Why are the Balkans boiling again?

The Bosnian protests reflect socio-political dynamics that are going on not only in the Balkans but the whole of Europe.

Police have suffered from the same socio-economic ills that young people and workers have been protesting against in Bosnia and Herzegovina [EPA]

During one of the first violent clashes in Italy’s student unrest of 1968, often known as “The Battle of Valle Giulia“, the famous Italian film director and marxist Pier Paolo Pasolini surprised everyone when he sympathised with the wounded policemen. But his logic is not to be dismissed: Pasolini stressed the fact that most of the young people belonged to the middle and upper classes, while the policemen were “children of the poor”, mainly recruited from the impoverished regions of southern Italy.

These days we were confronted by the following scene. A young woman standing in front of a police cordon in Sarajevo starts to shout, “Come on our side, come on our side…” At one point, a policeman starts to cry, and then her tears flow. Unlike in Pasolini’s times, the demonstrators in Bosnia and Herzegovina are not coming from the upper classes: Both the protestors and the police are from the impoverished classes of ex-Yugoslavia. At the time of its violent dissolution, the amount of Yugoslavia’s foriegn debt was $20bn. Countries born out of the break-up of Yugoslavia, today owe a more than $180bn[Sr].

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that the trade union of the Serbian police released a statement [Sr] warning that the “Bosnian Spring” could arrive to neighbouring Serbia as well. One remark in the statement is particularly striking: “The policemen themselves are impoverished and are toys in the hands of the government, without proper equipment, without housing, with families on the brink of poverty, cheated at every step in the political game of every interior minister who takes the post.”

The Serbian police trade union then states that it wouldn’t be the first time that people in blue uniform join the poor people on the streets, warning the government that if the “Bosnian spring” comes to Serbia, there won’t be anyone to protect them. Of course, it would be too optimistic to expect that the police won’t use force. The statement, however, is significant.

The Cafe – Bosnia’s Future

On the one hand, if the Serbian police is worried about the situation in the region, then it could be just a matter of time when the protests of Bosnia and Herzegovina begin to occur in Serbia and Croatia as well.

On the other hand, here we have an inversion of Pasolini himself: Instead of showing solidarity with the police, the police is showing solidarity with the protesters. And this is what is really happening in the current upheaval in Bosnia and Herzegovina: It is a protest of the working class, joined by young people who are the epitome of Italian economist Mario Monti’s “lost generation“.

True anarchy is the anarchy of power 

Once upon a time, Tuzla, like Sarajevo and Zenica, was one of the most flourishing industrial cities not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Yugoslavia. Today, all former republics are completely deindustrialised and devastated by the so-called process of “transition”. It was meant to be a journey to the prosperous West. However, with the recent accession of Croatia to the European Union, it has become clear that there is no such thing as a “free transition” for the Balkans.

The unemployment rate among young people in Croatia is 52 percent, which brings it just behind Spain (with 56 percent) and Greece (with over 60 percent). It is no surprise that most of the people on the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina today are young people – the unemployment rate is 57.9 percent.

Coincidentally or not, on February 5, when the protests in Tuzla started, was also the 20th anniversary of the first massacre at the Markale market in Sarajevo. So, on the one hand you have a country that still hasn’t recovered from war, and on the other hand you have the neverending process of “transition” and a deindustrialised state with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.

When desperate workers go on strike for several weeks and none of the entities or cantons, politicians or political parties react, the lack of response is not considered “violence”. But when the desperate demonstrators, young people joined by pensioners, start to throw rocks at police, and even burn cars and official buildings, then they are, as you might expect, called “hooligans”.

Here we have the same old story again. When in late 2005 the banlieues of Paris and 20 other cities were burning, we heard the same “epithets” thrown at protesters. Nicolas Sarkozy went so far as to call the Muslim immigrants racaille (“scum”) which has to be cleaned up with Karcher (a well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces that very violently peels away the outer skin of encrusted dirt).

In an article published in Liberation newspaper criticising the “French model”, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted that, “[F]ifteen hundred cars had to burn in a single night and then, on a descending scale, nine hundred, five hundred, two hundred, for the daily ‘norm’ to be reached again, and people to realise that ninety cars on average are torched every night in this gentle France of ours.”

Taking Baudrillard’s numbers, in 2005 more than 30,000 cars were set on fire in France under various circumstances, but surprisingly (or not), only 9,000 of them burned in the banlieues. Bearing this in mind we could pose the legitimate question: Why didn’t the French government proclaim a “state of exception” during the whole year? Why did it do so only when cars were burning in the poor suburbs? 

Al Jazeera World – Sarajevo My Love

And the same goes for the current protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Why are the protestors condemned for being violent, if state power is even more violent, serving as an “invisible hand” – during the last 20 years – to the market and war tycoons? Why is smashing some windows called “violence”, and stealing some millions “business”? As one of the four Salo masters says to his slaves in Pasolini’s last movie, “true anarchy is the anarchy of power”.  

The mirror of Europe

There is a saying in the Balkans that could sum up the recent upheavals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Almost no one knows the origin of the phrase, but when you say “mirna Bosna” (peaceful Bosnia) everyone knows that it means an outcome of an event in which all parties involved are satisfied. When you don’t have a “mirna Bosna”, then the Balkans are boiling.

Balkan Spring” is a lovely expression, but it does not reflect the complexity of the current situation. In the Balkans, you don’t have a Mubarak or a Ben Ali; there is no obvious “enemy”. What we have in the Balkans is a textbook example of “ordoliberalism“: Instead of helping the poor, the state is helping the rich. When a government falls in the Balkans, it doesn’t mean that monopoly capitalism falls as well. In fact, the system remains unharmed.

At this point, no one knows where the boiling Balkans are going. What is important to note here is that the Balkans are not the mythical “Heart of Darkness” of Europe where only violence can occur. In fact, the region is the mirror of Europe itself and the current upheaval reflects processes and movements that the whole continent is experiencing.

Srecko Horvat is a philosopher from Croatia. His latest books include “After the End of History. From the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement” (2013) and “What Does Europe Want?” (2013), co-authored with Slavoj Zizek and translated into ten languages.