Bosnia and Herzegovina, 25 years post-Dayton (5/12) : What is the future of activism ?

Through 25 years of neglect by politicians who allow corruption and nationalism to fester, Bosnian civil society has tirelessly fought for change. The “glorious failure” of the plenums in 2014 marked a turning point : the fight has since become more local and targeted. An interview with academic and activist Svjetlana Nedimović.

This series is presented in partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation

A quarter-century since the end of the war, the Courrier des Balkans has started series to examine Bosnia and Herzegovina’s economy and politics, the social and environmental movements making their way through society, and the potential path to a brighter future. These articles will be accompanied by a two-day seminar on 2–3 December.

By Aline Cateux | Translated by Clarissa Howe

Svjetlana Nedimović, free-lance researcher and activist from Sarajevo. With a PhD from EUI Florence, used to teach political theory. Published a number of journal articles and commentaries. At the moment editor of web magazine Riječ i djelo.

Courrier des Balkans (CdB) : What is your idea of activism ? How is it practiced in Bosnia and Herzegovina ?

Svjetlana Nedimović (S.N.) : It’s hard for me to give a consistent definition of activism because the things I have done have primarily been dictated by circumstance. I would say I think of activism as collective socio-political action, but the term “activism” might not even be all that useful. It’s possible for one movement to encompass different levels of involvement, from sympathizers to militants. Nowadays people think of activism as a field or a profession, but it would certainly be strange to say that someone “works in activism”. Then again, maybe not given the current move towards NGO-ization. Anyone who works for an NGO is considered an activist, even if they’re just doing their job.

When I think of political action per se, I think of disrupting the order of things, finding weaknesses in the system to fight it as effectively as possible. At the same time, you need to organize politically to effect social change. The range of methods has to be extremely broad, from obsessively gathering information to direct action to spontaneous rallies to grassroots work that raises awareness and informs. That being said, you can’t just preach to people and tell them why they should fight. Instead, you have to help them get as much change as possible from the fighting they do. In other words, it’s like what Lenin taught : You have to go to the people and join their struggles to give them a political edge. That’s how you get profound change.

CdB : Can you tell us about a campaign that was particularly meaningful to you, regardless of whether you took part in it ?

S.N. : Three years later, I still think that amazing things were achieved by the Sarajevo water protests in 2017. It tapped into something incredible and wonderful projects were brought to life, even though I don’t think they all worked out. That doesn’t mean the movement didn’t leave a mark, though. After all, Marx and Walter Benjamin remind us that all the sparks of the past that don’t create a blaze remain as potential that we can relight through our action now or in the near future.

The water protests came at a time when Sarajevo was at the end of its rope. The city was exhausted by months of restrictions following a scorching summer. Especially since, for years, water outages had been a daily occurrence for one third of the city. The group I was involved with (One Town, One Fight) got involved rather by accident in 2014. We were collecting information in the field and in public debates. We ruffled some feathers with the municipal authorities and learned from elected officials’ remarks that the authorities were working to undermine the entire city water grid.

Upon further investigation, we learned that politicians had been steadily reducing the water infrastructure budget for five or six years and that there were huge losses in the grid. The political parties, regardless of their ideology, had taken to explaining that the only way to improve things was through a public-private partnership. The breaking point came in 2017 as a result of outages during the summer. In fact, we still don’t know whether those were a consequence of the drought or of manipulations to the grid to shift public opinion towards thinking that privatization had become “necessary”.
So it took three years to get from the first idea to starting the movement, which is not unusual for informal groups. We wanted to time it right ; a campaign’s success depends on the moment. We didn’t kick things off with a demonstration because it’s hard to mobilize enough people in Sarajevo. We preferred to start by pointing the finger at the people responsible. After all, it doesn’t matter how inept the leaders of the water department are, if those in power don’t allocate enough money for maintenance or if they knowingly appoint incompetents, then the source of the problem is political.

The outages created a smokescreen that we first had clear away. We wrote an open letter, collected signatures for it, and then sent it to the Sarajevo Canton Assembly with the explanation that they had the authority to change the situation. The aim was to let everyone know that they could not sell off our most essential resource just because the powers that be were unable to run a public enterprise properly.

Without going into detail, in two weeks the city had taken to the streets. In a month, the outages had stopped and investment in the water grid had started – the first monetary injection came in at 10 million KM (€ 5 million) ! At the same time, a radically new field of possibilities opened up, symbolized by our campaign slogan, “Water to the people”. That slogan evokes a glorious past (it is an allusion to the Partisan motto, “Death to fascism, freedom to the people”), a solution to the water cuts, and the chance for a different future where water is managed by the community instead of bureaucrats. The way we took action, planned, analyzed the situation, our good political judgment, agile tactics, and the way we activated a radical imagination all makes that experience an exceptional one for me still today.

CdB : How do you think the social uprisings of 2014 impacted mobilization and activism in BiH ?

S.N. : I find it very hard to answer this question. I am still reflecting and learning from those days. There are two points that have remained with me, though. Firstly, the wave might not have been a forerunner of a bigger unrest to come but the final spasm before the new order of reality finally settled and consolidated. The final spark of resistance coming not from the future but from the past. If this is so, it is clear why the new mobilizations are going in the direction of defending environment and public spaces, why they are very specific and limited. They represent recognition of new reality and reconciliation with new order. No big dreams to dream, no epic battles to fight.

Secondly, I am amazed more than ever what we pulled through back then. While we are constantly being told how it achieved nothing, I keep thinking how much was done in terms of grassroots organization and how swiftly and how something remarkable happened : the elites were afraid of us, the wretched of the Earth, people with the backbone broken decades ago. On a personal note, I must add that, together with Bebolucija, that continues to instill in me the sense of pride and dignity. We may have failed but it was a glorious failure in its own right – we succeeded in undermining all those who sought to once again ‘steal’ the protests and harness them. At least on the tactical level. They were nevertheless in the end stolen by the European Commission and their capitalist agenda for finalizing the neoliberal transition in the country.

CdB : How do you see the possibilities of collective action in BiH ? (not necessarily at a large scale but what does it requires in the bosnian context)

S.N. : At the moment, as I mentioned above, it is all about immediate, momentary defence actions. People mobilize around very specific things, most commonly to do with environment. They do it much more often and with rising determination and stamina. But organizational capacity is, to my mind, badly damaged and that very much dictates the course and character of actions. I do note with simpathy that we are seeing more and more direct actions. Some very brave. But I also note that we see little beyond that and the ‘legal process’ - the faith in the latter strikes me as almost insane given the state of judiciary in BiH. Getting involved in persistent daily field work, meticulous information gathering, dedication to building organization and developing political thinking and judgment – that I do not see. Even the political parties literally suck at that. No infrastructure, no growing, and consequently – no imagination.

But this should not lead to despair. It just means that we cannot take certain things for granted, we must return some steps back and build more solidly. With some of the mass, spectacular mobilizations we tried to cut corners but it did not work. Political recovery will take a lot longer than organizing a few protests or registering the zilionth political party with relatives and random passers-by running as elections candidates !