Report #6 – Tuzla, Mostar, and activism. By Peter Lippman
2015 Report index
Introduction/overview, Sarajevo, activism. Report 2:
Prospects for activism. Report 3:
Prijedor. Report 4:
Dodik's referendum, Dodik's corruption. Report 5:
Srebrenica. Report 6:
Tuzla, Mostar, and activism. Report 7:
The wave of
refugees coming into Europe.
To contact Peter
in response to these reports or any of his articles,
View of Tuzla hillside from the "Most s kipovima" (Bridge of
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
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 Bihać,
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
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
I visited my friend Nesim Tahirović,
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
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.
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
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
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 Beslić
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
"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
"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
"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
In Mostar, the plenums took place at the headquarters of the
non-governmental cultural/artistic organization Abrašević,
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 Abrašević,
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.
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
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
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.