Sarajevo : Birth of a hope at the Antifest

25 May 2012 by Eric Toussaint

Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country ravaged by a war that between 1992 and the beginning of 1996 caused 100.000 deaths (exact figures are unavailable), is certainly looking a lot better but the social situation is dramatic. One statistic says it all: unemployment is at 45 %.

This country of 4.5 million inhabitants is divided into two entities between which there exist multiple points of tension: the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (51 % of the territory, 65 % of the population, capital Sarajevo) and the Republika Srpska (49 % of the territory, 35 % of the population, capital Banja Luka). In the whole country there are 48 % of Bosniacs (called Muslims between 1970 and 2000), 37 % of Serbs (mostly Christian Orthodox) and 14 % of Croats (mostly Catholics) [1]. Among the 10,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo that were killed during the war, 1,600 were children. The siege of Sarajevo lasted from 5th April 1992 until 29th February 1996 [2].

One of the catalysts of the Yugoslavian implosion at the beginning of the 1990s was the weight of the public debt contracted in consequence of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s. The leaders of the richer republics (Croatia et Slovenia), in pushing for separation, considered that independence would help them reimburse their part of the Yugoslavian debt ( which later had been shared between the six former republics of the ex-Yugoslavian federation) by shedding, what appeared to them to be the millstone of the less privileged countries (Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro). This provoked a series of chain reactions expressing the most objectionable nationalism. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which considering its multiethnic nature is a mini Yugoslavia in itself, was caught up in the maelstrom of a war which multiplied acts of barbarity against the population, the massacre of 8,000 Bosniacs at Srebrenica in July 1995 being the most dramatic example. This massacre that much resembled a genocide was perpetrated by units of the army of the Republika Srpska under the command of general Ratko Mladic and assisted by a Serbian paramilitary unit. United Nations forces on the ground turned a blind eye. This is one of the reasons why the Bosniac population holds the UNO in such discredit.

Return to Sarajevo after 18 years

This is my second visit to this town. The first was in February 1994 at the height of the war. Our delegation left Belgium in two cars (several of us were members of « Socialism without Borders » and of the « International Workers Aid for Bosnia») to go and express our solidarity with the multiethnic Resistance to the war that was ravaging ex-Yugoslavia and especially Bosnia-Herzegovina. On that occasion our small delegation only arrived on the outskirts of what resembled a ghost town. The buildings were damaged and the social life was reduced to very little : no cafes open, two or three shops for absolute essentials and the occasional sound of an exploding shell or a round of machine gun fire. Official reports stated that an average of 329 shells burst each day during the siege.

Eighteen years later I am subject to another brutal shock. Certainly hundreds (even thousands) of the buildings still bear the marks of war, but it is undeniable that the historical town center shows signs of relative prosperity. Hundreds of craftsmen, shops and restaurants offering local specialties create a zone of permanent animation. There is a certain easy going calmness in the atmosphere. Many terrace cafes are well filled. I discover a cultural richness to this town that I could only imagine in 1994.

In Sarajevo, mixing and coexistence of cultures is evident. Today in a one kilometer perimeter we find several superb mosques dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, one of the three biggest synagogues in Europe (a large part of the Jews expelled by the Catholic kings of Spain during the Reconquista of the 15th century found refuge in this great, principally Muslim, town [3]), and Catholic, Orthodox or Evangelical churches. Capital of the most westerly European province of the Ottoman Empire, Sarajevo in the 17th century figured among the biggest cities of Europe with 80,000 inhabitants (comparable to the populations of Genoa, Florence, Brussels or Antwerp; about twice the population of Bordeaux, Barcelona or Cologne).

A country under the supervision of the international institutions

Since the end of the war in 1995 the country has been under the supervision of the international institutions. The agreements signed in Dayton (USA) in December 1995 specifically stated that the director of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Central Bank Central Bank The establishment which in a given State is in charge of issuing bank notes and controlling the volume of currency and credit. In France, it is the Banque de France which assumes this role under the auspices of the European Central Bank (see ECB) while in the UK it is the Bank of England.

may not be of Bosnian extraction! The World Bank World Bank
The World Bank was founded as part of the new international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods in 1944. Its capital is provided by member states’ contributions and loans on the international money markets. It financed public and private projects in Third World and East European countries.

It consists of several closely associated institutions, among which :

1. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD, 189 members in 2017), which provides loans in productive sectors such as farming or energy ;

2. The International Development Association (IDA, 159 members in 1997), which provides less advanced countries with long-term loans (35-40 years) at very low interest (1%) ;

3. The International Finance Corporation (IFC), which provides both loan and equity finance for business ventures in developing countries.

As Third World Debt gets worse, the World Bank (along with the IMF) tends to adopt a macro-economic perspective. For instance, it enforces adjustment policies that are intended to balance heavily indebted countries’ payments. The World Bank advises those countries that have to undergo the IMF’s therapy on such matters as how to reduce budget deficits, round up savings, enduce foreign investors to settle within their borders, or free prices and exchange rates.

and the International Monetary Fund IMF
International Monetary Fund
Along with the World Bank, the IMF was founded on the day the Bretton Woods Agreements were signed. Its first mission was to support the new system of standard exchange rates.

When the Bretton Wood fixed rates system came to an end in 1971, the main function of the IMF became that of being both policeman and fireman for global capital: it acts as policeman when it enforces its Structural Adjustment Policies and as fireman when it steps in to help out governments in risk of defaulting on debt repayments.

As for the World Bank, a weighted voting system operates: depending on the amount paid as contribution by each member state. 85% of the votes is required to modify the IMF Charter (which means that the USA with 17,68% % of the votes has a de facto veto on any change).

The institution is dominated by five countries: the United States (16,74%), Japan (6,23%), Germany (5,81%), France (4,29%) and the UK (4,29%).
The other 183 member countries are divided into groups led by one country. The most important one (6,57% of the votes) is led by Belgium. The least important group of countries (1,55% of the votes) is led by Gabon and brings together African countries.
have installed their representatives in the country alongside the foreign troops supposed to keep guard over the terms of the peace agreements between the two resident communities (in 1995-1996 there were up to 60,000 foreign troops stationed in the country under NATO NATO
North Atlantic Treaty Organization
NATO ensures US military protection for the Europeans in case of aggression, but above all it gives the USA supremacy over the Western Bloc. Western European countries agreed to place their armed forces within a defence system under US command, and thus recognize the preponderance of the USA. NATO was founded in 1949 in Washington, but became less prominent after the end of the Cold War. In 2002, it had 19 members: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, the USA, to which were added Greece and Turkey in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955 (replaced by Unified Germany in 1990), Spain in 1982, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1999.
command. Today there are still some 1300 troops under European command [4]). The population has put up with seventeen years of reinforced neoliberal policies and as previously said, the result is dramatic: in February 2012, according to the official employment agency, 44.2% of the active population were unemployed compared to 35% in 2000 [5].

With the exception of the distribution of water, electricity and the transport systems, almost all the public sector industries have been privatized and in many cases dismantled and sold by their new owners who have put an end to their activities. Everywhere in Sarajevo there are agencies of the two biggest Italian banks, Intesa San Paolo and Unicredit, along with Austrian and German banks. Also to be considered is the investment of Arabic countries in hotels and finance. The hypertrophy of the financial sector exists alongside a chronically under-invested productive sector.

The IMF at work

While the first « Antifest » was going on in Sarajevo, the arrival of a new IMF mission was announced. They were there to finalize the compensatory conditions of a new loan that would enable the repayment of previous loans and follow up the lethal neoliberal policies. The IMF put the Bosnian authorities under pressure to reduce wages and jobs in the public sector, reduce the benefits to wounded war veterans, lower retirement pensions and make their access more difficult, and cut spending on public health care (which is still free in spite of fifteen years of World Bank and IMF pressures).

Hope reborn at the Antifest

The Antifest event from the 13th to 20th May 2012 was made up of cultural activities (concerts attended by between 100 and 300 people) and political debates. Between 50 and 90 people, young for the most part, took part at each of the eleven debates. Among the topics were « Eco-socialism » « The Greek crisis » « The crisis in the European Union » « Reactions to the European Union crisis [6] » « What kind of feminist activism does Bosnia really need? » « Rosa Luxembourg and Mother Theresa: ideological confusion » « Perspectives for direct democracy in south east Europe » etc. The Antifest was organized by a young political group called “Unified Organization for Socialism and Democracy” (which brings together several groups of activists with different ideological sensibilities). It was supported by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation and collaborated actively with the subversive festival of Zagreb. The subjects largely covered the principal concerns of a fringe of youth which wants a radical alternative to the capitalistic and patriarchal system. Decidedly, after the remarkable success of the Zagreb [7] subversive festival, new forces for change are at work in this part of the Balkans.

Translated by Mike Krolikowski in collaboration with Vicki Briault


[3During the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia Sarajevo’s Jewish community was decimated (9000 Jews were killed out of a total of about 10 000).

[5See (official site of the Bosnie Herzégovine employment agency), see also the site of the C.I.A. : and also for the year 2009 :

[6I covered this theme on the basis of my text

Eric Toussaint

is a historian and political scientist who completed his Ph.D. at the universities of Paris VIII and Liège, is the spokesperson of the CADTM International, and sits on the Scientific Council of ATTAC France.
He is the author of Debt System (Haymarket books, Chicago, 2019), Bankocracy (2015); The Life and Crimes of an Exemplary Man (2014); Glance in the Rear View Mirror. Neoliberal Ideology From its Origins to the Present, Haymarket books, Chicago, 2012 (see here), etc.
See his bibliography:
He co-authored World debt figures 2015 with Pierre Gottiniaux, Daniel Munevar and Antonio Sanabria (2015); and with Damien Millet Debt, the IMF, and the World Bank: Sixty Questions, Sixty Answers, Monthly Review Books, New York, 2010. He was the scientific coordinator of the Greek Truth Commission on Public Debt from April 2015 to November 2015.

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