Tag Archives: Bosnia

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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Why does ArcelorMittal hate Bosnia?

Pollution, people and tombstones in Zenica.

Owned by the Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel producer—creating some 93 billion USD of revenue as of 2011. Granted, steel is an essential building block of the modern world yet ArcelorMittal’s obscene profit margins do raise the question of “how are you possibly making this much money?”

Turns out, profitability margins are greatly aided by the economic pillaging and environmental destruction of a still-recovering-from-war southeastern European locale: Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The central-Bosnian city of Zenica has for decades been one of the industrial centers of the region. The steel mills in the area, prior to the outbreak of the 1992-1995 war, employed some 25,000 people—a shining beacon of the Yugoslav state’s productive capacities. Today, owned by ArcelorMittal, that number is just over 3000—with the company actually looking to downsize even further, according to local union organizers.

Yet the story here is not (so much) about the bargain-bin prices at which foreign multinationals have purchased massive industrial complexes across the former Yugoslavia—often only to dismantle and sell them off in parts.

No, the bigger story is about the massive ecological disaster zone that the company has transformed Zenica and its steel mills into, which, even at the height of their Yugoslav-era production, did not produce a fraction of the pollution they do today. The footage speaks for itself. Continue reading Why does ArcelorMittal hate Bosnia?

Women’s Rights in Bosnia: An Interview with Aleksandra Petrić

In the 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina became synonymous with the horrific violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide which characterized the country’s experience within the broader dissolution of the Yugoslav state. In particular, the systematic rape and sexual violence of Bosnian women during the course of the war has continued to remain pertinent both in international legal affairs and as the subject of major Hollywood productions. Despite this, Bosnia remains a sort of static metaphor for bungled international responses to humanitarian crises—with solid, critical analyses of present day conditions being rare.

Frustrated by this fact, I recently reached out to Aleksandra Petrić, a Bosnian women’s right activist, blogger and Twitter friend. I wanted to hear the view from the grassroots level, as it concerned the question of women’s rights in Bosnia since the end of the war, the development of feminist activism in the country and its relationship with the emerging queer and LGBT scene. It is my hope that readers (especially those who have followed our coverage of women’s and feminist issues) will find Petrić’s wealth of information as engrossing as I did. In this respect, I should like to draw particular attention to Petrić’s discussion of how allies in Canada and elsewhere are able to assist the important work ongoing in Bosnia today (Question #10). We have provided a link to a central database in English, which provides contact information for a variety of groups around Bosnia, as well as individual links to many of the groups in question (though only a few these, as of this writing, had web pages which were both in English and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbia [BCS]).

Finally, a big hvala (thank you!) to Aleksandra for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions with incredible detail and knowledge on this very important subject.

1. Can you tell us about your human rights and women’s rights activism? What sorts of projects have you been involved with and what are you currently working on or planning?

I became active in civil society sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina about 16 years ago, through Helsinki Citizens Assembly (hCa) Banja Luka, a local NGO that is part of a broader peace and human rights network at the international level. Together with hCa activists from Tuzla, I worked on establishing hCa Youth Network of BiH, the initiative that strived to connect young people throughout BiH to work together on promotion of peace, nonviolence and multi-cultural values, as contra-balance to ethnic and nationalistic public discourse. This was a challenging task, as communication and travel between the two BiH entities was almost non-existent, and war rhetoric was dominant in the public. We offered something different for young people that were tired of hate toward “those different from us.” The Youth Network gathered more than 100 local youth groups, and facilitated many successful actions, such are youth conferences, art workshops, pre-election youth voice campaigns, anti-corruption campaign, cultural festivals, etc. Although mainstream media did not support these activities, Youth Network became recognizable and accepted as alternative to nationalistic groupings of youth. It fulfilled its mission, and exists today through capacity building and resource information center for youth. Through my work with young people, I became interested to empowerment of women, and work on gender violence prevention. Since early 2003, I became active in NGO “United Women” Banja Luka. I am working with my colleagues on prevention and fighting gender based violence against women, and empowering women in governance and decision-making. We combine direct services for women in need (free legal assistance, SOS telephone, safe house, psychosocial support), education, action oriented researches, and legal and public policy advocacy in our work. Continue reading Women’s Rights in Bosnia: An Interview with Aleksandra Petrić