Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #6 – Tuzla, Mostar, and activism.
By Peter Lippman
Fall, 2015

2015 Report index

Report 1 Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism.
Report 2Immiseration and resignation.  Prospects for activism.
Report 3:  Prijedor. 
Report 4:  Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption.
Report 5:  Srebrenica. 
Report 6:  Tuzla, Mostar, and activism.
Report 7The wave of refugees coming into Europe.

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View of Tuzla hillside from the "Most s kipovima" (Bridge of statues)


I wandered up to Tuzla and met right away with my friend and landlady, Mina. Before getting to her home, we stopped by the Sodaso corporate building, which doubled as the Canton government building until it was burned out in the February 2014 uprising. It still stands empty, with broken windows, charred traces of fire, and graffiti. The graffiti messages read, "Stop nationalist division of Bosnian-Herzegovinan citizens!" "Unified Bosnia!" "Stop nationalism!" "One people, one nation,""Thieves, death to nationalism!" and "Nationalists to the jails."

A little further down the street, someone had written "You have taken everything from us."

I think this explains the background to the unrest that started in Tuzla and spread throughout the Federation. Before the war, Tuzla was one of the most industrially developed parts of Bosnia, with chemical and mining industries based on the rich mineral resources in the area, along with related university departments. Salt has been extracted there for millennia, and the Austro-Hungarian occupation significantly escalated industrial development in the area.

From that time, with the accompanying influx of many different nationalities under the Empire, Tuzla dates its sophistication relative to the rest of the country. There is a strong tradition of worker consciousness, anti-nationalism and internationalism, and rebellion against authoritarian and exploitative rule.

And with more state-run enterprises having been developed in the region around Tuzla, during and after the war there was more to pillage, more for the managers and the rest of the new elite to wreck, and more disappointment and poverty for ordinary people. Thousands of people who had steady jobs and who once knew a decent living standard have been out of work for 25 years, only seeing things get worse. Mina, a retired engineer and head of her department, now receives a pension of 326 KM. She tells me that 90 KM of that pension goes to her heating bill each winter month. Then there's lodging, medicine, transportation, telephone and other utilities – and not much left for food.

There was a protest of the pensioners and they were promised a 5% increase. Mina asks, "What can I do with that 15 KM?"

And workers were protesting the wrecking of their companies in
Živinice at the the furniture company Konjuh, and for quite some months in front of the detergent company Dita, demanding back pay, restoration of their formerly thriving company, and reinstatement of their jobs. Towards the end of 2013 they moved their protests to the outdoor space around the Canton building. In early February of the next year, other unemployed people and students joined the workers, and that's when the fire was lit.

Literally: on February 5th, people threw burning material at the office building, and there was much damage done. Police attacked the protesters and the protesters fought back. Over several days, dozens of people were arrested and dozens more, both police and protesters, were hospitalized. By the third day of protests, it was reported that 7,000 people were in the streets.

Very soon after that, a solidarity protest was organized in Sarajevo, where people gathered in front of the Canton government building. On February 7th someone from among demonstrators torched a part of the presidency building. Protests spread to Biha
ć, Zenica, Brčko, and Mostar, among other places. In the Republika Srpska, although conditions are at least as bad as in the Federation, there was just a solidarity demonstration of about 300 people in Banja Luka. In Mostar, protesters expressing their resentment of the party-ocracy behind the decades of plunder took out their rage equally against the Muslim nationalist SDA and the Croat nationalist HDZ, by torching both of their party headquarters.

In response to the protests, Canton governments dissolved and some politicians even fled the country temporarily. They were scared of the unrest. And the protesters formed "plenums" in numerous locations, taking the opportunity to build a grassroots discussion forum and to formulate demands of their elected leaders. The demands were manifold, including back-pay and coverage of health benefits for laid-off workers; secure employment status; an end to the lavish "golden parachute" (bijeli hlijeb) payment to outgoing politicians; reassessment of the privatization process; prosecution of economic crimes; equalizing pay of government officials with that of workers; and eliminating additional payments to government officials so that they are just paid their salaries.

There was a good deal of chaos in the Canton governments during and after the protests. The demands were met only to the very minimum; more promises were made than were honored. What was optimistically looked at as a "Bosnian Spring" had died down by the time spring actually started, although the plenums lasted a bit longer in some places. All in all, it was by far the biggest protest since the end of the war. Hope rose high but fell quickly. However, as happened with the experience of the Occupy movement in the US, the protests and plenums expanded and reinforced the network of activists around the country, and provided new knowledge and understanding about activism.

This was just a brief recap of what happened during an episode that is no longer news. I share it here as background to my discussions with various activists around the country, some of which I am going to relate below. For more on those events, see my article: Bosnia-Herzegovina Protests a Response To Post-War Corruption, Impoverishment.

Sodaso - former Tuzla Canton government building,                                                                          Anti-nationalist and anti-corruption graffiti
showing effects of torching in February 2014                                                                                                 on former government building

The look of Tuzla is slowly changing; like Sarajevo, there is more glass in evidence there. The funky old Hotel Bristol was torn down years ago, and now there is a massive new tower there, built by the Melain company. This project was allegedly underwritten by Russian money. Apartments in the building are being sold for 2,000 KM per square meter. Many are still empty. People from Tuzla and Lukavac who work in Iraq and Afghanistan are buying some of them.

The lovely central walking area called the "Korzo" is looking a bit run-down, with graffiti scrawled on the walls of shops. A little further on, the old municipal building, which was sinking into the ground like much of the rest of Tuzla (due to extraction of salt water for over a century) was finally torn down. While I was there, that area around the central square, with its pleasant fountain, was the location of a small carnival fair, complete with rides and booths.

I visited my friend Nesim Tahirovi
ć, the artist. He recently had an exhibition in Alexandria, Egypt. He says he is respected and invited for exhibits everywhere except in his home town of Tuzla – because he criticizes the local government.

We sat and talked outside his workshop on the outskirts of town by the psychiatric asylum. In the background the muezzin called for the Ikindija prayer. Nesim said that he was fed up with the political and economic situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "beyond disappointment – that was fifteen years ago." He does not have the support an artist should normally have from his country. He says, "You can love your country, but when it doesn't love you back, that's hard."

Nesim on culture: "There is no respect for culture in this country. Culture is disappearing, the human is disappearing. Where is the human?" Of the way his home city has changed, he says, "Take a look at the architecture, what a crime! Tuzla at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was genteel city, considered the most urban in this region. And you see what looks like today. Cultural, artistic, and urban crime reign over the city."

Nesim has made his own contribution to resolving the ubiquitous problem of stray dogs in Bosnia. He has adopted a half-dozen of them, making sure they are all sterilized. Little Laza stays with him wherever he goes; the rest hang around the studio. Nesim gets bones with a little meat from the butcher shop and feeds the dogs every day. There's Nera, Kebo (after the writer Ozren), and
Čega. He had a dog he named Nesim, but that one has left. Umjetnik ("Artist") is still around. He feeds them every day at dusk.

Nesim's workshop upstairs is full of paintings and sculptures. I peered into his storage room downstairs and saw a big Yugoslav flag on one wall, and on the other, photos of Marx, Stalin, Haile Selassie, Mao, and Tito. I told him he should have one of Groucho Marx there too.

For more on Nesim, see this site.

I went over to the headquarters of Bosfam, the women's' crafts cooperative mainly staffed by displaced women, usually widows, from Srebrenica, and headed by Beba Hadžić. Women at Bosfam knit sweaters and slippers, sew outfits, and weave kilims. Bosfam has a web site for ordering kilims:

But times are harder than before, with orders down. Now, Bosfam is not regularly producing kilims, but only when there's an order. Beba says that she could have 200 people working, but there's not the demand. The economy in Tuzla generally seems worse than two years ago. Many shops in the town are closed and for rent. Speaking of the difficulties surrounding her organization, Beba says, "We survived the war; maybe we will survive the peace."

I asked my friend I asked Nedžad Ibrahimović if there have been changes in Tuzla. He says, "The worst thing is that things haven't changed."

Tuzla Canton's budget looks to be in deficit around 23 million KM at the end of this year. Payments to elected officials and other government employees amount to 215 million KM, so the Canton minister of finance suggested that those salaries be reduced. The problem is that the decision to make that reduction is in the hands of those who would be affected; it's the same problem all over Bosnia-Herzegovina. You hear a lot more about these people raising their salaries than lowering them.

In October Besim Duraković, director of the Tuzla Canton Administration for inspections, was arrested for "abuse of position." Inspectors are in a good position to receive bribes, and Duraković has been accused of both taking and giving bribes, as well as manipulating tenders for public procurements.

So you see, it's not just the Republika Srpska and Dodik who are corrupt, far from it. And in the same month Alen Čengić, director of the famous Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, was arrested for participating in an organized crime scheme to evade taxes. Čengić is also owner of the elite restaurant Park Prinčeva on the southern slopes of the city. Possible charges against him read as follows: criminal offenses including tax evasion, preventing officials in the performance of their duty, aggravated theft, damage to property, jeopardizing the public safety, and organizing resistance to enforcement of the law.

Meanwhile, the scenario associated with the Dita and Konjuh companies, which led to the uprising of February 2014, continues apace in connection with many other failed or failing companies. Nearly every week desperate laid-off or unpaid workers are striking in front of their factories or in the center of Tuzla, demanding justice.

The new Melain tower in Tuzla


Mostar is famous for its astonishing Old Bridge and the rushing river Neretva, which flows through the city. People who know a little about the war and the aftermath know that during the war ethnic cleansing took place, with Croat forces taking the upper hand. They drove most of the Muslims out of the larger and more modern west side of the city, and Mostar was divided into a Muslim-dominated east side and a Croat-dominated west side. Serbs, whose extremist forces had attacked Mostar well before the conflict started between the Muslims and Croats, fled in large numbers.

Before the war the city of some hundred thousand was about a third Muslim, a third Croat, and twenty percent Serb. Today, by someone's best guess, it is close to half and half Muslim and Croat, with the Croats holding a slight majority.

The wartime ethnic division has never been repaired, although there have been respectable returns to the surrounding villages, and some return within the city. The city is divided into six electoral units, and the government of Mostar has been the object of ongoing, perhaps well-meaning, but failed manipulation from the international community. Those six electoral units used to be six full-fledged administrative units called municipalities, but in 2006 the High Representative decreed that there should be one municipality with six electoral units within. The division of electoral units amounted to a kind of gerrymandering that ensured that outnumbered Muslims would have equal voting power with the more numerous Croats.

Over the years there has been a division of power between Croats and Muslims such that there has been a periodic trade-off of the mayoralty between representatives of the two ethnicities. But the political arrangement at the municipal level has been frozen since the elections of 2008, because in 2011, before the next year's municipal elections, Bosnia's Constitutional Court found the High Representative's decision unconstitutional. The objection was that there must be one vote for one person, rather than a system that favors one collectivity.

After municipal elections were cancelled in 2012, Mostar's city council was disbanded and there has been no chance to elect a new one since that year. So there have been no elections to the municipal council since 2008. Croat Mayor Ljubo Besli
ć has been in office for eleven years, that last three-plus years without a mandate. Just last week (December 21), the mayor, together with the city's finance minister, through emergency procedure that has become customary, decided on the city budget for 2016. The Federation Parliament granted the mayor the power to make such a budget, and has now approved the budget for the last three years.

Meanwhile, the lovely city of Mostar has two separate transit systems, separate utilities systems, and divided educational systems, among other things.

Graffiti in Mostar: "The borders are in your head"

I met with my old friend, the activist Huso. He called Mayor Beslić "Faraon," Pharaoh: "The mayor is acting mayor for all this time. He makes the decisions about budget, and they get passed by the Parliament, and that's it. There's not anything even resembling democracy in Mostar, but people aren't mobilized about it."

Huso told me that there is now talk about again postponing the municipal elections, which should take place in 2016, and holding both local and national elections in Mostar in 2018. Authorities say that they need time to draft reforms of the local electoral laws and to standardize regulations with the EU, and deal with discrimination, and more. Huso thinks it is a terrible idea to have two elections - in the spring and the fall - in 2018. It's waste of time and resources, he says, and a way to make people tired of elections.

"There will be elections in 2018, we'll have to see what happens," the activist Amna told me in another conversation. I asked her about the one-vote/one-person proposal. She responded, "It has to be that way. And the Croat turnout is about 30%, while the Muslim turnout is about 50%. So if you want to win, just bring out more voters."

I asked Amna if there is as much ethnic animosity between people as there was in the years just after the war. Amna said, "There is less, except when elections come up; then people vote strictly along ethnic lines. It's as if they are carrying two bodies within themselves.

"There are demands on people not only to identify with their ethnicity, but also to identify with a party. Now, the conflicts are within the ethnicities rather than among them, with leaders criticizing their constituencies for not being loyal or patriotic enough.

"The atmosphere is like in 1990, very tense. But there won't be a war," Amna said. "
We have to reform and join Europe. It can't go on like this. But the elite are not interested in going to Europe. There has to be change, but people don't have the mind-set for that. They have gone from resignation to passivity and apathy."

There were floods in west Mostar the week before I visited, and Amna's mother's car was filled with mud. She had to have it towed away to be cleaned, the wires replaced, and other repairs. Amna called a meeting for people to get together and make an appeal for help; the municipality should have responded to the emergency. But of 500 people who Amna contacted in the immediate neighborhood, only 25 came out to the meeting.

Amna told me, "People who have young children are leaving the country ahead of the time that their children would go to elementary school, so that they can learn the local language before then. BiH is going to become a 'zemlja staraca,' a country of old people."

View of Mostar from the Old Bridge

Activists look back: lessons of the February 2014 unrest

I hope I've shared enough about the life of ordinary people in Bosnia-Herzegovina to make it reasonably clear why the big protests of February 2014 took place. Those reasons are still there. Formerly successful companies that ensured good lives for their workers are going into bankruptcy every month. There are strikes every week, and the government continues to ignore the unions.

I spoke about the protests with as many activists and analysts as I could fit into my schedule. I felt that it was important to try to get an understanding of that near-uprising, since it was the biggest upwelling of activism in Bosnia's postwar history. People who were involved and who wish to organize for change have worked to understand those events and their limitations in order to move forward, and I wished to learn from their hindsight.

I found that while frustration and regret about the outcome of the protests was common, perceptions of what happened varied widely. People disagreed about the events in the streets, and about the violence that took place. And there were different analyses of the plenums.

In Mostar, the plenums took place at the headquarters of the non-governmental cultural/artistic organization Abra
šević, which has a rich history of promoting coexistence in the divided city. Huso, who is closely involved with the organization, told me that the plenums in Mostar lasted longer than in other cities. Three or four hundred people attended. Huso was unhappy with the work of the plenums because, he said, there wasn't a possibility to develop strategy. "People needed to talk about their traumas: who was raped, who was never able to bury her son." There was much time allotted to such sharing of experience, from people who apparently had not previously had the opportunity to tell their personal stories.

But in the plenums in Mostar, Huso said, "as soon as someone would come up with an idea, other people would shoot it down." Huso proposed that people occupy the city council building. That space has been idle since 2008. Huso said, "Why are we occupying Abra
šević, when we should be occupying the city government building?" But people were not interested in mobilizing to take such an action.

I spoke with Muharem Hindić Mušica. He had been protesting alone in front of the city gymnasium (general school) even before the big protests started, and then people came to join him. He told me the protests were not held just by Muslims; there was a respectable percentage of local Croats involved as well. Mušica noted a problem in the plenums, where people from political parties worked to insinuate themselves into the discussions. Still, he considered that a network was formed that carries on in an implicit way today.

Amna agreed with
Mušica that people from political parties had tried to infiltrate the plenums and co-opt the energy of the protests for their own uses. In Mostar the SDA, SBB, and SDP were involved in this.

The SBB is the party of the tycoon Fahrudin Radončić, founder of the influential daily newspaper Avaz. This party was particularly involved in the plenums, as during that period, it was not a member of the governing coalition at any level. As such, its members calculated that they could advance the popularity of the SBB by seeming to be with the protesters.

Amna commented,
"People want a strong leader." I noted a paradox there, because at the same time that people seem to wish to replicate the "strongman" paradigm of the socialist era and earlier, there is also a reflexive reaction to undermine ideas for collective action as soon as they arise.

In Sarajevo "Harun," an activist who has been busy in the capital city, discussed the work of the plenum there: "During the uprising, the plenums were there to make demands. They were not there to make a long-term project or organization."

Here is where there are conflicting opinions among the activists looking back at those events. Darjan, who also complained about the plenums being co-opted by what he called "institutional activists," i.e., members of NGOs, and politicians who infiltrated the plenums, said, "The plenums were the chance to create a new political party. We should have used the energy that existed to develop a new strategy, a new ideology even…The 'social capital' was there to be developed but there was not good leadership. Prominent institutional activists and NGO leaders came in and started running things - and/or disrupting things - because they were terrified that they would lose their power."

Darjan continued, "I went to all of the first seven or eight plenums. It started to be like Hyde Park. Ok, it's good that people can get up and talk about their problems. But constructive discussions were not taking place. If you were in an NGO, then you weren't an activist, because you're in the pocket of the donors and you can't say anything that would offend them, for fear of losing your funding...The plenums looked better from the outside. On the inside, it was a very nervous situation."

Darjan's comments bring up the widespread mistrust of activists who are members of non-governmental organizations. This is another issue where there is a wide spectrum of opinion. In the grassroots there is mistrust, because there is a perception that NGO activists are privileged, that they are out of touch, and that their positions are compromised by the agendas of the international organizations that support them. In my estimation, sometimes this is true, and sometimes it is not; one has to be careful and develop a sensitive internal meter to gauge the nature of each NGO.

žen Crnomat analyzed the nature of work with NGOs: "If we get money from some foundation from abroad, however much we thought that that was our money, in fact we are implementing someone else's policies. Since we are a very poor country, as activists we are condemned to receive money from abroad…the interests of people who live here is definitely different from the interests of the foundations that come here, which have their own funds and their proposals for projects.

"In the February demonstrations, that was particularly evident in Sarajevo, where the non-governmental organizations did not want to help the plenums at all, not even in printing material, and there, two policies grew apart. What is interesting is that the international community supported the demonstrations and plenums, but only at those points where they opposed nationalism, where they were anti-nationalist. And when they addressed the problems of neoliberalism, then the international community was in opposition to those demonstrations and plenums. The non-governmental organizations, whether they wanted to or not, implemented the interests of structural adaptation to the conditions of neoliberal strategy." (For Crnomat's comments, see "Banja Luka must be the focal point of class struggle," – only in Bosnian.)

Work in NGOs is, for many people, first of all a job, and they are going to work to preserve their security by conforming to the political agenda of the foundations that support their NGOs. Still, even Crnomat does not rule out working with some NGOs.

In this vein, Harun told me that he relinquished his membership in one survivors' organization, because, as he said, "As soon as anyone is in an NGO, then people don't trust them." Harun considered that working as an independent organizer made it possible for him to talk to people in all different groups.

I asked Kurt Bassuener for his opinion about the February 2014 protests, and I got a somewhat different response: "
People didn't have a strategy. People in the plenums rejected any organized participation. They disempowered themselves by rejecting everyone from the NGOs. And in Sarajevo they chose to interpret the protests as a revolt against the entire neo-liberal system, rather than focusing on Bosnia. The promise of the protests melted away, and nothing came of it."

Darjan made another comment that is rather in harmony with those of Kurt: "
It is hard to make change because we don't have an organization or leaders with good ideas. We can do something, but those in power are so much stronger. There is no movement now, but that energy is going into initiatives on the humanitarian level, with people helping the flood victims, working on the problem with dogs, and now with the refugee crisis people are going up to Croatia and Serbia."

The journalist Predrag Zvijerac told me, "Now, people don't remember that rebellion any more than they remember the big snow of four years ago." Indeed, when I asked my friend Miki, a family man not involved in activism, what he remembered about the events of February 2014, he shook his head, trying to remember. He asked, "That lasted a couple of days, didn't it?"

However, back in Tuzla where it all started, I heard reports of ongoing networking between activists and labor leaders. One activist told me, "We have a large group of people; we are connected with the workers. We have learned a lot from the protests. The plenums were the best thing. That group of people formed a network and we are still together. I am hopeful regarding what can happen in the next five years. But the oligarchs are consolidating…They will be militant, and so will the police, who think they can get away with anything. So it is a possibility that there will have to be militancy on our side."

The special thing about the activists in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that they believe in justice, and they believe that their work can make a difference. I expect that we will be seeing a resurgence of protest in the next few years, when new energy arises. It is inevitable, given the conditions people live under.

View of the Old Bridge

Next (and last) report: The wave of refugees coming into Europe.


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