There is a story that could perfectly sum up the current upheavals in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Yugoslav novelist Ivo Andrić, known mainly for his monumental book The Bridge on the Drina, published in 1948 a less well-known short story under the title “The Tale of Serf Siman”.
It takes place during the power transfer between the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Bosnian people expelled the Turks in 1876, there was great enthusiasm in the air that the oppressive feudal relations will finally come to an end. Only two years later, the Austro-Hungarian troops arrived. Hope was still in the air and a serf called Siman believed everything would change. So he stopped to pay his feudal obligation.
One day his master visits him and finds him lying on the ground and couldn’t believe his own eyes when Siman wouldn’t get up before him. To add insult to injury Siman told his former master to pick up the plums by himself, if he really wanted them. And this is the moment when Siman triumphantly utters the following lesson: “You had been riding us for four hundred years. Now we will ride you for four hundred years. And for the remaining four hundred years, we will make a deal”.
Is something similar happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina today?
Exactly in the year when everyone is competing in the best commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the event that changed the world – the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 – workers with unpaid salaries and pensions sparked a protest in the northern town of Tuzla on Wednesday, 5 February. It is no surprise that the unrest started exactly in this city.
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 Yugoslavia. Today, all former republics are completely deindustrialized and devastated by the so called process of “transition”. It was meant to be a journey to the prosperous West. Nevertheless, if not before, with the recent accession of Croatia to the European Union it became clear that there is no such thing as a “free transition” for the Balkans. The unemployment rate among young people in Croatia is 52%, which brings it just behind the PIGS, namely Spain (with 56%) and Greece (with over 60%). Bosnia and Herzegovina is not even in the European Union, but already coming near to Greece with 57,9%. No surprise most of the people on the streets of Bosnia and Herzegovina today are young people.
“Balkan Spring” is a lovely word but it’s far more complicated than that. Instead of Mubarak or Ben Ali, here you don’t have a concrete enemy except the “corrupt elites”. According to the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina is divided into two entities (Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Then you have another political subdivision which is manifested in cantons. And so on… To cut a long story short, when the protesters on 8 February (Friday) set fire to government buildings, the Minister of Interior could calmly say that the police is not under his jurisdiction – so he is not responsible for police violence. “Once you have missed the first button hole”, as Goethe would say, “you’ll never manage to button up”. The Dayton Agreement was that first button hole.
Coincidence or not, the 5 February, 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 didn’t recover from the war, and on the other hand you have the never ending process of “transition”, a deindustrialised state with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. And when desperate workers go on strike for several weeks and none of the entities or cantons, politicians or political parties reacts, this is not “violence”. But when the desperate demonstrators, young people joined by pensioners, started to throw rocks at police, and even to burn cars and official buildings, then they were, as you might expect, called “hooligans”.
The 2005 Riots in Paris
Here we have the same old story again. When in late 2005 the banlieues of Paris and twenty other towns and cities were burning, we could hear the same arguments and Nicolas Sarkozy even went so far to call them racaille (“scum”) which has to be cleaned up with Kärcher (a well-known brand name of a system of cleaning surfaces that very violently peels away the outer skin of encrusted dirt – like pigeon-shit). In an article published in Libération the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard noticed that “fifteen 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 realize that ninety cars on average are torched every night in this gentle France of our”. Only in 2005 more than 28,000 cars went on fire in France. But surprise, surprise: only 9000 of them in the banlieues.
Bearing this in mind we could pose the legitimate question why the French government didn’t proclaim a “state of exception” during the whole year and not only during the protests in the poor suburbs? And the same goes for the current protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina: why are the protestors condemned for being violent if the state power is even more violent, serving as an “invisible hand” – during the last twenty years – to the market and war tycoons? Why is smashing some windows called “violence”, and stealing some millions “business”? Or as one of the four Salò masters says in Pasolini’s last movie to their slaves: “True anarchy is the anarchy of power”.
Getting back to Siman
However, to understand what might happen in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, let’s return to “The Tale of Serf Siman”. What happened after Siman triumphantly answered to his master? The master went home empty-handed, but he soon sued his former serf who was taken in front of a local court. Soon Siman discovered that the court is following the same old Ottoman laws and ends up in prison. His wife gets sick, his child as well, and he touches the bottom.
The point of Ivo Andrić’s story is simple: even if it may seem that everything is changing, think twice. At the end of the story Siman gives a good point about the current protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well. His family, he says, had a beautiful rooster. He was singing loudly, and he had the most beautiful voice. But his problem was that, unlike others, he began to sing very early in the morning. So Siman’s father simply slaughtered the poor bird because it woke him up. One rooster is not enough. One slave rebellion is not enough. Even the rebellion itself is not enough. It is necessary to think one step further. And that’s the real question (not only) for Bosnia and Herzegovina today: what will come after the protests?