Against Passivity: the Open University in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Can the Open University in Bosnia and Herzegovina stimulate civil society and re-awaken momentum from last year’s protests? 

Civil society in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina has been trapped inside the post-Dayton debates that are characterized by a lack of new arguments, a passive intellectual and academic community, politically and socially insignificant NGOs, underdeveloped alternative political and social movements as well as a limited education system.

There is a need to find new forms of public discourse, engaged discussions and innovative alternative education.

There is also a need for the creation of a free space for the exchange of knowledge and experiences, as well as for independent intellectual development and academic production of the highest quality.

The protest and plenum movement that emerged in BiH in 2013 and 2014 exposed the major problems of post-Dayton Bosnia: political stagnation, economic and social devastation and a lack of political, social and economic alternatives. These protests probably represent the most important social upheaval in the post-socialist Balkans.

On February 5th, 2014, workers from several factories which had prey to privatization and destruction in the post-war transition united on the streets of Tuzla to demand their unpaid salaries and pensions. Many had been working for months without compensation. Soon, they were joined by students and other citizens from all walks of life. Clashes with police resulted in the burning of government buildings in Tuzla, which was replicated in other cities such as Mostar, Zenica and Sarajevo.

While the media and political class denounced “hooliganism” and “vandalism”, the protesters were busy establishing plenums, self-governed citizens’ assemblies that spread throughout the country, from Tuzla itself where the first plenum was formed, to the capital Sarajevo, regional centres such as Mostar and Zenica, and to smaller cities such as Bugojno, Bihać, Brčko, Travnik, and others.

As a result, many of cantonal ruling governments resigned, and cantons’ assemblies mostly accepted the main demands of the plenums — though implementation remains another issue. After long deliberations open to all citizens, similar demands echoed through the cities, though with some regional variety. They demanded the revision of privatization processes begun after the war, the end of excessive politicians’ benefits, and the formation of new state-level and local governments filled with people with proven expertise and no record of corruption.

The plenums of Bosnia thus represent the most radical experiment in non-institutional politics that can be found across the Balkans since the collapse of Yugoslavia. The form is clearly radical, although the participants themselves are of various political stripes and cannot be easily identified as left-leaning or belonging to the left. Enraged citizens simply rebelled against the degrading conditions of social and political life and spontaneously adopted citizens’ assemblies and horizontal forms of democracy as a way to articulate their demands and organize themselves autonomously.

The plenum movement shook the foundation of post-war Bosnia and the wider post-Yugoslav region, surprised both ethnonationalist political elites and the international community, and opened new spaces for social and political action. The plenums were operational, with various successes depending on the local situation, for almost three months. In various forms, via working groups, many plenums are still active. Engaged citizens now understand that plenums are a precious instrument that can easily be reactivated.

To sum up, a growing social movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina came out of the protests and the plenums and re-defined the public sphere and imposed a new political agenda, this time centered on the question of social justice and equality coupled with a profound critique of the disastrous capitalist economy implemented in this post-conflict country.

However, more than a year since the plenums and protests in BiH, we are faced with a current passivity of the movements as well as a new political paralysis after the general elections in October 2014. At these elections, no party was seen as representing social movements, although the discourse of social justice dominated both political spectrum as well as international community’s official positions.

It is clear that nascent social movements in BiH need a profound reflection of both political and socio-economic conditions in which they find themselves, as well as of their own functioning, organizational forms, current tactics, and overall political and social strategy. The Open University offers this much-needed platform for reflections and discussions within BiH and within the wider region and connects local and regional actors with broader European and international debates and mobilizations. The Open University also provides a space for these actors to meet and discuss.

Furthermore, according to a number of analyses of the higher education system in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is a clear absence of critical intellectual and research-based approaches to current political and socio-economic situation in the country, in the region, as well in a wider Europe. In one of those analyses (Bodo Weber, Crisis of the Universities Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Prospects of Junior Scholars, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2007) it has been stated that

“[t]he post-war Higher Education System in Bosnia and Herzegovina is strongly marked by the following characteristics: decentralization and ethnic divisions; growing number of education institutions and students; overlap between intellectual and political elites; corruption; ‘brain-drain’; and diminished research potential.”

The Open University started its activities two years ago, out of the need to find new forms of public discourse, engaged discussions, and innovative alternative education, as well as a free space for the exchange of knowledge and for independent intellectual development and academic production of the highest quality. The core team behind the Open University are Nidžara Ahmetašević, Igor Štiks, Dino Abazović, and Dinko Sijerčić.

The Open University aimed at gathering local and international experts, thinkers, and authors, who will contribute towards a development of public dialogue and a university-level and general education that is open and easily accessible to all. The platform serves as a public space all those who are willing to share their thoughts and suggest social, artistic and political alternatives.

The first and second Open University in Sarajevo, held in December 2013 and November 2014 was attended by approximately 100 people at each session (three sessions daily: open discussions, round tables and conversations) during three days. Participants were people of different backgrounds – academics, activists, scholars, journalists, artists, students, pupils, etc. Some of the topics that were opened in discussions were the role of the EU and the future of the region, the role of religion in society, feminism in the Balkans, economic transition and its hardships, process of dealing with the recent past, new social movements, debt, austerity and social alternatives, alternatives to capitalism, etc. It has been important to give a space to people not only from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also from the region (Srećko Horvat, Mitja Velikonja, Boris Buden Ivan Ergić, Adrijana Zaharijević, Viktor Ivancic, Aleš Debeljak, Oliver Frljić, Marta Popivoda…) as well as some international scholars (Gil Anidjar, Costas Duzinas, Nina Power, Eric Toussaint, Ed Wuliamy) to talk about these issues and offer different views and attitudes. All in all, the most important goal was achieved — to create a space for open, public debate in a Sarajevo which generally lacks this kind of public exchange.

Being aware that a Sarajevo-centric approach is sometimes part of the problem, it’s been decided that the Open University should be held in other cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well. Accordingly, this year’s program will take the Open University to Banja Luka.

During a two-day event in September (26th and 27th) participants on panels, round tables, and discussions will address issues such as the right to city and the future of urban struggles, culture and nationalism, post-Yugoslavia and post-socialism, the future of EU… Among others, participants are Jelena Miloš, Dražen Crnomat, Ana Vilenica, Armina Galijaš, Srdjan Puhalo, Aleksandar Trifunović, Emin Eminagić, Artan Sadiku, Boris Buden, Mitja Velikonja, Darko Cvijetić, Filip Balunović, Jasmina Husanović, Danijela Majstorović, Viktor Ivančić, Aida Sejdić… Marko Krojač’ exhibition MOnuMENTI is part of the program as well. We hope that the Open University in Banja Luka as well will confirm how it is a place that encourages a constructive dialogue about topics of social and political relevance which have been marginalized in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Open University will continue its work in Sarajevo as well, between the 26th and 29th of November, with overall theme “Who’s afraid of…” when we will discuss who’s afraid of alternatives, socialism, psychoanalysis, feminism, and Yugoslavia. The confirmed guests, among others, include Tariq Ali, Renata Salecl, Franco Berardi Bifo, G. M. Tamas, Walter Baier, Niccolo Milanese, Jasna Koteska, Damir Arsenijević, Željka Matijašević, Gal Kirn, Mate Kapović, Katerina Kolozova Ankica Čakardić, Dragan Markovina, Hrvoje Klasić, Gal Kirn…

This piece was written jointly by:
CODA – Centre for interactive education and social action 
Programme Board of the Open University

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