Mapping the Plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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A conversation with Professor Damir Arsenijevic, who has helped to draw up plenum demands in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

These factories were the powerhouses and the hearts of the production in Tuzla and former Yugoslavia, so when you had them privatised, and privatisation happened in a very clandestine way, you had the new owners who reduced workers to the wage labourer. Some workers are owed 40 odd salaries, in areas, and they invented, as you will see, in the film The Voice of DITA, the means to go about going on strike, taking protest into their own hands. That is the marvelous politics in all of this, they invented – the workers invented the protest – as a new way of protesting for the production, rather than going on strike to cease the production, they actually went to the protest to keep the commons, that is the most important thing, various forms they took, protest, and even hunger strikes, it took various ways of trying to get the government to listen. It all congealed when everybody stood behind the workers of those 5 factories. They went on strike to produce. They were expelled from the factories, and they occupied a space around it because new owners would strip the factory of the assets, physically, the copper wire, which they would sell. They wanted to keep the factory because they had a stake in it, factories belong to the workers here. I know people who were on strike in 2002 – how this struggle is not being openly talked about in the media. A woman defines what her struggle is. She beautifully connects the collapse of Yugoslavia the collapse of socialism and ties it into this – the production of a new type of labourer, a wage labourer mercenary: go to Iraq and Afghanistan to service somebody else’s wars, is the only thing that you can hope for. There is no production that you can do here, and there is also the, in addition, the production of knowledge to deal with national atrocity. Bosnia is a testing ground for a new type of labour. But also an amazing opportunity to examine this nexus between capitalism and mass atrocity.

Political parties are these spirals and they exercise this horizontal and vertical violence. Bribery, corruption, nepotism and blackmail. It is a very well rehearsed structure. You can’t do anything without being a member of a political party. So if you do anything you are an odd one out. They started controlling everything. So they’ve adopted this corporate nepotistic model of behaviour, by bribing people, that is how they can blackmail you. In effect if you are trying to anything out of this system you are buggered.

But the plenum opened this space, in which these kinds of spirals – if political parties are spirals, vertical and horizontal violence happening – plenum opened up a new sect and a possibility into which people can jump. And it completely negates that nepotistic system. Three principles: openness, transparency, and non-corruption. Plenum is a space for speech beyond prohibition. It enabled for the first time this disjointed society to start making connections and ties, so that you move beyond your little identitarian matrix, and manage to actually talk about what does it mean when we all actually come together and think about ourselves as political beings. It is a fuck of a process, it is a tough process. Because you hold a three hour setting in which everybody wants to say what ails them, what is injustice, it is pretty much this kind of collective therapy, one stream of collective therapy talk, on the other hand you have these concrete demands, which are being universalised in a proper way.

So the first demand, the abolition of the so called white bread; white bread is the allowance, that the politicians voted and enshrined in law, for a year after the expiration of their mandate they can receive salary for free. People saw that, if you have people who are hungry, if the unemployment is what 40 odd percent, that somebody can receive 15 times the average salary for a year for doing nothing, and if they do have their own businesses, that is not fair. The abolition of the so called white bread happened as a result of the pressure of the plenum. There are other demands, for the salaries to be – and you’ll see in all the manifestos of the plenums – the second demand is that the salaries of the represented officials be aligned and pegged to the average salary in BiH. So its not 15 times that but it is something like 3 or 4, something; people can earn up to 13,000 and the average salary is 700. And they did that by establishing something even more horrible, the various committees, canternal government, federal government, state government. You end up forming a committee, to form another committee, to form a working group, to form a task force, 4 levels, for each you get paid 800km, already for 4 you have 3200, on top of your salary, on top of all the benefits that you have. The whole point is now to tackle these little microstructures, that they create for themselves, so they can not get paid additionally for the job that they are already paid, they are paying themselves for being paid to do their job. It is paradoxical but that is what is happening. The demands are very specific demands, they are very context and time driven. The security and safety was the first thing. All proclamations are translated. Safety and security is the first thing, second is the revision of privatisation – there is a public inquiry into the process, how the privatisation happened, because there are some cases that have been filed against these, where the prosecutors office didn’t want to touch them, because they were politically driven and on Wednesday you’ll see a big protest in front of the prosecutors office for that, to get them to start actually doing their job. The basic demand of the protest is that people do their job, the structure is not the problem we have, it is that people are not doing their job.

Dayton agreement set in place a government that is impossible, unwieldy, but actually there is the internal paradox in Dayton. Dayton enabled the plenum; the plenum is the logical contradiction of Dayton taken to the final step, that would be a very productive way of looking at that. Dayton is not the problem, the entities are not a problem, the cantons are not a problem, that is a technical question, it is an ideological question, that it functions, but the question is how do you push the system to its logical conclusion, how you identify the internal paradox within it, so that you can push it. If you want, psychoanalytically speaking, how do you find the symptom, and focus on the symptom. The plenum helps post-nationalism, the plenum helps abolish the multicultural apartheid, and how does it do that, it does that by saying there is one person, there is one vote, so I don’t actually participate in the plenum as a white man aged with a specific interest in, but I participate as a political being, again the division is about, if the political parties set up the division of public space, and this is pretty much about space, and that is why it is important to think about the street and the protest in terms of space, why is space important and why is people in motion important? That is a strategy, that is a political action. If the political parties divided up the public space into who’s speech counts as speech and who’s speech counts as animal howl, plenum erased this separation and opened up a proper public space, so that everybody’s speech counts as speech, that is the first thing, and if you enable that, say that the speech is beyond censorship right, you get an onrush of people who had fled into their private space and were not able to participate in public life, or were actually enabled to participate in public life as a very particular identitarian matrix. This is why in Sarajevo you have such a huge struggle between NGOs, because for years they have been driven to think in terms of the project and donor driven demand, queer organisation, family of a missing person, actually step out and speak as only that, you speak out as a victim, you speak out as a disenfranchised this that or the other.

What is the plenum demand that managed to universalise the whole thing? That is when people reached the bottom, which is hunger, people are hungry out there in the street, this is a working class city. I mean that is the beauty of it, class solidarity was enabled properly for the first time because people have a memory of socialism, the class is proven here to be the element that erases this boundary, coupled with that, this is why galleries are spaces where working groups of the plenum are held. Art is that, that is what the gallery is for, it is not for these kind of you know paintings to hang without being used, it is now people in public spaces thinking their politics, thinking what kind of political beings they are and that is why it is so difficult. When it comes to the strategy of the protest, the threat of the protest, gives legitimacy to the plenum, it is only by the threat of the protest that you can actually maintain. We can be contained in one space, in the plenum, or when we are out on the street we can be protesting where we are. We are also contained, the police can frame you, once the police frame you, your name becomes different, you are a target. When bodies are in motion in public space they have the force, so that is why movement is important, through actually physically moving the body. Through actually physically moving the body in public space do you become a movement, do you become a force, that is important. That is part of the conceptualisation, but actually doing it in practice, learning from practice, you know where the glitches are.

Plenum has been going on for two and a half weeks now, plenum is here to stay. Because you have increasingly plenums being created in every little town in Bosnia. Banja Luka, Mostar, Sarajevo, they are coming here again on Tuesday evening, we are sitting together, thinking about how we can give a proper thing to solidify this, and make it a movement and then address simultaneously all the levels. The canton is the key, the canton was the problem but the canton has all the power, all the power is derogated to the canton, so that is why it is key to do it, municipality is not the key because municipalty is the garbage, waste disposal, the parks, but they are also important because once you claim the space. This is not about occupying, I think it is about claiming and I think there is the difference, it is about taking it and re-taking, occupying is just something. I am really seeing this as how public space, increasingly it is being recognised by the international community, as class solidarity, because Europe is racist, its premise is ethnic, for a thousand years Europe actually fights ethnic wars, racial wars, as Foucault says and he’s right in that, you can just see that ethnic element prevails in all the politics, in my conversations with the foreign dignitaries and officials, I pushed and pushed and pushed.

The space is opened up. You perceive this as some kind of interregnum. The only way is for the industries to be taken out of privatisation and become a public asset again. With the international community once they come with their capital and they will, the whole labour law is the key, we cannot collectively accept to become the slaves again, under some different name, that is going to be the next battle.

You imagine a space by opening it up for new human ties to be formed, and that can happen without any guarantees, but it is about holding. What does this enable? I mean why is melancholia a part of Bosnia? What is melancholy about? It is about not giving up on the loss, on the lost object, finally people are realising that the object has been lost. Whether that is Bosnia, the idea of Yugoslavia, whether that is a factory, me personally being a teenager during the war, you know growing up. But kind of integrating the loss, giving up on the loss doesn’t mean that you kind of eradicate it, it is integrating it, speaking it, and all the affect that now is taking place, the rage, but also the hope, is floating around in public space, which is good, and for the first time you have people saying, it feels like new years. There is this amazing energy, I would call it affect, you name it, there is connexis, it is a charge because affect has been released. The plenum enabled speech beyond prohibition, it has been happening, but now it came together in one big plenum: this mourning can take place and can enable re-imagining the society in a different way, the ties, people are hugging and kissing for the first time in public space, people are actually coming out of the houses and participating in public life, that stopped, nobody went to the theatre, theatre became the plenum, huge halls, gallery became the plenum, it got reactivated, all these empty husks, actually got reused properly and reclaimed. Mourning is great, you can hug, you can kiss. All that is enabled, that is why it was so important to create a space in which all of this could happen.

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