Bosnia as a Medicine


by Richard Schuberth

Der Standard 21/02/2014 / 26/02/2014 / BH Protest Files 06/03/2014

Our enlightened foreign minister (Austrian minister Sebastian Kurz) would like to enlighten others. Recently he addressed the agents of ‘the Bosnian Spring’ with the following statement of solidarity: ‘This is an invitation for the awakening of the political class in Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have to overcome the deadlock and move towards the European reformation process.’ That class has a lot to lose. This Kurz’s statement inadvertently reveals that there exists another political class – the class of those who have nothing left to lose.

Austrian foreign minister, ORF correspondent in Sarajevo and various professional commentators on the situation in Bosnia all offer the same story about the events in this European protectorate: Citizens are fed up with nationalist posturing and corruption, unemployment, stagnation and archaic provincialism, which all prevent Bosnians from being as successful as us. As soon as they get rid of the parasitic class, the time of democracy will finally arrive.

But nobody even considers whether Bosnian citizens, apart from being unhappy with their ‘political class’, may be unhappy with the international administration and various IMF and EU austerity programmes that have significantly contributed to their difficult position.

A Proud Tradition

The impression of Bosnia as the focus of nationalistic unrest which has since the nineties dominated our picture of this country, has overshadowed another, far more important tradition that speaks of Bosnia as a longstanding fertile ground for social dissent. Frequent peasants’ uprisings (the last of them happened in the 1870s) united people of different confessional groups. At the beginning of the 20th century the movement ‘Young Bosnia’ was primarily a multi-ethnic amalgamation of anti-colonial leaning intellectuals who valued the ideals of social anarchism. This wasn’t a branch of pan-Serbian nationalism as it is insinuated today. Finally, most of Tito’s partisans were from Bosnia.

It is no coincidence that the social dissent from a few weeks ago started exactly from Tuzla. Here we have the old Bosnian antagonism between proletarian Tuzla and somewhat snobbishly bourgeois Sarajevo. With its heavy industry and mines Tuzla always had the most developed class-consciousness in Bosnia. All attempts for Tuzla to be split along ethnic lines were unsuccessful.

It was the Tuzla students and miners who at the end of the sixties sent the request for reforms of the Yugoslavian communist party and independent unions. In 1984 ten thousand miners from the Kreka mine gave their salaries to their colleagues from Great Britain who were then in mass strikes. Many workers in the country followed this example.

Tuzla is the only city not to succumb to the ethnic insanity in the nineties. Although Serbian paramilitaries were devastating nearby Muslim villages, Tuzla citizens kept their wits about them and resisted the concept of collective guilt that is destructive for any society. After the war the miners’ union presented a strong bulwark against privatisation.

A Failed State

In the western media, Bosnia and Herzegovina has the status of a failed state. There is no state to speak of, with such corruption and paralysed sheep that are repeatedly voting for their nationalistic wolves. This statement is brimming with arrogance, especially if we consider that it was often the international investors and governments who have been precisely those who provided the instruments for the wolves and helped trim the sheep. There is also a place for the criticism of Dayton post-war agreement: it was wrong to have cemented the nationalist status quo in such a way and to have accepted ethnic elites as the makers of political decisions.

We should admit that the international community, at least at the beginning, didn’t have any other partners to cooperate with, because those Bosnians who had other socialist, anti-nationalistic or cosmopolitan identity had been exiled, killed or simply silenced. The biggest mistake is to believe the war ended in 1995. At the economic level, it is still raging on and has been for 19 years, without regard for ethnic lines. It is simply a local-folklore variety of the global model of civil war – the war of profiteers against the losers. Those who stayed in Bosnia know the meaning of free markets better than any Western student of economics.

Submission to all existent ethnic segregations became the only strategy to survive in a society where social security and the right to freedom from bodily harm became privatised. The politics is strictly clientelistic.  Housing, social support, infrastructure, permits, exceptions from arbitrary decisions, all that is divided according to loyalties to particular power structures, which form the basis of ethnically divided markets. That is how you produce nationalistic voters, and not via the faith in Allah or the myth of Kosovo.

Vulgar – Marxism

The invisible hand of Adam Smith that – as we know – arranges everything perfectly, was in Bosnia as well as in other places with destroyed socialist economies, a bully’s fist. For forty years, Yugoslav state socialism tried to teach Marxism to its citizens. In vain. They first had to learn capitalism to really understand what Marx meant by the term ‘primitive accumulation’. As the reality of post-socialist transitional states is unfamiliar with Foucault or Ulrich Beck, unlike the sensible countries in the North, the political economy here functions shamefully in a vulgar-Marxist way. And when freedom and democracy finally break out then things don’t go the way of Sweden, but more like in the Lincoln area of New Mexico in times of Billy the Kid, or in Kärnten under Heider and Dörfler.

Bosnia was not pacified in order to create the conditions for the prosperous conditions of free market forces. The war itself was the immediate answer to the sale of Yugoslavian wealth; not, as it is now widely accepted, an awakening of ancient cultural clashes, but (which is by no means widely accepted) a strategy for appropriation of the country’s bankrupt’s estate. The tried and tested ideology for this purpose was the fairy tale narrative of a shared ethnic identity. Voltaire knew that all wars were marauding expeditions. The grey and predatory economy was not a collateral damage of the Bosnian war, but its purpose.

The aim of war is a suspension of civil order and a creation of lawless space which can be stripped bare thanks to military intervention. The only victors emerging from the war were profiteers on all warring sides who accumulated their initial capital from the suffering of the rest of the population. They are the core of the new entrepreneurial elites, into whom the EU and the IMF invest billions so they can continue the privatisation and destroy the remainder of social services.

Criticism vs Conspiracy Theory

Criticism of Western countries because of their partial responsibility in the nineties’ war is often discarded as a conspiracy theory. Southern and westerly winds are eroding the heroic statues of Mock and Genscher erected on the island of Brac and are slowly falling into oblivion. But what hasn’t been forgotten is the system that has for thirty years stoked the fire needed to clear the land and make it fertile for making profit. This criticism has for long been discarded as unreasonable left-wing radicalism, until the former main economist of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, now in the role of whistle blower, came out with the same position. In 1989, when the IMF and the World Bank prescribed for the Yugoslav government the austerity programme with all its ‘pleasantries’: currency devaluation, freezing of salaries, reduction of government spending, liquidation of self-managed national companies – more than 600.000 people lost jobs. Milošević and Tuđman could then get to work and in a few months turn that human mass into nationalists following the local recipe.

After all, the IMF and the World Bank demanded the exclusion of Bosnia from the money transfer between the Yugoslav republics, which until then kept the balance between the economically stronger and those weaker republics. Suddenly, Bosnia was left on its own, and the western voyeurs could half-sad, half-fascinated feast their eyes on the lab mice left in their ‘European’ terrarium scrambling for crumbs. That is the second step in the manufacturing of nationalists. The third step is somewhat more deadly. The rage and the desire for revenging the dead friends and cousins, killed not as people but as Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, quickly turns people into Croats, Serbs and Bosnians.

One of the most disgusting things about those wars was reflected in the cluelessness of the children and the grandchildren of that generation of Germans who had pushed the concept of savagery beyond previously conceivable dimensions, over seemingly natural aggression and pre-modern tribal barbarism of those faraway Balkan desperados.

The Two Classes of the Employed

The main pillar of Bosnian economy is the peace-keeping business. The huge apparatus comprising of administration, international peace-keeping forces, investors and over 12.000 NGOs – shortly: a business of humanitarian money laundering – created a half-colonial state and the economy of informants, which doesn’t resemble the long wanted forces of free market but looks more like rentier capitalism. One of the reasons for the creation of this parasitic class of eight hundred politicians and hundred and fifty ministries in Bosnia and Herzegovina is because the country has no proper constitution, and the western money kept coming in: to be in politics in Bosnia, and not just here, means re-directing the flow of international money towards one’s own clientele.

We should also add here the gross bureaucracy of international administration, which with its Western European salaries creates two classes of the employed. However, in one area there reigns equality. Regardless of a difference in salaries, the overblown prices of goods of mass consumption are equal to all.

The international administration made a fatal error when it authoritatively decided the framework of the legal state, and handed the democratic process to the war profiteers. It is unavoidable to draw a parallel with the Austro-Hungarian administration whose favoured partners were the Bosnian feudal class. It kept the same numbers of illiterate population throughout its thirty years. Even though since 1995 the international community has invested millions of dollars in education, it failed to denationalise school programmes, which ensured that the ethnic hatred carried on to the next generation who in turn will form the business core of the ethnic oligarchs.

Free Market Bandits

The situation in Bosnia is far from just a local problem, it is a local reflection of the global context. Just like warlords cannot imagine life without expensive wines, so do free market bandits need loans and investment opportunities. That is when the big players such as Hypo Alpa Adria Bank and Raiffeisen Bank enter the stage. Ninety per cent of Bosnian financial sector is under the control of Austrian banks. We should also mention the heroic involvement of Admiral Casinos and Entertainment AG and Novomatic group, who are making sure that the bottom up distribution goes smoothly. These alpine corporate criminals especially like to place their gambling dens adjacent to schools.

It looks like the allegedly passive Bosnian citizens finally had enough. The first signs of this happened in 2012, when the Federation-based war veteran association was collecting aid for their former enemies from Republika Srpska, when both groups’ pensions were cut by the political warmongers following the IMF orders. Or when in the same year, at the commemoration of the Srebrenica atrocities, the family members of the victims forbid the local politicians and international community representatives to address the spectators. As this didn’t prevent them they were greeted by a chorus of whistles.

Panic amongst the Elites

These protests are something more than an impulsive expression of dissatisfaction. They have quickly grown to be a political movement with clear aims and ideas. These people do not stop at just talking about democracy, they want to exercise it in practice. They are demanding a government of experts, a return of workers’ self-management in the companies, and revision of privatisations. Nationalistic elites are panicking, as evident in their attempts to pacify their sheep by proclaiming their demands for ethnically clean entities in Bosnia. Because, when representatives of all three confessions become that which they have always been, which is Bosnians, that will be a clear message to all nationalistic magnates that it is the time to pack the bags.

It seems that even international partners are expressing pent up frustration. For decades they have demanded from the Bosnian citizens, as if from children with learning difficulties, to show more of a democratic initiative. But the sort of democracy that they have had an opportunity to see this February does not resemble much the democracy expected by the IMF and the EU. The Bosnian citizens are considering real democracy and not the ‘post-democracy’ to which the obedient Westerners have gotten used to long ago. The West regularly spreads its discourses around the peripheries: first this was the discourse of nationalism, the agent of all wars, which sent over 100.000 Bosnians to their deaths in the nineties, and now it is the stale post-democracy that has during the crisis times turned into a euphemism for disempowerment of citizens in favour of financial capital. The army of unemployed workers of Bosnia will not be satisfied if the biggest success of this uprising stops at a minimal social insurance.

The Winter of Nationalism

The ‘High Representative’ Valentin Inzko is a perfect embodiment of the inner conflict of neo-liberal self-delusion. The old left-wing romantic impulse prompted him to sift out some solidarity with the events, while his institutional super-ego threatened with European tanks.

However, the Balkans can redeem us. With our deeply Balkan ideologies and business practices, we did everything to spoil its manners, but it can now teach us a democracy worth its name.

The Bosnian Spring could become a powerful social movement that could herald a winter of nationalism and an autumn of international custody. There is a hope that the dandelion of the Bosnian Spring could find its way towards the meaningless democracy of the European Union.

(Richard Schuberth is a writer.  His Devil’s New Dictionary, published by Klever Verlag, is coming out these days. In 1998, his satirical play Friday in Sarajevo dealt with the causes and contradictions of the Bosnian war.

Original text from Der Standard, translation from

Selection and translation by Edina Husanovic

Edited and checked against the original German text by Amila Bosnae)


3 responses to “Bosnia as a Medicine

  1. “There is a hope that the dandelion of the Bosnian Spring could find its way towards the meaningless democracy of the European Union.”

    Why hope to find a way to a meaningless something? Am I the only one here who feels confused by the conclusion? Is there a possibility of a mistake in the translation from the original text in German?

    • Hi and thanks for asking. The editor and the translator both checked the original text and it is clear that the author intended the meaning conveyed in the text you read: he hopes that the Bosnian Spring with its beginnings of direct democracy will find its way towards the meaningless and empty ‘post-democracy’, as he terms it, in the EU. The implicit meaning here is that the Bosnian examples of direct democracy could improve the current EU democracy.

  2. Alright. Thanks for checking. His negative stance towards the EU in the article made me think that it’s not possible for him to see room for improvement in the EU itself. Thanks again.

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