It has been a year since the murder of David Dragičević, a student from Banja Luka, which shook the Republic of Srpska to its core. Dejan Prodanović, a member of Banja Luka’s branch of the Marxist organisation, Reds, explores the causes for and the dynamics behind the Justice for David movement, which rattled the reactionary regime of Milorad Dodik. This article, apart from giving a detailed description of the protests and the actions of certain figures within it, also gives an insight into the class character of Dodik’s rule.
Milorad Dodik’s rule over the Republic of Srpska, one of the two main entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is one of the longest-lasting regimes in the Yugoslav area after the civil war. Dodik and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), with a few coalition partners such as the Democratic People’s Alliance (DNS) and the Socialist Party of RS, have had a firm grip on power ever since 2006. During that period, candidates from the SNSD held positions as Serbian members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the elections of October of 2018, Milorad Dodik became the Serbian member of the presidency. He can be compared to Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović, in terms of the length of his rule over the Republic of Srpska and his personification of all of the entity's institutions.
The class basis of Dodik’s rule
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the international community had confidence in Dodik, since he was a counterpoint to the nationalist policies of the leadership of Karadžić’s Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). Dodik even invited Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić to voluntarily surrender to the International Court of Justice and stop holding the Serbian people hostage. Some 10 years later, after his rise to power, he presented himself as a defender and admirer of the prisoners in The Hague, and he even named a students’ dormitory in Pale after Radovan Karadžić. His change from a pro-Western liberal politician to a so-called defender of the Bosnian Serbs from the imaginary threat of Bosniaks shows that Dodik is merely an opportunistic, oligarchical politician who is in politics only to defend his selfish interests and those of his bourgeois circle.
Dodik’s rhetoric is often pointed against NATO and the meddling of Western imperialism in the national affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which makes a certain number of people in the Republic of Srpska support his ‘patriotic’ regime. They even glorify him as a decent fighter against Western imperialism. However, despite his occasional grumbling and threats of holding a referendum, in reality Dodik and his SNSD regime go no further than insisting that the Dayton Peace Treaty is upheld, a treaty that stands for the occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina under imperialistic authority of the EU and NATO states, while the economic policies of his regime are a long way from genuine anti-imperialism. Imperialist foreign capital in the RS never had an easier job of draining local resources and subsidies, and exploiting our workers.
In the pro-war plunder of state property in the RS, 716 companies were privatised. According to data from the Alliance of Labour Unions of RS, 67 percent of those companies ceased to exist. Those that did not vanish or end up in the hands of tycoons and war profiteers were seized by foreign capital in the early 2000s. All the praise for foreign investors, whose money and knowledge was supposed to fix our economy, turned out to be a sham. Most of the time, there were no serious investments; foreign capital was drawn in by generous state subsidies, a lack of taxes, and most importantly, cheap and non-unionised labour. Ruling politicians even boasted about the economic advantage of cheap labour and highlighted it during their election campaigns. Those in power never cared much about the working conditions in factories owned by foreign companies. The important thing was to take photographs at opening ceremonies, and (after cameras were turned off) the workers were abandoned to merciless exploitation. One example is the textile factory Dubikoton, which is under Italian ownership.
Alongside the sections of industry owned by foreign capital, the regime is very servile when it comes to the exploitation of natural resources. Forests are being cleared with abandon, and private sawmills export intermediate goods and firewood primarily to Italy and Austria. In the latest act of plunder, the government gave away 64 percent of shares in Ljubija Iron Mine and plans to sell them to an Israeli company, one of whose shareholders is Ari Livne, an advisor of Dodik’s. Furthermore, the banking sector is in the hands of Italian and Austrian banks. In the last few years, Dodik has played the card of Russophilia, an essential component of Serbian nationalism. However, below the thin veneer of ‘love between Orthodox brothers’ hides the economic interests of Dodik’s family, since his son Igor is the owner of a trading company that distributes fruit to Russia. On the other hand, the oil industry in the RS is owned by Nyeftegazinkor from Russia, which owns 1.6 million convertible marks in corporate taxes, according to the Tax Administration. In late 2018, the government signed a contract with a Chinese company that is supposed to build the Banja Luka-Prijedor highway, and get a 30-year lease, while the government agreed to compensate the Chinese investors with 32.5 million marks from road tolls, or from the state budget if the road tolls are not enough. There is no doubt that this will happen, since all the infrastructural projects, as well as this one, are carried out without conducting feasibility studies.
Dodik’s nationalism, like any other nationalism, is a tool used by the ruling class to divert attention from the social confrontation between itself and the working class. Of course, Dodik is helped by Bosniak and Croatian bourgeois elites in sparking national intolerance, as well as by parts of the so-called civil opposition, primarily the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Democratic Front, both of which use the card of integral Bosnian nationalism. Such a party line only fuels the nationalist hysteria of the regime in the RS. This enables Dodik to constantly flaunt potential referendums if the Dayton Peace Treaty is not upheld. And while Dodik and the SNSD allegedly defend national interests with their nationalist demagogy, in reality they use every chance they get to turn against the workers and aid domestic and foreign capitalists. The ruling coalition always carried out and voted for anti-worker policies, in unity with the tycoon parties from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the other main political entity).
Implementing measures that hurt workers’ rights or make already poor living conditions even worse was never a problem for the defenders of national interests. An example of this is carrying out the reform agenda at the level of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole. In fact, it was a set of austerity measures dictated by the IMF and the World Bank that aimed to cut public spending, reduce social benefits, liberalise the market and change the labour law in the interest of the capitalists in order to increase economic investments between 2015, and 2018.
In late 2015, the government adopted a new Labour Law, which, amongst other things, reduced the compensation for past labour – from a coefficient of 0.5 to 0.3. Furthermore, probation periods were increased from one to two years. The Law on Strikes was also changed, rendering strikes meaningless. According to the law, the government appoints representative unions, and the bosses decide on the minimum workflow, which enables them to set it at 50 percent of the workers, as happened in the railway company of the RS. Negotiations about defining the General Collective Agreement between the government, the Association of Employers, and the Alliance of Labour Unions have been taking place since 2015. The negotiations halted at the question of travel expenses and annual leave.
Attacks on living standards are constant. In 2018, excise taxes on oil were increased, which made the prices of basic goods increase. In 2019, the government announced an increase in the price of electricity and of VAT from 17 percent to 19 percent. The reason for this is an attempt to fill the holes in the budgets of the state and its entities. The increase in prices is not matched by an increase in wages, however. The average wage in RS is 852 marks (around 440 Euros), and according to the Alliance of Labour Unions, the living wage should be around 1,869 KM (over 900 Euros), which means that the average wage is only 45 percent of that. Even official data on the average wage does not paint the real picture, since the largest part of the qualified workforce in the industry and retail sectors work for lower wages, around 600 KM (approximately 300 Euros). The Republic of Srpska has also struggled with an exodus of young and highly qualified workers in the last few years. The Alliance of Employers often complains about the lack of labourers, but they and the government did nothing concrete, nor did they try to drastically increase the wages to make young workers stay in the country. Especially alarming is the fact that even medical workers are leaving the country (the average wage of a nurse is a miserable 650-800 KM). A few days ago, there was news of children’s cardiologists leaving the Clinical Centre of Banja Luka.
Aside from nationalist demagogy, Dodik’s regime bases itself on a clientelistic network of people positioned in the state apparatus and public enterprises. He also has complete control over the radio and television networks of the RS, which have practically turned into a public media service for the ruling coalition. The Alternative Television from Banja Luka was recently bought by Slobodan Stanković, an oligarch, and it has changed from a medium that presented a balance between the regime and the opposition, and which often criticised the government, into an adjunct of RTRS. It should also be mentioned that the ruling coalition has no real opponents in the opposition bloc, which is led by the right-wing Serbian Democratic Party and the liberals from the Party of Democratic Progress.
Justice for David: the first true challenge to the regime
It took a long time before we saw protests of sufficient scale to shake the regime. Indeed, in 2012, there were protests under the name The Park is Ours in Banja Luka, which lasted for months and were directed against the creation of an office building called Grand Trade, owned by Mile Radišić, another oligarch close to the regime. The building was finished anyway, the activists were fined, and Radišić fled to Serbia to avoid being charged. This movement showed that there is a mood for civil resistance against the attacks of the corrupt regime and arrogant tycoons in Banja Luka. The rebellion of Tuzla in 2014 did not overflow into the Republic of Srpska, except for a few solidarity meetings. The regime’s media outlets did their job of fearmongering and dubbed it an alleged attempt to destabilise the RS. In 2017, there were a few hunger strikes on the RS railways and the strikers made threats of railway blockades if their demands continued to be ignored. This made the regime panic and mostly accept their demands, which showed that the government is not so stable, and that every act of rebellion by the working class on the streets deepens the anxiety of the ruling elite.
Justice for David was created as a spontaneous civil movement led by the parents of David Dragičević, a murdered student from Banja Luka. After the young man’s disappearance on the night of 17 March 2018, his body was found on 24 March. The first police reports and press conferences showed that the Ministry of Interior is not telling the truth and is trying to hide something. At first, the Ministry and the media insisted that it was a suicide, and that David was a drug addict and a thief. This behaviour only aggravated the parents and a part of the public, which provoked a spontaneous civil gathering on the Krajina Square on March 26.
Since that day, protests under the name of Justice for David – Stop the Unsolved Murders have been taking place every day in Banja Luka. They managed to attract a large number of people from different social layers and age groups: pensioners, workers, the petty-bourgeoisie and the youth. Even though these protests were triggered by the death of David Dragičević, they directed attention to a string of unsolved murders, starting with mafia liquidations and traffic accidents that involved oligarchs and politicians, for which no one was held accountable. Furthermore, the protests provided a platform to express the discontent and anger of common people about long-lasting injustice, corruption, malfunctioning of the courts, poverty and suffering.
The pressure from the masses and daily meetings forced the government to form a Research Committee in parliament, which was supposed to ascertain the facts about the Dragičević case. Its purpose was to identify uncertainties and irregularities in the investigation, which meant that, two-and-a-half months after the beginning of protests, the prosecutors finally started to investigate the murder. Since this took place in an election year, the protests attracted politicians from the opposition, who tried to profit from them politically. David’s father, Davor Dragičević, demanded that the protests should be carried out without political symbols, even though opposition politicians were among those gathered. The opposition’s TV station from Bijeljinja, BN TV, held live broadcasts of the massive gatherings on 21 April, 7 July and 5 October 2018. The regime reacted to the presence of opposition politicians and their demands by accusing them of using tragedies to score political points, while exploiting the parents’ grief. Although the opposition was certainly doing this, their actions revealed the hypocritical logic of the regime. The regime politicians do the exact same thing when they lament the victims of the wars in the 1990s and the Second World War at electoral meetings to whip up chauvinism, hatred and fear.
Besides David’s parents Davor Dragičević and Suzana Radanović, the core of the movement consists of David’s friends and a few of liberal and civil activists. In its early stages, the spontaneous and confused movement had a legalistic outlook. For more than two decades, the people have listened to propaganda about liberal democracy and independent institutions – about everything a capitalist state can never provide. So these protesters are saying: “you promised us the rule of law, now give it to us”. The rule of law is a liberal illusion. The state is not aloof from society and the class system, it is an organ of the ruling class that protects its interests. The state under capitalism will always protect the interests of the ruling class. Common citizens, workers and peasants will never be equal to tycoons and politicians before the institutions of the bourgeois state. This was all exposed by the “Justice for David” movement. Davor and Suzana’s speeches railed against the oligarchy and the system, especially at the gathering on 5 October 2018. This is a clear manifestation of class instinct. Meanwhile, the regime’s machinery has constantly attacked the movement with invented claims that it aims to destroy the government and abolish the institutions of the Republic of Srpska, and that the entire movement is being abused by politicians from the Federation and foreign intelligence services with the goal of “a coloured revolution and the destruction of the Serbian people”.
After the general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in October, and the disappointment among liberal layers, it seemed as though the movement entered a phase of exhaustion. In the meantime, it was registered as an NGO, which aims to fight for justice over un-resolved murders. After the elections, politicians of the opposition turned to the composition of parliament. Furthermore, soon after the election, Dodik bribed a part of the opposition and gave them positions in the government. This included the prominent liberal Dragan Čavić and his People’s Democratic Movement Party, the faction of the Serbian Democratic Party centred around Banja Luca Mayor of Doboj Obren Petrović. Čavić was one of the fiercest critics of the ruling coalition, but then he became part of it and gave his support to Dodik.
After ignoring and discrediting the seemingly waning Justice for David movement, the regime started with open repression. The National Day of the Republic of Srpska on 9 January was drawing near, which Dodik usually takes as an opportunity to show that the RS is a state and that the Serbian people in it are happy and free, but the gatherings at the square were ruining this image. Feeling stable after a landslide victory in the election, getting rid of the deplorables in the ruling coalition and attracting certain parts of the opposition, the regime tried to arrest Davor Dragičević on 25 December – a date deliberately chosen since it is in the holiday season. Police searched his house looking for weapons, (which were not found) and removed symbols of the movement from the Kraijna Square. The regime tried to justify the repression on the basis of alleged threats to security, caused by a gathering of the movement’s sympathisers that was held a few days prior to the arrest in front of parliament and as a response to the re-election of Dragan Lukač as Minister of Police of the RS. His reelection was considered a provocation and a continuation of the cover-up of David’s murder. Lukač was called out at the Krajina Square for months and was marked as the main obstacle to the investigation. Besides that, his previous mandate was identified with unresolved mafia confrontations, members of the special forces who robbed banks, police inspectors accused of smuggling and trading narcotics, a streak of unsolved murders, attacks on journalists (we have to mention the most recent example of an attempted murder of BN TV journalist Vladimir Kovačević, who reported from the Krajina Square), security disruptions in Banja Luka, etc…
The regime’s propaganda, which claims that the gatherings in the square are threatening the security, is especially hypocritical if we take into account that, during nine months of protests, there was not a single incident. Surprisingly, the opposite happened. The regime’s provocateurs repeatedly tried to provoke Davor and even threatened to kill him. The police repression on the 25 December against peaceful protesters and videos of police brutality against children, youth and the elderly caused anger, not only in the RS, but in the entire region, as well as a new wave of protests. On one hand, the regime repressed the most active members of the movement in the following days, while on the other we heard Milorad Dodik and Dragan Lukač saying that the prosecutors were too slow in solving David’s case. Dodik even announced that he would join the people if they protested in front of the Prosecutor's Office. The point of these announcements is merely to transfer the blame among the ruling apparatus, since everyone can see that Dodik’s staff controls every pore of the RS’s institutions.
On Sunday, 30 December, a large meeting called by David’s father, Davor took place, attended by a few thousand people. The estimates vary from 3,000 to 6,000 people. At the meeting, Davor read the demand for the resignations of Dragan Lukač (Minister of the Interior), Darko Ćulum (Director of the Police), Željko Karan (a pathologist and the head of the Institute for Forensic Medicine), Želimir Lepir (prosecutor) and Dalibor Vreća (prosecutor). The meeting then turned into a protest march from the Krajina Square to the parliament and government of the RS, with participants occasionally blocking traffic and chanting “Justice for David”, “Justice for Dženan”, “Resignation for Lukač”, “Thieves”. Then the protest spent some time in front of the building of the RTRS, chanting the words “Factory of Lies”. RTRS is seen as belonging to Dodik’s party, and it spreads the most despicable lies and nonsense to present Justice for David movement as a conspiracy created by the Federation and international community with the goal of tearing down the institutions of the RS. After returning to the Krajina Square, the crowd dispersed after approximately 40 minutes, but the police forcibly dispersed the remaining 50 people and used this chance to arrest around 10 ringleaders. They even arrested bystanders and people who happened to be at the bus station.
The police claimed that Davor Dragičević ran away and that he was not arrested. The arrests continued in the following days, and an MP from the Party of Democratic Progress, Draško Stanivuković was arrested. His use of scandals and sensationalism to attract attention can be compared to Croatian right-wing politician, populist and conspiracy theorist Ivan Pernar. It’s quite possible that, with time, he will become an independent politician and follow the path of right-wing populism, since he gathered around 20,000 votes at the October elections.
Meetings of the Justice for David movement were completely outlawed and the police were patrolling the Krajina Square. The new repression was excused by the fact that the organisers carried on with the protest after the allowed time period from 6pm to 8pm, and that they were not allowed to hold a march that blocked traffic. Subsequently, a New Year’s concert in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art was cancelled. Igor Radojičić was very vocal when it came to accusing the protests of ruining the city’s image by preventing New Year’s celebrations from taking place. While the aggrieved parents are struggling for justice for their murdered child, Radojičić is struggling to preserve the image of the city, threatened by the images of police repression and police occupation of the Krajina Square. It is interesting to note that Radojičić was silent regarding daily meetings of citizens seeking truth and justice.
Although the gatherings of the movement Justice for David are now formally prohibited and attempts in the main city square have been persistently suppressed by the police, the most relentless members of the movement have found a way to gather in public. While trying to escape police brutality, the members of the movement and followers gathered in the churchyard of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and lit candles. The police did not dare to use force on the church’s grounds, because they were afraid of the message it would send to instigate violence in front of a church well known for its architectural value and importance to many Banja Lukas inhabitants. In that way, the silent protests continued to be held daily under the close watch of the police. From the very beginning, followers of the movement have pointed out the tenacious silence of the dignitaries of the Serbian Orhodox Church about the case of David Dragićević. The outcry continued because the doors of the church were always locked. As always, the Church chose the side of the regime. All illusions in the Church taking a stance against the regime have been absolutely shattered.
When the regime forced the movement to hold their gatherings in silence in front of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, they “cleared” the main city square and used it for the purpose of the parade in honor of the National Day of the Republic of Srpska on 9 January, cynically praising the freedom in which its inhabitants supposedly live.
In the next few months, Davor Dragičević has addressed the public several times by posting videos recorded in unknown locations on social media. In his address to followers, he strongly condemned the actions of the police to suppress the protests and stated a clear connection of their actions to the ruling politicians in the Government of Republic of Srpska.
He accused the police of attempting to kill him and announced the continuation of the fight for solving the murder of his son by seeking help from international institutions. Bearing in mind that David’s mother Suzana is living with her children in Austria, people speculated that this is where Davor was probably located. This was proved to be true, four days before the one-year anniversary of David’s death when an upsetting photograph of Davor kissing the coffin containing David’s remains circulated the media. David remains were exhumed at the request of his parents and transported to Vienna. Davor said:
“I told you a long time ago that I will ask for the exhumation of the remains of my child. Yes, the Republic of Srpska, Prosecution’s Office and the Ministry of the Interior… they are all killers and criminals. Therefore, David has left this world and that country, and for me, there are no institutions of the Republic of Srpska [they have no legitimacy and might as well not exist]. These institutions killed my child. I hope that he finds eternal peace here, when he could not find it in the country of his birth.”
What to do next?
The Justice for David movement showed a high level of determination and courage during the 12 months of its daily struggle. This is particularly true for Suzana and Davor, who showed superhuman strength in the struggle against repression, provocations and lies of the unjust state apparatus and pro-regime media. However, in the light of violent repression; liberal illusions and appeals to the conscience of the state apparatus are a dead-end street. It seems that the movement is running out of ideas about how to successfully fight back when the regime clamps down. This was obvious during the police actions on 30 December, when the people tried to defend themselves against shields and batons by throwing flowers at them. This definitely did not influence the consciousness of the police officers, whose task was to defend the system. Also, calling for interventions from the European Union, the international community and foreign embassies is problematic on several counts.
Primarily, this appeal for the intervention of foreign actors alienates a large number of people from the movement and is congruent with the propaganda that portrays Dodik as a defender of the RS and every display of discontent as an attempt to bring Dodik down. Secondly, it is obvious that Western imperialism has no major issues with Dodik, since he has proved himself to be a loyal and efficient servant of foreign capital. His occasional excesses, with threats of launching a referendum, have the objective of throwing dust in people’s eyes to prevent them from seeing the plundered wealth of tycoons, himself and his family, rather than challenging the unity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Every time Dodik goes too far in his excesses, he is slapped back into his place by the representatives of American diplomacy and is threatened with sanctions from the USA. Dodik is very aware of how dependent he is on foreign capital and international financial institutions when it comes to buying social peace and stability in the RS.
Thirdly, even if an intervention of Western imperialism removed Dodik from power, that would mean nothing for the working class. The opposition, whose programme does not differ from Dodik’s in any significant way, would come to power. That would only be a cosmetic change, and it is important to understand that both the Social Democratic Party and the Party of Democratic Progress held power at the levels of the state and entity several times and that they are currently in power at a local level. The interests of the imperialists, just like those of the local capitalists, are diametrically opposed to those of working people.
It is obvious that these are two sides of the same profiteering coin, and simply sought to use the movement to score political points during the elections. After the events of 30 December, different groups in the opposition threw accusations at each other, saying that Draško Stanivuković tried to talk Davor into entering RTRS, which would make the regime accuse him of staging a coup. This is only speculation and it is most likely that the regime tried to bribe certain people and fracture the movement. However, the police were not present around the RTSRS’s building, despite being everywhere else the march took place, which could indicate that they pled ignorance and expected the building to be entered. In his speech in front of the building, Davor mentioned multiple times that he could enter it without a problem, but that he did not want to do that. There is a small group of SDS supporters around the movement, and it is assumed that they are responsible for bringing Boris Malagurski to give a short speech, which got only a lukewarm response from the mass. The presence of Serbian nationalists can be potentially harmful for the solidarity between Justice for David and Justice for Dženan [a movement around a young Muslim who was murdered in Sarajevo in 2016], and it could possibly alienate a part of people from the Federation who support the movement.
The task of Marxists is to support and take part in Davor and Suzana’s fight, thus helping them to find out the truth about their son’s death. Also, we must try to direct the struggle towards the widest social layers, since that is the only way to fight for these goals and against police repression. Most importantly, we must use this occasion to expose the capitalist class and their so-called democracy. Generally, the left is very weak in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and still struggles to people over. Its voice is barely heard in the nationalist and pro-market cacophony. However, movements such as this one, the rebellion of Tuzla or the strike of the railway workers give us a chance to take an active part and, by putting forward concrete propositions, get a platform from which our programme can reach a much larger audience. During several larger meetings and in their media statements, Suzana and Davor spoke up against tycoons, war profiteers and various scum, who have been brutalising us for 30 years. This class instinct and anti-system mood offer an opportunity for the left to present their ideas. We must use this to attract new layers of workers into the revolutionary movement. The workers of the RS feel all the injustice of the system on their shoulders. They can feel the oligarchs’ exploitation in their workplaces and witness the haughtiness of the rich and their children every day. When these messages penetrate into the consciousness of working masses, it won’t be long before Dodik is seen as the political representative of the rich, whose government applies austerity measures in healthcare, education and welfare, in order to make money for foreign and domestic tycoons whose empires have been built on the workers’ blood.
David Dragičević is a victim of a capitalist system that creates crime, poverty and injustice at every step. His murder and the subsequent movement arising from it shows that what is needed is a fightback on a class basis. A united, working-class movement would be able to strike decisive blows against the state apparatus and the interests of capital. Once the working class begins to move decisively on an organised basis, nothing can stop it. We have already seen small instances of this. Threats of blocking the railways in 2017 immediately alarmed the government and sent Dodik grovelling at the strikers’ feet, and promptly fulfilling their demands. Similarly, the New Year’s programme cancellation caused dissatisfaction among hoteliers and representatives of the service industry, and they probably exerted a certain pressure on the regime to ban the protests. Other movements have had similar effects. The most important thing in order to achieve victory, however, is to unify these struggles throughout the former Yugoslavia. That can only be achieved, by the creation of a worker’s party with a revolutionary programme of radical social change in the interests of the working majority.