Bosnian Plenums Offer ‘New Model of Democracy’

Edinburgh professor Nigel Osborne tells Balkan Insight that the plenum movement is a refreshing inspiration to the rest of the region on how to transform society from the bottom-up.

Professor and a human rights activist Nigel Osborne says that in the February protests the people of Bosnia spoke up for the first time in more than two decades – and the newly formed plenums were a possible role model for many other societies in the region.

‘There is a chance for something new, imaginative, pragmatic and effective – very possibly of a benign left-wing character – that can offer a practical and refreshing model to neighbours and others beyond,’ he said.

‘There is a clear and practical pathway to reform. It is ‘bottom-up’ transformation through the plenum movement.’

The Edinburgh professor, who has dedicated years of work to Bosnia, is one of the coordinators of the International Support Group for Social Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Scientists, professors and writers in Edinburgh recently formed the group to promote social justice, democratization, equality, the rights of workers and the rule of law.

Amid the turbulence of the events in Bosnia in February, the group was a response to the formation of the plenums and an attempt to offer support to the citizens’ assemblies and to social justice in general.

Osborne told Balkan Insight that Bosnia and Herzegovina was a place where something new had already begun to happen in that sense.

Speaking about the plenums held in several towns in Bosnia, Osborne said he was impressed by quality of debate, the rigour of the democratic process, the openness and the inclusiveness.

‘I appreciate and value the ‘raw’ nature of personal expression in the plenums. I see it as a return to a genuine social honesty and authenticity on which real social justice and progress can be based,’ he said.

‘I heard the voice of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time in a quarter of a century,’ he added. ‘There is inevitably a ‘lull’ at this point, but the movement will regain momentum soon. It is in the interest of everyone that the plenum movement succeeds.’

The protests started in the northern town of Tuzla on February 5, when several hundred redundant workers from large companies that had been privatized and shut down, took to the streets.

The protests then spread and also turned violent, resulting in buildings being burned in Tuzla, Zenica, Mostar and Sarajevo, including the Bosnian Presidency, where the state archives are also stored.

The prime ministers of four of the cantons in Bosnia’s Federation entity subsequently resigned.

Some of the goals of the Support Group are to lobby the international community to heed the newly found voice of the people of Bosnia and respect the new forms of democracy that are issuing from the plenum movement.

It also aims to organize a high-level group of international lawyers to defend protesters and plenums, ensure the police are not manipulated politically as well as ensure that the media respect truthfulness and openness and reject censorship.

‘In many ways, it is a shame that events of a far less creative nature in the Ukraine have overshadowed developments that offer hope not only to Bosnia but to other parts of Europe and possibly a wider world,’ Osborne told Balkan Insight.

‘From a purely personal point of view I was surprised that the protests took so long to happen, given the steady decline in wealth and opportunity, in particular among young people, the continuing financial irregularities in public life and ongoing political paralysis,’ he said.

The International Support Group for Social Justice and the Open University in Sarajevo this Friday plan to hold a discussion on the perspectives of the plenums and on the ways they should continue to work.
Apart from Osborne, the Support Group includes Edinburgh scholar Igor Stiks, the writer and a professor from Ljubljana Ales Debeljak, the US-Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, the Croatian writer Srecko Horvat, historian Srdja Pavlovic, Edinburgh professor Jo Shaw, economists Eric Toussaint and Yanis Varoufakis and London philosopher Costas Douzinas.

The upcoming discussion in Sarajevo plans to sum up what has been achieved and discuss what direction the plenums should take in the future.

‘I have been a witness to and participant in a number of significant social changes, including the Solidarity movement in Poland, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the peace process in
Northern Ireland,’ Osborne recalled. ‘I have to say that the plenum movement is to me one of the healthiest and most promising.’

‘So far, it has achieved a definition of and a clear structure and identity for itself as well as a number of valuable political and policy changes at both cantonal and municipality levels – this is not a bad achievement for 12 weeks,’ he continued.

‘The lessons learnt are, I suspect, in the value of a healthy organism, relativity and common sense,’ he added.

‘The most important lesson of all has yet to be learnt by the population at large. If they want to live in the Bosnia the plenums represent, they have to overcome apathy and unnecessary fear and come out to support them.’

However, Osborne said the plenums had to balance being entirely open with avoiding manipulation or infiltration, and they have to balance making a clean sweep and a political tabula rasa with the need to use carefully chosen individuals with political skills and experience.

‘Most significantly, they have had to combine revolutionary energy and righteous anger with measured, well-thought-out action,’ he said. ‘The plenums are not an organ of democracy, they are an instrument for democracy… an invaluable source of conscience, ethics, dynamism and good citizenship, and the only available instrument for change.

‘My personal view is that change will take place through a combination of the slow hard work of small groups and individuals and rapid change through peaceful mass action,’ he observed.

‘I see many parallels with the development of Citizens’ Forum in Czechoslovakia in 1989, but I do not expect Bosnians to throw down the crown, like King Lear, and capitulate to international pressure and the IMF as Havel and his circle did.

‘I expect Bosnia to hold its head high and draw on its enormous human capital to make big strides forward socially, culturally and economically,’ he concluded.

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