Notes from a journey to Sarajevo - Petar Petrović

A few impressions and speculations about the state and economy of Bosnia, by a revolutionary from Serbia who visited in 1998.

Submitted by Spassmaschine on August 24, 2009

After the wars in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia-Hercegovina), and after similar accompanying capitalist agressions across the world, in a small group of people that I know and with whom I like to discuss, a discussion developed about the immediate course of the development and spread of global capitalism in this region. After enough hours of discussion, reading of different materials and personal contacts with people affected by that newest course taken by capitalism, we drew some conclusions about the strategy of global capitalism and about neocolonialism.

Theory is one thing, practice is something else. This is something we know very well. Because of that (and besides personal experiences, “first hand” information, personal contacts etc.) I decided that I would familiarise myself with the given material at its source. Although it was possible for me to visit the B-H Federation, because of lack of time, money and various other factors I was not in a position to travel across the country, gathering a lot more information, meeting a lot more people… and, who knows, maybe establishing some revolutionary contacts. My journey amounted to passing through Republika Srpska and staying in the Canton of Sarajevo1 .

New geography, new borders
If I didn’t know that Zvornik was the border between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SRJ) and Republika Srpska (RS, part of the B-H Federation) and if the police hadn’t stopped the bus and asked to look at identity cards (an interesting situation, on crossing a border I am used to being asked for a passport, visas, letter of introduction, money as a deposit…), it is possible that I would never have noticed the border.

Nevertheless, as soon as you enter Republika Srpska there is still noticeable damage to civilian buildings because of the fighting over the control of the hydro-electric plant in Zvornik. There are also many new graves. New crosses, new tomb stones, every one marking a lost proletarian life, blinded by nationalism and given in the service of capital.

Not far from Zvornik I passed through two former villages - Gornja and Donja Kasaba (“Upper Small Town” and “Lower Small Town”). In them the majority of the inhabitants were Bosnian Muslims2 . I say that they were because the local inhabitants have finally been saved from the idiocy of rural life. Those who managed to escape are now completely proletarianised in some town or other and those who didn’t manage to escape stayed here somewhere, in a mass grave. On one wall, the only one left standing in a whole house, is the graffiti “Arkan” (a famous Serb nationalist military leader, a gangster from Belgrade). I’m not sure who did that. Nor do I want to know. I’m only sure that it was done by the dogs of war, mercenaries, convicts offered the remission of their sentences, lackies of someone from the regime… Those who we call ordinary people, neighbours, workmates, who lived side by side for decades did not carry out this kind of evil. They were the ones who were sacrificed.

At the time of my trip elections were in progress. Obviously the pre-election campaign was not short of money. I didn’t see any promotional meetings (except on TV), close contact between politicians and people etc., but I saw unlimited amounts of posters and printed material. Everything was so similar to the elections in F. R. Yugoslavia (and elsewhere) that, apart from a touristic curiosity, I didn’t pay them any more attention.

A single interesting thing which stood out at me from the campaign posters was how striking the former lines of separation between the warring sides were3 . It is easy to know which army controlled the territory by whether the posters are in the Latin or the Cyrillic alphabet (naturally, you can also know by which candidate has their picture on the poster, in so far as they mean anything to you).

The elections themselves were an absolute farce as usual. Even under OSCE control nothing of any interest could happen in that capitalist circus. The fall of the influence of the nationalist parties is noteworthy (apart from in Republika Srpska, where Nikola Poplašen, representing the Radical Party of RS, won) but, nevertheless, they are still in power. Only two parties of (doubtful) left orientation, the SDP4 and the Social Democrats, won, altogether, 156,057 votes, which compared with 511,309 votes won by Alija Izetbegović alone, or 1,879,339 votes over all, doesn’t amount to much.

Enough about the elections. We know that they are a lie and a great evil for the working class. Only one thing remains to be noted, that only 70.7% of possible voters went to vote. Even this is debatable because refugees had the right to vote and they could lose the right to aid if they didn’t vote.

Government, real government, the OSCE and all that
So, there were elections, the international community verified them by means of the OSCE, administrative bodies were constituted, leaders were chosen, but who are the real leaders and who has real power in the Federation?

Clearly, Carlos Westendorp and the OSCE have the real political power, maintained by the troops of S-FOR, international political organisations, multinational capital and the NGOs. Obviously, Westendorp and the OSCE do not have anything other than pure political, executive power. They carry out the assignment of all tasks. Armed clashes are prevented, armies returned to barracks, the state is constituted (in the full splendour of neoliberalism) with borders, a flag, a national anthem… Clashes between Serbs, Bosnians and Croats, which appeared so horrible that they could never be stopped, now seem far away and unreal.

The state currency (the Convertible Mark - KM) easily penetrates the RS and in the other entity, the Federation, was, beside the German Mark, the legal means of payment from its inception. The market begins to move because money is no longer a battleground of nationality. Land and housing are sold, housing is exchanged for corresponding housing in other towns.

A Ministry of Finance has been established. For now it’s just on paper, but there are some indications that it will soon begin its work of collecting taxes and duties across the whole state (obviously, it will be necessary to put pressure on the Serbs from RS because in their entity the KM is not accepted, apart from by traders on the black market, only the DM and the Yugoslav Dinar).

With the simple use of the state, state bodies and institutions, the OSCE quietly prepares the ground for further capitalist butchery. It was clear that no one nationalist group was in a position to create the strong state which capital needed in the region, and so, after years of futile massacres in the course of capitalist war, multinational capital itself took on the formation of a state.

If one of the local nationalist leaders should arouse apetites for new territory or for more power, whether it is Alija Izetbegović, Živko Radišić, Ante Jelavić or someone else, they will immediately be involved in military confrontation with the forces of S-FOR. But because prevention is better than cure there are a large number of humanitarian organisations and NGOs in the territory of the B-H Federation.

NGOs & humanitarian organisations
To those who follow the discussions of the left in recent years the role of NGOs in neocoloni­alism and neoliberalism, two forms of capitalism which have evolved, should be well-known. The role of humanitarian organisations is still not examined sufficiently (at least in the humble opinion of the author of this text) but it deserves to be analysed more deeply because it is clear the NGOs and humanitarian organisations appear side by side wherever and whenever it is necessary for capitalism.

The NGOs in B-H have the role of an undercover policeman. They have money for financing appropriate (appropriate for capital, obviously) organisations or media. Also, those projects are carried out according to their plans by a large percentage of foreign “volunteers”, perma­nently employed by the NGOs. And they do the financing and decide what will be financed and how much it will be financed, even impose their own conditions. So it is with the various independent radio stations, independent TV stations, independent newspapers, women’s organisations, student organisations, peace movements etc. which are financed by the NGOs. This is an excellent ideological foundation for the creation of public opinion. To use military terminology: logistical support.

Humanitarian organisations can be divided into two groups: those that get rid of rubbish from their own countries and a political group of humanitarian organisations. In the first group we can include groups such as WFP (World Food Program), ECHO, HELP, CARE. As is generally known in the region of former SFRY, where war has raged since 1991, those organi­sations empty warehouses of medicines which are past their use-by date, bring comple­tely useless material which is rarely used in health care, bring material which is too old to be useful for health care, bring food which is past its sell-by date, rotten food. Sometimes it seems like this region is becoming a huge rubbish dump. Because the process of recycling medicines and other medical material, and getting rid of rotten food, is very expensive the humanitarian organisations can put on the smiling face of the philanthropist and drag all their rubbish here. In comparison with these “humanitarian organisations”, McDonald’s, which such a racket is raised against, look like kids. Those organisations will carry out free recycling with a dose of humanity and capitalist democratisation. Of course, they can bring in and store the foreign rubbish. If it pays.

From a personal contact I knew of one example where a dog which was constantly fed from tins for a period of one week lost all its fur. Also unofficially, I found out that many doctors refuse to treat patients with donated medicines and materials, and in stead send them to FRY or Croatia, because they will have better health care.

The other group of humanitarian organisations, the political ones, is lead by the muslim organisations, including the governments of various Islamic countries (Saudi Arabia, for example). This humanitarian aid is distributed according to religious affiliation in a simple way. It is distributed in the mosque. They also finance hospitals, with a strong pressure of Islamism in the organisation, in the work and in the reception of the hospital, as well as some “mesdžida”5 , something we can describe as a school and a place where you can learn reli­gious instruction. It is clear that Islamic capital has some influence over this region, but it is also obvious that it has lost the battle against Western multinational capital.

The urban population are resisting Islam and the islamicisation of society. It is obvious to them that in place of ten mosques they could very easily build housing, which everyone needs. Because of that resistance the Islamic religious leader in B-H, Mustafa Cerić, lobbies, I can say without any hope of success, for the introduction of religious instruction in school.

Islam rests on the rural population who are under its strong patriarchal influence, as well as on the uneducated masses under the influence of the media. We must also take into account the muslim refugees from Sandžak, part of FRY, who during the war were actively involved in the Bosnian Army. And then there are the professional muslim Jihad warriors.

There exist as well various humanitarian organisations which belong to various religious sects, the Krishna Consciousness Movement, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists etc.

The economy
The economy in the B-H Federation barely exists. In conversation with DS, a communist and economist, I found out that as a real percentage only 8% of the working population are employed. The official figures aren’t much better. They say that employment is 20%. In any case, proletarians are deprived even of the possibility of selling the one thing they have - their labour power. All jobs are jobs either in the social organs of administration or for some NGO, humanitarian organisation or diplomatic representation. The average pay is 250 KM per month. They say this is enough to survive for a whole month, but I’m not so sure after what I saw of prices in the shops.

Former soldiers (including a big percentage who refused recruitment and participation in the war) cannot get hold of several years of their pay. While the war was on the state payed their wages into savings books for the state bank. Now the payment of deposits from those accounts is suspended. Nobody can say when the ex-soldiers will receive their pay. Those who died certainly won’t get it.

It’s a similar thing with pensions. They are extremely low (around 100 KM) and three months late. It is interesting that there exists a certain violent division between pensioners. One section of pensioners receive their pension more often than the others. It is possible that once again it is a matter of rewarding the obedient and punishing the disobedient.

You get the impression that the whole of B-H is in a process of construction. But this is an illusion. Building material (particularly wood) from RS is exported to FRY. Private businesses (as well as mosques) are built from humanitarian funds. The Hotel “Holiday Inn”, where the war practically began, is now completely renovated and in front of it is fountain which works 24 hours a day while in the town the water is cut off in the evenings.

They invest in the renewal and restoration of business ventures which soon after renovation declare themselves unprofitable. Then they buy them up straight away and renovate them with money from humanitarian aid. This is related to the strong links between the political elite and local capital.

Housing is being built very slowly. It isn’t profitable because people have no money. Enough people live in refugee settlements (often without even the minimum living requirements), disused factory workshops, improvised shelters… Now they are torn from their houses, flats and properties (in so far as anything is left of them) which remain under the control of the ceded territory.

The biggest export sector in B-H is electrical energy. The power stations remain undamaged and depend on the fact that whoever controls them can sell the electricity. According to official figures, most of it is sent to Croatia but I know personally that FRY takes a big piece of that cake, particularly because we know that the Serbian armed forces insisted on seizing territory around the Drina, a river with a lot of power stations.

Everybody knows that to take a loan from multinational capital is to become a slave. B-H has borrowed a huge amount of money and is always seeking new creditors.

Thus in the newspaper Dnevni avaz (17.9.98) the USAID Business Development Program puts out three advertisements in which it is announced that five people/companies will be criminally liable because of unpaid debts.

International capital enters B-H easily. Still, you get the impression that the ground is not yet sufficiently prepared for general colonisation. Capital is still searching for firm ground.

The short conclusion must be: an even more serious capitalist assault awaits the working class of B-H.

The international division of labour
What is the place of B-H in the international division of labour? Naturally, its place will only be clearly defined when everything quitens down and when international capital enters industry. The country is rich in mineral resources, a strong wood-processing industry, electri­cal energy production, iron works in Zenica and other places, the same as well as mines in Tuzla. Agriculture and cattle should also be mentioned.

According to unofficial information, Volkswagen recently launched the first Škoda car assembly line from TAS6 in Sarajevo. A military industry is rising up to create the new army. Already a factory in Livno has taken a 30,000 DM order to make uniforms for the new armed forces of the Federation.

However, the immediate situation points (at least for now) towards the working class in B-H being assigned a slave status. They must direct themselves to everyday survival. And that is particularly hard when there aren’t enough jobs and the price of labour power is very low.

The market in brains is very profitable. Because of this a lot is put into the renewal and modernisation of the economic, electrical engineering and philosophy colleges. Everyone at college with a knowledge of English (or some other foreign language) and computer skills, longs to go to a foreign country. In this they are “helped” by various specialised companies or some of the NGOs. After the USA, Canada is the most highly regarded destination.

As consolation, Sarajevo is plastered with adverts for Coca-Cola. Motorola and Nissan. The adverts cover up the wounds of war, and that’s why the Hyundai show room is so beautiful.

Perspectives for a revolutionary movement
For a long time a certain group of revolutionaries had a plan to send necessary printed material with a revolutionary content to B-H7 . However, despite intensive effort, it simply wasn’t possible to get hold of an address in B-H which revolutionary material could be sent to safely, and where it would be used for the right purpose.

Thus I failed to establish any revolutionary connections in B-H. And apart from close contacts with genuine communists nothing else was any use. The parties already mentioned (SDP and Social Democrats) are capitalist parties, which, on the advice of comrades from B-H, I did not contact. The Communist Party does not exist either. Revolutionary cells have not been created. Communists, revolutionaries, are isolated and unconnected with each other.

The broad masses of the working class are right now “enjoying” capitalist peace, harnessed with mass consumption goods from the West and with spectacles (sport, the papal visit, rock concerts with bands from all over former Yugoslavia, U2 concerts…). Because of privatisation and high unemployment, any kind of workers organisation is completely non-existent. The occasional strikes and work stoppages do not have a revolutionary, but only a purely economic character and in 90% of cases are condemned to defeat from the start. Clearly, the revolutionary movement was impeded by the war and finds itself in decline.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that B-H is suffering from the same disease as all “post-socialist” countries. Working class, proletariat, revolution, communism, workers’ councils, autonomy, expropriating the land… all of those kind of words, will, if you use them, in the best case raise a smile and you will be taken for a fool. To people from those countries it has for a long time been “carved” into their heads that what has passed was evil and that only capitalism can bring good.

Maybe this sounds banal and insignificant, but it is my opinion that in communication with the masses we must proceed much more carefully. Some words can be avoided without losing the sense of the message. This is something we should think about and discuss.

Petar Petrović

Translated from Serbo-Croat by George Gordon, London. Taken from the No War But The Class War website.

  • 1Perhaps it is necessary to say that the onetime Bosnia-Hercegovina is now officially known as the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and that is made up of two entities (Republika Srpska and the Federation, which is made up of the parts under the control of Bosnian Muslims and Croats) and ten cantons: Unsko-sanski, Posavina, Tuzlansko-podrinjski, Zeničko-dobojski, Bosansko-podrinjski, Srednjobosanski, Hercegovačko-neretvanski, Zapadnohercegovački, Sarajevo and Hercegbosanski. [They are also just known as Canton 1 to Canton 10, in the order above. If you are really interested in this kind of stuff you can check out the OSCE Mission to B-H web site at: but I don’t recommend it - Translator’s Note].
  • 2Official propaganda in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia and Montenegro) calls the non-Serb and non-Croat inhabitants of the B-H Federation muslims (with a small “m” because muslims are considered as a religion and not as a nation) while the inhabitants of the Federation call themselves Bošnjaci. These are some new, little divisions (like when the universal Serbo-Croat is divided into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) which now seem pitiful and ridiculous, but which will automatically insert the capitalist “us and them” division into future generations of people who once considered themselves to be the same as each other.
  • 3It has to be said that the B-H Federation is, despite all the confusion provoked by nationalist demagoguery, war, artificial hatred and all the other political weapons, at the moment a very peaceful country. The OSCE, by means of its armed wing S-FOR, maintains capitalist peace excellently and has forced all the other armed units to return to their barracks.
  • 4SDP - Party of Democratic Change. It seems to be mostly people who were earlier in the Communist Party of B-H.
  • 5Like the Turkish word “Mescit” - Translator’s note.
  • 6Before the war Volkswagen was in business with TAS. VW Golfs are made there.
  • 7Under military siege conditions lasting many years, the inhabitants of Sarajevo were forced to use books as fuel. Enough works of important revolutionary value were burned that way. The new government, like the other states originating from the SFRY, doesn’t print revolutionary material. [Here the author is not just referring to the works of Marx and Engels, which are worth having in any language, but also to a lot of other stuff published in the Serbo-Croat language which is of interest to revolutionaries - from the writings of late 19th Century socialists from the region to modern works by Yugoslav academic Marxists, such as Laslo Sekelj, who have produced genuinely anti-capitalist material. - Translator’s Note]