here are a few. What does the near future have in store for people who participated in and had sympathy for the protests?

  • First of all, they will be called hooligans and media will repeatedly point to objects, especially ones of cultural value, that have been destroyed.
  • Second, regardless of the roots of the protests in social rather than national conflict, the fact that local powerswingers in BH’s smaller entity were not targeted will be used for intensified nationalist prepucavanje. This will be rhetorically successful unless people start protesting in RS as well.
  • Third, this is an opportunity for political actors in the country and in the region more generally to begin to ask themselves about the balance between how luxuriously they serve themselves and how shabbily they treat citizens. Although a few more people are likely to resign, if past history is a guide then the opportunity will for the most part not be taken.
  • Fourth, this is an opportunity for the internationals who have oversight on the activity of political institutions and the people in them to ask whether they have chosen the right clients, and also to ask whether the internationals themselves are contributing to deepening problems rather than solving them. This is an opportunity they have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not capable of taking.
  • Fifth, for the second time in a year (the last time was during the summer’s JMBG protests, when the government revelled in its incapacity to issue basic documents), citizens of BH have shown that they are willing and able to act as citizens rather than illustrations of some freaks’ national fantasy. They are going to get better at it and it is going to spread, because the problems that infuriate them are present everywhere, and are being addressed nowhere.

A few things it isn’t

This is probably not the workers’ revolution we have been promised since those nice manuscripts began to be criticised by rodents in 1844. Sorry.

And it is also not any kind of Spring. It is February.

Above all it is not a savage attack by hooligans on legitimate institutions and order. The existing institutions have not bothered to try justifying themselves for some time now. And yes, while burning things is on the nasty and stupid side, there has probably an excess of crocodile tears shed about the fact that angry people are likely to act like angry people. The way this is prevented is by meeting people’s needs, not by stocking up on tear gas.

But it may be a sign that patience with predatory government and enforced decline is coming to an end. Impatience itself, though, does not tell us very much about the future. The future depends on what happens, but a promising sign is that now this may depend on what a larger rather than a tiny group of people may do.

Update: Jasmin Mujanović is maintaining a page with translations of protest demands as they come in (and as he puts in the work)

Update 2 (14 February): The hotel workers mentioned at the beginning of this essay are now on strike.


Something big comes this way

184480_10151695994523524_1233554755_nRemember the Nineties? It was an awesome time for essentialists. National chauvinists briefly got the upper hand in politics in the region, told knowledge-free internationals that their extreme politics were a product of nature (which functions differently in countries you know nothing about, dontcha know), and got away with it.
As a result we had years of apparently serious discussions about what was being done by “the” (insert nationality here) to “the” (insert slightly less despised but disparagingly pitied nationality here). One guy even had something close to a bestseller with it. Remember Robert Kaplan? He was a guy who talked to a bunch of taxi drivers who managed to persuade him that everything was caused by ghosts. Then he wrote this bizarre book that projected his fantasies about geography onto the faces of people he described. In between play sessions with his cigar, even the president of the United States read that book. Dependably, big news creates a good scene for charlatans.
That story about how everyone on a particular territory was always unified by the same bad ideas looked pretty saleworthy for a while. It certainly provided a useful lesson to predatory politicians: whatever you want to get away with, pitch it as a response to the nation being threatened. That way everybody will believe everything and nobody will demand anything from you, least of all that you respond to the public’s needs.
The nationalists’ claim to a monopoly on public sentiment was always bogus, but for a period it was a successful political strategy. If anyone was looking for a sign showing that it no longer is, look no farther than some key protests of the past month.

First in Belgrade, a group of right-wing parties joined up with a politicised faction of the Serbian Orthodox Church to organise a protest against the agreement that had been signed between Serbia and Kosovo. Not too many people turned up, but the ones who did were in for a surprise. One defrocked bishop offered a thinly veiled death threat to the prime minister, and a serving bishop acted as though the death threat had already been carried out, performing a funeral oratory for the government.
The response was not delight. The prime minister garnered a good load of sympathy by asking what God had done to deserve such earthly representatives. The head of the Church rushed to declare that neither he nor the Church had anything to do with the bishops’ shameful performance. In one analysis Sonja Pavlović characterized the overreaching of the bishops, following on a series of scandals involving shenanigans of all kinds in the Church, as a “death blow for the extreme right.” Meanwhile the satirists at had “hooligans abandoning the meeting in terror” following the bishops’ addresses.
There was a time in Serbia when hatred and fear provided a pretty reliable recipe for political success. It’s not working anymore, once people have been offered a chance for peaceful settlement and a bit of hope. The politicians who decline to learn the new rules can look forward to a long and well deserved sojourn in the wilderness.

Then this week in Bosnia citizens began making their point again. The catalyst was the health of Belmina Ibrišević, a three-month old girl urgently requiring medical treatment that is only available abroad. But she could not get it, why? Because she could not get a passport or an official medical record, why? Because the representatives of the two entities that make up the state have been unable to agree over control of the issuance of identity documents to new citizens, and have not issued these documents since February. First citizens in Sarajevo came to protest at the parliament, eventually surrounding the building with a human chain and telling the parliamentarians inside that they would be let out of the building until they resolve the problem. The parliament responded with a “temporary solution” that would allow an ID number to be issued to the baby girl in question. The protestors rejected the move and demanded that the parliament agree on a way for the state to accomplish the simplest and most essential job it has.
With dramatic exceptions, among them the chair of the Council of Ministers Vjekoslav Bevanda who surrounded himself with bodyguards and muscled himself out of the building to a waiting car, smacking concerned citizens out of the way, a good number of the parliamentarians were willing to comply with the protestors’ demands, particularly as groups of celebrities, artists, athletes and Sarajevo’s mayor came by to support the protest. A more dramatic exception was provided by a group of RS deputies, loudest among them Aleksandra Pandurević, who claimed (falsely) that the protest was aggressive and directed against Serbs, and who sought guarantees of security and armed escorts to get them away from their workplace. A group of special forces police made their way over from RS but thankfully any potentially awful incident that could involve them was avoided. Pandurević herself, together with her colleagues who claimed to be threatened, were ridiculed universally, by people of all nationalities in both entities.
Again, real interests were at stake. Nobody was prepared to believe that an expression of disgust at an entitled political class unprepared to protect (or even officially acknowledge) the state’s youngest citizens was anything other than what it was. The effort to turn it into a national incident failed.

If the old days ever were what they appeared to be, they are over now. The national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.