This interview originally appeared in the magazine Slobodna Bosna, issue 902, 20.2.2014
Belgian anthropologist Stef Jansen who has been researching and visiting Bosnia and Herzegovina for over a decade speaks to Slobodna Bosna about the protests, their strengths, possible outcomes, citizens’ demands and the awakening of the Left.
Stef Jansen is an anthropologist from Belgium who, over the past fifteen years, has been spending the better part of his time in the Balkans, conducting research and, amongst other things, working with returnees. The wave of protests found him in Sarajevo. Every day he’s on the streets with the protesters and in the plenums. Even though he knows the situation in this country very well, he says the force of the protests had taken him by surprise.
‘It’s not surprising that people are disappointed, enraged, angry at the political class, the injustice and the inequality. That discourse has been there for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been coming here for years. You could find it in the kitchen, in the pub, in the workplace… I think the hardest thing in BiH is to find someone who’s satisfied. But that rage never found a public outlet before.’
The wonderous moment of awakening
How do you see the protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Do you believe them to be different from all the previous ones in our country?
It’s very important to stress that this wave of discontent started in the smaller towns of BiH, the industrial towns where the workers set everything in motion, or people on some contract without salaries, incomes, various benefits to which they are legally entitled. They set this in motion. The rage existed, the protests and the strikes etc. have always existed. Every month over the last few years you could see protests in Sarajevo, tent cities in front of the parliaments, farmers, workers… But they were always standalone protests. One company, one group asking for something which is their right, but something specific for that group. Eventually, most of society stopped paying any attention to these protests because they had no results. This time, protestors joined forces. In other words, it wasn’t that the workers from one company wanted one thing, the pensioners another, the farmers another still. It was a wondrous moment, and I don’t know where that moment came from. I was surprised by that moment when all those people realised that they have the same problem, that they could publicly speak about it and that they could put it on the political agenda.
It’s obvious that people in BiH are afraid of public speaking. At the same time, we can’t claim this to be a country where people are arrested every day and subjected to torture at the hands of the police. Where does this great fear of ours come from?
I have noticed the same thing and I think it’s a very important issue to consider when we try to interpret what’s going on. I think that most people are, indeed, afraid, and not necessarily of something specific, like being beaten up or something like that. There’s a fear not just of violence, but of instability. I would say this stems from having lived through the war. There’s a huge longing for stability which has transformed into a fear of instability. Since people are so afraid of instability, they feel any stability is better, even if it consists of misery and insecurity.
How do you see the plenums that are taking place across BiH? What, if anything, can we gain from them?
First, I can’t imagine something like that happening in England, where I work, or in Belgium, where I grew up. I think it’s very significant. Again, this started in Tuzla, Bihać, Zenica, and now we have it in Sarajevo as well.
The plenums represent an enormous potential, but we can’t expect them to solve all problems nor ask it of them. It’s completely unfair to expect that from the plenums. It’s possible that the political classes might come and say that the plenums aren’t solving all these enormous problems in the country. To this, we should reply: Why didn’t you solve them then, with the enormous public structures, budgets and state institutions that exist for that exact purpose?
The plenum is a roar of enraged people who are just reminding the political class that they exist and that they have problems they want solved. The plenums are important because they show that people have the courage to step onto the podium, take the microphone or make written demands—of which there are by now over 2,000 here in Sarajevo alone—and that makes them feel that their voice matters. This is the first time that people here have somewhere to direct their demands and that they don’t remain within four walls.
What could be the true strength of the plenums in this political climate?
I don’t believe that the plenum could replace political structures in this country which is a part of a bigger, global system. At this moment I don’t see how it could replace it. However, I definitely believe that it could exist as a parallel and additional form of political activity. I would very much like to see it in other countries as well, to see it multiply in a million different ways, not necessarily in the shape it has here, in other words cantonal, but something akin to a plenum which doesn’t even have to be called a plenum, just a form of self-organising where people state their priorities, say which problems they are struggling with and what they want, what they want the political bodies in their country to focus on… There could be a plenum about public transportation, health, the academic community and so on.
The establishment of a system
Some would go so far as to say that the plenums are actually the birth of the Left in BiH. Does that mean that we’re dealing with a new political alternative?
This whole thing definitely ‘smells like’ the Left, but I don’t think that’s unique for BiH. Right now, you’d be pressed to find a clear public expression of a political alternative anywhere in the world. But yes, this is something you could call leftist politics, not because I believe that people in the plenums in BiH are socialists, communists or any other type of leftists, but the form of it, the organisation and the stating of priorities are all things that mesh with certain leftist political alternatives and theories. Here, we don’t have to talk theories; we see things carried out in practice.
If you had to choose one image to explain to an outsider what is happening here these days, an image that describes what you see here every day and what you yourself participate in, what would that image be?
During one of the plenums, a lady got up and told us how some nights, when she can’t sleep, she looks out her window and sees people going through the rubbish looking for food. I think that her story is very important and powerful because she clearly does not talk about what she personally lacks. She doesn’t talk about human rights, not her own, not those of the people she saw. Instead, she demonstrates something that I believe to be the most important thing in all of this, and that is that there is an indignation, the feeling that no matter how well I personally may be doing, I don’t feel good when I see what kind of a world I live in, a world where people look for food in the rubbish. That image is universal and would work anywhere.
This indignation is very important, not only from a humanitarian or civic perspective, but also from a political one. I believe that the Left has often wasted the opportunity to align itself with this feeling that I would call indignation. The Left all over the world has lost touch with such indignation, and I really think that is an incredibly important aspect both for the plenums and everything that’s happening in BiH right now, but also for me personally, because here and now I am learning what politics is.
People have great expectations from everything that’s happening these days. You’re on the streets every day, you talk to people in the plenums. How realistic are their expectations?
There’s an interesting paradox here. On the one hand, when you’re at the plenum in the Youth Centre and you talk to people, you get a feeling that they have a million demands, that the city is brimming with them. But if you look at what they all come down to, what they have in common, most of them are actually very modest. People just want the political system—not the parties, but the institutions, from the local community to the public institutions to the state government—to do what they are there for. In other words, to establish a functioning system that will give people what they are paying their taxes for.
Because of this, I believe the demands are neither radical nor leftist. To come back to the fear we mentioned earlier, I think that people really long for stability, order, a system, which isn’t exactly revolutionary or left wing. These people want to be able to turn a tap and have the water flow; or when they wait for a tram, that the tram actually comes and, if possible, on time; they want to be able to go to the hospital and see a doctor without first having to do what everybody has to do right now. These are all very modest demands which at this moment and in this country seem radical.
How much has BiH changed in the 15 years that you’ve been coming here, in terms of our ways of thinking and the reality we live in?
I do think that things have changed. Some for the better, others for the worse. First of all, that fear we talked about. I think there’s less of it now. I remember in the early post-war years there were other fears, very real fears, especially among the returnees. Those fears are now less present and that’s good.
The other thing that has changed a lot is the way the country looks. Someone who has last seen Sarajevo in for example 1997 wouldn’t recognise it now. Certain things have changed, there are lots of new things, although whether we actually need some of them—like the shopping centres—is a different matter.
The last thing I would mention is the significance of the time that has passed. Fifteen years ago it was still possible, and this is a very sad thing for me to say, but it was possible to hope that things would soon be getting a little bit better, that we were moving forward. People believed that the bad things in our lives were consequences of the war and that the country would slowly begin to recover. It’s very sad that now, twenty years after the war, it is so difficult to hope for this, and it is equally sad that everything that’s bad is being explained away with the war. Of course that still plays a big part, but it cannot serve as an excuse for everything.
Stef Jansen is a social anthropologist from Belgium. He teaches at the University of Manchester and has over the past fifteen years conducted reseach in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia. He also worked as an activist with the refugees and returnees from these countries as well as in Kosovo and Macedonia. He has published a number of articles and books on the topic of home and hope, displacement and confinement, post-socialist transformations, (anti-)nationalism and everyday forms of nationalism, resistance and complicity.