The following interview was conducted by Amer Bahtijar and was originally published in Bosnian at the online portal, Tačno. It was translated by Alja Gudzevich and edited by Natalie Gravenor and Marina Antić.
In February 2014, Bosnia and Herzegovina experienced its first workers uprising since the anti-war protests of 1992. Unexpected and spreading like wildfire, the protests did eventually die out in April of the same year, but not before several government buildings burned and a number of resignations at the cantonal levels were secured.
However, few things seem to have changed in Bosnia since: the nationalist parties have taken power once again and the local plunder of resources continues under the direction of global financial institutions and in particular the EU’s so-called Reform Agenda. Launched shortly after the protests in 2014, the reforms advocated by the international community and instituted by the local power elites include further slashing of social services, institutionalization of the most regressive labor law to date, and further privatization of the few remaining socially-owned goods and services. In short, the situation seems bleak, even worse than the conditions that precipitated the 2014 protests.
And yet, the protests have changed Bosnian grass roots politics forever, as brewing dissatisfaction is fueling increasing social activism at the local level in ways not seen prior to 2014. Just in the capital city, grass roots activism has claimed several victories in the past year: successfully pushed back against public school closings, prevented an imminent General Hospital shut down, exposed nepotism at the local and federal level, and secured arrests in the case of two students slain in drag races. These are just a few of the most recent campaigns led and won by activists in Sarajevo. A number of the campaigns have coalesced into the Jedan grad, jedna borba (One City, One Fight) group.
The following is an interview about these developments with the most recognizable face of the 2014 protests in Sarajevo, Svjetlana Nedimović. Appearing regularly in local campaigns and covered by local and national media since, Svjetlana has also become the face of the most recent activism in the capital city. The interview was conducted by Amer Bahtijar and appeared on November 23 2016 on tacno.net.
– Marina Antić
When in winter 2014 the citizens took to the streets in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar – I was convinced that what was happening was literally a revolution and that nothing will remain as it was. I believed from that moment on politicians would start understanding the citizens as the rightful possessors of sovereignty. When did you realize that we were too optimistic? Was it the moment when the President’s wife became director of the [Sarajevo General] hospital?
It is probably due to a strong desire for change that we all tend to exaggerate. This is also the reason why we initially experienced February 2014 as a revolution, and afterwards proclaimed it a complete failure. But February, as much as it was not a revolution, was also no ordinary protest. Something was set in motion and we all learned immensely from it. Not to even mention that we refreshed our memory; memory which had been systematically erased to such a point that I see it as the engineering of social dementia. We recalled our practices of self-organizing and resistance from the not-so-distant past. First, we learned that a change – a radical one because nothing less than that can help us – will not come from the mere presence of masses in the streets. We better organize ourselves, work in the field, there where singular battles are fought, and work on joining forces as much as on winning concrete battles. Along with the development of the organization, our vision has to develop as well.
For example, every week the magazine Žurnal reveals a major corruption scandal or, better said – something that would be a major scandal in a proper state. In what way are those scandals being whitewashed and what can a conscientious citizen actually do against such a system?
Sometimes it seems to me that glorification of personal struggle against the system, however honorable and heroic such a struggle might often be, is but a dangerous product of Hollywood movies. Even if you were to win such a battle, and even if this were to somehow become an example for others, a defeat of a singular injustice will not change an order that is based upon and thus further generates and reproduces, injustice. Apart from that, it can also be counterproductive because everybody sees how much you lost in the process. Every time when I see those posters “Report corruption!“ they provoke bitter laughter in me – because in our circumstances this means “Report corruption and die“. The ones running such projects are not going to help you maintain your own material existence after reporting that corruption.
Hence, the whole story of the so-called whistleblowers, with all due respect, seems to me to be a distraction or dilution of a truly collective struggle for transformation of an order based upon injustice, exploitation, subjugation. We are confronting here a problem of palliation that combats only the symptoms. For about 20 years we have been taught that our main problem is government’s lack of transparency. When everybody is able to see what the government is doing, they won’t do it anymore – that’s the logic. But despite all that we see, even if not everything, at least a sufficient part we do, they keep doing it. Everybody sees it – the media, police, prosecution, courts and still – nothing happens.
What seems to be the problem? The problem is in the fact that we have become powerless as a society. We do not decide on anything; our observations are in vain. That happened in the so-called democratization. All mechanisms of direct democracy have been abolished, especially where they are the most significant – in the workplace and in the place of residence. What we are living now is a mere formalism of procedures. A multiparty system, presented as the greatest achievement of the 1990s, in fact engendered a complete disempowerment of society. This means that only once every four years do you have a chance to choose one of the stale morsels from the electoral plate. Or rather, perhaps once every four years and perhaps not even once in eight – the example of Mostar shows how this is also possible in “democracy.”
And once you have made your choice, during the next four years you will have as much power as you have over planetary orbits. Take this usurpation of power with the loss of material and social rights without which political freedoms are just shells and there you go – a perpetuum mobile of injustice. This is why we have to wage battles to gather people, struggles in which solidarity networks will be developed so that those who struggle can persist in strictly existential terms. Only then will we be able to tackle the order itself rather than encouraging individual self-sacrifice.
You were in front of the theatre when the director of the “MESS” festival, Nihad Kreševljaković, prohibited citizens’ entrance to a performance by Oliver Frljić. Is this prohibition actually the result of a disappearance of serious discussion about secular society, or misunderstanding, or the cowardice of the government and the so-called cultural workers or a little bit of everything?
Secularism has been trampled while atheism is stigmatized. There is a high security fence built around religion and religious institutions, the security guards have been deployed – all this to legitimize an order in which we have been ordered to zealously care for our souls while the authorities take care of the real estate. It began with Santa Claus and renaming the streets, then covering up or removing nude statues and now we have come to the prohibition of theatre shows; yet even that prohibition is indirect, somehow silly (first the play is cancelled, then it is not, except it’s being performed without an audience?!), much like this rewarding of the occupation’s servants from World War II worked the same way – renaming a school in Sarajevo after a certain Mustafi Busuladžić [a Nazi collaborator]. Silly because even such servants were cowardly chosen; they did not go for the really bloodthirsty ones but rather chose the brownnosers who serve well here as martyrs because they were shot by the Partisans – all of this merely in order to prevent us from realizing that it was those same Partisans who brought the country back on its feet in just a few years after the war (constructing railways, hydropower plants, factories, schools, hospitals, universities), and in order that we do not compare those Partisan achievements to the famous 90 km of highway build during the 20 years since the end of the war, of which the current authorities are so proud.
The murder of two girls at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences stirred up part of the public: you were the first one in front of the Canton asking for dismissals. Can the replacement of the commissioner be considered a civil victory or is it in fact a Pyrrhic victory? Will the children of transitional winners and “tough guys” still parade their latest Audi or BMW models and kill the children of transition’s losers?
The replacements are not solving the problem, but they are a positive signal that we still have some power as “the street“ – as the authorities call us endearingly. At least we got seven days of chaos in the cantonal government (which claims it is responsible for exactly nothing), as well as in the usually inert assembly, and so a lot of things came to light. And the “tough guys” are rolling over us in many different ways and they won’t stop at this. It is important to understand that this is not just an incident or an isolated problem, and to send the message that the governmental and the non-governmental sector should leave us be with their proverbial “raising of civil consciousness“ (what a grotesque syntagm!). The murder is not a consequence of the murderer’s lack of “civil consciousness.” The “racers”, just like criminals who are freely walking the streets with their legally binding verdicts, are not aberrations but unofficial structural components; some kind of paratroopers with which to scare the citizens so that the authorities can manage the whole city as they wish.
Viktor Ivančić once said that the practice will go on for years wherever the national question prevails over the question of class for the people in this region. Without the defeat of the first, we can hardly discuss class issues. What do you think?
If we follow the media, it seems that it really is so. We should listen carefully to Viktor Ivančić, he has been right too many times. Without the defeat of those who are playing on the national terrain we cannot move on, true, but is their defeat possible on their terrain? With which powers – if not class? Who has yet been united by some civic ideology that relies on individualization and privatization? And in the final instance, already at the beginning of the 20th century progressive forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina gathered around the worker’s movement were writing about national and religious borders as mere shells that the ruling classes were using to subordinate a divided people. In the current context, while reading for example, David Harvey – to mention somebody well-known in different circles – you are confronted with what is a classic progressive idea: that all the lines of the so-called identitarian divisions are very useful for breaking down the front that could oppose the exploitation of the majority for the enrichment of the minority. Or, as Srećko Pulig writes, “the main cause of the so-called inter-nationalistic confrontations lies in the endeavor of the exploiting classes to use their own nation…”
Do you think that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs a united civil scene that would include four civil parties?
If I understand correctly whom you are referencing, maybe those parties are in need of it, but we are not. Their main story to attract votes is: “we are not SDA [Party of Democratic Action]” even if they only just updated the narrative that they are, in fact, the Left. Who knows how many times I have already said this: we cannot pretend to have a left position and then vote for the Reform agenda, for the labor law, push privatization and every so often enter into coalitions with SDA. It is nothing but a wild goose chase – we know that we are missing the Left, there are so many votes, so many of them that are still hibernating, but those parties are not ready to work as the Left and this is why they are giving themselves labels, putting on ties and badges. Let them go on uniting; what we need is a brave, contemporary and politically wise Left. A Left which is always in battle alongside the masses, and such a Left is not created around a narrow circle of people who bring in others with promises of privileges and shady deals, on the basis of which they then build a party but wonder why people start leaving and joining other parties after electoral defeats.
What do you consider a meaningful civic response to e.g. a referendum called by Milorad Dodik or to the aggressive politics of the new Croatian government that is supporting Dragan Čović’s politics?
There has never been nor will there ever be a purely civic response that could successfully compete with those policies. We saw how the “civic response” brought Trump to power. It is a hardly an effective approach if we know that capitalism and parliamentary democracy – those two inevitable orientations of civic ideology (if there even is any such a thing, it’s most likely just liberalism) – produce fascism when faced with crisis. We are forgetting that, historically speaking, civil society and nationalism march nicely hand in hand. Already in the 1980s we were witnesses to how nationalistic politics very easily occupied the vacuum created by bureaucracy and ossification of the Left, while the so-called civic forces were not able to offer a platform for our unification, even if there were and still are some magnificent and honorable activists among them that paid a high price for their resistance to nationalists. It is also true that those circumstances were extremely unfavorable, but not even today is a platform to be found, or, rather there is something that actually flirts with a united nation as the framework which legitimizes social divisions.
Dodik, Čović, that entire clique cannot be defeated on their own territory; you need to change the terrain, you need to unmask them – not only in the media but in the very struggles being fought for our common goods. Nationalists easily dominate the majority of our media and through it they present themselves as the voices of entire peoples. Everybody agrees, directly or indirectly, and various projects are made to reconcile people, or to lament over them as if over some crazed or stupid people, which only benefits Dodiks of all shades. But if you approach it completely locally, you can easily see that these cliques are turning one local community against the other, literally destroying the social fabric for their own interests. In the current phase, it is exactly there that we find the terrain on which we should ambush and unmask them. We need to talk to people directly, without mediators, help them in their struggles because people understand very well what it’s all about when they are directly affected.
You are giving 100% of yourself in the struggle against nationalism. You are fighting against corruption. You are protecting stray dogs… So I need to pose this very general question: where do you get the energy for all this? You have been doing it for years now with the same intensity practically on a daily basis.
It is not really like this. I am never alone in this, it is just by chance that I am more often present in the media. But I have to say that the (/my) main struggle is for a more just order based on freedom and equality. The socio-political organization Jedan grad, jedna borba (One City, One Struggle) in which I am active is engaged in problems such as the lack of potable water caused by construction ventures of the new elite, cuts in health services of the Sarajevo Canton that have been presented as health reform, or attempts to close one school in Sarajevo in order to grab real estate worth a few millions. Meanwhile in the background lies the two-decade-old history of pilfering public property, where all the outpost actors are just a front for a united criminal enterprise operating in the background.
To my great regret, the story about the dogs I am following only from the sidelines. However, I remind the authorities periodically and with great pleasure about the fact that they are the most harmful form of life. For bacteria on dog’s tail and muzzle there is still some cure and prevention, as well as for the attacks – but one ought to work on it, but work our authorities just cannot stomach.
For socio-political work, at least as I see it, the question of personal energy is not the crucial one, because if social and political engagement turns into some lone wolf’s personal struggle, that is no political struggle. Personally, it means a lot to me that I am working with people dedicated to the same principles, goals and who stand in solidarity. As for the actual socio-political work, the most important thing is to assess the conditions, possibilities and priorities, while at the same time accepting the fact that this is long-term work, in which winning battles, at least in the current phase, is quite uncertain. The aim of the current struggles is to unite people, to overcome these divisions that have been imposed upon us, and to recognize that this is a political struggle, but that there I nothing wrong with that, because politics does not equal parties or government.
Svjetlana Nedimović, a war-time student of literature who out of sheer curiosity ended up with a PhD in Political Science. For a while she taught political theory and tutored writing, but she walked away from it all because she’d had enough of both private education and the non-governmental sector. Currently she is collaborating with the University of Barcelona on research regarding our relationship to history. She is working (in an unpaid position) with the informal socio-political organization „Jedan grad, jedna borbaˮ (One City, One Struggle).
 Oliver Frljić’s play Our Violence, Their Violence, scheduled to be performed as part of an international theater festival in Sarajevo (MESS) in October 2016, was closed to the audience at the last minute for “security concerns.” The play ended up being performed but without an audience present. This was a result of a variety of pressures from the religious community: Croatian Cultural Society demanded the play be banned, while the Bosnian Catholic Bishop filed a criminal complaint, much like the Polish Catholic Church did in reaction to a Polish performance of Frljić’s play, all on account of its blasphemous content.
 The reference is to the latest case of deadly street races in the Bosnian capital. Two young female students were hit by a drag racer on the main boulevard in front of the University of Sarajevo Faculty of Philosophy of Social Sciences in October 2016. This was just the latest in a series of deadly accidents attributed to the region’s nouveau riche youngsters drag racing in expensive sports cars on the streets of Sarajevo with seemingly no consequences, including no murder charges or convictions.