Fires of the Future in the Furnaces of the Past: Building Socio-Environmental Alliances in the European South(East)

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, coal miners are key to the challenge of market-oriented “green” transition, and, more counterintuitively, they are also the cornerstone of a potential convergence between anti-capitalist and ecological struggles, as scholar-activist Svjetlana Nedimović suggests in her contribution to the “Allied Grounds” text series, which explores how today’s environmental movements have a unique opportunity to harness the ‘traditional’ energy of workers to build a future not yet imagined.


In the fall of 2021, miners from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s old coal mines rebelled and descended on Sarajevo, a stream of loud and unruly workers who defied the city’s usual codes of civic protest, characterized by lukewarm slogans, witty banners, fashion shows, and relentless law-abidance.

The miners’ protest shook the deindustrialized capital, or at least shook some parts of it. The blueish, ominous glow of their fires lit up the night around the dark tower that now housed the government, but which had once been the headquarters of Energoinvest, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s largest corporation, producing everything from power cables to computer hardware and software – until it was torn apart by privatization.

Toxic fumes from burning beer cans and plastic water bottles choked the inexperienced supporters and city activists who joined in. Not so the miners, who were laughing and singing, their dark, slightly hunched figures, wrapped in colorful blankets provided by the townspeople, swaying around the fires, transforming the slick image of the downtown area into a sight from a post-apocalyptic fantasy. A fantasy that is undoubtedly dark, but that conceals a spark of serious unrest.

A group of environmental activists joined the protest and soon found themselves chanting the protest’s slogan in unison with the hoarse voices of the miners: “AIN’T GIVING YOU NO COAL!” This was a serious threat to the government: If these great mines, once state-owned and now in the hands of the public power company, were to deprive the country of coal, the power supply would suffer greatly.

But why did environmental activists side with the miners in this story? Hadn’t they been warning for years against the use of coal because of its local air pollution and global carbon emissions?

Abandoning the miners but not the coal

Like many countries in the Global South, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s contribution to historical global carbon emissions is minimal: 0.06%. However, the country has been under (increasing) pressure to close its coal-fired power plants and begin a transition to less polluting energy sources. This “green” transition has cost it almost all of its wild mountain rivers, as it has unleashed the race of local and foreign (mainly EU-based) capitalists for small hydroelectric power plants. These plants, by the way, are still listed as renewable energy, despite their irreparable damage to the rivers.

Today, local and foreign capital is turning to solar and wind energy production, which is supposed to drive the “green” transition and, as such, is mostly geared to the interests of private business. There is little or no state intervention to “ensure environmental protection or to direct the use of what is essentially a public good for the energy needs of society.” All the electricity produced in this way ends up on foreign markets for private profit, with little or no benefit to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Coal-fired power generation has not disappeared, however. The old plants, once symbols of a young socialist state’s triumph over poverty as engines of its modernization, are fully operational but have not benefited from European Union funding for desulphurization, as have plants in neighboring Serbia. Recent attempts by China to rebuild one of them failed due to a combination of local government incompetence and strong EU pressure against any investment in old industry, but even more adamantly against China’s influence in the Balkans.

What is happening, however, is that the state-owned electricity companies are slowly draining the old state-owned mines of their financial resources by diverting their purchases to the new privately-owned coal mines. As with other waves of privatization over the past three decades, this movement is proving highly lucrative for the financial backers of political parties.

Obviously, the destruction and eventual closure of the old mines to give the new private mines an even larger market share will not lead to an exit from coal. Less obvious, and perhaps even more problematic, is the supposed ‘by-product’ of this process: society will be deprived of its last large group of unionized workers.

We saw this in the postwar transition to capitalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Industry was damaged but not ruined by the war, and many of the old state-owned enterprises had a good chance of recovery. In the end, they were sold off, with the wholehearted blessing of advisors from international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The socialist giants were thus almost invariably torn apart, only to be sold cheaply to war profiteers, then driven into bankruptcy, and finally resold as real estate to developers, generating hefty profits for their postwar owners. The workers ended up on the streets, unemployed, on miserable welfare, if any. And there they would remain for decades, their protests less and less visible, their voices diminished and their power withered, until organized labor as an idea and a practice faded into oblivion.

Thus, the process wiped out not only Bosnia and Herzegovina’s industry, but also organized labor outside of state institutions. This severely undermined the bargaining power of workers in general, but also limited the cohesive and transformative potential of society as a whole.

The coal miners, although also weakened, have survived this upheaval because the national energy production is by and large dependent on coal. While they will inevitably be affected by the “green” transition, they are also the only organized social force capable of steering it in the direction of social and environmental justice, away from the cosmetics of pseudo-environmental concerns that characterize much of the Western mainstream environmental movement worldwide. Finally, the miners are a large enough social group to have influence. This was demonstrated by the protests in 2021: Management and the government were forced into a deal by the unions’ threat to withhold coal supplies to the main power plants. However, this potential can only be preserved if the public mines continue to operate.

Meanwhile, the private coal mines, also a product of post-war privatization, will not be an obstacle to the “green” transition. Their miners are mostly without union protection. Their contracts are unstable. Once the “green” transition gains momentum, and it will sooner or later, the state will not be responsible for them and their communities; it will be able to discard them like an unnecessary burden. But as long as there is a demand for coal, the private mines are highly profitable because they can easily circumvent environmental and worker protection regulations and labor rights.

In the meantime, the state-owned mines were taken over by the electricity company Elektroprivreda BiH, one of the three in Bosnia and Herzegovina where everything is tripled due to the ethnic division of the state. This takeover was publicly presented as the salvation of the ailing mines. But in reality, the company is draining the old mines of labor and investment, while buying coal from the private mines.

Aware that an open move against the state mines and miners would meet with formidable resistance from the communities directly affected, as well as from the general population, the government and the company’s management are moving cautiously and perfidiously, but with growing determination. While the unions are becoming more vocal, but clearly weakened by their decimated ranks (Kreka, one of the largest mines, now employs only about a third of its former workforce), the company is moving more aggressively, blackmailing the mines to either accept their deteriorating position within the company or abandon it and enter into free market competition. In the current state of the mines, free market competition is not the usual bad joke – it is the ultimate cynicism. It reveals that for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the battle of the 21st century will not be “green jobs vs. brown jobs.” It will be “new precarious brown jobs vs. old (once stable) brown jobs.”

The old trade union power would increase the financial, social and cultural costs of the “green” transition, slow it down and possibly redirect it towards solutions that destroy the core of the system that caused the climate crisis in the first place. The EU’s facilitators of the “green” transition also know this. So it is not surprising that they are pushing for a rather selective phase-out of coal, provided it allows the old union power to be dismantled behind the scenes.

Merging force with vision

The slow and painful death of the old mines undermines the last fortress of organized labor. It will deprive a society like Bosnia and Herzegovina of the last reservoir of, at least potentially, radically transformative energy that resides in a group with very high, if not the highest, stakes in a just transition. This is an often neglected cost of the “green” transition when it is de facto handed over to private investors and interests. But what appears to be a dead end may be the very beginning of an unexpected story.

New environmental groups are springing up all over the country. They are joining forces in a common struggle, and they have the ear of the public. They have begun to move far beyond the short-term goals that have been pushed in donor-driven civil society and are not afraid to move into the realm of politics as world-changing work. But this nascent movement still lacks a strong infrastructure of solidarity. Another problem is: The approach of environmental groups is often legalistic and insufficient to generate strong direct resistance. The limitations of such strategies, suited to an arguably traumatized post-war society (or one pacified by top-down international democratization), are most evident in the case of the new mining companies that are swarming the region.

Multinational corporations move in quickly and smoothly, often under the guise of research or the promise of a gold rush, and communities are stripped of the last vestiges of control over their lives and development. Impoverished and depopulated, desperate for at least some source of relatively stable income, communities find it difficult to sustain and nurture the resistance that does emerge against all odds. It is made more difficult by the cunning PR of multinational corporations. These new-age colonizers intervene in the very fabric of daily life. They organize and sponsor cultural and sports events, children and youth. They donate to schools and civic organizations. They tailor the curriculum to their needs and curb any more ambitious aspirations of the local youth. They even organize “green” activities. They infiltrate public institutions and naturalize their presence in social life, paving the way for their profit-making projects. Their legal and administrative machinery ensures that all the havoc they cause is done with full official paperwork.

Although capital has begun to advance the “green” transition, it is hostile to paying for it, and of course even more hostile to transforming the structural core of its own business model, which is the only way to make the energy transition sustainable and just. This is why the environmental movement needs allies to give it a wilder, rougher edge in this struggle. For a resistance to work, it must effectively stop business as usual. That, if anything, is the potential of the (miners’) union: to bring the economy and the whole country to a standstill by denying coal supplies.

Some of this potential may even be transferred to the new mines, but on a much more modest scale. The young miners are subjected to the new, harsher forms of exploitation – this time with little or no union support. But some of them may bring with them the seeds of union culture and struggle from the old mines. Or they will plant their own seeds of solidarity and comradeship in their common daily struggle to keep themselves and each other alive. A contingent and precarious starting point, but a starting point nonetheless.

In any case, the miners will need allies outside their impoverished and vulnerable communities. They will need allies with visions that transcend capitalism in all its forms. The emerging environmental movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina could play this role. It has already made an essential leap beyond conservation to a much deeper challenge to the current order of things, to the sanctity of private property and interests, and to the exploitation of the natural world for profit. The movement has begun to recover the language of the common good, self-government, and the autonomy of the collectivity over its resources and development paths. And in doing so, it has made clear that it will be the voice not only of conservationists, but of all the marginalized, impoverished and exploited who must become actors in the transformations that will be necessary to save the planet and its life-world.

In this way, the environmental movement has effectively entered the arena of anti-capitalist struggles. And this is the ground on which the two movements, that of the workers, not just the miners, and that of the environmentalists, can move together, combining the power of organization with the power of vision. So will the environmental movement, which enjoys support across the state and society, make the breakthrough to bolder visions and reach out to miners’ communities and, more broadly, to workers in general? The “green” transition is for the workers to bear, so it should be theirs to lead and govern. Energy production is a good place to start. In addition to environmental concerns, there is the concern to provide workers and their households with clean and affordable energy. Or even free energy, if we recognize it as a vital human need rather than a lucrative commercial commodity. A good fight can be waged there, the seeds of which we can see in the Manifest of Nature Guardians for the Future of Energy in BiH.

There are many battlegrounds. Old ways of producing energy may be on their way out, but workers and their communities will feel the consequences for decades. So if the environmental movement is fighting for clean air, it has to start with the communities that are being sacrificed for the development of all. Their primary need will be good, reliable, advanced public and universal health care.

And then there is the new wormhole of “green extractivism,” which is becoming increasingly evident in the mining of so-called “transition minerals,” which is a cause of grave environmental concern, but not only. The “green” mines crush human bodies and lives to ensure maximum profit for the capitalists. As people across the country rise up against them, the environmental movement must speak loudly and clearly about the different dimensions of this resistance: there is concern for nature and communities, but also for the workers. The “green” mines will offer meager wages and poor protection; they are not the basis for socio-economic development and cannot be the source of life for the communities they exploit. They are sources of quick profit for (mainly) foreign capitalists and pillars of neo-colonialism. Thus, the struggle against them is a struggle for society as well as for nature.

The dialectic of coal

I am writing this text thanks to the reliable fires of the old coal power plant, whose chimney rises above the valleys of Central Bosnia. The black gold of this country is reliably transported to the plant on board of old dirty trains. Coal dust particles are just as reliably deposited in the lungs of the miners and the population around the mines.

That reliability however is vulnerable and contingent upon the will of the miners. Wind and solar may be taking over but the base, foundational source of power for Bosnia and Herzegovina is coal. At least for the time being, in this present of ours for which the miners’ communities have sacrificed more than most of us. Their sacrifice is fortunately and, again, for the time being, not only morally but also materially and existentially binding as long as there are coal power plants and they will be around for some time. The chant “AIN’T GIVING YOU NO COAL!” is the battle cry of the moment. Environmental activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina need to seize this moment together with the miners. And then move on to other fields where only workers can effectively stop the business as usual and bring about radical transformation.

In an ironic twist of transition dialectic, the one activity that is inter alia threatening to the life of this planet, coal-mining and burning, may at the same time be a beacon of hope: our weapon in the struggle to do things differently. Which is not just a matter of transforming technologies but also revolutionizing the economy of our societies for it to serve the needs of the entire living world.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here:

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