Jim Crow in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As part of an on-going debate over reconciliation and reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jasmin Mujanović argues that only a genuine popular mobilization can reverse the trends that have effectively excluded citizens from the practice of politics.

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By Jasmin Mujanović

It is not often that one encounters a text wherein the legacy of Martin Luther (the) King (to borrow Cornel West’s moniker) is simultaneously celebrated and renounced. Yet this appears to be precisely what Dusan Babic has accomplished in his recent retort, “Bosnia – I have a dream too”, to my own commentary, “Why a ‘Bosnian Spring’ is Bosnia’s only hope”.

Babic accuses me of spreading “fantasies and illusions,” for arguing that “[r]econciliation between Bosnia-Herzegovina’s (BiH) communities will only be possible when the people themselves amputate the political classes which orchestrated and engineered the dissolution of Yugoslavia and whose heirs continue to profit from the politics of division and fear.” Instead, Babic counters that “if any social unrest and turbulence caused by widespread poverty is going to happen, it will be mono-ethnically organized.”

However, Babic’s rejoinder misses several crucial dimensions of my thesis. To begin with, he ignores the evidence that I had already cited of the viability of multi/post-ethnic mobilization in BiH—such as the protests in Sarajevo of veterans from both the Federation (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS). If the very men who shot at each other less than twenty years ago have now found themselves exploring new bonds of solidarity, surely there is some material basis to my supposed illusions. Unsurprisingly then, whereas I view the protests in April of 1992 as a crucial dimension of a possibly unifying, grassroots counter-narrative in BiH, Babic seems to remain committed to his “pact of oblivion” thesis.

It bears stating then that my point was never to suggest that the process of popular mobilization was simple or straightforward. Indeed, my article meant to convey precisely how explicitly premised the post-Dayton Bosnian constitutional order has been on demobilizing ordinary citizens. Here I share the analysis provided by Professor Asim Mujkic who has astutely referred to contemporary BiH as an “Ethnopolis,” a state where “[under] the cover of the legitimacy conferred by free and fair elections, citizens as individuals are stripped of any political power.”

Clearly, however, the Bosnian peoples are not themselves blind to these processes. Whether we are talking about the veterans’ protests in Sarajevo, growing linkages between labour organizations in the FBiH and RS, or even the lyrics and activism of artists like Frenkie, Edo Maajka, Hza, Dubioza Kolektiv and others, there are embryonic potentialities there. Insomuch as young people like myself have a role to play in these developments, it is not to spread fantasies or illusions. Our role, our historic obligation, is to refuse to become party to a dehumanizing, chauvinistic political system and to recognize the above potentialities and work to build on them, to create movements.

Every society is characterized by cleavages and, in every society, rulers and elites attempt to leverage these cleavages to disempower and demobilize ordinary people. The revolt against such practices – as we have seen during the course of the Arab Spring – is often contradictory and marred by repeated clashes of opposing ideals. The task of reimagining just principles of social organization is difficult, there can be no question. But precisely because revolutions are so difficult to accomplish – the circumstances which necessitate them being so egregious – they are, as a result, all the more necessary.

So, I find Babic’s reading of Dr. King’s historical significance quite bizarre. His argument that “[d]espite [King’s] speech…racial issues remain and are far from being resolved in America and elsewhere” is completely vacuous. King’s significance is not in the fact that he magically undid two hundred years of institutional racism in the United States. His significance, along with other prominent civil rights leaders of the era, was that they refused to accept the legitimacy of segregation and disenfranchisement in a nominally democratic society – principles meanwhile which still reign supreme in Bosnia.

King and others like him organized ordinary citizens, black and white, to dismantle power structures which had been in place for two centuries, so that “one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” King spoke those words in 1963; in 2012 little boys and girls are still attending segregated schools in BiH. This is no fantasy or illusion, this is a nightmare.

Of course, King did not end racism in America any more than the election of Barak Obama did. King’s activism, however, was a demonstration of the power which conviction and determination could have in the face of almost unbelievable injustice and hatred. It is utterly absurd to invoke King in a conversation about Bosnia and then not draw the parallels between the Jim Crow period in America and post-Dayton Bosnia. And it would be just as absurd to believe that such systems, premised on segregation and racism, can survive in perpetuity.

Like Babic, I believe that the internationally supervised status of BiH must be abolished and I have written explicitly on the subject of the international community’s reactionary administration of the country elsewhere. However, as with Babic’s rhetoric on tolerance and reconciliation, and his call for responsible media, his position against the Office of the High Representative (OHR) is largely without substance.

Milorad Dodik (né Gov. George Wallace) is the highest profile opponent of the OHR in Bosnia, but his weekly predictions about the dissolution of BiH and his denial of genocide only ensure that foreign administration of the country will continue indefinitely. Naturally, this is precisely what Dodik and his ilk want. Dodik uses the OHR – much as the entire Bosnian political establishment uses “other” supposed ethnic monoliths – to displace and obscure any personal responsibility for their kleptocratic administration of the country.

As such, removing the OHR while keeping the entities and the rest of the Dayton constitutional structure intact would accomplish virtually nothing and possibly even make things worse. Moreover, expecting any significant reforms to come from this current crop of leaders or any future crop which would emerge out of Dayton’s apartheid model is ludicrous. This system promotes the politics of fear and division, and unsurprisingly the media, which is subservient to this same political establishment in question, merely reproduces a corresponding narrative in turn.

It seems apparent then that that what is required in Bosnia is more than mere tinkering and hollow invocations of “good governance” as is so frequently the case in much of the scholarly literature on the country. We are dealing with a self-reinforcing cycle of kleptocratic, chauvinistic and anti-democratic policies, elites and their international partners. Babic may be right that “this is something that has been widely known for many years,” but it makes his tepid derision of my call for a revolution in the conception and practice of politics in BiH all the more frustrating. Has not to moment come to break the circle?

Political legitimacy can only come from the participation of the people themselves. Reactionary political elites had as much success in dismantling Yugoslavia, and continuing to hold BiH and other ex-Yugoslav societies hostage, precisely because the citizens were so effectively excluded from the practice of politics. Only genuine popular mobilization can reverse these trends – so that BiH, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

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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