The politics of division and sabotage

Valentina Pellizzer, a member of the organising team of Plenum of citizens of Sarajevo, a feminist and long-term activist, speaks to H-Alter about the citizens’ wish for a longer term articulation of their social justice questions, about Plenum’s demands and about the strategy of Bosnian-Herzegovinian (BH) establishment to discredit it, about moving beyond ethnic identities, and about the effect of fire and smoke on the direct democracy. (Photo:

Board of Deputies of the Sarajevo Canton has last Friday accepted all four demands that were voted for at the Plenum of citizens of Sarajevo. Accepted were demands for establishing government of experts, revision of salaries and benefits of those in public functions in the Sarajevo Canton in line with the current economic situation in the country. The demand for revision of privatisation was accepted, and so was the setting up of an independent fact-finding committee to establish facts surrounding the events of the 7th February.  The committee will include selected members of the Sarajevo Plenum, with the right to asses inventory and damage, as well as confirming responsibility of the police officers for excessive use of force and violence towards those taken into custody. “We need to point out, that accepting the demands by the Board does not mean that these demands will be acted upon, because the decisions will be made by the Assembly of the Sarajevo Canton, which is set to meet on the 24th February” stated the Plenum, and called on all citizens to continue with peaceful protests until all of their demands are met. They warned current and future governments that their disrespect of the citizen’s rights can not and will not be tolerated. “H-Alter” spoke on this occasion with Valentina Pellizzer, a member of the organising team of Plenum of citizens of Sarajevo, a feminist and long-term activist, who’s been living in Sarajevo for the past fifteen years, and from 1994 works on coordination and establishing of programmes of support and development in Croatia, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and  in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

On Friday the Board of Deputies of the Sarajevo Canton (SC) has accepted the demands of citizens, articulated by the Plenum, and the Assembly itself will be deciding about them this week. What are your expectations?

Demands were placed on the meeting agenda on Monday. The chosen tactic is the same to what happened on 12th February after the first Plenum. Presence of thousand people in a small plenum space, provided by the University campus, is showing effects. Media is speaking about accepted demands. But, it should be noted that this is a case of clever tactics and a way for the government to present itself as if it is listening to its citizens while continuing to do nothing. While members of the Assembly are slowly preparing for their meeting, citizens have decided to spend the (past) weekend on the streets. Currently, on one hand, there is an indication of “willingness and openness” of those in power towards the protestors while the police and media are simultaneously spreading panic about potential groups of protestors ready for physical violence. The pressure on those who feel part of the whole process is enormous. But, on the other hand, there is a rise in consciousness of something completely new, of a new way of communication that is free from used-up political jargon. In all this I feel the citizens’ desire  to articulate their questions about social justice in a long-term way, even with the continual criminalisation of protest and protestors.

What are the reasons behind the obstructions you are speaking about?

The strategy is quite clear: splitting  protestors into small groups so it would be easier to remove them from a public focus. The Plenum and protests give legitimacy to each other, they are a constant thorn in the eye of the system, because they are constantly encouraging gathered citizens to think. The system has been shaken, and its only answer is spreading fear and intimidating  individuals. In this context, the news of the day is a statement by the organisation Human Rights Watch which has officially confirmed that the police has unjustifiably used violence against 19  B-H citizens,  more than 13 in  Sarajevo, amongst whom there were two women and three minors.

Which are the key demands that received the highest consensus and which ones, in your opinion,  the citizens of Sarajevo, will not give up easily?

Three demands were passed unanimously, while one, about the “parliament of experts”, passed by a majority vote. After the first wave of “moralizing” about damaged buildings, citizens who are present at the plenum and protests have recognized and acknowledged the reasons for and causes of violence. The decriminalization of protests and protesters, the accountability of the police and the systems that supports it, along with the other two demands – auditing privatization and reducing wages and cutting benefits for the entire political class – are definitely [issues] which we all take as the common foundation. Citizens have not agreed with the new thesis that all politicians have “offered” so far, and solidarity and understanding are key, not only in Sarajevo but in all the cities where Plenums have arisen. The system is rotten and broken, but the citizens have recognized this mafia rule (“cupola mafiosa“) and they will no longer tolerate it.

What exactly is the demand with respect to the “parliament of experts and what would the realization of this demand look like, if it were to be adopted by the Parliament?

This is one of the protesters’ most-discussed questions, adopted by a simple majority, and it requires further elaboration. Attempts by politicians  imply the formation of their own government of experts and the continuation of their expert theft. In contrast, the Plenum does not want to see the current politicians with a technical mandate, and would rather identify persons who are competent, independent and preferably with no ties to any of the parties, whose function would be, at the start, to propose and ensure that the government is working and implementing a “recovery program”.

On the other hand, there is a demand for an audit  of privatization. Will this, in your personal opinion, encounter opposition from the politicians who in fact enabled this type of privatization?

Of course it will. All demands which encourage disclosure of the political-mafia system will encounter resistance. The practice of initiating investigations is widespread in BiH. However, they generally conclude up by not concluding, or conclude with the laying of formal charges, so as to ensure business as usual. Another interesting aspect is the question of cross-retaliation, where “reviewing privatization” de facto masks a repositioning of the old elite by a new one.

Last week, the Plenum warned that acceptance of a demand does not equal its implementation. In your opinion, what could happen in the event that Parliament of Sarajevo Canton does not accept and implement the Plenum’s demands?

Demands can only be accepted. A process in motion cannot be stopped. If demands are rejected, the message to the public would be the absolute resistance of the system to any change whatsoever. It would compare to the indifference of the system to the demands made throughout Yugoslavia in 1968. If the system had opened up then, little by little, it would probably have survived longer. Since February 7th, politicians have only expressed understanding towards the protesters. Of course, we should expect constant attempts to sabotage and delegitimize  protests and protesters. In these circumstances it is almost impossible to predict what will happen. There are several scenarios, but the most important thing is to do everything possible to ensure the functioning of the Plenum. The Plenums offer a space for dialogue and resolution, while protests are a form of public pressure. They are also a place for healing and for politics, for channeling energy and anger through demands and solutions.

What is the current situation in Sarajevo? How do you the residents you meet view the protests and Plenums?

I have the feeling of being in a room with a lot of distorted mirrors. Euphoria, hope, silence, fear, ignorance, inertia… it’s all there. One part of the population participates in protests, while the other part watches them from a distance as though they are an inconvenience. Every day, 200 to 300 citizens are on the streets in front of the presidential palace, the subject of constant disinformation, portraying protests as though they are some sort of massive traffic jam. The plenum is quite well attended and 1000 to 1200 citizens regularly come to the youth center. Since the first plenum, where there was major obstruction, the authorities have implement a model of “acceptance” of citizen’s demands as in Tuzla. But Sarajevo is not Tuzla: the backbone of this city is not workers from bankrupt  factories but the employees of the administrative “apparatus” with its agencies, departments and ministries at all levels: from boroughs to cities, from cantons to the entities, all the way up to the federation government. This machine is the largest “brake”, which observes and hums along on the sidelines. All those within the machine do not think alike. There are those quietly cheering for the plenum, and look to it as the only chance for freedom. Currently, this group of citizens is a big mystery. Will they decide to stop being held hostage by their “eligible peers”? Will they testify about all those who maintain this system but were elected through party “cronyism” and about the hundreds of service contracts being paid? Will they come to an understanding that they can and should be on the streets as well as at the Plenums and will they face the fact that without taking personal risks there is no “revolution”?

Why have you decided to take part in the protests and in co-organising of the Plenum?

I’ve decided [to participate] while watching protests in Tuzla and the spiral of violence in that town, while watching the politicians accusing each other while jointly accusing the citizens, while I was listening to Lagumdžija saying that citizens of Sarajevo are worse than Karadžić, or when I saw it with my own eyes the anger of the riot policeman and willingness to wipe you out so that they can “fulfil the orders”. [I decided to take part]  in order to change the [current] trend [of]  arrogance, paternalism…I was also compelled by the feelings I felt while outside the police station, together with parents who don’t know where their children are, who are afraid to ask, to get closer. I simply felt called upon. I couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to observe these events, criticising them from a distance. I’m aware that every person who stands up to the system is an “enemy” and I’m aware of the complexity and fragility of Plenum and protests. That’s why I join in, like every citizen I want to give my contribution, however small it may be. I didn’t think much, it all happened on the 14th February when the history was written, and when together with other citizens I raised my hand and voted for those four famous demands. I feel proud to be here and to witness the resistance to the lies and manipulations.

How many citizens are  in Plenum currently, have the numbers increased since the first Plenum and how do you see the experience of direct democracy decision making so far? How efficient in your opinion is Plenum in coming to a collective decisions?

From the beginning the Plenum has about 1000 people [participating], and more than 2200 demands have been received. The working groups have minimum of 300 persons who are actively involved, and who, of course, work voluntarily. Plenum is one of the most persistent “spaces” that I had a chance to experience. Direct democracy is an incredible experience, something completely different and hard to imagine. Every day I learn about myself and others. Protests have placed a symbolic full-stop on the ethnic collectivism and shown that an individual courage based on personal and political solidarity exists. Demand for social justice is what unites protestors, proving that Bosnia-Herzegovinian society can think through and show the citizens’ side of the story, without the usual ethno-nationalist colours. Protests have opened up the process of lustration at all levels, not just inside the government, but also inside the private, as well as non-governmental sector. We are all under the ‘examination’ every day, every decision and every mistake is part of a collective political practice. What’s under way is a pre-formulation of all discourses and a search for functional, transparent and open model.

What is your comment on the attempts to reduce the protests and plenums to ethno-national questions, and to claim that only Bosniaks are protesting while Croats and Serbs have no connection to it?

They say that when a regime is scared, it hits how it knows the best. Romans described it the best with the words divide et impera, divide and conquer. The reality is such that the current protests are part of a longer process and cycle of protests. Already during the “JMBG protests” [TN: JMBG stands for Unique Master Citizen Number which the governments couldn’t agree on leading to a deadlock in issuing the numbers to new born babies, resulting in a death of one baby who needed to get urgent medical care abroad] the citizens showed that they can differentiate and articulate despite and outside of the ethno-nationalism. It is normal that inside one mass “movement” different opinions and beliefs exist, and that includes different forms of patriotism. It is important, however, to highlight continual dialogue, understanding, mutual acceptance, difference and the creation of a collective awareness that there is one “flag” of the protests and of Plenums’, that of a social justice. Negating differences would be the same as negating the natural democracy of the Plenums whose openness can be instrumentalised, which why active participation is the best strategy for creating the front of solidarity without nationalisms and ism phenomenon. It’s necessary to understand that nobody speaks in the name of everybody or others and that everybody has the right to speak but that the Plenum votes for the message that everyone has a duty, out of ethical reasons, to pass on.

Is there a potential for the protests to spread into Republika Srpska (RS), where the socio-political elites have been working hard, in the last few days, on proving to the citizens that the aim of protests is its (RS’) destruction?

As I said earlier, what is happening is a universal struggle for social justice, not an attempt at a coup d’état. Attempts to show it as a coordinated destruction of agreements are false. People are no longer interested in the rhetoric of vital national interests. People want institutions, where ever they are and what ever they are called, to function and work in the interest of the citizens. This is a protest against the hegemony of the political parties, which have been like  leeches for the past twenty years in these regions sucking out the economic, cultural and social riches. Protests want to return the feeling that public good is truly public good. What the majority doesn’t know or it doesn’t see is that there were, and there will be protests also in Republika Srpska. There is a spiral of resistance which is every day spreading further. The protests that are currently in the Federation, are symbolically connected with the events during ‘JMBG’ (UMCN) protests, where for the first one could see that the citizens stopped blindly believing that national and ethic belonging is a key for every event. Republika Srpska is in a crises and its citizens are hungry and angry. But, a different system and different control of the territory is present there. More centralised: those that govern there, govern more brutally and efficiently. Plenum has started in Brčko, protests took place also in Banja Luka and Prijedor, and even the fact that after the protests by the war veterans and demobilised soldiers, the government of RS hurried to make promises and bribes behind the closed doors, is a sign that even in RS the countdown has begun.

Are you in contact with the protestors in other cities? Is there a regular communication with other Plenums and are there thoughts about acting together?

There are many horizontal channels of communication and contact. The last Plenum was attended by those from Tuzla, and today there were delegations from Konjic, Fojnica and Mostar. The information is flowing, but we are working more on the “formal” communication with the aim of defining and implementing joint demands. Personally I think that Plenums are asking questions which don’t concern only the specific Cantons, but are a matter for all of us. All of this is done in the spirit of making a better structure, and not in the spirit of its destruction. The right question is not whether the current system is needed or not, but how to make it into a functioning system. Twenty years of rhetoric about the changing of the constitution has brought Bosnia-Herzegovina society into the current situation.

You are originally from Italy, but you’ve lived in Sarajevo for fifteen years, and you’ve spent the past twenty years in the Balkans. How do you see from that position the complexity of Bosnia-Herzegovinian society and the social conditions in that country?

I come from the south of Italy, from a small town in Calabria, where mafia, thievery and corruption is ever present. I know what fear and silence mean, and how difficult it is to say something openly and separate yourself from  the “safe anonymity”. In that way I think Bosnia-Herzegovina is not that different, except for its specific construction of ethno-collectivism, a kind of “disease” which stifles any attempt at change, at least until now. This is why I think that a spark of democracy such as is Plenum, can only come from the places that have nothing and have to invent all of it, have to build a system from the zero.

How similar are the protest activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina to those that took place since 2011 in many countries of Europe and Latin America?

We are all united under the conditions of injustice. In all the countries indirect democracy has shown its limit, disfunctionality and corruption. Politicians have woven their world, and won’t let anyone else in. They collaborate with each other, replicate each other and mutually maintain each other. It is enough to observe on the global level the economic-corporative-political  machinery and it becomes very clear that political elites have only their personal-political (party) interests, while the citizens are there only for pro forma voting, paying taxes and to be the cannon fodder when they rebel. Looking at snipers in Kiev and listening to Carl Bildt brought the worse flashback I had recently. Even thou I don’t like the division of “us” and “them”, what I think all the struggles have in common is the fact that the citizens are exploited, and the politicians declaring to support democracy outside its own doorstep, while at the same time stifling it at home.

What role did the social media play in these protests, and indeed in protests across the world, in the last few years?

If there was a complete media blockade without Internet – Facebook and especially Twitter – nothing would have happened. The world changed its stance on the events in BH due to those on Twitter who were reporting and calling on the journalists from abroad, who inspired the people in other cities, and who continue to play an alternative role. Videos, pictures, attitudes, support…all of this is an integral part of a horizontal, bi-directional, constructive conversation between citizens and politicians, locally and internationally. Each Plenum thanks to its own web page can procure to its citizens an accurate information, while social networks serve for the informal communication; live video streaming of Plenums enables all those who can’t or mustn’t attend, to follow its proceedings.

Is there a fear, as some analysts claim, that a saturation point will be reached and protests won’t last long?

This process is totally open, demanding unbelievable amount of energy, time, discipline, trust, and all this is built on, everyday. What is encouraging is transparency of the Plenum system which doesn’t have leaders and where everyone gives and contributes as much she/he can.

How do you view accusations that behind some Plenums and protests in BH stand certain political elites and other interest groups? Such claims could be heard in the media and from certain public personas. What is your personal stance on this?

If we take into consideration that in Sarajevo Plenum is attended by 1000 citizens, it is obvious that beside honest protestors there are also undercover police, various implanted elements, provocateurs, and all else that is part of a mass process. But, the reaction of the governing class has been a desperate one. I think that in the beginning they couldn’t believe that nobody stands behind Plenum, and that people are simply ready to accept a new model, and to work on it. Then they tried to overtake that body. Such pressure is still present, and the only way to answer it, is for many more persons to join the work of Plenum and through suggestions, discussion and voting Plenum stays an alive place. 

How much have the citizens’ uprisings and protests uncovered the fundamental impossibility of functioning of the current political model in BH and how much is even the current model to be blamed for the current social situation in this country?

The system does not function, and its disfunctionality is strategically used from all sides. Ethno-nationalist blockades have for years paralysed the health reforms, [carried through with] wrong privatizations, and misused social welfare. The newness of these protests is that social justice became something concrete and real, something that each governing body can work on, regardless of its level (of jurisdiction) and constitution. When we speak about a political model, we have to understand that we are not talking about a constitution, entity or Canton, but about a systematic robbery, which is hidden behind an ethno-curtain. The citizens have seen that the king is naked, and this time they decided to do something about the situation, take responsibility and build something which many countries thought was not possible. In that context, the events of the 7th February were a turning point. Violence does not resolve problems, but the fire, smoke, arrests and brutality have indeed created a chasm, filled by Plenum and which turned into something absolutely unexpected: an exercise of direct democracy where citizens think through the entire system and do that in their own name.

This article originally appeared on the 24.2.2014 here:

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