Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

A plenum convened in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on February 9, 2014 (via Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso)

The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.

It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union).  I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.

And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.

But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.

In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.

Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east  and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.

But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.

It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.

While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.

What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla,  Zenica and elsewhere.

As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum.  That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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One Response to Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III)

  1. Pingback: Plenums and Power (Power v. Force III) | The Absurd Word Bird

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