All posts by Jasmin Mujanović

Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.

Democracy Blooming at the Margins: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ukraine and Taiwan

From OpenDemocracy.net, yesterday.

Jasmin Mujanović 14 April 2014

The terrifying spectre in these countries is not of ravenous foreign capital, though there is plenty of experience with this too, but of the persistent suffering of being an oft bloodied geopolitical borderland.

Blockade and occupation of Taiwan’s legislature enters day seven. Demotix/Craig Ferguson. All rights reserved.
In the past two months, massive protests have gripped three far-removed states—Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Ukraine and Taiwan. In every case, the foreign press has struggled to offer its readers more than banal geopolitical musings.While the positions of Washington, Moscow and Beijing are not irrelevant to these situations, neither are they particularly susceptible to the grievances and concerns of ordinary citizens. And yet it is precisely the efforts of ordinary citizens that have forced these countries to the global front pages.

By treating the street mobilizations and occupations at the heart of these protests as tangential aspects of big power confrontations we obscure the experience of politics as a popular exercise—from Southeast Europe to East Asia—and lose sight of the essential and informative similarities between these events.

All three countries fit into a sort of ‘third-generation’ of democratic awakenings. This is not the Arab Spring, where the concern was with entrenched autocrats, nor can the situation in BiH, Ukraine and Taiwan be likened to the anti-austerity revolts in established democracies like Spain and Greece—though these too have witnessed the appearance of ominously anti-democratic actors.

Instead, these are ‘emerging democracies’, where nominally representative institutions are still dominated by static and corrupt oligarchies, assembled around a handful of political parties that maintain close linkages with criminal syndicates. Conveniently, a sheen of ‘ethno-territorial concerns’, ably manipulated by officials in all three countries, masks the tremendous citizen-led effort that has gone into creating genuinely popular movements, composed of all segments and communities in these societies.

There is another, especially unfortunate, similarity to note, however. BiH, Ukraine and Taiwan have all, at one time or another, been labelled as fictitious or inherently reactionary polities by a curious alliance of local chauvinists and certain western “progressives.” In the case of the former, the rationale has simply been propagandist opportunism.

The logic of the latter, however, has been considerably more muddled. Namely, that since individual regimes in Belgrade, Moscow and Beijing had and still do nominally oppose themselves to ‘western imperialism’, they were as a result standard-bearers of the global social justice movement and their opponents and/or victims tuto complete counter-revolutionary. This kind of logic is itself deeply reactionary, however, marginalizing not only the complicity of these so–called ‘progressive’ regimes in incredible campaigns of violence and extermination but, moreover, tarring entire ‘opposing’ populations with the taint of ‘fascism’.

A thorough analysis, in contrast, requires that we take seriously the complexities of democratization and specificity of individual societies—rather than fitting all of human experience into bankrupt ideological dualities.

To begin with, the attempt to place these countries exclusively into the arc of ‘anti-globalization protests’ glosses over crucial local dimensions. In both BiH and Ukraine, though post-socialist dispossession (‘privatization’) has engrained deep-seated resentment against local plutocrats, Euro-Atlantic integration remains an aspiration of large segments of the population. Not because the Bosnians and Ukrainians have any illusions about their peripheral status at the edges of the ‘known’ western world, but precisely because for many the alternative(s) appear still worse. Nor are the Taiwanese protesting against free-trade as such, rather they are steadfastly opposed to being economically, and eventually politically, swallowed up by Beijing. This does not make these movements backward, it makes them a product of local struggles.

The terrifying spectre in these countries is not of ravenous foreign capital, though there is plenty of experience with this too, but of the persistent suffering of being an oft bloodied geopolitical borderland. And the tanks and gunships that have, are and are likely to come rumbling towards the plena, occupied squares and legislatures of Sarajevo, Kiev and Taipei are of the distinctly ‘near abroad’ variety.

The second and, arguably, more important dimension of this conversation is about tactics—what Bosnians, Ukrainians and Taiwanese protesters can learn from one another. Democratization, if it is to be substantive, must ultimately be a bottom-up, grassroots process. Very generally, I think we can speak of three ‘phases’.

The first involves a generally mass insurrectionary or, at least, oppositional character, usually marked by spontaneous mobilization, energy and anger. The sudden ferocity of the Bosnian protests was exemplary of this first overture.

Once the initial episode of militancy subsides, the second phase consists of permanent occupations and blockades of practical and symbolic centres of power—public squares like the Maidan or, in the case of Taiwan, the legislature itself.

In an ideal world, the final step will include both the creation of new establishment actors (e.g. progressive-democratic political parties) and extra-parliamentary forces (e.g. autonomous and organized social movements). This, however, is a lengthy process with the likelihood of setbacks at every juncture, especially in the form of overt foreign-backed ‘counter-revolution’, as in the case of Ukraine.

None of these countries fits perfectly into this timeline and aspects of each episode have a habit of appearing half-formed in earlier moments. Moreover, it is still far too early to offer definitive analyses in any of these cases. Nevertheless, we can so far observe the following: in BiH, we had instances of brief militancy, coupled with spontaneous citizen plena but no lasting occupations, sustained street protests or new political parties. Nor have clearly democratically-inclined establishment actors emerged in Ukraine out of the sustained street violence and occupations. Moreover, the possibility of war has sharply narrowed the ability of genuinely progressive forces to organize against reactionary nationalists.

Meanwhile, the massive crowds assembled by the Taiwanese students have engaged only in peaceful civil disobedience as they have successfully occupied their country’s halls of power. Nevertheless, the intransigence of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and the ‘spent’ character of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suggests this confrontation is still in only its early days.

We can also begin to draw certain organizational conclusions, however. No democracy can exist where elites do not fear being toppled by the citizens—at the polls or in the streets. Moreover, claiming that democracy means only elections empties the term of its substance and promotes unaccountability and corruption in emerging democratic regimes.

Secondly, the promotion of democratic practices within protest movements is integral to preserving them as genuinely transformative initiatives. Rather than wide-eyed utopianism, the participatory and directly democratic aspects of the plena in BiH and the occupations in Taiwan signal sober political acumen—they are the change they want to see.

Finally, the relationship between numbers and tactics is important. Bodies in the streets are essential as is confrontation with the authorities. But the more violent a movement is, the more polarizing and less democratic it tends to become. As such, street warfare in Kiev promoted the emergence of hierarchic, nationalist militias while non-violent resistance in Taipei has produced and been produced by a network of horizontal working groups.

Democracy has opponents, though, as all three of these movements are discovering. In the coming months, the need for meaningful solidarity campaigns will only grow. Diaspora mobilization while important is not sufficient. Activists in emerging democracies must exchange experiences and support each other across cultural and geographic barriers. Widely accessible digital platforms already provide these connections locally, now they must do so globally. We must help each other as it appears no one else will.

 

Additional insights into Taiwanese politics and media were provided by Elise Wang of Princeton University.

 

About the author

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD candidate at York University and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His Twitter handle is @JasminMuj.

 

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Yugoslavia as Science Fiction

PictureOver the past two years, a collection of photographs of WWII memorials from (the former) Yugoslavia has made the rounds on social media. Popular sci-fi and fantasy blog io9 reported on it and this post from Crack Two appears to have been “liked” over 173,000 times on Facebook alone.  And here is the same article, with more or less the same perspective, on a blog from BiH. This process of “re-discovery,” however is to me the truly fascinating aspect of this phenomenon.The authors of these articles, as well as those leaving comments, repeatedly refer to the monuments as “bizarre,” “haunting” or, at best, as “modernist,” which one can safely interpret to mean “weird.” This commentary is essentially an inversion of the Stalinist insistence on “socialist realism.” We are now surprised that a society once existed, some long ago civilization which we relate to as though it were an artifact of Tolkien lore, which was capable of producing abstract representations of real events. What does it say of our societies that in the second decade of the 21st century, we consider symbolic representations to be “strange?”

“Bebolucija!”: The #JMBG Movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina

It may be the most important event post-war Bosnian history, to date—and it has a hashtag. Some ten thousand individuals from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) today gathered in the streets of Sarajevo. But they gathered also in Mostar, Banja Luka, Zenica—and reports of similar manifestations are coming in from all over the country.

The issue at hand is typical of the political climate created by Bosnia’s oligarchs: absurdity writ large, monitored by the international community, to the great detriment of ordinary people. In short, the problem is that newborns in BiH are not being issued ID numbers.

The newborns have fallen victim to an ongoing dispute between [Bosniak], Croat and Serb MPs of Bosnia’s central parliament who for more than two years have been bickering over a draft law on the personal identification numbers.

Bosnia’s constitutional court ordered a halt to the registration of newborns until the dispute is settled.

Bosniak and Croat legislators are rejecting the demand of their Serb colleagues, who want people from the Bosnian Serb part of the country to have different identification numbers than people in the rest of the country. (Al Jazeera)

Without ID numbers, the parents of these children are unable to secure vital documentation, including passports. As it happens, with the general collapse of BiH’s post-war social safety net, many seriously ill children and their families are forced to travel abroad for necessary treatments. However, without passports even this has become impossible. After local media reported on the case of young Belmina Ibrisevic, prevented from traveling to Germany for a life-saving surgery, events were set in motion.

Early last week, a small group of parents gathered in front of the state Parliament in Sarajevo demanding the immediate adoption of a unified state law on the issuing of ID numbers. In a country where the welfare of families, elders and children is still held up as a sacred social and individual good, the plight of Belmina and children like her tapped into a long-bubbling cauldron of discontent, all across BiH.

By Thursday, a group of a three thousand protesters had formed a human chain around the Parliament, refusing to allow any of the trapped Parliamentarians, politicians, and foreign dignitaries from leaving until a new law had been adopted. Inside, the trapped elites began feigning medical emergencies and attempting to flee through ground windows. Some attempted to force their way through the crowd with their burly entourages, some tried to paint the growing mass in the street as an “anti-Serb” mob, while others kicked off their shoes, danced and gorged themselves on food and drink. The head of the Central Bank insisted that the protesters had done irreparable harm to the image of BiH as a safe investment site.

The responses varied—but they were uniformly despicable, arrogant and illustrated perfectly the utter contempt of the BiH political class for their own people.

The weekend saw a spiral of smaller protests in Sarajevo and Banja Luka by university students, concerned about rampant corruption in the academy, but in solidarity with what had become known as the “JMBG Protests.” A barrage of Twitter and Facebook posts called on parents, students, unions and workers and the unemployed to gather on the following Tuesday in front of the Parliament. The focus remained on the implementation of a new ID law but the emerging consensus was clear: the system is broken, they’re all crooks—and all of them must go.

Even the Western media has picked up on the remarkable nature of this movement. The usual suspects attempted to play the “ethnic card”—an institutional pillar of the Dayton constitutional order in BiH—and failed. In response, Eric Gordy summarized: “The national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”

In May of last year, I wrote that:

This political establishment has no substantive interest in meaningful reforms in BiH because they understand that a genuinely democratic and participatory society would effectively spell the end of their oligarchic reigns. In April of 1992, nearly 100,000 citizens of Sarajevo collectively and independently took to the streets, demanding a peaceful resolution to the developing crisis in the country which had already precipitated violence in Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and was now threatening BiH. Nenad Pejic writes that for “Bosnia’s political parties this was the greatest threat ever posed to them. An organic movement was spontaneously demanding their wholesale resignation.”

This is the narrative I want to establish in BiH today: one which recognizes the political and economic dispossession which characterizes our political system, and recognizes that only the people of BiH themselves can initiate meaningful change in response. Reconciliation between BiH’s communities will only be possible when the people themselves amputate the political classes which orchestrated and engineered the dissolution of Yugoslavia and whose heirs continue to profit from the politics of division and fear.

The people of BiH still have bridges to build between one another and they know this. These protests, as they develop and grow, however, have the potential to prove that these bridges can best (and perhaps only) be built by ordinary people themselves. Already, hot lunches are being provided, legal aid is on offer, and the brass bands are marching—organic, mutual aid is building the infrastructure for substantive change.

The transcendent, ethical imperative and focus of theses protests is precisely what was necessary to definitely expose the rot within the country’s political class. There has been no shortage of causes to bring the masses out into the streets of BiH but few have so wholly polarized and crystallized things. The obvious is being chanted in the streets now: we can expect nothing from the local elites and their international partners—not peace, not basic human dignity or democratic rights.

This movement may yet fail. A wedge may yet be driven between the masses. But two lessons have already been learnt and it is of the utmost importance that they be cemented and reiterated:

(1)  Mass mobilizations are possible in BiH. They can bring people together and by instilling fear in the ruling class, they can accomplish more in days than has otherwise been accomplished in years.

(2)  Democracy is only possible when the body politic, the civil society, the people, the raja are an autonomous, self-organized and mobilized force. Democracy is not something that happens in Parliaments or Central Banks. It happens in the streets, when workers and students occupy factories and universities, when ordinary people discuss and debate with one another and decide we know better, we can do better. Democracy happens when we oppose ourselves to Parliaments, when we replace elections with direct democracy and obedience with insurrection.

Regardless of how these heady days in BiH play out, it is difficult to imagine that they will not leave a radically remade political and social landscape in their wake. The people of BiH know their own strength now. Will they have the courage to use it to remake the country in their own image?

Nemam više šta izgubit’, idem ih rušit!