Protests and Plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Emin Eminagić
Bosnian protests

The protests by the workers of Tuzla's privatised chemical industry that began on February 5th were the start of something no one expected to see happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were a reaction to the privatisation of a number of Tuzla's large companies, such as Konjuh, Dita, Resod-Guming and Polihem, which in the former Yugoslavia, and in the first post-war years (1996-2000), were perceived as some of the main sources of income for the city and its region. Many people lost their jobs. This was the first protest of its kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the birth of a grassroots democratic movement, which finds expression through citizens' assemblies called plenums. The participants do not belong to the political elite, but are instead workers, students, the unemployed and retirees, anyone who feels discontented with the state of affairs in the country.

According to news sources, on the first day of the protests 3,000 people took to the streets and occupied the two main roads in the city, halting traffic for several hours. Riot police were mobilised to disperse the protests, as rocks were thrown at the Canton Government building. The situation kept escalating in the next two days, which was marked by several episodes of state violence directed at citizens; for example there is a video circulating on the Internet, where a police officer enters a university campus and pepper-sprays a student. On February 7th over 10,000 people gathered in front of the Canton Government building, then set it on fire, after which the protests moved towards the Cantonal Court, which was hit by stones for several hours. Afterwards people moved to the Municipality, which was also set on fire. The situation calmed down later in the evening when the police decided to join the protestors.

On the next day (February 7th), protests began again, and the protestors actually started cleaning up the space around the burned buildings. During this period Tuzla was not the only place where people took to the streets to express their solidarity for the people of Tuzla, and also to express their anger and discontent with the government. Several cities joined the protests, and burned down their respective government buildings, e.g. in Sarajevo, Zenica, Bihać and others. The media attempted to represent the protestors as simply criminals, or motivated by ethnic intolerance. This is a tactic that has been employed before in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina to ensure that citizens would consider the only possible community for them would be that offered by the ethno-nationalist imaginary of the political elites. These tendencies were and still are present in the public discourse – but these weren’t part of the demands the workers expressed at the beginning: that they be paid what they were owed, that they receive health and pension care, as well as the legal review of the privatisation processes that destroyed their companies. The same started happening after the protests were over and the plenums started taking place all over the country.

Why the protest, and why now?

To understand the reasons people took to the streets on February 5th, 2014, we first need to consider a few facts about Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the privatisation processes of some of Tuzla's industry, which can be considered symptomatic for the entire country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina's official unemployment rate is currently estimated at 45%, and may be higher as not all unemployed people are registered at the unemployment offices in the country. These numbers are a direct result of the privatisation and deindustrialisation processes that have been going on since the war ended. The workers of Dita and Konjuh, among other companies, have been struggling for years for their rights.

According to the State Privatisation Agency, in 2002, 59% of Dita's capital was allegedly bought by the workers, thus confirming the company's ownership as private. This was concluded in 2005, when Dita was bought up by a company called Lora, which now is owned by Beohemija from Serbia. According to some workers I had the opportunity to talk to while attending their protests in December 2012, the company was then systematically destroyed: the workers were ordered to increase certain doses of chemicals, which damaged the machines, thus impairing production. Bankruptcy proceedings were initiated in late 2011; at the beginning of 2012 a group of 40 workers gathered in front of the company in an attempt to save it. What was interesting about these protests was that the workers did not call a strike to halt production, but in order to get production going. Individual workers had initiated Court proceedings since the very beginning of the privatisation process in 2002, and although in some of these cases there were rulings in favour of the workers, none of these were put into practice.

Another example of a long running labour struggle would be that which has involved the "Konjuh" furniture company, which has been 100% owned by private capital since May 2002. According to the State Privatisation Agency, 942 of Konjuh's workers have bought up 51% of the company's state-owned capital, whereas the other 49% was privatised in a public tender. Their protest has been going on since 2012, and in 2013, 450 of Konjuh's workers walked from Živinice, the seat of the company, to Sarajevo, to confront the High Representative (OHR) and demand their rights. Earlier, in 2012, the Federal Government had promised the workers help in revitalising the company, but this help never came, and Konjuh's corporate bank account was frozen. According to several of the workers, the Federal Government needs to approve a credit of 6 million Convertible Marks (KM) so they could resume production as Konjuh, which, according to the workers, was said to have had offers from abroad for their products. However this company in the end suffered the same fate as Dita.

These events are only a fragment of what has been going on in the entire country for almost 20 years. The privatisations and foreclosures of companies have brought massive unemployment, which threatens the prospect of a secure future for coming generations.

The morning after, what is a plenum?

What happened after the burning of several government buildings in Bosnia and Herzegovina? In Tuzla on February 8th protestors read out the first public and official declaration of their demands, and also officially announced the first plenum. However the first unofficial plenum had already happened the previous day, when a group of workers came together with several activists from various organisations - former members of the Students' Movement Tuzla, some of the workers from DITA, activists from the political organization Lijevi, public intellectuals and activists - to formulate the next steps. One of the main goals in the beginning, which still remains a pertinent point in the plenums, is public safety, as violence was still taking place. On February 8th, however, the violence stopped, and people all over the country started joining the clean up; however the media kept denouncing the protests as acts of vandalism and hooliganism, thus attempting to criminalise the people who took to the streets. The plenums today are citizens assemblies, without restrictions, giving space to everyone to speak openly about issues in an attempt to overcome the silent repression in talking about the war, which has been present in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of it.

The first official plenum in Tuzla took place on February 9, and has been growing ever since. From the initial 30 people, the plenum grew until there were 700 people on February 11. Other cities in the country (Sarajevo, Travnik, Bugojno, Trebinje etc.) soon started following suit. The fact, that attendance at the plenums keeps growing, shows that many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina want to start participating in the creation of a more just and better common future.   

The big question now is, why did the protestors in Tuzla decide to continue their struggle through plenums? For this we have to look back to 2009, when on June 5th a group of students enraged by the corruption and oppression at the University of Tuzla decided to organise a plenum, following their colleagues at the University of Zagreb. The students articulated two goals, the first of which was that the Canton Government finally give the old army barracks to the University in order to use as the new campus, and the other was free education for everyone. Here I must digress in order to explain what the students meant by free education. At the University of Tuzla and other universities, there are three categories of student: regular students, whose education is state-subsidised, and who need to attend classes in order to gain credits and be able to take exams; irregular students, those who have to pay tuition fees, but do not need to attend classes and receive credits, but still can take exams and get a normal degree; and self-financed students, who like regular students need to attend classes and receive credits, but who have to pay tuition fees. The issue here arises from the fact that education is already state-subsidised for everyone, but the self-financing students are paying twice the amount for the same thing. I will not go into detail about this issue here, but the entire story can be read here.  

The students’ actions in 2009 are very important in the context of the recent protests, as they gave birth to a group of young people who started thinking politically and trying to create a better future for the country. After the students' plenum, several artists, activists and academics started creating open, public classrooms which formed initiatives such as the Psychoanalytic Seminar Tuzla; there is a political party which was formed by former student activists, called Lijevi, which uses the plenums as decision-making mechanisms in their base organisations.  

The importance of this method, the plenum, becomes evident as people start to talk freely about their concerns, without any fear and restriction. There is this liberating aspect, which creates this therapeutic language people did not have access to in the past twenty years. The plenum, on the other hand invites everyone to join the discussion and maintains its legitimacy through peaceful protests, which are maintained and happen every day in Tuzla at 1 p.m. in front of the Canton Government. In the past we have witnessed several protests and acts of social decentralisation - the JMBG protests for ID numbers, workers protests which were completely disconnected from each other. During these events, there was no attempt to show that precarity does not know boundaries, it just appeared that the interests of one group were exclusively their own and do not share their logic with others. This problem points to something more traumatic in Bosnian society. This is not only a consequence of the war which ended in 1995, but which is still going on, that the political elites in the last twenty years are using ethno-nationalist manipulation and threats of new conflicts on grounds of ethnicity and in this way obscuring other problems that face the country.