Bosnia-Herzegovina: Tuzla — the unknown workers' capital of Europe

Protest in Tuvla in February.

Why does Bosnia-Herzegovina inspire so little interest and curiosity in the media and political class when, on the contrary, Ukraine is front-page news?

Is it because its name evokes the war that, 20 years ago, claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of men and women more than 200,000 dead and 600,000 exiles in the face of virtual indifference in the West as to what was happening one and a half hours by plane from Paris? Or because it often wakes up to the call of the muezzin?

Yet in recent weeks, this country has also risen in revolt. The people have rebelled against social injustice and poverty and expressed loud and clear their desire for change.

Intrigued and excited, I set off for a short hop to Tuzla and a brief stay there.

But it is well known that in times of rebellion or revolution, seconds are worth minutes, minutes are worth hours and hours are worth days. This brief tour seemed to be an eternity, rich in meetings, discussions and lessons.

Frenzied neoliberialism

At the airport in Ljubljana, Slovenia, we were met by Mladen, a comrade from socialist group Iskra, who led the small delegation consisting of two Belgian comrades and myself. We headed for Tuzla, the epicentre of the protests that are stirring Bosnia today.

Mladen is also active in organising solidarity with the social rebellion, because the new frontiers between the different nations of the former Yugoslavia are not impermeable to the momentum of this rebellion.

Along the way, Mladen evoked the great damage to the economy of the Balkans that has been caused by 20 years of frenzied neoliberalism. The economy of the former Yugoslavia was literally vampirised by the market economy.

The results were the development of growing inequality, poverty, unemployment (between 40% and 45% in Bosnia) and the privatisation of public services and industry for the benefit of clan and mafia groups linked to a handful of thoroughly unscrupulous Western capitalists.

As the kilometres flew by, we passed industrial zones with internationally known companies and villages with packs of straw that recall the traditional methods of another century.

Gradually, a thick cloud of pollution told us that we were approaching Tuzla. Chimneys and the huge “yoghurt pots” of the coal-fired hydroelectric power station appeared. They spewed out a continuous cloud of smoke that exudes an inescapable smell of sulphur throughout the city.

If the administrative capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina is Sarajevo, Tuzla is the industrial capital. Which is why the Serb shelling, 20 years ago, took care to spare the industrial sites, counting on taking them over.

The bombardments were deliberately targeted, often for the worst, as is recalled by a monument in the city centre commemorating the massacre by cannon fire in May 1995 of 71 civilian victims, mostly young people sitting at pavement cafes.

In the heart of the city, we were immediately enveloped in a dense and fragrant fog, giving the streets and neighbourhoods the appearance of London in the 19th century, so well portrayed by the Scottish novelist Arthur Conan Doyle. The houses are low and often lop-sided, because the ground is unstable.

The stigmata of social catastrophe and political revolt were obvious: closed shops, forsaken streets, rundown blocks of flats where people still live, buildings and walls that reflect the general atmosphere, reinforced by graffiti; a mixture of insults (which any self-respecting urban facade has) and all the “good feelings” the people have for the former government and for politicians.

The highlight of this rapid tour was the building of the government of the canton of Tuzla, sacked and burned by demonstrators on February 7, the culmination of three days of protest involving more than 15,000 people.

A few hours later, in Sarajevo, it was the seat of the presidency which was burned. Here, the police passed by, now indifferent to the charred premises, a “distant” memory of a government forced to abdicate confronted by the power of the street.

A huge graffiti slogan proclaimed “revolution” and indicted “nationalists, thieves”. At the heart of popular anger you find poverty and corruption.

These two words sum up the balance sheet of the neoliberal policies implemented in complete harmony by the social democrats and the Nationalist Party of Bosnia, alternating politically and overlapping to such an extent that Mladen said: “Here, the opposition was constantly in the government and vice versa.”

Direct democracy

So, there has been no government in Bosnia for a month and it does not seem to bother anyone. A power vacuum such as this would make any politician from here or anywhere else dizzy, but any passerby on the street can explain it patiently, fearlessly and with conviction.

Gordan, who is 35 and one of the oldest activists of the Lievji group, explained the original experience of direct democracy that emerged in Tuzla after the demonstrations and the fall of the government.

In the absence of government, a plenum, a popular assembly open to the entire population of the city, meets regularly in a communal room in the beginning, every day, now twice a week to deal with common problems and policy issues.

This plenum involves between 700 and 1000 people, not always the same. Interventions are brief and timed. The topics are varied and freely discussed: employment, industry, public services, education, culture, corruption, violence and more.

Twelve committees have been set up to work on topics hitherto treated by departments. Another is responsible for relations with workers. Three working groups deal with the media, legal aspects and logistics.

The plenum has demanded that parliament quickly appoint a technical government, refusing the idea that the prime minister should come from its own assembly and preferring to remain independent of traditional politics so as not to be exploited.

The plenum sees itself first of all as a counter-power, strong and legitimate. Its goal is that the solutions it works out are implemented to the letter by the future government, or else it will be brought down for non-respect of the mandate. It is a kind of veto imposed by direct democracy.

In the commission concerning the workers, in which we were present, the issue of restarting the detergent factory Dita was discussed. This enterprise had been privatised a few years earlier and ceased its activity, allowing its owners to make a great deal of money fraudulently.

There was a long debate in the group that had to submit its findings to the plenum: should the workers be helped to buy shares in the company; should the cancellation of Dita’s debts to its suppliers be decreed; how could ownership of the plant be given over to its workers?

Mirna, a worker in the factory and a member of the group, took us to visit the factory. In the industrial outskirts of Tuzla it is a disaster zone, an economic graveyard.

Looking at the countless waste grounds, abandoned warehouses, buildings literally gutted, I asked naively: “Was it the war that caused all this?”

“Yes, the economic war!” was Mirna’s quick reply.

Here, factories were born, lived and died, sometimes in only 20 years. It boils down to rapid mafia-style capital accumulation, reduced to its most juicy and optimal expression, where capitalism comes to pillage and leaves as it came: a kind of economic Blitzkrieg. We are all overcome by a profound sense of the waste and mess of it all.

Stray dogs accompanied us on the wharfs and on the site, where vegetation is reasserting itself. Since 2011, the workers have no longer been paid and take turns in small coordinated groups to protect the plant 24 hours a day against theft or tampering.

The workers explained proudly that with not much investment and support for vocational training, the company could restart quickly if the decision was made.

Back in the centre of town, we met four friends coming from Sarajevo. Tijana reported that beyond the towns of Tuzla and Sarajevo, the whole of Bosnia is in flames.

In Mostar, for example, the fight took on a symbolic twist. On either side of the river two communities, Croatian and Bosniak (Muslim), usually face each other. This time, the revolt has unified the two groups, sparing neither the Bosniak or Croat government offices.

When the Bosniak authorities accussed Croatian demonstrators of setting fire to their buildings, the Bosniak inhabitants loudly took responsibility for the action and proclaimed their solidarity with their “Croatian brothers”.

Of course, national questions have not disappeared; they are still present, veiled and latent. But for now the social question blocks and transcends them.

This is a source of great pride for this new generation, which says that it observes with some anxiety the Ukrainian counter-example. There, the people that first rose up against social injustice and corruption are now held hostage by the machinations of the Russians and NATO.

However, if Ukraine focuses the attention of the champions of the EU because of what is at stake on the strategic level, Tuzla only offers the possibility to show solidarity and identify with a struggle for emancipation.

This social and political experience is thinking aloud and has probably rediscovered a hint of self-management buried in the collective Yugoslav memory. It is chaotic and it faces many obstacles, but it exists.

[Abridged from InternationalViewpoint. Olivier Besancenot is a postal worker and a leader of France's New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA). As a presidential candidate, he received 1.2 million votes (4.5%) in 2002 and 1.5 million votes (4.2%) in 2007.]

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