Ukraine and Bosnia: historic uprisings

March 16, 2014

From the new March-April 2014 issue of News & Letters:

World in View

Ukraine and Bosnia: historic uprisings

by Gerry Emmett

In Ukraine, an unexpected eruption of mass struggle led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s corrupt, oligarchic, and ultimately murderous President Viktor Yanukovych. In Bosnia, at the same time, massive, nationwide discontent with the corrupt system left in place when the 1995 Dayton Accords partitioned the country has led to the equally unexpected creation of new forms of democratic organization.

These movements continue the profoundly democratic aspirations unleashed worldwide by the Arab Spring. In both cases, the eruption of mass struggle also evokes profound depths of historic memory. It is a unique historic moment, the kind of moment that opens vistas to the future even as it sheds light on the past.

Clashes on Hrushevskoho Street in Kiev, Ukraine.

Clashes on Hrushevskoho Street in Kiev, Ukraine.


Yanukovych’s presidency rose from the turmoil following Ukraine’s independence, a part of the wave of movements which overthrew Communist rule in Eastern Europe and Russia. His faction of oligarchs is based in eastern Ukraine, in the old industrial region that was carved up among former Communist Party apparatchiks.

This is similar to what happened in Russia, and the ghost ship empire that President Vladimir Putin pursues, based in the neo-fascist ideology of Alexander Dugin. Both have the same ruling class base.

Panorama of Hrushevskoho Street, Kiev, Ukraine.

Panorama of Hrushevskoho Street, Kiev, Ukraine.

Anti-Yanukovych sentiment initially began last November with a few hundred students coming out to Independence Square (Maidan) to protest his decision to orient toward Russia’s proposed economic union. It was Yanukovych’s brutal treatment of these first protests that eventually brought a large part of Kiev’s population into the Maidan. He had tapped into a century’s worth of indignation, including the suffering Ukrainians underwent during Stalin’s genocidal famine, and the forced relocation of the Muslim Tatars.

The Ukraine that began to hear and speak for itself in the Maidan was made up of both Ukrainian and Russian speakers; it included historic Jewish and Muslim minorities; and significant parts were played by feminists and LGBT activists–examples of new human relations that must be expanded further.

A number of serious challenges face the mass movement. The politicians who were the movement’s public face will try to co-opt the street mobilizations for narrow bourgeois politics. Resistance to this has appeared in the lukewarm reception given to Yulia Timoshenko, a former president imprisoned by Yanukovych, but who represented some of the same interests when she held power.

These politicians, as seen in Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s recent words, will be willing to enforce even more severe austerity upon workers and the majority of people in the interests of capitalism. They have no other answer to economic crisis.

There is also the threat from the far Right, such as the Svoboda party and Right Sector, both of which were present in the Maidan. Ukrainian politicians of all parties have long been willing to co-opt the Right for their own uses. Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera has been honored as a “Hero of Ukraine” by government decree.

It was the mass mobilization of the Maidan that actually split the Right, with some neo-fascists moving toward Yanukovych, some the opposition. The Right’s opposition to European liberalism (i.e., Gay rights, women’s rights, etc.) marginalized their views within the mass movement. Nevertheless, their threat must be taken very seriously.

The situation is unstable. Russia’s imperial designs remain in effect. As we go to press, troops are seizing airports, roads, and government buildings in Crimea, site of Russia’s Sevastopol naval base. Russian troops in unmarked uniforms were presumably supported by locals willing to serve as Putin’s Ukrainian version of Bosnia’s Ratko Mladic and his militias. How far this might develop toward open warfare is unclear.


Sarajevo Plenum. Photo courtesy of #plenumsa - Plenum Sarajevo

Sarajevo Plenum. Photo courtesy of #plenumsa – Plenum Sarajevo

The current anti-capitalist rebellion in Bosnia began in Tuzla, the old industrial center. Discontent exploded nationwide, with police vehicles and government buildings burned, and officials’ cars seized and dumped into the rivers. The 1995 Dayton Accords set the stage for the growth of political elites, in some ways similar to Ukraine’s oligarchs, encouraged by international capitalism. In this case, however, they grew from the bureaucracy required to enforce ethnic apartheid.

Tuzla was one of the most militant cities in defending Bosnia’s multi-ethnic character in the 1992-1995 period, which saw an effort by Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, and his local instruments Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, to destroy that multi-ethnic character through genocidal attacks upon Muslims, Croats and those Serbs who rejected such neo-fascist politics.

Now that the country is suffering from 45% unemployment rates, with much industry closed down, and many who are working doing so without regular pay, the economic rebellion begins with rejecting narrow nationalism.

Sarajevo protest.  Sign says

Sarajevo protest. Sign says “Government = joint criminal project.” Photo by Stefano Giantin.

Bosnia’s history of struggle to preserve a multi-ethnic society lends a deep significance to the current movement. It speaks directly to the situation facing revolutionaries in Ukraine, for example, with the dual threat of Russian imperial chauvinism and the narrow authoritarian nationalism of Svoboda and the other right-wing forces that had a presence in the Euromaidan. Bosnians have historically fought their way through these reactionary ideas.

Photo courtesy of plenumsa – Plenum Sarajevo.

Marxist-Humanists declared Bosnia to be the test of world politics in the 1990s because the visage of Hitler had continued to arise in the wake of capitalist crisis. At a moment when capitalism was making every effort to divert attention from its deepening crises by attempting to define life along the contours of racism, ethnic and religious hatreds, misogyny and homophobia, the struggle to preserve Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage challenged that system.

We are living in an astonishing historic moment, when the unfinished business of the revolution of 1989 is coming together with the profound new impulses that have grown from the Arab Spring. The interplay of revolution and counter-revolution demands a philosophic comprehension that can help the freedom struggles develop toward full liberation. Marx’s great insight gleaned from Hegel was that revolutionary thought begins with the comprehension of exactly this kind of concrete historic struggle.


Kafranbel, Syria, demonstration March 7, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kafranbel Syrian Revolution,

Kafranbel, Syria, demonstration March 7, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kafranbel Syrian Revolution,

As Bosnia was the test of world politics in the wake of 1989, so the Syrian Revolution is the test today. Here a massive, non-violent freedom movement–fruit of the Arab Spring–was met with all the power and brutality that a fascist state, backed by bigger imperial powers, could muster.

Now, all of Assad’s tactics are openly genocidal: the barrel bombs designed only to terrorize and maximize civilian casualties; the starvation sieges (200,000 civilians are now subjected to these); the effort to drive rebellious populations from their homes and homeland.

The occupation of Syrian territory by Assad’s allies (Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi militias, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has slowly given the Syrian Revolution the character of a war of national liberation. The “international community” continues to treat the Assad regime as a legitimate party for negotiations, but it is clear to all in Syria that this genocidal, foreign-propped-up obscenity has lost all right to exist.

Demonstration in Kafranbel, Syria, Feb. 28, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kafranbel Syrian Revolution,

Demonstration in Kafranbel, Syria, Feb. 28, 2014. Photo courtesy of Kafranbel Syrian Revolution,

The unprecedented carnage has been the ultimate statement of the degenerate essence of the entire, crisis-ridden, utterly dehumanized state-capitalist world order. Day after day humanity has witnessed the mass murder of civilians: children, women, the elderly and most vulnerable, along with the many brave men and women who died fighting this horror.

The world that allows this genocide to happen, in full media view, is telling us what it holds in store for the future. It is what Marx termed “the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself.” It means immiseration of workers at the point of production that can explode into equally genocidal world war. This war threat was largely unspoken which is what makes Russian imperialism’s current military maneuvers in Ukraine all the more dangerous.

The great imperialist powers may come together to oppose revolution, as now, in which case we risk being reduced to mere spectators (or victims) of genocide. Or they may once again fall into world wars, in which case we risk seeing a miserable end to human history itself. But the unrelenting struggle for freedom in the face of this capitalist degradation, the profound humanism shown, for example, by the people under siege in Sarajevo in the 1990s, or in Homs or Maidan today, give every promise that a revolutionary transformation of reality is equally possible–is real, and can prevail.

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