Bosnia: considerations, comparisons and questions.

Bosnia: considerations, comparisons and questions.

Christian Costamagna

Bosnia, again in our minds. We are witnessing the protest in the streets, held in front of the buildings that represent the power. Citizens’ forums spread around, demanding more social justice and accountability from their politicians. In the background there is a dramatic social and economic crisis, as in many other European countries.

We are told that this time the protest has nothing to do with nationalism, and I believe it. Nevertheless, can we learn something from the recent past of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia?


In the second half of the 1980s, due to a deep economic and social crisis (high inflation, unemployment), workers started to strike, all over Yugoslavia. I can remind maybe the most notable one, the strike in Labin, anyway it was just one among many others. The protests were often addressed in Belgrade, in front of the federal parliament. Workers demanded a pay rise and the Yugoslav politicians, already experiencing a fall in consensus and legitimacy, tended to satisfy them. They bought social peace, most probably without a real long term project for the economy (with the disappointment of the IMF).

The perception, among many workers and citizens, was that the Yugoslav political élite was corrupted, inefficient, because they thought just how to exploit the people. Black Mercedes were a symbol of the discrepancies between the bureaucrats and the people: to be sure, it was a hated symbol of social differences in a socialist country.


In Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, in order to acquire more credibility in the eyes of the public opinion, organized the spontaneity of the grassroots movements, in particular the Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo. But not just them. Indeed, the so called Anti-bureaucratic revolution was multifaceted because it was also a protest against the “bureaucrats”, the members of the political élite who were accused to be “lopovi” (thieves) etc. The declared goal was to remove and renew the political class in order to boost the economy of the country, breaking (so it was the leitmotiv at the time) the autarchy of the republics and provinces. This autarchy regime, according to this rhetoric, was made possible by the 1974 Constitution and the Basic law about self-management. Of course this interpretation is (and was) open to discussion. In the end, in October 1988, in Novi Sad, the leaders of the local political élite, under great pressure in the streets, had to give up and resign. Something similar happened in January 1989 in Titograd. Milosevic’s strategy was winning.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

In the meantime, when it was time to publicly discuss the opportunity to give up the monopoly of the power of the communists, Bosnia was, most probably, among the most backward side. Let’s take a look.

Non-party pluralism was the best possible solution for mainstream media and the Party in Bosnia. The best possible option for the regime was to maintain the status quo, so it is quite clear why the Party was skeptical about the introduction of multi-party democracy. For example, F. Muhic, at the Marxist Center of the Central committee of the League of Communist of Bosnia and Herzegovina (autumn 1988) said:

Multi-party system would not be a successful alternative to the League of Communist of Yugoslavia, because it would be, on the basis of the already lived experience, our national division led to the boundaries of irrationality.

Of course Muhic had in mind the experience during the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, that ended with the King’s dictature (not solving anyway the national question).

In December 1988, Oslobodjene (Sarajevo) published an article quite similar in its stances:

Multy-party system does exist in Yugoslavia, but according to the most primitive possible ethnical principle.

A young Miljenko Jergovic, in the student magazine Valter (May 1989) followed this logic:

Advocating political pluralism it seems to me pointless, it is total nonsense…under the conditions of vulgar and primitive attempts to resolve every conflict – to invoke one such democratic achievement, that primarily implies a certain cultural but before that a certain civilizational level. Political pluralism it is possible just in those societies that are flexible enough, in order to endure every [kind of] thought…

Jergovic implied that Bosnian society was not yet ready to bear democracy and the multi-party political system. The cultural and civilizational background was unsatisfactory. Citizens in BiH were not prepared to embrace political parties. The inherent risk was to fall back to the Yugoslav Kingdom experience, with political parties as an expression of single nations, in a republic made up of three of them.

It is too easy now to think that Jergovic, Muhic (we could also include Stipe Suvar and many others) were right, that they predicted the future. It was not certain at all, but a good analyst could have reached similar conclusions. During socialist Yugoslavia there were also divisions among the society along ethnic lines, Bosnia included, but we had to wait Milosevic for its homogenization and mobilization.

Milosevic wanted to forge a new Yugoslavia with more power at the center of the federation, dismantling the 1974 Constituton. After what happened in Vojvodina and Kosovo, the political leaders and opposition in Slovenia were afraid to lose their autonomy. One man – one vote (as Milosevic claimed), in Yugoslavia, meant the end of the cultural, historical and national autonomies of the various republics, of small nations and minorities. Using Milan Kucan’s words, the final outcome would have been a Serboslavia (a Serb dominated Yugoslavia). Slovenia’s autonomy was considered at stake. Today we know that, in the end, after the introduction of multi-party elections in 1990, the new Slovenian leadership, adopting a popular referendum (December 1990), Slovenes opted for full independence. All of this notwithstanding Western pressures over Ljubljana to remain in Yugoslavia.


After this long premise, I would like to introduce some questions and personal thoughts about the situation in today’s Bosnia.

First of all, well before the war in 1992, politicians in Bosnia, in 1988-1989 were afraid that the introduction of multi-party system would lead to nation-based parties. In this sense, they were right. We should ask why and how this happened.

Secondly, connected with the previous point, present day Bosnia, because of the interference of the International community (UE, USA etc.) – like in the case of the Office of the High Representative – could hardly be defined a sovereign country in the common sense. Of course this was probably the best possible solution to stop the war in 1995, following the Dayton agreement. Nevertheless, what I want to say is that Bosnian society and its citizens, in the last two decades were not entirely free to decide their own destiny. Was this condition – all three Bosnian nations kept under strict surveillance in order to avoid disorders – already in motion at the time of Tito? Did EU/OHR subsumed the role of Tito and the Communist Party as the containment factor of a divided society not ready to take the future into his own hands? After all, the cumbersome institutions in Bosnia, resemble so much to Socialist Yugoslavia one’s and to Kardelj’s Constitution. Indeed today’s BiH reminds post Karadjordjevo’s Yugoslavia (1971): to give everybody top autonomy at the local level in order to avoid more unrest, but then keeping all the power system under the strict control of the Party (after deep purges of course).

The third point: is occurring in Republika Srpska a Slovenian syndrome? What I want to say is that, as at the end of the 1980s Milosevic’s strategy to centralize the Yugoslav federation scared Slovenian public opinion and its political leadership, maybe, the strategy of some protesters in today’s BiH Federation to state “gladni smo na tri jezika” (so somehow wishing to overcome the institutionalized ethnic divisions) could scare the public opinion and in particular the political leadership in Republika Srpska. Anyway, while it is quite clear that the protest in the Federation is not connected with nationalist issues, paradoxically, every claim to a unite Bosnian people beyond the ethnic fences, it sounds as a direct attack to the Serbian entity’s life and its legitimacy. That’s why we can read such paranoid declarations coming from Banja Luka. From this point of view, the position of today’s government in Republika Srpska is not so different from the one in Ljubljana in 1988-1991. What is different is the “competitor”. Anyway, I would like to remind that the national issue is by no means exclusive of former Yugoslavia. In Western Europe we are still debating about the possible independence of Scotland, Catalunya, Sudtirol etc. Moreover the very same debate in the European Union about the southerners countries like Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal vs more virtuous countries, like Germany, reminds the old debate between Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia vs Slovenia and Croatia. So I can switch to the next point.

The protests in some cantons of the Bosnian federation lead to resignation some politicians. Now there are forums where citizens are formulating their specific requests. That’s a good sign. Still, we should think about it. Usually, social protests against authoritarian and corrupted regimes are called revolutions (in a positive way). On the other end, in a democracy, were the politicians are regularly elected in a free competition, violent protests in the streets are usually labeled as dangerous populism and unacceptable violence beyond the democratic boundaries. The present Bosnian case, how should be labeled? Is it a jacquerie or a revolution? Who is leading it? I have in mind also the recent pitchforks protest that happened in Italy. The origin of the protest was the economic and social crisis; they claimed that all politicians in Italy are thieves and should go home. Thousands of people protested in the streets, in front of the buildings of the political power, with no real political goal. It was quite a flop.

Someone promptly defined the forums as a form of direct democracy. Is it a proper definition? Why? Former Yugoslavia already experienced a form of direct democracy, the socialist self-management. Unfortunately for the cells of basic work (OOUR), the last word and the real power was in the Party’s oligarchy. So it did not work. The so called meetings of the Serbs of Kosovo were also labeled by Milosevic’s regime as a form of direct democracy. Someone, already in 1988, saw in these Serbian “mitinzi” a form of fascism. Then we have other models of direct democracy, like in Switzerland, but the outcome is debatable, like the recent one about imposing quota on immigration. What I want to say is that direct democracy is an interesting tool, but more often than not can empower the worst sentiments in a population, or it can be easily manipulated. Again, in Italy there is an open debate about the 5 Stars Movement and the main question is: is it really direct democracy or Mr Beppe Grillo is controlling the Movement? In Italy, if you are in favor of such protest movements, the establishment will say that you are a populist (in negative sense). Why this principle should not work in Bosnia?

Finally, we should have in mind the global context. Post-modern societies, economic globalization are challenging the existing world, as we know it. Welfare state had to be reinvented. While our values, ideas about the world and life are changing, our culture is adapting, also our socio-political institutions should be redefined and renewed as well. It would be a mistake to believe that post Dayton BiH makes an exception with its overwhelming government structures. While EU and Bosnian citizens are asking for a more rational system (cutting public expenditure), the same is happening in Italy (the abolition of the provinces, the abolition of the high chamber in the parliament) and at European level, with a higher level of integration. This is also the crisis of Eurozone, if we want to put it this way. Why should the German citizens accept the idea of Eurobonds? Why should they pay the price for the inefficiencies of Italian or Greek economy? In the meantime, sufferance and social unrest is growing and spreading in Europe in the last years, not just in Paris’ banlieues. A new 1848 is haunting Europe?

In 1989 M. Jergovic questioned the real cultural and civilizational readiness of Bosnians to embrace multi-party democracy. Today we should ask if today’s citizens, in BiH, are culturally ready to give up the ethnic key that was institutionalized with Dayton. Moreover we should ask if this society is ready to develop a more accountable political élite. Personally I wish so, but I have to admit that I am skeptical. Of course, the fact that Croatia is already in the EU and Serbia is going toward this goal is positive, because there are not political leaders ready to go to war for keeping all Serbs or Croats in one state. Compared to 1991-1992, Bosnia shows a better outlook.

Anyway this is not just an oriental or Bosnian problem. This is a European problem. Also in Italy, a founder of the European Community, we have similar problems. The corruption among the political élites (with its dramatic catharsis happened with Mani Pulite “Clean hands” in the first half of the 1990s) is by no means an exclusive of Bosnia. But our rulers, unfortunately, are a mirror of ourselves and our cultures. 


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