Bosnia & Herzegovina: All power to the plenums?
February 23, 2014
It’s been two weeks since the start of the Bosnian rebellion. A recent poll has shown that 88% of the people in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina support the protests. These protests are still going on, but they are peaceful now and hence the media attention is no longer as great, even though the protests remain a much discussed topic in the region. However, perhaps the main locus of the protest movement has now switched to the direct democratic plenums (general assemblies) emerging all around Bosnia and Herzegovina.
General assemblies in their various forms are a very old means of direct democratic organization of the oppressed during times of protests, rebellions, strikes and revolutions (like the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia, 1936 in Catalonia or 1956 in Hungary). The earliest versions of some kind of general assemblies were already present in ancient Athens, while many ‘theorists of utopia’ imagine some kind of general assemblies in their blueprints of potential democratic societies in the future.
The sudden emergence of the plenums in large parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina has taken everybody by complete surprise. One could even say that the plenums themselves are the greatest positive development in the protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina so far. The first plenum appeared in Tuzla, the center and starting point of the protests, where the protesters were most articulated and most organized from the start. After that, plenums started to appear in other cities as well, taking Tuzla as their example.
The following cities now have their own plenums: Sarajevo (the capital), Tuzla, Zenica, Mostar, Travnik, Brčko, Goražde, Konjic, Cazin, Donji Vakuf, Fojnica, Orašje and Bugojno. Right now, regular sessions are taking place where people discuss political problems and make demands on the government (the most common being the revision of privatization issues, various social demands, taking away the privileges of the political class, and so on). There are also efforts ongoing to try to coordinate all the already existing plenums on the state level in order to develop universal and not just local demands. The first joint plenum is also planned in Sarajevo, with the arrival of the delegates of local plenums.
This is not the first time that the word plenum is used in the region with this concrete meaning, referring to a direct democratic ‘general assembly’. The first time the word was used in reference to general assemblies was during a great wave of university occupations in Croatia back in 2009. The same term later appears during the 2010 university occupations in Austria and Germany (though it’s not clear if this has some kind of direct link to the Croatian student movement or if it’s just a very strange coincidence), and in 2011 during the university occupations in Slovenia and Serbia (where there was a direct influence of the Croatian student movement).
The protesters who are organizing the plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina openly acknowledge that they are using the experiences of the Croatian student movement and their how-to-make-a-general-assembly manual called The Occupation Cookbook. Of course, all these plenums are very similar to the general assemblies the world witnessed in 2011 during Occupy Wall Street and elsewhere, so one can also indirectly relate them to the ‘Occupy tradition’ of the last couple of years. In any case, it is quite clear that one can find common patterns of horizontal organization around the world, which have very old roots, but have also been reinvigorated in recent times.
What is to be done?
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the plenums have certainly shown to be a highly useful method in organizing the protesters and articulating their demands. In the last couple of days, there are signs of evolution in the plenums, with their structure becoming more complex. Thus, just like in the Croatian student movement or during Occupy Wall Street, the plenum in Tuzla has organized working groups that are to deal with special issues, mimicking the ministries of the Tuzla canton: education, science, culture and sports; development and entrepreneurship; spatial planning and environment protection; coordination with workers, administration of justice and governance, industry, energy and mining; interior affairs; health care; agriculture, water management and forestry; commerce, tourism, transportation and communications; work and social policy; finances; war veterans’ problems; legal problems.
But the plenums are not without their faults. First of all, they are indeed a useful way to organize protesters, but they are not really representative of the general population. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are reportedly plenums with more than 1.000 people in attendance and in many case there are also live online feeds. However, 1.000 people at the Sarajevo plenum cannot really be representative of the whole city, which has more than 300.000 inhabitants. Not to mention the fact that the plenums are usually taken to represent not only one city but whole cantons, while for people living outside of the canton centers , getting to the plenums can be costly in terms of both time and money.
Of course, even if everybody could come it would be impossible to have a general assembly with tens of thousands of people. While bearing in mind that bourgeois representative democracy also has many flaws of its own and that it remains at best a very limited kind of democracy, still one should strive at making direct democracy as expansive and participatory as it can be. The unified plenums on the level of a city or canton are a great and completely legitimate way to start organizing during the protests, but they can hardly be a final solution. Even now there are plenums in smaller cities (like Cazin, Fojnica or Donji Vakuf), which are not cantonal centers and are concerned with more local issues (and not with canton-wide politics in general), but there seems to be no strict coordination between lower and upper level plenums (which is not necessarily a surprise in this early stage of plenum development).
There are a number of problems at stake here. One is whether the plenums can maintain their numbers after the protests subside (which has to occur at one point or another) and after their aura of novelty has gone. This appeared to be a great problem in the Croatian student movement, where the plenums have in time — after the occupations finished — diminished and slowly ceased to function, in one case only after a couple of years, but still (though it must be noted that, at least at some universities, the plenums still exist in a way, as they can always be assembled when deemed necessary). The future of the plenums in Bosnia and Herzegovina will partly depend on their successes. Some victories have already been achieved: in Tuzla the politicians, responding to the demand of the Tuzla plenum, have already given up some of their privileges (a yearly wage after they go off duty).
Still, it is generally difficult to expect a mass presence at the plenums forever. People have their own personal interests and, indeed, they have to work for a living (if they are lucky enough to work, since the unemployment rate stands at about 45% in Bosnia and Herzegovina). You cannot really expect someone working 8 hours (or more) per day to spend a couple of hours at a general assembly afterwards (if we want to achieve some kind of direct democracy we should obviously be striving towards a reduced working day). Also, it is hardly realistic to expect that everybody will want to decide on everything all the time.
That said, however, the idea of direct democracy is not that everybody has to decide on everything all the time. The point is that direct democracy should provide everybody with the possibility and the means of deciding directly on certain issues (if that is what they want to do). Thus, in theory we can indeed vote directly on everything, but in practice we’ll do it only when we want to and when there’s a very important decision to be made.
In bourgeois representative democracy, that is usually not possible (exceptions like Switzerland, with its many referenda, are rare), because almost all the decisions (except for a referendum here and there) are taken by the chosen representatives, who can do basically whatever they want during their elected term. In a direct democratic system, the difference would reside in the fact that the chosen representatives would not so much make their own decisions (except in the case of small, technical, everyday affairs), but would rather act upon the general decisions agreed upon by the assembly, which they would just carry out.
These “representatives” would be more like some kind of administrators who would be recallable at any time (again, through general assemblies, referenda, or other direct democratic means) if people do not approve of their work. How many decisions would in practice be left to the “administrative autopilot” (if we’re pleased with it) and how many decisions would be taken directly by everyone — at local, city, region or country level — would be a matter of choice, concrete circumstances and political needs.