Another Bosnia and Herzegovina is possible

Following Dusan Babić’s assertion that real politics are the only politics that truly matter, Jasmin Mujanović makes the case for why democratic participation can provide a way out from the kleptocracy of ethno-chauvinism and “international administration.”

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Conflict Background

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By Jasmin Mujanović

“O masters, if I were disposed to stir

Your hearts and minds to mutiny and rage,

I should do Brutus wrong, and Cassius wrong,

Who, you all know, are honourable men.”

– Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 2

I have always found it somewhat perverse what some learned individuals are willing to consider as “utopian” or hopelessly “idealistic” in the realm of political discourse. Inevitably, it seems as though any scheme that would even marginally better the lives of the many is dismissed by the privileged few as naive or somehow secretly tyrannical. Meanwhile, there seems hardly an injustice in the world which these same learned individuals will not justify as some inescapable feature of what they construe as “reality.”

This curious tendency led Emma Goldman to remark in a famed 1910 essay, “poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature.” It is not my intention to debate the qualities of some mythical conception of “human nature,” but Goldman’s sentiments have struck me as quite apropos to my ongoing exchange with Dusan Babic.

Twice now, Babic has accused me of spreading “fantasies and illusions” with regards to my claim that only genuine, popular mobilization on the part of ordinary Bosnians will result in the sort of sweeping reforms necessary to transform Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) into a society characterized by substantive democratic institutions and practices, rather than merely a rotting Ethnopolis. “[In] this complex, cruel, unjust and unfair world,” Babic argues “real politics are the only politics that truly matter.” He goes on to add then, that “nothing revolutionary can be done; we can only pursue step-by-step moves that respect country specific approaches to promoting and fostering a spirit of tolerance and developing a process of reconciliation.”

The bold assertiveness of Babic’s deeply entrenched conservativism is second only to his bizarre insistence on “real politics.” What, pray tell, is real politics? I suppose, one aspect of real politics might be the recent reformation of BiH’s coalition government on the state level, with the departure of the SDA and the entry of Fahrudin Radončić’s SBB into the governing sextet. This same period has seen increasing rumors that the government of the Federation will also be reformed, and will now finally feature representatives from both of the HDZ blocs.

Here is real politics at work then in Bosnia: Radončić, a prominent local oligarch widely suspected of long-time links to organized crime, is set to become the new Security Minister. Really.

Then there is the curious case of the HDZ(s), whose insistence on being the only “legitimate” representatives of Bosnian Croats has always been somewhat undermined by their own fracturing into two distinct parties; both with an almost exclusively Herzegovinian orientation. There is also the fact that in the nearly two years since the last general election in BiH, Dragan Čović (the leader of the HDZ BiH – and recently cleared of corruption charges himself) has yet to make a single, coherent policy statement other than “we want our government posts.” Ministerial posts as an ethnic-birthright of nationalist parties; or as it’s otherwise known, “real politics.” What economic or political program either of HDZ blocs has – or for that matter, the SBB, SDP, SDA, SNSD, or SDS – remains a mystery.

Seeing as Babic believes that “political culture is practically non-existent” in Bosnia and that “simply, there is no critical mass ready to radically change the political ambiance” is this the sort of real politics we have to work with?

Recall, Babic does suggest that we can “pursue step-by-step moves” – but to what end? After all, he even defends the “two schools under one roof” system (which has recently been successfully challenged in local courts – though implementation of said reforms remains dubious), characterizing it as the “last resort” of Bosnian Croats “to preserve their ethnic and cultural identity.” Indeed, to hear Babic tell it, what we are dealing with is merely an attempt to implement some sort of relevant “cultural” content into the school curriculum (e.g. “Hispanic Studies” in the United States or “First Nations Studies” in Canada). Who amongst us would deny the rights of minorities to preserve their cultural identities through the education system?

Yet this is not at all what the “two schools under one roof” system is about. The author Aleksandar Hemon sums up the issue: “children of different ethnicities attend school in the same building, but are meticulously segregated: they go to different classrooms, share no classes, they often have different programs and textbooks, the faculty neither mix nor cooperate. In some schools, classes begin at different times, lest children have any contact or communication before or after school.” Still other schools have gone so far as to build chain link fences or even concrete walls, to prevent students from “mixing” during breaks or before and after classes in what are ostensibly “common” areas.

It is for these reasons and others that I made the parallel between contemporary BiH and the Jim Crow period after Babic invoked Martin Luther King to, bizarrely, continue to make his case against popular mobilization. To Babic, King was ultimately a failure in that racism remains a reality of American political life. He continues to advance this line of reasoning in his recent piece, stating: “the global political settlement is basically anti-democratic, denying ordinary citizens the opportunity to participate in politics. Laws almost everywhere are written to legalize favorable status of political elites at the expense of the poor and lower classes. That’s why the very term democracy has lost its original meaning.” What I find odd about this argument is that it is essentially the same thing I have been saying for two weeks now, except that while I argue that we must reclaim democracy for ordinary citizens, as King et al had attempted, Babic seems to take exactly the opposite view. I continue to be at a loss as to why he takes this position, however.

In truth, I have found Mr. Babic’s responses increasingly less intelligible as our debate has progressed. In his original article “The war of narratives,” Babic argued that Bosnia “desperately needs a kind of common narrative, as a tool of better communication and mutual understanding.” I agreed, but rejected his suggestion that such a new narrative could be established in a “pact of oblivion” which obscured the historical record. Since then, I have been insisting that a more class-based analysis of the post-Dayton period could replace the ethno-chauvinist rhetoric which currently dominates, thus creating the potential for exactly the sort of substantive changes, we both agree, the country needs.

Instead, Babic tells us that something akin to the April 1992 anti-war protests in Sarajevo are no longer possible because “everything in this war-torn country has been changed. The demographic composition of the country has been dramatically reshaped; decisively affecting all aspects of life, and ways of conducting politics in particular.” Yet this ignores the veteran’s protests which have displayed exactly that sort of multiethnic mobilization, the emergence of the (admittedly still nascent) “Left” bloc which has called on Bosnian citizens to withdraw their support from all political parties, the protests in Banja Luka calling for “regime change” or even the recent Zagreb Subversive Forum which called for the emergence of a Balkan Social Forum under the mantra of “Another Balkans is Possible.”

Mr. Babic has given me many reasons why a “Bosnian Spring,” as I have previously called it, is a difficult, even, unlikely prospect. However, he has yet to give me a reason why attempting to build such a movement would be a bad thing. What could real politics possibly be about other than the attempt to create a society where the often unrealized promise of democratic participation is actually fulfilled?

If the argument is that this is hard and thus not worth doing, then, respectfully, it is you who is not pursuing real politics. Dayton is not destiny, Dodik et al are not deities, and Bosnia still has hope. I believe BiH can be a participatory society for all its peoples and I argue that this is its only true salvation and road out from the kleptocracy of ethno-chauvinism and “international administration.” As Andrej Grubačić has written: “If this is not our reality today, it follows that our duty, our only duty, is to fight to make it our reality tomorrow.”

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD student in Political Science at York University, in Toronto, Canada, working on the topic of participatory democratic alternatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is a regular contributor to Politics, Re-Spun.

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