The interminable, unfulfilled spring: is it Bosnia’s turn?

sebilj-may-2008CLICHÉS ABOUT POLITICAL SPRINGS are looking a bit shopworn at the moment; recent events in Ukraine and Crimea show how so-called springs can go spectacularly off track and with entirely unforeseen consequences.

Of late, talk of springs, of the political kind, if not of seasonal shifts, has been associated with popular protest. The last year or so in Mediterranean Europe has seen protests in GreeceSpain and France and of course the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in June last year.

Popular disaffection with the political status quo isn’t just confined to these EU-member or EU-aspirant parts of Europe.  Recent years have also seen protests and mobilisations in the Balkans, but these have been protests that haven’t attracted the spotlight of international media attention.

The Balkans are, generally speaking, stuck in the recesses of the popular imagination as an unstable region of ‘ancient hatreds’, so perhaps uprisings here are seen as unremarkable – after all, as received wisdom has it, this is a region prone to gratuitous violence.

That said, this rugged, mountainous corner of Europe is slowly gaining recognition as a place not just seething with inter-communal tensions and not solely physically riddled with 1990s-vintage bullet holes. Even Bosnia & Hercegovina, the country most closely tainted by this sort of thinking, has recently won some kudos, gaining a star rating from National Geographic Traveler, no less.

Nat Geo coverage doesn’t automatically foster a happy political arena, however. In February protests erupted in the northeastern city of Tuzla, said to be one of the powerhouses (all things are relative!) of the Bosnian economy. It also happens to be one of its most ethnically diverse cities: it retains an Orthodox cathedral and Franciscan monastery amidst it mosques, as well as an active Jewish community.

Protests in Tuzla were triggered by public discontent, disillusionment and frustration at political shenanigans that have bedevilled the country and forestalled reform and economic development since the peace accords of 1995. After three days, protests had spread to more than 30 cities and towns across the country, with Sarajevo becoming the epicentre of protest and public displeasure. As if to live up to Western (mis)conceptions of the region, protests in many instances became violent, with public offices torched and phalanxes of police bringing in tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.

Three months on protests may have cooled, yet popular mobilisation and the voicing of political complaints and demands are ongoing. The political arena in Bosnia is fiendishly complex: where else is there such a small state that entertains two distinct political entities, five presidents, 10 cantons and a mind-boggling array of political parties and bureaucratic organs? Getting anything done in such circumstances is a tall order indeed.

Aside from the resulting stupefying political inertia, what appears to have finally sparked your average Bosnian-on-the-street is mounting frustration with the political framework put in place after the peace negotiations of the mid-90s, one that has worked to the advantage of political elites and their cronies, but done nothing for aforementioned average Bosnian Joes. The upshot of the protests, and a direct response to this democratic quicksand, has been the formations of ‘plenums’ across Bosnia. These are public forums where people gather to enunciate concerns and articulate demands, which may then be addressed to administrative bodies. ‘Plenums’ have been lauded as a mechanism that will demonstrate to Bosnians how democracy *really* works.

Giving the people a voice may generally be applauded, and it appears that there are many voices wishing to be heard. Top-down, elite-driven political development is often fraught. James C. Scott, the noted political scientist from Yale, argues that the standard top-down approach to instituting ‘high modernism’ involves enforcing legibility – that is administrability(!) – on society; such a process is feasible, but comes at the cost of local knowledge, Scott contends. And without taking account of local conditions and building on local knowledge, he continues, attempts to improve societal conditions are bound to fail. This is all the more so in Bosnia, where it appears that political actors have demonstrated few aspirations to the more enlightened aspects of high modernism, but plenty of aptitude for shoring up their own positions and feathering their own nests.

library-night-may-2008In many regards the internecine killing in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s was a top-down initiative. Rogers Brubaker in his landmark collection of essays, Ethnicity without Groups, speaks of ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’, ie those who manipulate – indeed, in some instances manufacture – ethnic tensions and conflicts to their own advantage, to serve their own usually political agendas. Brubaker’s model describes with pin-point precision the circumstances of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Such manipulation of circumstances can have very real implications, in this case serious episodes of inter-communal blood letting. So significant were these that the political quandaries of Bosnia continue to be viewed by many solely through an ethnic prism. ‘Ethnic  hatreds’ are taken to be part of the very landscape, thus creating an environment where said ‘ethnopolitical entrepreneurs’ can play on fears of new wars breaking out, manipulating events to their advantage, thus extending the political doldrums that Bosnia has languished in for so long. Indeed, it has been remarked that various Bosnian politicians tried to put an ethnonationalist spin on the protests as they broke out earlier this year, blaming, of course, *other* ethnic groups for fomenting the troubles.

In fact, without downplaying the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s, there is a long history of intercommunal fraternity at a workaday level across Bosnia, and other parts of the Balkans. Cooperation, despite religious and ethnic diversity, has been the modus operandi for a long time in the region, even during the horrors of the 1990s, as recounted by Svetlana Broz. This continues to the present, an example being the village of Ustibar in Republika Srpska, where townspeople of all faiths come together to work on building projects in concert. As reported in SE Times, locals remark that, ‘For us in Bosnia, this is so normal. We live together, indeed.’

Perhaps on the ground it is apparent to adherents of different faiths that they share a great deal of history and have much in common. Indeed in the early days of the Bosnian protests, Serbs across the border went out in sympathy with their Bosnian neighbours, gathering in Belgrade and chanting ‘Brave Bosnia, we are with you.’ Such an expression of solidarity is perhaps recognition that the peoples of the region may be connected by issues other than ethnicity.

In the last few days, both Serbia and Bosnia have been beset by disastrous floods. (Too much spring rain, perhaps…) It is to be hoped that in the face of such a natural disaster that the two peoples can be a support to each other, that they can cast aside earlier differences and work through the mire together. Already, the plucky Macedonians are mucking in to bring supplies and succour their neighbours.

Meanwhile, a significant event in recent weeks little noticed in the mainstream press was the reopening of Sarajevo’s City Hall. Destroyed by Serb artillery fire in 1992, the building’s decrepit and bombed out appearance seemed to symbolise Bosnia’s troubled plight. It is now fully refurbished, revelling in all of its neo-Moorish glory – could this possibly be a harbinger of spring for Bosnia?









Life as politics in Iran

NEGOTIATIONS, or perhaps horse trading, are ongoing regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, with a new round of meetings between the members of the UN Security Council and Iranian officials scheduled for this week. In the meantime, it seems that sanctions are having some impact and are keeping the Iranians at the negotiating table. Still, Iran’s ambassador to the UN, Mohammad Khazaee, is resigned to their effects. The New York Times reported him saying, “We have learned how to cope with these problems.”

Iranians clearly have a knack for overcoming adversity, and creating opportunity where circumstances are against them. The conservative Iranian regime is putting on a brave face, soldiering on despite its massive wealth being curtailed; at the same time Iranians on the street have long been adept at getting around societal restrictions imposed by that very regime.

Kamin Mohammadi, expat Iranian and sometime Lonely Planet contributor, recently reported on the various measures that Tehranis, young and old, take to pursue aspects of life that the regime seeks to prevent.  Her report brings the lie to notions that Iran society is dry and sexually repressed. In fact, prior to the creation of the Islamic Republic after 1979, Iranian society was noted for its progressiveness.

Despite the impositions of conservative mullahs that have been the norm for the last 30-odd years, it’s still relatively straightforward to find a drink in Tehran – home brew or black market depending on your fancy – and many young Iranians enjoy degrees of sexual liberation as their counterparts in the West do. More examples – as if any were really needed – demonstrating that legislating piety, or perhaps in this case “morality”, just doesn’t work. The Islamic Republic goes to extraordinary lengths to segregate the sexes, forbidding “illicit” meetings of unmarried couples. But as Mohammadi points out young Tehranis have simply taken to meeting in taxis and orchestrating frotting sessions by squeezing into shared taxis, which are routinely packed with as many people as can fit into them. Pretty tame really, but proof that hormones and fluttering hearts can’t be stifled by disapproving religious authorities or self-appointed “morals” police.

Societal strictures are one thing, but in recent years as authorities have clamped down on any form of collective action or social protest, Iranians have found sometimes ingenious ways of signalling their displeasure with the country’s political situation. Immediately after the disputed presidential election of June 2009, those convinced of the illegitimacy of the election outcome – which returned the incumbent, regime-sanctioned candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the presidential palace – took to the rooftops of Tehran and other cities to cry, “Allahu akbar” into the night sky. Such an action may hardly seem reactionary to Western observers, but  it is the height of irony that people should invoke the name of God to in defiance of a regime that claims for itself a pillar of religious legitimacy. It is a double irony that protesters who brought this regime to power in 1979 uttered the same cry against the Shah, whose system of repression, cronyism and unequal distribution of the nation’s wealth they were desperate to be rid of.

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, massively attended street marches were brutally disrupted, with large numbers of peaceful protestors taken into custody by government operatives. The clamp down was relatively slow in coming, but once it came the regime brooked no dissent whatsoever: no pretense of civility or rule of law, allegations of rape, widespread human rights abuses. So Iranians, ingenious as ever, devised other ways of signalling their displeasure. Time reported on a sly coordinated campaign in Tehran where dissenting locals turned on household appliances en masse in an attempt to overload the electrical grid. Subversion by toaster, iron and bedside lamp: you’ve got to love the gumption of it! Later campaigns, as reported in The Guardian, included boycotting products that were advertised on state-run TV, and a boycott of Nokia products – and this in a country that is mobile phone crazy. Nokia was alleged to have sold communications monitoring systems to the Iranian government, systems that were subsequently used to track down people protesting against the election result.

Three years on from the disputed election and Iranians have recently staged another don’t-buy protest. In campaign that appeared to be spontaneous Iranians refused to buy bread and milk in protest at escalating food prices. It seems that international sanctions imposed in reaction to Iran’s nuclear programme are having an impact on the domestic economy, so despite Khazaee’s bravado it may be that the Iranian in the street does not want to have to cope with shortages and rampant inflation. The milk and bread boycott gained momentum through social-networking sites and blogs, and as the Wall Street Journal reports, there were significant falls in grocery sales.

All of these subtle yet determined gestures from ordinary Iranians are examples of the politicisation of the everyday, a phenomenon identified in Asef Bayat’s intriguing scholarly work, Life as Politics. As Bayat argues, within authoritarian-ruled states it is often the case that ordinary citizens find mechanisms to voice their concerns and assert their political identities in understated ways, determinedly adopting positions that send signals of displeasure to the prevailing regime but that cannot be construed as subversive. A Tehrani may refuse to buy bread, thus signalling his displeasure with the status quo, but no regime, no matter how repressive, can prosecture him for not buying groceries. In Bayat’s model, people on the street may have no political voice and only restricted scope for political manoeuvring, but acting in concert they push as hard as possible against those boundaries, operating within that restricted space in the hope of bringing about change. Bayat calls these ‘non-movements’.

Of course, laying further irony on top of existing ironies, it was effectively one of Bayat’s ‘non-movements’ that brought down the Shah and saw the creation of the Islamic Republic. The more things change… perhaps…