A protest by workers in the city of Tuzla against privatization, sparked a nationwide revolt against the rulers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a nation carved out of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s after a bloody civil war that pitted Bosniaks (Muslims), Serb, and Croats who lived in the area against each other.
The workers’ protest was joined by young people, and members of civic associations fed up with government corruption and neglect.
While ethnic tension remain high in the former Yugoslavian republic, the uprising was marked by its class rather than ethnic dimensions.
“We are dealing with a rebellion against nationalist elites,” writes Slavoj Zizek, a philosopher, author, and Communist theoretician in The Guardian. “The people of Bosnia have finally understood who their enemy is–not other ethnic groups, but their own leaders who pretend to protect them.”
The protests began at a laundry detergent factory in Tuzla.
The factory, a former state-owned enterprise when Bosnia was a part of socialist Yugoslavia, had been sold to a businessman who Reuters describes as a “tycoon from the Bosnian capital (of Sarajevo).”
After the factory was sold, most of the workers were laid off, but a skeleton crew of about 100 remained on the job.
Reuters reports that the workers who remained had not been paid for two years.
Recently, a group of both employed and unemployed workers had set up an encampment at the factory gates to prevent the owner from stripping the factory of its machines and equipment and selling them, a common practice in Bosnia.
The workers had tried to get the local government, which had sold the factory under the condition that the new owner invest in new equipment and continue production, to take action against the new owner.
But the local government ignored them.
On February 4, the workers marched to the local government’s headquarters to demand action. They were joined by other workers and young people, who had grievances of their own.
Instead of meeting with the protestors, government officials sent the police to disperse the crowd.
The workers and their supporters resisted, and the two sides fought.
The government’s callous attitude sparked sympathy demonstrations in other parts of the country, which were also met with police repression.
The repression as well as poverty and unemployment caused the demonstrations to grow in number and ferocity.
The country’s unemployment rate is more than 27 percent; for young people, the rate is 60 percent.
Many of the country’s formerly state-owned businesses have been sold to private companies that stripped factories of their assets and shut them down.
All of this has been allowed to take place by a government that has funneled aid money from the European Union into the pockets of government leaders and their cronies.
The anger sparked by corruption, privation, and privatization erupted on Friday, February 7, into pitched battles between thousands protestors and the police and special forces in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Mostar. Some protestors burned government buildings.
Peaceful protests took place in Kakanj, Visoko, Konjic, and Livno in the Bosniak and Croat regions.
While smaller, there were also peaceful protests in Banja Luka, Prijedor, Bijeljina, and Foca in the Serbian autonomous region.
In Tuzla, the protestors issued a manifesto that called for the creation of a new Bosnia-Herzegovina whose principles would be based on social justice, not the divisive ethnic interests that currently defines the country.
Among the 37 demands in the manifesto, the protestors called for free health care, more jobs for young people, an end to privatization, taking back former government assets that have already been privatized, and an end to government corruption.
The manifesto also demanded a more equal society. One of the biggest complaints of protestors is the disparity between the salary of high government officials, whose salaries are around 3,500 euros a month, and the rest of the population, whose monthly salaries average about 400 euros a month.
The Tuzla manifesto demands that government officials should be paid the same wage as workers. (The Paris Commune of 1871 made a similar demand during its uprising.)
In addition to social justice, the Tuzla manifesto calls for the banning of “nationalist and religious based parties.”
In other parts of Bosnia, the protests have been led by social justice organizations with names like Udar, Revolt, and Occupy Bosnia-Herzegovina.
So far, the groups’ slogans like the one from Udar that reads, “It does not matter if you are a Serb, a Croat, or a Bosniak. Together we are stronger,” have emphasized the common cause of their struggle against nationalist elites.
The one unifying demand of all the protests seems to be that the current Bosnia-Herzegovina government, which is led by an unresponsive troika composed of one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb, must resign.
The protestors also want the governments of 10 cantons (local governments) in Bosnia to resign. So far, four have done so.
On February 10 and 11, demonstrators again took to the streets, but the demonstrations remained peaceful.
Protests are likely to continue until a new government is formed. The current rulers have stated that they will allow elections to take place but no date has been set yet.
There is a chance that the current rulers may try to stay in power by reviving ethnic tensions.