When, on 10 February 2014, we crossed the frontier between Serbia and Bosnia aboard a tiny Eurolines bus, one of our fellow passengers, a young man in his late teens, was asked to step down from the bus and disappeared into the police station. The officers had suspicions he was part of the crowd that had gathered in front of the Mostar Canton government building on 7 February as it went up in flames and wanted to know more about it. After a 30-minute interrogation, they finally let him go. As he stepped back into the bus and it was clear he had definitely made it across the border, his joy erupted. Of course he was there! Like in Tuzla, like in Sarajevo, people attacked and burned down the government building, and it was a wonderful sight! Even better, in the divided city of Mostar, he saw people from both sides, Bosniaks and Croats, hugging each other in front of the burning building! He was hoping to be back in time for the plenum; he was constantly receiving text messages from his friends who were now in the streets in Mostar, and he could not wait to be there.
A lot of people in February had unrealistic expectations. A majority of them thought that deep and far-reaching changes were possible and were going to happen in this short period. It was unrealistic to hope that a bunch of angry people in the streets could undo the developments of the past 30 years. I always recall this old lady with a red scarf telling us, very angrily: “If this fails, I will never forgive you”. At the time I thought, “What are your criteria for failure?”. You could sense that people really wanted a revolutionary change; a lot of people expected something very radical to change. But for a number of us who have more political experience, we knew that nothing so radical could really happen. (Interview with a plenum organiser, Sarajevo, October 2014)1
There will be nothing here without revolution! What burned is zero, believe me. I repeat: the second period will be bloody, bloody in Tuzla! It started in Tuzla, it must finish in Tuzla. There is no other way. Look at the politics: all the same nationalists stayed in power and kept their positions. (Interview with a worker of the Dita factory in Tuzla, member of Solidarnost — a new independent union — October 2014)
As they had long been doing every week, on Wednesday 5 February 2014 the workers of several privatised factories of Tuzla took to the streets to demand payment of months of overdue wages and social contributions. Most of them had been fighting for years, occupying their factories; several hunger strikes had even been undertaken, to no avail, and the weekly Wednesday demonstration seemed unlikely to make a difference. But on that day they were joined by several hundred young people. Together they tried to storm the building of the Tuzla canton government. The demonstrators managed to rush inside before eventually being forced back by the police. As clashes occurred, some workers were beaten up, and these images, captured on camera, went viral.
By the next day, demonstrations of solidarity were occurring in Tuzla, and also in Sarajevo and Mostar. On Facebook, groups like UDAR in Tuzla, and the page “50,000 For a Better Tomorrow”, called for massive protests in the coming days. On 7 February, thousands of people turned up to demonstrations in all the major cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Sarajevo and Tuzla, after violent clashes with the police, people stormed the canton government buildings and set them on fire. In the divided city of Mostar they also burned the headquarters of the main political parties.2 In panic, the canton government ministers of Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica resigned.
In the following days, people started to organise “plenums” (assemblies) to discuss what to do next, and to formulate demands. Many more turned up than expected — several hundred in Tuzla and Mostar, often more than one thousand in Sarajevo. The plenums quickly became the main locus of the movement as the protests dwindled. Unlike in the Occupy and Indignados movements, the assemblies did not take place in the streets but in separate buildings. At each session, in each city — more than 20 cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina had their own plenums — long lists of demands were formulated, among them the end of privatisations and of golden parachutes for politicians, and the setting up of a “government of experts”.
A recurring theme in slogans, in graffiti and within plenums, was the rejection of nationalism. In the context of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, “nationalism” — and therefore anti-nationalism — refers to a very specific reality, which must be taken into consideration if we are not to be led astray. Rather than the sign of an internationalist movement unexpectedly emerging before our eyes, what was actually being rejected here was one form of nationalism which had dominated the country since the 1992–95 war, dividing it between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. This is often referred to as a kind of “ethnic nationalism”3, whose aim is to push the economic and political interests of one or another of the three “ethnic groups”4 within Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But in no way does this mean that this rejection was a trifling matter. Indeed, ethnic tensions have been at the centre of everyday life in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the creation of the country amid the ruins of Yugoslavia. They had already started to rise in the 1980s as the latter began restructuring its economy to counter the after-effects of the global economic crisis of the 1970s. With the growing political and economic autonomy of its several republics, imbalances arose between them, since the previous spatial division of labour within Yugoslavia had concentrated most industry in the north — particularly in the Slovenian and Croatian part — and agriculture and raw material extraction in the south, including in Bosnia. The managerial and political elites of the different republics soon started fighting for their particular economic interests, and cultivating nationalist discourses, each holding the other republics — and the other “ethnic groups” — responsible for their local economic difficulties. These claims increasingly resonated with the proletariat of each republic as its standard of living declined and its interests divided from those of the others. Tensions mounted until the Yugoslav wars erupted in the early 1990s, first in Slovenia and Croatia, then in Bosnia.
The war was particularly bloody in Bosnia, the most ethnically mixed of all the republics. More than 100,000 people were killed (some estimates place the number closer to 250,000); mass rape and genocide were used as weapons of war; nearly half the country’s pre-war population was displaced. This was part of the ethnic cleansing that was used to create the relatively ethnically homogeneous zones of today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since the Dayton peace agreement of 1995, the country has consisted of two entities and one district, formed along ethnic lines: located at the centre of the country, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (not to be confused with the country itself) is administratively divided into 10 cantons and mostly populated by Bosniaks and Croats. Wrapped around this, on the northern and eastern sides of the country, the entity of Republika Srpska — which has its own president, parliament, government and police force — is mainly populated by Serbs. Between the two geographical regions of Republika Srpska is located a further self-governing administrative unit, the Brcˇko District, which also has a separate status. All institutions at the level of the country as a whole themselves reflect these divisions, with the three major ethnic groups guaranteed, according to the constitution, an equal share of power. The Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, consists of three members: one Bosniak and one Croat elected from the Federation, and one Serb from Republika Srpska.5
Ever since the peace agreement, ethnic tensions had dominated all aspects of society, which made any revolt or movement almost impossible, since it would immediately run up against accusations of playing one ethnic group off against another. But this situation started to change in June 2013, with several protests that were termed the “Baby-lution”. Earlier that year, due to ethnic divisions, the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina had failed to enact a law for the registration of newborn babies, leaving them without identity numbers, and thereby preventing them from getting access to healthcare, and from leaving the country. After the scandal of one three-month-old baby who died because she couldn’t leave the country to get medical treatment, Bosniak, Croat and Serb protesters — mothers with strollers on the front line — formed a human circle around the parliament and kept the MPs and government employees locked inside. It was the first movement to unite people across ethnic boundaries since the war. Though this movement was relatively small, it was important as a forerunner of the February 2014 revolts; many activists who were central in organising plenums had met each other during the protests of the previous year.
During the Baby-lution, women’s assigned roles as primary caretakers placed them at the centre of the demonstrations. The connections they formed, and the experiences they had in that movement, probably contributed substantially to their importance in the protests that followed. As in the global squares movements of 2011, many women were involved in the demonstrations and plenums in February 2014 and played an especially important role on social media.6 They were equally present in the riots of 6–7 February and particularly active among the workers of privatised factories. However, while they sometimes had to fight to be equally represented in plenums, especially among delegates, the question of gender did not come to the forefront of the protests, as we will try to explain later.
At the centre of the protests, at least at the beginning, were factory workers from the privatised plants of Tuzla: mainly Polihem, Dita, Guming, Aida and Konjuh. However, the status of these “workers” must be treated with caution, for production in their respective factories has long been at a standstill, and they should therefore be considered more or less unemployed — though they can’t formally claim that status, since this would cancel their rights to the back-pay they are owed. In many cases, the owners — who mainly use the factories for money laundering — prefer to simply stop paying workers, rather than laying them off. On the one hand, these workers have a very strong identity derived from the importance of these factories within Yugoslavia, and the preeminent role played by the figure of the worker in the imaginary of those times. On the other, they are unable to use their position within the production process to push their demands, and are often totally ignored, not only by the owners but also by unions and government officials. Typically, these workers without work haven’t received wages or social contributions for years, and months of occupations, protests — even hunger strikes — have not made any difference. It is in this context that they took to the streets every Wednesday until things took an unexpected turn in February 2014.
Indeed, it is only when these workers were joined by thousands of young, mainly unemployed, people on the streets of Tuzla on 6 February, and in all major cities the next day, that the movement achieved a tipping point, forcing several canton governments to step down. The parents of this younger generation typically became impoverished during the war, or during the wave of privatisations and economic collapse that followed. In Tuzla, they often have family ties with the workers of privatised factories, which surely played a role in the crystallisation of solidarities. In Sarajevo, this cohort is sometimes referred to by better-off activists as “foster home children”, since many children lost their parents during the siege of Sarajevo and fell into deep poverty at that point. Amongst this category, some are organised in football fan clubs such as the “Red Army” in Mostar, or “Fukare” (have-nots) — the supporters of the football club FC Sloboda in Tuzla.7
Finally, in Tuzla and Sarajevo in particular, graduate students and academics played a big role in the movement, especially in organising and spreading the idea of plenums. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the level of education is still very high — a remnant of socialist Yugoslavia — but many struggle to find jobs after university. Within this category, there are wide divergences of income and expectations, with many living on the brink of poverty, while others can still afford to travel abroad or study in foreign universities. But the frustration of the latter group remains high, as their only chances of getting a good job depend upon aligning themselves with a political party and playing the corruption game.
Of course, some participants do not fall into any one of these three categories — which are themselves somewhat fluctuant and imprecise. Still, these groupings capture in broad outline the diverse distribution of social backgrounds and stakes among the protesters. Though close attention must be paid to the specificities of each local case, there are clearly some broad parallels between the key terms of this composition and those of the 2011 squares movements.8 While systemic conflicts among these sections would emerge increasingly during the ebb of the movement, this diversity is itself a measure of the momentum of a struggle that managed to bring together people who normally have little to do with each other.
The most immediate reason for people taking to the streets in such numbers on 7 February was clearly outrage at the way police treated workers who were demonstrating. In this sense, like most riot-waves of recent times, the proximate cause of this movement was police brutality; but that the latter could have such an effect is the result of a more general context of social injustice and — in this case — economic collapse. In explaining the movement, it is thus to this context that we should look.
Most industry in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been devastated since the war, due not only to the destruction of fixed capital in the war itself, but also the series of clientelist privatisations, bankruptcies and asset-stripping that followed it. The country is dependent on imports, and the trade deficit grows every year. Bosnia produces raw materials (metal, wood, coal) as well as electricity from hydroelectric sources, which it exports abroad, to Germany, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia. But most consumer goods have to be imported. Employment is low and concentrated in the service sector: 65%, compared to 26% in the — largely “legacy” — industrial sector and 8% in agriculture. The state and its various apparatuses are the biggest employers in the country. Unemployment is among the highest in Europe, estimated at 44% overall and 60% for young people. Almost one-third of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population is considered to be in poverty or on the verge of it. The gray economy plays an important role, representing more than 20% of overall economic activity according to estimates. 290,000 people are thought to be working in that sector, while the number of people officially employed is circa 700,000.9
Transfers by Bosnian workers living abroad help many families to get by. It is estimated that about 1.35 million Bosnians live abroad, and their remittances represent around 23% of GDP.10 Many of these people are highly educated — the “brain drain” that started during the war is ongoing — but unskilled youths also often leave in search of employment elsewhere. For example, since 2007, American companies such as Fluor Corporation and DynCorp have been recruiting thousands of contractual workers from Tuzla and the region to work in US military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq.11 In 2013, deals were also made between the Bosnian government and Qatar to authorise young Bosnian women to work there as domestic workers.12 In some cases, with these contracts, workers can get four times the average salary in Bosnia-Herzegovina, allowing them to send home a considerable remittance. Financial aid and loans from other countries also remain major sources of money, even if they have been decreasing since 2000.13
With its important mines, Tuzla was once among the industrial centres of Yugoslavia, so it is highly symbolic that the movement started there. Since the Husino rebellion in 1920 — an armed rebellion by striking miners that was violently repressed — the figure of the miner in struggle has been central to the history of the city. In Yugoslavia more broadly, the specific form of workers’ identity was one centred on the idea of workers’ self-management of the means of production.14 While it is clear that the decision-making power that was given to workers within the production unit was limited — especially during Yugoslavia’s final decades15— self-management has had an important influence on the self-image of workers, who often express a strong bond with their workplace as belonging to them — something reinforced by the fact that many received shares in these factories after the collapse of Yugoslavia. However, if this identity is still very much present in workers’ understanding of their role in society — as could be witnessed in their statements and interventions at plenums — it is, as already mentioned, a contradictory one: a workers’ identity held by people who have been de facto unemployed for years.
And every statement from the authorities shows how indifferent they are to values such as workers’ pride. In this context, the non-working workers whose protests were blatantly ignored by employers and politicians alike became the symbol of a workers’ identity fighting desperately against its obsolescence, whose fate strongly resonated in a younger generation for whom formal labour had long-since become an inaccessible dream. In this sense, these workers became the symbol of the surplus character of labour in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, if an important factor in the socio-economic composition and stakes of many recent movements, including the square occupations of 2011–12, has been the general low-level of demand for labour on a global level, in individual cases local factors can drastically exacerbate this general predicament. With its historical particularities, Bosnia-Herzegovina represents a quite acute case. Unemployment levels here are extreme, production is devastated, and there is hardly any international economic interest in the region — which also explains why the international media carried so little coverage of the protests.
While in other European countries where squares movements occurred it was the 2008 crisis that accelerated the rise in unemployment and poverty, in Bosnia the economy has been in a deep crisis since the war, when the country’s GDP fell to only 10% of its pre-war level, so the effects of the financial crisis were less clear-cut against this backdrop. Still, there had been modest improvements in the economic situation since 1996 — improvements halted by the effects of the European crisis in 2008. Indeed, while the Bosnian economy is only indirectly integrated into the EU’s, as countries like Croatia and Slovenia — the main importers of Bosnian products — were affected by the EU crisis, the growth trend went into reverse. Exports to these countries slowed down while internal consumption remained low, diminishing employment possibilities even further.16 In this context, aggravated by a reduction of financial aid from international funds during the last decade, and a decrease in transfers from Bosnian citizens abroad (by about KM300 – €600 million in 200817) the economic situation became even more unbearable for the poorest segments of the population.
As in other squares movements, corruption was seen by protesters as the main cause of the economic problems affecting Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter is often listed as one of the most corrupt countries in Europe, along with Ukraine, Belarus and Kosovo. The channels of corruption run through all layers of society, from the allocation of money injected by foreign institutions and NGOs, to the state sector (including universities, schools, cultural projects and healthcare), to the private economy and various local mafias. Its central structures, however, seem to be the ethnically-divided political parties, sometimes referred as the “ethnocrats”, who run this “foreign-sanctioned national-clientelistic machine”.18 Indeed, since the war, these parties have been allocating the available jobs and resources along ethnic lines in a clientelistic manner, blatantly increasing their own wealth in the process. They are therefore the primary target of the protesters where corruption is concerned, and several political party headquarters were attacked during the demonstrations.
The functions of the state are divided between members of these parties, since, as mentioned above, every position must be held by three representatives: one Bosniak, one Serb and one Croat. This multiplication of positions makes of the state an enormous machine, and indeed, according to Aleksandar Hemon, the “largest and only reliable employer in the country”.19 However, corruption is not limited to political parties and state employees; for most proletarians in Bosnia it is a very concrete everyday experience. Indeed, in order to get a job, it is typically necessary to bribe a member of a political party — which can cost several thousand euros, requiring a loan that will take years to repay. Membership of the party linked to the job in question, and a demonstration of loyalty to it, are also typical requirements: in particular, participation in protests, or anything else that might endanger in any way the party’s prospects, is ruled out. That is, of course, not to say that the majority of people in Bosnia-Herzegovina benefit from corruption, but rather that they are forced to play by the rules and be part of the big corruption machine. Agreeing to play the game is also a prerequisite of access to healthcare, since the health system is highly dysfunctional and doctors must be bribed for assistance and medication. The same applies in universities, where students have reported having to pay bribes to get their diplomas.
In this sense, though it may sound quaint, the designation of the February protesters as “Unbribable Bosnia”20 may well be useful, if we set aside the moralistic connotations. Along with university professors and academics who refused to be corrupted and belong to a political party, a substantial part of the protesters may well be “unbribable” because they are simply too poor to participate in the corruption machine, unable to pay the bribes that would buy them a place in those networks. This may actually help to explain why so few people took part in the protests, considering the terrible economic and social conditions most have to endure: while, according to surveys made shortly before the October 2014 elections, the majority of the population saw them as positive events, no more than a few tens of thousands of people (in a country of only 3.8 million inhabitants, it must be said) took part in the protests and plenums around the country. Among the fears preventing them from doing so was that of losing a position, or access to a service, by not showing one’s loyalty to the regime in general, and a political party in particular.
But, according to Jasmin Mujanovic´, “This process cannot merely be understood as one of banal ‘corruption’, as there is no functioning state that is being corrupted, per se”.21 Indeed, a central demand of the movement was to get “a functioning state”. Moreover, corruption as organised through these clientelist networks may be effectively the form the state takes in Bosnia, the way it (dys)functions. Or, as L.S. says in the context of Tunisia: “Corruption is then not simply an exception to the normal functioning of the relationship of the state to civil society, nor merely the concern and cause of the established middle class citizen, but a moment in the state’s habitual, harassing reproduction of the mass of marginals.”22
Discussions around corruption and its causes often revolve around the alternatives of either blaming foreign institutions such as the IMF or viewing it as a matter of the clientelism and patronage to which some “cultures” are especially prone. In the context of recent revolts, corruption has been discussed primarily in cases where what Jack Goldstone has termed a “sultan” is able — in the context of a rentier state — to redistribute revenue via patronage networks. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, though, there is no sultan, no dictator — not even a particularly strong figure.23 This peculiar state-form is the direct result of the Dayton agreement, designed by “the international community”. While there is a form of top-down clientelist redistribution — particularly of foreign aid, one of the main resources the state and NGOs can redistribute — corruption has also emerged at the base of the social structure, through the development of an informal economy that is necessary for the most basic reproduction. This economy is organised through various small mafias that ruthlessly exploit the desperation of the bottom layer of the population.
For neoliberals such as Hernando de Soto, the informal economy is a result of corruption, and corruption in turn a result of the rigidity of the labour-market. But causation may flow in the opposite direction — corruption resulting from the informality of the economy, itself the effect of a low demand for labour, which makes the reproduction of a significant part of the proletariat contingent to capital. The gray economy is an inefficient terrain for capital accumulation: in Bosnia it is estimated that profits are 20% lower here than in the formal economy. But it nonetheless helps shore up a crumbling social structure that might otherwise collapse entirely. Rather than being straightforwardly unemployed, people still find meagre, residual sources of income here and there, and allegiance to corrupt officials prevents them from revolting. While the economy tends towards informality — i.e. avoiding formal taxation — when profits are weak, in such a context the corruption which both riddles the state and props up such political structures as do exist may be interpreted functionally as a last-instance mode of taxation:
Corruption is the most successful business of quasi-democratic authorities; gray economy is their most powerful social program, and “racketeering“ is the favorite method of “taxation”. Corruption is also one form of gray economy. Ultimately, it is an illegal method of taxation. The gray economy actors need corrupted civil servants, and the corrupted civil servants need gray economy.24The construction of this clientelism along ethnic lines involves alliances between business partners, mafia networks and political parties — all united by an allegiance to the interests of one ethnic group against the others. Business opportunities and cash resources can be gained through networks of influence within the state, and there are benefits to be had from the turning of a blind eye to illegal activities. These ethno-nationalist networks distribute ethnic privilege — that is, the ability to exclude other people from jobs and resources. In this sense, it is no wonder that these networks, as well as corruption more generally, have been one of the main targets of those who are largely deprived of such resources.
The most widely-discussed aspect of the Bosnian movement was its systematic creation of plenums —“citizens’ assemblies”— in all the affected cities. This form of organisation has been popular in the region among left students and academics since the Croatian student occupation of 2009, and it was discussed, but never put into practice, in Bosnia-Herzegovina during student protests in Tuzla in 2009 as well as during the 2013 Baby-lution. This time it turned out to be extremely popular, and, from 8 February onwards, more people went to plenums than to demonstrations or gatherings. While the number of protesters fell to a few hundred, some 500–1000 people of diverse ages and backgrounds gathered in the plenums of Tuzla, Mostar and Sarajevo, at least until the end of February. Through plenums, the movement expressed an enormous need for communication, exchange of experience and transparency.25 It is often reported that the first plenums were a sort of collective psychotherapy, with people mentioning for the first time in public their war traumas and post-war experiences. Given that this is a country where each “ethnicity” has had to go through a parallel — and often biased — remembrance and mourning process, this function of the plenums should not be downplayed. It has often been said that it profoundly changed people’s perception of the collectivity and of the capacity of different “ethnic groups” to communicate together.
However, the plenums quickly crystallised around another central aim and purpose: that of formulating demands. Each session produced dozens of them, from “revisions of the privatisations of public firms”, to the “right to work” and “linear pension increases”.26 Talks and interventions seemed to become mere preambles to their formulation: “Come to the point, what is your demand?” A frenzy of demand-making could be witnessed, with each city sending one list after another to their respective governments. Does this contradict the common claim that an absence of demands has been a central aspect of recent movements around the world? Consideration of the proliferation of demands in the Bosnian movement may help us to clarify some points about the issue of demands, and to question some more simplistic readings of their alleged absence.
Let’s start by probing the idea of demands per se, and of the purely demandless struggle. All struggles short of revolutionary insurrection must necessarily have something determinate at stake within a continuing relation to another social subject — a specific employer, the state, the police. And it would seem reasonable to consider such stakes as amounting to “demands” that are at least implicit in the very fact that the struggle is taking place at all. An everyday struggle entirely lacking demands in this sense is inconceivable. We might consider all-out insurrection as lacking these kinds of demands, but this is because when this occurs, the time for negotiations is already over, and the subjects to whom one might put demands are no longer recognised as interlocutors. Yet, even then, they will become so again if the uprising falters or hits some deadlock short of all-out victory, and it becomes necessary to “sue for peace”. That is, as long as another social subject is recognised as a persistent pole in a relation of struggle, there are always demands implicit in the situation. The struggle that truly “demands nothing” can thus only be one that either has full revolutionary ambition, as well as some concrete, practical sense that this ambition can be achieved — or, perhaps, is absolutely nihilistic or suicidal.27 Everything short of that is in the last analysis a “demand struggle”, whether or not demands are formally written up and handed over to the opponent, scrawled on a banner, chanted in a slogan, or merely implicit in what the struggle is.28
The simplest valorisations of demandlessness in recent movements may be read as a token of radicality in the here and now; an expression of maximal revolutionary ambition. Such inclinations to demandlessness will inevitably prove “premature” in every context short of the all-out revolution in which it becomes genuinely possible to step beyond demands-making and to start creating a new situation directly. On the one hand we thus have here an instance of the anarchist broken clock that manages to tell the right time twice a day. On the other we should not be eager to habitually announce such prematurity, for while counsellors of moderation in struggle always know what time it is — too early — when the moment finally comes it will stop all the clocks. And such valorisations are not always uniformly inappropriate, even this side of revolution: in certain conditions they can gain a certain resonance. For example, where all routes for conventional, ritualised demand-making appear blocked, the refusal of empty negotiations, and the decision to struggle anyway, outside of normal formalised paths, may be a way to bring about a new situation in which different possibilities can emerge. These possibilities will generally involve new capacities for demand-making, though very rarely they might involve a capacity to push beyond demand-making to all-out insurrection. In such conditions, then, while there will be underlying, latent stakes, refusal to make these explicit as formalised demands for the negotiating table can be considered a rational tactic to open up space for further struggle. We might thus say that the assumption of the most abstractly radical subject position here can be a reasonable speculative orientation to bring about a new situation, even if this falls short of the all-out revolution in terms of which this subject position is constructed.
What happens if we now regather some mediations and return to a more emphatically socio-historical level? It is clear that many recent movements have experienced problems of demand-making. Either they’ve been unable to conjure any conviction about their ostensible demands in the face of an awareness of the sheer meaninglessness of even pretending that such things are still up for negotiation; or they’ve spent weeks and months in endless discussion, trying to discover what their demands actually are; or they’ve embraced a condition of demandlessness as a de facto admission of despair; or they’ve produced such a disordered mass of demands that the “meaning” of the movement itself loses legibility. These real experiences of a problem of demand-making may explain the resonance of abstract valorisations of demandlessness in such movements. The slogans that named the conversationalist encampments of Occupy were forged in the much more insurrectionary postures of the student movement that preceded them. But the very abstractness in those postures functioned differently in Occupy, transformed into a positive space in which to infinitely thrash out the problem of demands.
Let’s venture a hypothesis: that the problem of demands is identical to the problem of composition. For any singular, consistent social agent in struggle, the essential demands of the struggle will be evident in the simple facts of who the agent of the struggle is, and what has caused this agent to form in struggle. But where a struggle manifests an unsynthesised multiplicity of social agents — where it expresses a problem of composing a unified agent of struggle — by the same token it will express a problem of demand-making.29 In such a situation it is not that demands are absent, for in fact there’s a multiplicity of them, but rather, that they’re not synthesised at the general level, as unifying demands of the whole movement. Thus their absence in one sense is directly related to their multiplicity in another. What should then probably be done in pursuing the question of demands in a particular movement is, rather than simply posing the question of their presence or absence, to ask what the consistency of demands, as well as their content, tells us about composition. Demands, we could say, are a direct index of the composition and texture of a movement.
Both the absence of demands and their multiplicity represent attempts to temporarily overcome the fragmentation of the class, to come to a common mode of struggle despite divergent stakes for different class fractions. In Bosnia, there was a risk that the workers, the students, the retired would have irreconcilably different aims in the struggle, and instead of attempting to gather everybody around one central demand — which would have been impossible — plenums let everybody add their demands to a never-ending list. This frenetic proliferation was an attempt to avoid leaving anybody out, to make sure this was the protest of all Bosnian citizens; an attempt to achieve unity through multiplication.
But it remained a weak unity, and as the movement ebbed, conflicts between the various fractions emerged in the plenums. They also appeared within these groups themselves, depending on the concrete situation of each. Among workers from privatised factories, for example, there were conflicting interests between older workers — focused on getting their pensions and due wages — and younger ones who wanted to prioritise the restarting of production.
The gradual fading-out of the movement in March and April 2014 sadly makes a particularly interesting case-study of how a movement comes to an end. In this case, no external factor, such as direct repression by police, can really be blamed, and it is clear that the end had to come from the limitations of the movement itself.30 Many participants are currently in a phase of intense reflection about this: for a lot of them, those days in February were the best days in their lives, and they are still trying to understand how and why the movement could just die out like that.31
In particular, people gradually stopped coming to plenums. Most would agree that as soon as the protests disappeared the plenums had no leverage, no way to pressure the institutions, which quickly stopped taking their demands seriously. Some politicians came to the plenums to push their own interests, and some allegiances were revealed, breaking the trust that had been so important in bringing people together. As people went on with their lives, they continually experienced pressure — threats that they would not be able to find a job because of their participation, street harassment by police etc. As the movement ran out of steam, the weak unity that had arisen from the struggle started crumbling. Conflicts broke out between different groups: workers were accused of being corporatists, only caring about their own struggle, while rifts developed between those with jobs and the unemployed; between young and old; between people with various levels of education.
But what did participants expect of the plenums? After the first cathartic phase it seems that people understood the plenum as a new form of institution. And indeed, it did try to mimick the state: different working groups were created whose names would parallel those of the different ministries: a working group for the economy, one for culture and sport, one for internal affairs. Quickly, the plenums agreed to form connections with former politicians and candidates in the next elections.32 The plenums started a dialogue with the very politicians they at first rejected. At one point, it looked like they might even aim to become a permanent institution that would play an intermediary role between the population and the government, gathering demands on the one hand, putting pressure on the other — and one might say — preserving some level of social peace in the meantime. But it is important not to fall into the trap of blaming plenums for putting an end to the movement. In Sarajevo for example, the first one was organised as people were already deserting street protests.33 If some plenum-ers were pleased to discover that their organisational form seemed capable of diverting people from the more violent forms of protest34, many were also conscious that, without such protests, the plenums would lose both their legitimacy and their main leverage.35
While some activists in Bosnia accused plenum organisers of being responsible for the institutionalisation of the movement, the latter would typically blame a certain passivity on the part of participants, who would come expecting to be told what to do. In the first theorisations of this organisational form in the Croatian student movement and its Occupation Cookbook, plenums were supposed to extend themselves, multiplying on different levels of society: in universities, workplaces, etc… Though this was mentioned at points, it never really caught on. Similarly, and quite paradoxically, if the idea of plenums was greatly influenced by the Occupation Cookbook, one thing that was never on the cards during the Bosnian movement was the occupation itself. And this is where the similarities with Occupy movements stop.
As a result of this absence, there was no attempt to reorganise social life on another basis, beyond the level of representation. In most local instances of the squares movements, people not only met at assemblies and protests, but shared significant periods of their everyday life together. In some cases, they organised alternative forms of reproduction that did not involve money. The clearest example of this is the Gezi Park movement, where people organised free food, free access to health care, free barbers, a library, even a redistribution of cigarettes. Not that these explicitly alternativist moments didn’t have serious limitations: the money-free zone could only exist because monetary-exchange continued a few meters away from the square, and those with jobs simply continued going to work, coming back to the square at the end of their work-day. Still, there was an idea that the protesters could not simply appeal to some institution to solve their problems, and that some attempts at changing social relations should take place within the struggle itself.
This also has specific implications when it comes to the challenging of gender relations. When protesters occupy a square for more than a few days, living together in tents, organising cooking, childcare and so on, they cannot avoid being confronted with the question of the separation between spheres of social life, and with it the question of gender.36 This can itself take place in a conflictual and violent way, as demonstrated by the many attacks on women in Tahrir square, for example. Unwaged reproductive activities take place among assemblies and street battles, and the question of their repartition cannot remain hidden: the occupiers have to take the question of their own reproduction as an object; it itself becomes a political question.37 In the absence of occupations, during the protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina the challenge for women was to participate equally — which they certainly did, possibly even more actively than men — in plenums, riots and protests, while having to take care of these reproductive activities on the side. They struggled to be heard in plenums, to be equally represented among delegates, but, since there were no occupations, the question of their managing of reproductive activities during the protests remained a private concern.
Indeed, if the Bosnian movement was looking for an alternative, it was only at the level of decision-making: the movement demanded more democratic institutions, less corruption, to replace a government of crooks with a government of experts. This aspect, which was present in other squares movements, was especially central here. Indeed, more than direct democracy, people seemed to be mainly longing for a properly functioning state.38 Most participants said they just wanted the infrastructures and the institutions to function; that they were fed up with administrative procedures being blocked, public transport being unreliable, even the most basic help not being provided while the country was being ravaged by floods. Most people did not mind the state, but they wanted a non-corrupt, efficient one capable of distributing a basic level of welfare. In this sense, as in other countries where revolts have taken place in recent years, protesters expressed a certain pining for a previous order of things, some form of welfare state — a certain Yugo-nostalgia could even be felt, especially among older people.39
This has gone hand in hand with a rejection of the ethnic divisions that have been responsible for the fragmentation of institutions. If nationalist conflict appears here as the main barrier to the formation of a proper state, the anti-nationalism that was one of the main positive aspects of this movement cannot be separated from its longing for a functioning state, for a “united Bosnia-Herzegovina” that would bring all ethnic groups together.40 It is perhaps striking, in an era in which some longstanding state structures in Europe — Great Britain, Spain — have been newly threatening to unravel under national pressures partly driven by social movements, that in the fractious region which two centuries ago gave us the word “balkanisation”, nationalism could be confronted like this as a political problem for movements to solve in the name of a functioning state. If a common political problematic for many recent movements has been that produced by the enfeeblement of local and national mediations on the vast field of capital’s worldly movements (and the entwinement of these mediations with capital’s regional and global managements) the Bosnian case seems notably distinct. In this region in which global capital is barely interested, there is no properly functioning state to be defended in the first place. To have one appears to be a privilege to aspire to; to be properly exploited by capital is another.
In another context, these tendencies might have taken the form of an explicit movement towards the creation or defence of a nation-state, giving rise to a new nationalism. Indeed some Bosnia-Herzegovina flags could be seen here and there in demonstrations, but in numbers that are in no way comparable with the movements in Greece or Egypt. This is because the specific situation of Bosnia-Herzegovina makes such a prospect inherently problematic. The longing for a united Bosnia is itself associated with Bosniak nationalist discourse, and thus also with a prospective diminution of the autonomy of the Brcˇko district and Republika Srpska, directly contrary to the aspirations of Bosnian Croat and Serb nationalists respectively — the latter of whom actually hope for an incorporation into “Greater Serbia”. This projection of the Bosniak nationalist imaginary is itself a response to the fear of a division of Bosnia-Herzegovina that would leave only a tiny Bosniak-populated region.
By defending the creation of a united Bosnia-Herzegovina, pushing, for example, for the abolition of Republika Srpska and the Brcˇko district as obstacles to the creation of a functioning state, the movement would have destroyed any possibility of support from other regions. Indeed, some Serb and Croat nationalists already insisted on describing the protests as a Bosniak phenomenon — even spreading rumours that the protesters wanted to attack Republika Srpska residents. This partly explains why the demonstrations were almost non-existent in those regions.41 Pushing for the formation of a single nation-state would thus have put in danger the very unity that such a state would require. This explains in large part why nationalist/patriotic tendencies were largely absent within the movement, in contrast to recent movements in Egypt or Spain.
But beyond this level, protesters in Bosnia also understood themselves as part of a larger wave of movements in the region, using forms and ideas first developed in neighbouring states such as Serbia and Croatia.42 Such sentiments of solidarity were reciprocated: during the protests, there were demonstrations of solidarity with the Bosnian movement in almost all ex-Yugoslavian countries, including Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro. Revolts in ex-Yugoslavia seem to have been watching each other closely and influencing each other’s modes of action in recent years. Indeed, before the Bosnian movement itself, many observed a wave of protests in the region, comparing it to the 2011–13 global wave of struggles, and even raising the prospect of a Balkan Spring.43 In Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Serbia, commentators noted the rise of new modes of protest with — albeit on a smaller scale — similar aspects to recent squares movements.
Probably the most obvious example is the Slovenian protest wave of 2012–13, and the small Occupy movement that preceded this in October 2011. After a big demonstration against austerity on 15 October, around 30 tents were erected in a square in front of the Ljubljana Stock Exchange, where they remained until early 2012. Assemblies that sometimes gathered 150–200 people took place regularly, sharing similarities with those of Zuccotti Park in New York, even if activists at the core of the movement put forward a principle of “democracy of direct action vis-à-vis the consensus-based decision making of OWS”.44 Protests reappeared again in November 2012, first in Maribor, the second largest city, before spreading to many others and gathering tens of thousands of people. They were mainly directed against corrupt politicians — the mayor of Maribor being a blatant example — and contributed to the fall of a number of officials.
Beyond Slovenia, the whole region has witnessed a surge of social protest: in Bulgaria in 2012–1345 people took to the streets because of a huge increase in the price of electricity, and against corruption in general. In Romania protests have erupted sporadically since 2010, in response to austerity measures and healthcare reforms. Demonstrations have also taken place in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and most recently in Macedonia. Despite their differences, these movements have displayed similarly “alternativist” tendencies, particularly in their experimentation with collective forms of decision-making, outside traditional, hierarchical structures, privileging plenary assemblies as organisational forms, and the use of social media.46 The forms the February movement took in Bosnia-Herzegovina should therefore ultimately be understood in the context of this more general wave.
Workers’ struggles have also been recurrent in the region, especially in Serbia and Croatia, and many are strikingly similar to those that have been taking place in Tuzla. Goran Music´ speaks of a new workers’ movement in Serbia, and analyses three specific types of workers in the private sector, who each use different modes of protest.47 The first are employed by large profitable companies — often multinationals — and while they suffer intense exploitation, they usually get their wages on time and have less trouble making ends meet. The second type are employed in small privately owned businesses — shops, bars, sweatshops — and are extremely exploited, regularly doing unpaid overtime. They are very atomised, with few possibilities for fighting collectively. Lastly there are “those workers left behind in large and midsized companies bypassed by new investments”. As Music´ points out: “These workers are faced with challenges of a specific type, as their exploitation is not primarily the result of intensive labour processes at the place of formal employment.” According to him, it is this category of workers that has been pushed to the forefront of resistance since the 2008 crisis, using forms of protest such as hunger strikes and even self-mutilation to press their demands.48 Concerning this layer of the working population and their modes of struggle, Music´ asks the most pressing question: “After years of social decomposition of the industrial working class, would it make more sense to view these protesters as workers or a declassed layer of impoverished citizens?” He summarises the situation of these workers particularly well. Here the resemblance with the Tuzla workers is striking:
On the one hand, the collective memory of socialism made sure the protagonists still saw themselves primarily as workers. The image of the past as a better time serves as the source of self-respect for this group of workers. Regardless of it standing idle for years, the local factory remained a place of identification and pride. Even after multiple privatisations, the workers still saw the enterprise as something belonging to them. The preferred final outcome of the strike for most strikers was the renewal of industrial activity.
On the other hand, the methods of struggle showcased during these protests had little to do with traditions of the labour movement. In many cases the workers occupied factories only to turn themselves into hostages. Hunger strikes, self-mutilations and suicide threats carried more resemblance to the tactics of struggle inside a prison than an industrial facility. With assembly lines remaining motionless for years, workers lost the most powerful weapon they once had in their hands — control over the production process. Even in cases when they recaptured the factory halls, it seemed that nobody cared. Neither the state, nor the new owners had any intention of using that space for manufacturing anyway. The “Gradac” factory incident, where the boss cut off the water supply while the hunger strike was taking place inside the building, is a good example. The workers were superfluous people — a burden inherited from the time of socialism which should be discarded together with the timeworn machinery.49
The increasingly desperate situation of the workers in Tuzla is clearly far from unique in the region. In this context, it is unsurprising that they would try to gather support from other parts of the population, bringing their struggle out into the open, demonstrating and blockading roads. Their situation has hardly improved since the February movement.50 Shortly after the protests, the new cantonal government — the so-called “government of experts” — promised to renationalise the Dita factory, which had been at the forefront of the movement. But it soon became clear that this would not actually happen, since the renationalisation of a company with such vast debts (approximately 15 million euros) was ruled illegal. For a while, some workers from Dita nurtured hopes that things could change before the October 2014 general elections, but these expectations quickly dissipated.51 The new independent union, Solidarnost, has been struggling to gain legal recognition, and while it has helped organise bigger demonstrations, has so far been unable to achieve more concrete results.
An action organised by the workers of Tuzla on 24 December 2014 was highly symbolic: to demonstrate that they no longer had anything to hope for in Bosnia-Herzegovina, several hundred left the city on foot, in harsh winter weather, to walk to Croatia, enter the EU and ask for asylum. When they reached the border on 28 December, lacking passports, some were refused entrance to Croatia. Those who did have papers crossed the border symbolically, but returned in solidarity with the others. Exhausted from the long walk in the snow, several people needed medical attention. On their way back to Tuzla, angry as ever, the workers marched past the government building chanting “thieves!, thieves!” and “you’ll be beaten up!”
To many — particularly the younger — emigration seems one of the only ways of improving their situation, continuing, one might say, class struggle by other means. This betrays the lack of options left to the workers — and, to a degree, to the rest of the population — in Bosnia-Herzegovina.52 If it is true that, as Serbian economist Branko Milanovic´ claims, inequalities between countries have now grown bigger than those within countries,53 emigrating to a richer country may be by far the most effective way of increasing the price of one’s labour power. Commentators in the autonomist marxist tendency, including Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, have tended to analyse such emigration in a roseate light, seeing “desertion and exodus” as a “powerful form of class struggle within and against imperial postmodernity”.54 But as long as workers in those richer countries themselves experience immigration as bringing the prospect of reductions in the price of their labour power, the question of the nation — despite the positive developments we have witnessed in Bosnia-Herzegovina — is unlikely to recede easily in the future global unfolding of class struggle.
All prospects of the Dita workers getting their due wages vanished when the owner declared himself bankrupt in April 2015. In June, however, the workers decided, with the agreement of the creditors, to restart production in a self-managed fashion. Using materials left in the factory, and repairing some of the machines, they started turning out some of the main detergents previously produced there, under the names of ‘3de’, ‘Blic grill’, ‘Alls’ and ‘Broncho’. On 30 June, they agreed with the creditors that they would only have to repay the factory debts when they started making a profit. For the creditors, showing that the factory is viable may be a major help in the search for a new investor, and would thus increase their chances of getting their money back. For the workers at Dita, the restarting of production, even on a small scale, brings them not only an income but also a clear source of pride and hope. In this context, it is important not to get blinded by the ideological debates around self-management, either from those who praise it as a step towards a society of free producers or those who reject it per se as conservative and counter-revolutionary. However implausible it may seem as a long-term solution, in the context in which these workers find themselves, self-management appears as one of the few survival strategies remaining to them, and — from their point of view — at least worth a try.