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Lessons from Bosnia - Part 3
The only president I remember in my childhood was a guy called Josip Broz, also known as Tito. He died few months after I was born, and we must have had a president during the first ten years of my life, however, I do not remember ever hearing about him, and I am certain that his picture did not hang in every classroom in my school right above the large green board. That’s where we had Tito’s picture. We also had Tito’s head sculpted in the large entrance hall. My first school picture, with the whole class, has Tito in it. It was all about Tito, a guy who was dead.
At the time, I didn’t know that mattered. I was a child told that Tito was an amazing man who led our beloved Yugoslavia from one victory to the next. It was all thanks to Tito. He deserved so much of our respect, that every year on the anniversary of his death the sirens would sound for a minute of silence and we were all expected to stop whatever we were doing and stand still and completely quiet in honour of the dead president. And we did. I remember one year I was outside, playing with other kids (I am one of those generations) and we all stopped and stood still when the sirens went off.
The stories of Tito that I heard at home were somewhat different to what I was told in school. Apparently, my grandparents owned a house before I was born. But the house was located in a desirable area, so ‘Tito’ demolished it and offered my grandparents some kind apartment on the outskirts of the town. My mother took the decision to court and my grandparents ended up with an apartment in the high-rise building that was built on their land. They received some money too, but no one ever asked them if they wanted to live in a highrise building, cooped into a small apartment, without a garden, and a chance to grow their own food. In fact, there were those who thought that since my family was religious (i.e. not a member of the communist party) they were lucky to get anything, and they considered my mother very brave for fighting to get them more than they were initially offered. It was such a big deal, that my mother couldn’t find a lawyer to represent her, she had to represent herself in the court. There were many of those who were not so lucky or brave, and they ended up losing their property in exchange for something not worth a fraction of what they had.
The main reason for this demolition of houses to build high-rise buildings was a steel factory in my hometown. The factory needed a lot of workers and they needed someplace to live. This factory featured heavily in my childhood, and even later in life.
I grew up in a small, badly designed apartment my mother got from the steel factory. That’s where she worked. When I say badly designed, I mean everyone I know has moved at least one wall. It is a wonder that the buildings are still standing. And architecture students from other parts of the world come to see what not to do. But, everyone had someplace to live. Sure, some people lost a house with a garden and had to move into concrete blocks, but so what? As long as they don’t complain, it was fine. And if they did complain, there were ways to stop those complaints.
Your place of work was the key to your standard of living — this is what I came to believe as a young girl. My mother worked for a steel factory in Zenica. Apparently it was one of the biggest ones in the former Yugoslavia. My grandfather worked for the same factory, and that helped my mother get a job there even though they did completely different jobs.
This steel factory employed about 22,000 people even though there was work for about 5,000, if that. However, the system guaranteed everyone a job, so everyone had a job whether they had work or not.
Despite this inefficiency, the factory made huge profits year after year which were invested into all sorts of things including hotels where the employees could stay at almost no cost. I should mention that the wages were worked out differently. No one could get more than three times the lowest wage. In other words, if the lowest paid employee received $10 an hour, no one could get more than $30 an hour. I guess this kept the labour costs down. We could say they had their own ways of keeping costs down, yet motivated their employees in ways other than money; things like better apartments, holidays, even to borrow money.
My mother made the most of all her privileges. I remember she always spoke about paying back the ‘kasa’ so she could take it out again. It was like a loan for all kinds of things. I think that’s how my mother bought all our furniture, and then some, a car, and such.
We also went on holidays very often. One of the main reasons for this was that every winter I had lung-related problems due to the pollution from the factory. And the factory polluted A LOT. My hometown had a unique aroma. I know wherever I went I could smell my clothes. I couldn’t smell them at home, but as soon as we leave Zenica, I could smell them.
In short, this factory was a big part of my life, and many people around me. It was like a life line, yet a killer at the same time. Not only because it polluted our air. In some ways, pollution is less dangerous because it is easy to notice as a negative. Far worse was the evil no one saw. In fact, many people thought of it as a virtue: No one needed to worry about getting a paid job. Zeljezara, the steel factory, was there. The assumption was that it would always be there, giving. Just giving. Alright, it was also polluting, but people couldn’t do anything about that, and perhaps it was a small price to pay. After all, it employed so many people, giving them a better life, surely we should tolerate the very poor air quality.
I was about 10 years old when my mother needed another job since Zeljezara was behind on paying its employees. And even when it did pay them, it gave them some kind of vouchers. I remember those very well. They looked like Monopoly money except we could use them to buy food.
Soon after that, my parents got divorced, my mother worked 2–3 jobs at a time, barely able to put food on the table. But very few people complained. That’s when I realised that it was possible to be poor, yet impossible to be rich. I don’t think I knew anyone who was rich, yet many people suddenly became very poor. At the same time, the news was watched far more frequently, and with greater attention.
There was talk of something called referendum. Back then I felt like the adults couldn’t make up their mind if this was good or bad, yet it was also unavoidable. Some said that the referendum could lead to freedom and Bosnia being the richest of all former-Yugoslav republics, while others said that it would lead to war and Bosnia would become Greater Serbia.
My childhood changed forever when the dead president was no longer relevant, and a whole bunch of new names became very relevant. Some good, some evil, some dead. Suddenly everyone was mentioning someone called Dzmaludin Bjedic. He was killed. Not only that, but Tito was no longer the man who did it all. In fact, I remember one woman said to my mother: “What did he do? For decades we had nothing. We were forced to take part in youth actions, building railways for a bowl of beans a day. Yeah, later on, your generation, had a better life, and how long did that last? 20, 30 years? He did nothing but promote himself, keeping things still just while he was alive. He knew the dangers of cetniks and ustasa, and he just turned a blind eye.”
I heard about cetniks and ustasa. Very, very bad people from Serbia and Croatia, respectively, who didn’t believe in brotherhood and unity, and they murdered innocent people who wanted brotherhood and unity. To this day, that is reasonably accurate. And to this day I don’t understand why Tito did not persecute them the way he persecuted ‘Young Muslims’ organisation. In fact, later I learned that this organisation did nothing wrong, and among the prisoners of the late 40’s and early 50’s were my grandmother’s brothers. Yet, by the time I was 11, there was a war in Croatia, and we heard songs about Muslims being in grave danger because Tito was no longer there to defend them.
Needless to say, the whole situation was very confusing. I had no idea that evil people existed. We had a prison. I walked past it often on my way from school, and I knew criminals lived there, but that was it. The only crime that happened in my hometown was a murder that took place two years before I was born, and it was an event that people mentioned with such devastation that my whole life I believed no one would ever kill another innocent person.
My mother went out to vote in the referendum. It went well. I could tell she was nervous when she went. The wait was a torture for her, and then she was very happy with the result. Even as a child I thought this meant that our lives would be much better. But the hope was short lived.
By then, the reality of war was much bigger. A guy called Keradzic was openly speaking about Muslims being in danger, and very rough-looking bunch of cetniks were on our TV screens. Yet, everyone I heard thought that with such a huge win for Bosnia in the referendum, we’d be saved by someone out there. I understood nothing of the UN back then, and the more I learned the less I understand, to be perfectly honest.
I was barely 12 when the situation went from bad to worse. For Eid of that year the whole family came together, but no one was happy. They took us, children, to a local funfair. I went onto a ride excited, I came off the ride to find that all the men went to join ‘territorial defence’.
And then I remember seeing all the prisoners of the big prison up on the roofs demanding to be let out. I had never seen them so out, so this too was confusing.
And then the bridge was blocked.
We had horror stories from other cities in Bosnia.
And then life in shelters. We didn’t have enough food, and the adults didn’t seem to care much about that. They were too preoccupied with trying to hear a small radio.
We left Bosnia a few months into the war. Since then I have lived in a democracy, yet I have never studied democracy in any of the educational institutions I attended. I had to study democracy on my own. Hence, it was easy for me to understand people’s reaction when they heard about representative versus direct democracy. No one had any idea that such things existed.
Dayton Peace Agreement (I wrote about it previously) told Bosnians that they have democracy. We all believed it, myself included. It was just a unique form of democracy, not yet discovered anywhere. For almost 3 decades now we’ve been trying to define Dayton system using democratic rules. It just doesn’t fit no matter how you look at it. It is just not democratic. However, what really matters is how people behave just because they believed they have democracy.
Bosnians have some freedoms. They are free to exercise their right to complain, they are free to express their opinions… Well, sort of. Let me put it this way: ‘punishment’ for expressing unwanted opinion is not longer jail time, but you might find yourself accused for crimes you did not commit, or unemployed and unemployable, getting fines that have nothing to do with you yet you’ll have to go to court to sort them out… Stuff like that. Little things that can make your life a living hell.
Bosnians are also free to vote for their representatives. However, it’s getting to the point where we’ll have a political party for every 50,000 people or so, who will be devoted to their members and ONLY their members. So, this has not changed since the communist party ruled. Somehow, this has been carried into democracy. In fact, back in the day of the communist party, politisation was considerably lower than now. After all, back then there was only one political party and one ruler, now there are MANY.
For many Bosnians democracy means being a member of a political party. In fact, it is assumed that you would become a member so that you can enjoy certain privileges. I have been told to become a member of an existing political party or even start my own, if I want to get anywhere.
Despite the benefits that could come (and often do) from being in a political party, many Bosnians choose not to. Among them some find politics so annoying that they want nothing to do with it. We organised an event titled ‘if you’re not involved in politics, politics will do whatever it wants’. The topic we discussed was that politics has the power, there is nothing we can do about that. However, in a democracy, if we don’t lose sight of ourselves, we can influence how much power and how that power will be exercised.
People in Bosnia love Bosnia. I don’t think anyone can doubt that, but getting involved with politics without becoming a politician for many is a waste of time. Not only is the system designed so that there is no majority, or the majority of the population cannot get their voice heard, it is designed to serve only the three ‘tribes’, as I mentioned in the previous article.
One of the three tribes isn’t large enough to hold any kind of serious power. However, the EU has given that group power. Now, not only are Bosnians disappointed by the system, they are seeing the EU grant power to a minority, or the smallest of the three tribes. At the same time, the EU is ignoring the rulings of the EU courts. This is something that Bosnians did not expect. There was almost a belief that Europeans are at least proud of their own. Now that the EU has proved that they don’t respect even their own rule of law, Bosnians increasingly believe that democracy is a system where there is no accountability.
One of the most famous cases in the recent history of Bosnia is called Sajdic and Finci. This was a member of Roma and Jewish community coming together to fight for their right in their own country. If Bosnia was a democracy, I doubt either Sejdic or Finci would have had to fight for their rights. In fact, many in Bosnia wonder what kind of system would allow someone like Finci to be without rights. And people wonder why are either of these men ‘minority’. I remember talking to a group of people and they agreed that Finci being a Jew makes no difference at all. One person said “How idiotic is it that some Pakistani Muslim or German Christian who came to Bosnia few years ago, can have more rights and be members of majority, yet Finci, who has been here when it mattered the most, is a member of a minority?” I have to admit, that is tough to explain. The only reason Finci is considered a minority is his religion. We will talk more about religions in a future article/talk.
In short, EU has given too much power to one ‘minority’ group, while it has ignored the needs of other ‘minority’ groups. Yet the voice of the majority is completely ignored to respect the system imposed by Dayton Peace Agreement. You could say that Europeans have learned from Tito: The only way to keep peace in Bosnia is to please Serbia and Croatia. It is completely wrong. In fact, that’s where Tito made a huge mistake. He should have taken Bosnia away from Serbia and Croatia so they have nothing to fight over. That was the only way to keep peace between the two, which would mean peace in Bosnia and no more genocide. How and why is Western world following in Tito’s footsteps is an enigma that we will look at in the future when we talk about lobby groups. For now, I will say that these foreign officials have power in Bosnia, yet no Bosnian has ever voted for any of them. The question is: are all leaders more inclined to dictatorship? Even those who come from democratic systems and insist they believe in democracy?
People in Bosnia are certain that no government of Bosnia cares about Bosnia let alone about the people of Bosnia. Many would go as far as to say that politicians in Bosnia would sell their own mother for a profit, for their own benefit. At this point I must mention that many Bosnians do NOT vote for a politician they support, they vote for the political party who gave them a job, or to vote against the others. I.e. vote for A, so that B has less chance to have power. This is far from democracy. This situation of government versus citizens is probably the greatest sign that there is no democracy. In a democracy, we should not have a situation where everyone is unhappy with the leadership level, yet the leadership level persists. People might not be happy with every decision leaders make, but they should not feel that the leaders are against them. Yet in Bosnia, many people speak of the long-dead dictator as a much better leader than any politician now.
Yet when asked whether they would choose dictatorship over democracy, the answers are surprising. I guess, having lived both, and seeing virtues and faults of both, Bosnians are better equipped to make this decision.
Besides, people of Bosnia have not had a democracy yet. I know when I speak to them and turn their attention to some rights that they have now that they didn’t have before, just the idea that they have those rights makes their eyes sparkle. And don’t even get me started when I told them that their wage is really what they get PLUS the tax. In Bosnia, people only talk about their wage in pre-tax form. They’re not even aware of how much tax they’re paying. When I told them that they should know how much tax they’re paying, i.e. that they should talk about their wages in terms of pre-tax, so that they know how much of their money is trusted to the government, they looked at me completely confused. Yes, one of the greatest differences between democracy and dictatorship is that the tax is entrusted to the government in a democracy, it is given to the government in a dictatorship.
I should also note how amazing it is that one piece of information can get people thinking, using just common sense to ask other questions. One guy asked me “If we’ve paid for that road to be build, and if us using it helps our economy, why are we also paying tax on it? Isn’t the economic value of those roads enough to cover the maintenance costs?” In other words, if we look at the alternatives, and looking at alternatives is always a good idea, what do we have? We can NOT use the roads, that way the money we gave to have them made would be completely wasted, but, we wouldn’t have to pay road tax. In other words, our government would have made a huge mistake with our money. However, we are using those roads, that brings in economic benefits, but those benefits are not enough to maintain the roads, and we must pay more to maintain them. Are they really efficient if we have to pay more? Maybe they are. Or maybe, our government is taking more of our money? However, this kind of question shows that even in a ‘fake’ democracy, people can and will ask questions, and have expectations from their leaders, which could lead to an improvement. How much of an improvement there will be depends on many factors.
One thing is certain: People are still the reason for everything. The war wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the number of people willing to kill. Now it seems that those who were ready to kill weren’t even aware that they might be killed by those they want to kill. How shocking is that? You’d think that everyone knows that we humans fight for survival. In that fight, the attacker might be killed, not the attacked. I mean, this is just common sense. And what kind of people are more likely to be talked into killing, those who have lived their whole life thinking for themselves, or those who have live their life told that they must obey?
In short, lessons from Bosnia about democracy:
1. Compared to dictatorship, even fake democracy is better. There’s a sense of hope that people can change things. In Bosnia, that hope is small, yet it still has some effect.
2. Knowing democracy does NOT come naturally. Knowing how to spot when something is wrong, how to go about getting a change, how to communicate, what can and cannot be done, as well as our responsibilities, are all extremely important for a democracy to be truly alive. Education, formal education about democracy is a MUST in a truly democratic system. This sort of education should not be left to chance.
3. Fake democracy is really a chaos.
4. If people feel like the government is against them, that is NOT democracy. People might not be happy with every decision their leaders make, but that is very different to feeling like you have no one to vote for. And a vote might not mean support.
5. How accountable is the government with people’s money is very important. Do they use that money for their own benefit? Are they open and honest about it, showing that they know the money is trusted to them and NOT given to them? In other words, do the leaders know that the money is NOT their money? At the same time, do people know that it IS their money?
6. In a democracy, everyone should know that politics is part of our daily life. We are the politics. If we get to a situation where politicians are over there, and people are over here, i.e. there is a huge gap between the leaders and the people, we’ve left the politicians alone for too long. We have not made the best of our own power.
7. Democracy is NOT a gift. It is not guaranteed, it is something that we have to fight for and maintain.
8. Democracy is a system of more work more rewards. Life in a dictatorship might be just fine, but it might be ‘so good’ that it prevents growth. Furthermore, it could depend on one mortal. That person dies and people are left to mercy or wroth of whoever comes along.
9. If a minority is given power to makes decisions for a majority, this is not a democratic government, and such decisions will very likely lead to chaos.
10. Democracy is a culture, a way of life, not something we do as a chore. We should hear about it from our parents, our friends, even children. We should learn about it in schools, collages and universities. We must find the time and energy for it.
11. If left alone, leaders will naturally gravitate to dictatorship even if they claim they support democracy. And taking power, including taking power from people, is a process not a shock. Hence, if we feel that democracy is getting weak, perhaps disappearing, it is up to us, citizens, to act.