When it comes to European metropoles with a proud socialist history, Tuzla probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind. Indeed, most people outside of Southeast Europe have likely never even heard of the 100,000-inhabitant commercial hub in the northeast corner of Bosnia. An important industrial and cultural centre in the former Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the six constituent republics of socialist Yugoslavia, Tuzla today is still one of the largest and most important cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the binational confederation founded in 1995 as a result of the Dayton Agreement, which brought the brutal Bosnian War to an end.
Loren Balhorn works as the lead editor of rosalux.org.
From an outsider’s perspective, Tuzla may appear insignificant compared to the national capital, Sarajevo, where most of the country’s political life, international organizations, and foreign direct investment is concentrated. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation from opening its newest office there in early 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down. Founded as a liaison office linked to the Southeast Europe Office in Belgrade, the Tuzla Office now coordinates the foundation’s activities in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Albania. In doing so, it builds on the networks established in Belgrade over the last ten years, but also draws inspiration from Tuzla’s long history as a hub of the workers’ movement in the Balkans. At the same time, its partnerships in Bosnia itself link the office to the radical impulses that have emanated from the city in recent years, such as the popular uprising that began in the city in 2014.
After one-and-a-half years of working under pandemic conditions, the Tuzla Office was finally able to hold an official opening ceremony in early September with guests from across the Balkans and the foundation’s headquarters in Berlin. Attendees came together for sharp debates on how to rebuild the Left and the workers’ movement in the region, as well as to network and get to know the office’s work, such as the Partisan Archive, an ongoing project by Croatian researcher Davor Konjikušić to document and preserve hundreds of amateur photographs shot by Yugoslav partisans during their war against the Nazi occupation and local collaborators.
As the pandemic gradually subsides and life (hopefully) begins to return to normal, the new office will continue to deepen and expand its collaborations with media platforms and worker organizing projects across the region, taking its place as the newest regional node in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s growing international network.
Socialist Internationalism and Workers’ Power
A prime motivation behind the foundation’s decision to locate its new office in Tuzla was the city’s long history of left-wing organizing and reputation as one of the few—if not the only—cities in ex-Yugoslavia to successfully resist the ethno-nationalist wave that engulfed the region in the 1990s.
Tuzla’s unique character dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Bosnia was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire following 400 years of Ottoman rule. The presence of significant salt and coal deposits made the city an early target of industrialization, and mines and processing facilities soon sprang up around the area. Tuzla’s booming economy in turn attracted scores of skilled craftsmen, civil servants, and other workers from across the multi-ethnic empire, many of whom ended up settling down in the area. This mass migration from across Southeast Europe had a major impact on the city’s ethnic and confessional makeup, so that by 1910, over one-third of the population belonged to a religious of ethnic minority of some sort. This made Tuzla one of the most diverse cities in all of Yugoslavia at the time—a characteristic that it retains to this day.
Industrialization brought not only ethnic pluralization, but also the emergence of a militant workers’ movement at a time when the region as a whole remained overwhelmingly agrarian. Tuzla occupies a special place in the history of the Yugoslav workers’ movement for the Husino Rebellion of 1920, when 7,000 miners from Tuzla and other Bosnian towns banded together in a mass strike for higher wages. The strike was ultimately put down, but not before the miners engaged in pitched battles with police and employers, leading to several deaths and hundreds of arrests. The event was commemorated throughout Yugoslavia every year on 21 December as “Miners’ Day”, and a memorial to the strikers continues to stand in the city. The memory of the uprising forms a crucial part Tuzla’s self-image as progressive and rebellious.
Internationalism and solidarity as fundamental pillars of the social order were further cemented in Tuzla during World War II under the influence of the anti-fascist Yugoslav partisans. Like most of Bosnia, Tuzla was integrated into the fascist Croatian puppet state run by the Ustaše, which launched a ruthless campaign of extermination against the local Serbian population while treating Bosnian Muslims comparatively lightly, believing them to be “Islamized Croatians”. Throughout the horror of war and ethnic cleansing, many Muslims in Tuzla refused to participate in the Ustaše’s genocidal plans and hid Serbs in their homes. During the German occupation, Tuzla was also a hotbed of partisan activity and one of the first cities to be freed by the People’s Liberation Army in late 1943, cementing a kind of multi-ethnic socialist patriotism that in some ways even persists today.
Under Yugoslav socialism, Tuzla underwent further industrialization and became an overwhelmingly working-class and by many accounts “Yugoslav” city. Tuzla had a notably high rate of inter-communal marriages and many residents rejected their historical ethnic identity, instead identifying with the Yugoslav state under the leadership of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, partisan leader and now president of the Socialist Federal Republic.
It was this heritage that later allowed the people of Tuzla to avoid the bloodshed in most of the region as the socialist bloc collapsed in the early 1990s. While ethnic conflict tore most of the country apart, Tuzla stood firm behind its multi-ethnic character and remained a pluralistic community despite the horrific events going on outside the city’s borders. As the Yugoslav wars spread to Bosnia in the early 1990s, Tuzla also became the focus of an international solidarity campaign known as International Workers’ Aid, as recently documented in a new study published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office. Even now, over three decades since the collapse of socialism, the city’s progressive attitude is still reflected in the local government: Tuzla is the only city in Bosnia and Herzegovina to be continuously governed by the Social Democratic Party, the successor to the League of Communists that ruled Yugoslavia until 1990, since Bosnian independence.
Bowed but Unbroken
Tuzla’s history as a centre of multicultural co-existence and working-class activity may have allowed the city to avoid the ethnic conflicts of recent decades, but the last three decades have not left the town unscathed. A striking but painful reminder of Tuzla’s recent past stands in the city centre, where, on 25 May 1995, armed forces from the breakaway Republika Sprska violated a recently established ceasefire and fired an artillery shell into a crowd of young people celebrating Youth Day, Tito’s birthday and traditionally a major holiday in Yugoslavia. As the only city in Bosnia not to have succumbed to ethnic division, Tuzla had been targeted on purpose as a conscious attempt to stoke racial tensions and erase the last traces of Yugoslav heritage from Bosnia.
Yet the attempt to violently divide Tuzla into Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks failed. The city mourned its dead collectively and continues to do so every year, irrespective of ethnic or confessional background. In this sense, Tuzla stands as an example that the ethnic divisions that have plagued Southeast Europe for the last three decades are not impermeable nor inevitable, but can be overcome with a politics of mutual tolerance and even solidarity.
Tolerance and solidarity, however, were not enough to counteract the devastating economic impact of socialism’s collapse, which has been felt here as much as it has anywhere else in Southeast and Eastern Europe. Though not as wealthy as Croatia or Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina underwent intensive economic growth under socialism and became a major centre of chemical production as well as the Yugoslav defence industry. Some (albeit not much) of that industry continues to operate today. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s challenges during the transition to capitalism were exacerbated considerably by the four years of war that brought most of the economy to a halt and dragged down the country’s GDP to 10 percent of its pre-1991 levels. Although the economy has grown considerably since the war ended, it remains one of the most economically depressed countries in Europe, with unemployment rates above 30 percent. For people under 35, unemployment rates are nearly twice that. Unsurprisingly, the grim economic prospects have led to some of the highest rates of outward migration on the continent.
And yet, despite everything, the workers of Tuzla have yet to abandon their hometown’s radical traditions. After nearly 20 years of political and economic stagnation, the collection frustration felt by Tuzlans of all backgrounds and ages erupted in a fountain of popular anger in 2014, when workers rose up against the wage theft and asset stripping that had become rampant in the major factories in the city following privatization.
The 2014 uprising began in early February, following the closure of eight important factories in the region, when thousands of workers decided they had had enough. They gathered in front of the Tuzla city administration to demand payment of wages and benefits, blaming the government for allowing the privatized companies to go bankrupt in the first place. The workers from laundry detergent producer DITA, a major employer in the city, declared that their uprising was “not a strike to halt production, but a protest to go back to work.” The sentiment proved infectious and sparked sympathy rallies across Bosnia and even in other former Yugoslav republics, as protesters in Belgrade, Zagreb, and other cities declared their solidarity with the people of Tuzla.
While international media focused on the instances of rioting and the torching of several buildings, many of the workers involved were organizing themselves in direct-democratic “plenums” to decide on next steps for the movement. Over several months, thousands of people participated in these impressive acts of self-organization, drawing on similar forms of direct-democratic governance pioneered by student movement across the Balkans several years earlier. This exercise in a new kind of popular sovereignty broke through the decades of political deadlock that had ground down Bosnians’ confidence in their country and future. Though the uprising subsided by the summer, the spirit of rebelliousness it rekindled raised hopes that the republics of former Yugoslavia might rediscover and reinvent left-wing politics in the years to come, a process documented in the recent study, The New Balkan Left, published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Belgrade Office.
Strengthening Old Ties and Building New Ones
One of the office’s central focus points in the coming period will continue to be strengthening working-class organization in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the surrounding region—a focus that the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southeast Europe Office has cultivated since it opened its doors in 2010. To this end, the Tuzla Office will build on and expand on a number of existing ties in its focus countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Albania.
In Tuzla itself, the office’s main partner is the group Front Slobode, a left-wing organization that takes its name from the socialist newspaper Front Slobode established by local partisans during World War II and stands proudly in Tuzla’s anti-fascist tradition. Front Slobode began supporting the workers from DITA before the 2014 uprising, and was a key player in helping them save the factory from bankruptcy and run it as a collective. Together with another organization, Radnička solidarnost, Front Slobode seeks to bring together workers across ethnic and sectoral divides to strengthen trade unions and bolster their bargaining power in a slack labour market. Beyond its activity in the factories, the group also involves local youth in radical community theatre, volunteerism, and activism to help rebuild the ties of mutual solidarity that characterized life in Tuzla for the better part of the last century.
In Albania, the foundation will continue working with the Institute for Critique and Social Emancipation (ICSE), an institute dedicated to political education that is linked to Organizata Politika, a left-wing group that emerged from the Albanian student movement in the early 2010s and has since grown to become one of the strongest left-wing organizations in the country. The institute has become an important part of the new Left in Albania since its founding in 2014, producing a number of studies on working conditions in the country and supporting unionization drives with useful background information and direct assistance to activists.
In Kosovo, the Tuzla Office recently entered a partnership with Kosovo 2.0, an online publishing outfit that has risen to become the country’s most important progressive media platform with well-researched, long-form reports and analyses in Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, and English. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation currently sponsors a series of publications focusing on political economy, feminism, and ecology.
The scars of war and economic collapse still run deep across the Balkans, but a new generation of progressives and leftists has begun to take history into their own hands in recent years, raising the prospect—however faint—that a democratic, egalitarian Southeast Europe is possible. Emin Eminagić, the foundation’s project manager in Tuzla, brings over ten years of experience as a progressive activist in the region to the office and feels confident that the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation can help local progressives establish a foothold for democratic socialist ideas in the region: “The only way to fight all of this, in my opinion, is together—to remember a long-forgotten notion of solidarity and to base our society on it. As one of our comrades likes to say, ‘there can be no bright future for Bosnia and Herzegovina if there is no bright future for Kosovo, Albania, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, and Croatia.’ I would add that there can be no bright future for Europe and the world without a bright future for Southeast Europe.”