Is the Balkans a new Maghreb?

 

by SRECKO HORVAT and IGOR ŠTIKS

In the shadow of the current political transformations of the Middle East, the Balkans is boiling. Only six days after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid, a 41-year old TV engineer Adrian Sobaru attempted to commit suicide during the Romanian prime minister’s speech in Parliament by throwing himself of the gallery dressed in a T-shirt saying “You have killed our children’s future! You sold us!” [1] He was protesting not only the severe cuts in general (public sector wages were reduced by one quarter and the sales tax jumped from 19% to 24%) but especially those that have reduced assistance for parents of disabled children such as himself. Since the beginning of 2011 Romania has seen huge protests against the IMF-approved austerity measures and the new labor law. In February there was conflict in Albania between the government and the opposition which left three people dead on the streets of Tirana in February. By the end of February massive protests also erupted in Croatia. Since then people have been returning to streets regularly in Zagreb and other major cities. These protests echoed throughout the former Yugoslavia with demonstrations displaying similar demands and messages organised in Serbia and Bosnia.

These received little attention from the mainstream international media. For Slavoj Žižek, however, the events in Croatia signalled the long-awaited awakening of Eastern Europe and offer an example soon to be followed by other countries.[2] Furthermore, Julian Assange announced recently that the Wikileaks revelations about Southeast Europe that his organisation plans to release might cause uprisings similar to those in the Maghreb and the Middle East.[3] What is actually happening in the Balkans? If there is an influence of the Arab spring on the ongoing protests, where can it be found? Can we, among all obvious differences, detect some commonalities? What truly simmers behind these expressions of anger, and what kind of demands do they put forward?

These events, in our view, cannot be fully comprehended without an analysis of the 20-year old experiment in political, social and economic engineering called Transition. Nowhere are its consequences so painfully obvious as in the post-socialist Balkans today. The state of this region, encompassing almost 60 million people, allows us to question the whole teleological narrative of the Transition and its underlying political and economic ideology. In this colossal transformation with equally colossal social and economic consequences, the leading role was reserved for the European Union. This huge enterprise with neo-colonial undertones is in a deep crisis today across the Balkans. To understand the crisis and its possible ramifications, one has to take into account the wide sway of mechanisms used by the EU to pacify, stabilise and incorporate (without necessarily fully integrate) the Balkans. Nowhere as here did the EU experiment so extensively with its “transformative power”, often producing many unwanted results. In this analysis we offer a tour of the EU’s Balkanpolitik.  The case of Croatia appears symptomatic and the ongoing protests rocking this future “28th EU member” are illustrative of the general mood in the post-socialist Balkans., something else is worthy of our attention here. A completely new, original and inventive movement of the Left came to the forefront in these sometimes chaotic protests, having no paralell in the rest of Eastern Europe, where the left still struggles with the post-1989 political anathemisation, and with bringing new methods and energy to the subversive politics of our time.

Welcome to the desert of Transition

At the start of the protests in Croatia, the country’s Minister of the Interior Tomislav Karamarko described the protesters as “Indijanci”, meaning native American “Indians”. His qualification was meant to belittle the protests by describing them as a colourful carnival of politically irrelevant actors. Not only did this unexpected Freudian slip turn against the Minister himself – the protestors appropriated the offense and turned it into a satirical weapon against the government, so that many later started to talk about the “Indian revolution”—but it also revealed the essence of the Eastern European, and especially Balkan predicament today.

In spite of the democratic promise of 1989 and the final arrival of “the End of History”, post-socialist citizens, those “Indians” of the “Wild East”, today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes: most elections have turned out to be little more than a re-shuffling of the same political oligarchy with no serious differences in political programmes or rhetoric. Many lost their jobs (during the “privatisation” campaigns) or had their labour conditions worsen, their pensions evaporate; most of the guaranteed social benefits (such as free education and health care) progressively disappeared. In addition to that, citizens are highly indebted, owning money to foreign-owned banks that spread around the Balkans and that control its whole financial sector[4]. After the series of devastating wars across the former Yugoslavia that claimed up to 130,000 deaths, the “democratic promise” was not fulfilled for the second time after the end of the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman in 2000. The last decade brought about another wave of impoverishment, this time managed by “euro-compatible” elites ready to implement further neo-liberal reforms portrayed as a necessary part of the EU accession process.

After 1989, the dismantling of the remnants of the socialist state was legitimised by demands for the rapid reduction of the omnipresent (and in some places totalitarian) state apparatus. This process usually entailed the dismantling of existing social safety nets as well as privatisation (which more often than not turned into a pillage of social and state assets) or the total corruption of what remained of the apparatus. The final result has been a chain of what is called today “weak states”. The EU, along with several international organizations such as the WTO and the IMF, favored the neoliberal paradigm of privatisation, deregulation and a free market within a minimal state. These international authorities served, in turn, as an external source of legitimisation for local political elites engaged in the predatory project of extracting the existing state resources or preying on citizens’ wealth in general. When the transition went hand in hand with war, this extraction of wealth met with weak resistance. The discourse of nationalism helped these local elites to channel previously socially-owned or state-owned capital into private hands— to their own or to those loyal to them —thus giving them a huge economic, social and political advantage at the end of hostilities. When the dust finally settled, ordinary citizens found themselves not only in a devastated country, but also with empty pockets and without the old social safety net.

By questioning the totality of the communist institutional legacy the “national question” was also dangerously reopened, as exemplified in the former Yugoslavia and some parts of the former Soviet Union such as Chechnya, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan or Moldova. In practice that meant transforming the institutionalised ethno-national groups into competitors whose predatory elites were eager to grab and control as much resources as possible in order to get a better position in the “transitional game”. The story of “ethnic conflicts” initiated by the incorporation of Eastern Europe into a Western-dominated capitalist economy that activated existing ethno-territorial institutional arrangements is yet to be written. So far, we have been mostly reading about the consequences without questioning how local political entrepreneurs saw the relationship between their ethnic groups, territory and the economic exploitation and inter-change with the West. If ethno-politics became the only credible source of political opportunities and the only possible way of keeping or grabbing power, it was not surprising that in the multi-ethnic environment of the former socialist federations, so-called “inter-ethnic” conflict, managed by the political elites themselves, was the immediate consequence.

The process of turning the former socialist states into liberal democracies and free-market economies (apparently the inseparable twins of the new era) was famously called “transition”, bringing into public and political discourse quasi-biblical connotations of acceding to the “land of plenty” from some four decades of slavery. Although liberal democratic practices were introduced immediately after 1989 together with the free-market policies already in the early 1990s, Transition turned into a never-ending process. Its “varieties” produced an enormous amount of intellectual work, from reporting it to the mountains of scholarly products involving hundreds of PhD theses, newly established departments and chairs, aiming at observing this colossal transformation. And even today, twenty years later, we hear that the Transition is incomplete. The wandering in the desert seems to be endless.

In spite of the rhetoric of incompleteness (similar to the rhetoric of incomplete modernisation for the Third World), we can observe that the free-market reigns supreme; post-socialist Eastern Europe is fully incorporated into the capitalist world with a semi-peripheral role. In practice this means the availability of cheap and highly educated labour in proximity of the capitalist core and a quasi-total economic dependence on the core and its multinational banks and corporations, and, finally, the accumulation of debt. On the political side, liberal democratic procedures formally seem to be there. In spite of that, the notion of an incomplete transition still dominates the media comments and the academic discourse and political elites are using it to justify yet another wave of privatisation.[5] As if no one dares to say that ‘transition’ meant precisely bringing these states under rather harsh capitalism (a word “transitologists” rarely use). In this respect, the Transition as such is long over. There is nothing to “transit” to anymore. In our view, two main reasons seem to be behind the rhetoric of incomplete transition: avoidance of a full confrontation with the consequences of Transition, and, preservation of the discourse and relations of dominance vis-à-vis the former socialist states. One of the underlying assumptions of the eternal transition is therefore the “need” for tutelage and supervision.

Observers often point out to another transitional phenomenon, namely the appearances of “communist nostalgia”. The politically-aseptic “Goodbye, Lenin” nostalgia is often seen with general sympathy, whereas an opinion poll showing that almost 61% of Romanians think that the life was better under Caucescu is met with strong disapproval and even disappointment[6]. Fervent liberals might point out that it is the “Egyptian pots of meat” story: “slaves” are always nostalgic about their tyrants instead of being happy to be “free”, despite the fact they are within close reach of the “promised land”. Reading “nostalgia” as the expressed “wish” to return by magic to the state socialist regime— as if anyone offered that alternative —means avoiding the questions that simmer behind these feelings. Why do people feel politically disempowered and economically robbed and enslaved today? Why and when did liberal democracy and capitalist free-market economy turn wrong—was there any other possibility?—and why is it not getting any better? Since the “communist nostalgia” does not produce any political movement or programme, the answer has to be found in a widespread feeling that something does not work in the new system and that it should be changed following the ideals that were behind generous social policies of ex-communist states. Slovenian sociologist Mitja Velikonja in his study on “Tito-stalgia”[7] shows two strains of the communist nostalgia: the passive, oriented towards cherishing the symbolic heritage of the old system, and the active nostalgia, the one that is trying to critically observe the current reality through the lenses of undisputable communist achievements in economic and social emancipation of the masses in the 20th century. Those who cannot or refuse to acknowledge these feelings are turning a blind eye to growing discontent and social demands that are putting in question Transition both as process of reform and as the teleological-ideological construct of dominance.

 

The EU’s Balkanpolitik and the Western Balkan Ghetto

 

The European Union is the main protagonist of the Eastern European Transition; according to its 1993 Copenhagen policy, it is supposed to educate, discipline and punish while offering EU membership as the prize at the end of the bumpy road of Transition where awaits, so the story goes, the democratic and economic pay off. However, the reality destroyed the fable: even when the goal was finally achieved, the promise was not fully kept: all but three member states from “old” Europe immediately imposed labour restrictions on free circulation for citizens of “new” Europe, breaking the promise of equal European citizenship. Instead of the free circulation of people, there is mainly a free circulation of capital. Moreover, there is even a need for further “monitoring” of the “Eastern Balkan” countries whose citizens (legally European citizens as well) are often treated as third-class citizens, as demonstrated in the case of those Romanians (most of them Roma) expelled recently from France as illegal aliens. Economic wellbeing has not been achieved nor has democracy flourished.

The EU has been the most powerful political and economic agent in a post-socialist Balkans whose political landscape is as varied as no other place in Europe. Nowhere as on this peninsula is the EU’s mission civilisatrice so evident. Though it has fully integrated Slovenia, it “monitors” Romania and Bulgaria that have been heavily criticised and sanctioned (especially Bulgaria that lost millions in EU funds) for not being able to “catch up”. Four years after integration, these countries have been hit hard by the economic crisis.[8] The EU not only supervises the Western Balkan candidates (“negotiations” being a euphemism for a one-way communication amounting to little less than the “translate-paste” operations during the adoption of the acquis communautaire), but it actually maintains two protectorates (Bosnia and Kosovo). The EU developed varied approaches: disciplining and punishing the members (Romania and Bulgaria), bi-laterally negotiating membership (Croatia and soon Montenegro), punishing and rewarding (Serbia and Albania), managing (Bosnia), governing (Kosovo), and, finally, ignoring (Macedonia blocked in the name dispute with Greece). The common denominator of all these approaches today is Crisis.

Social gloom reigns over the so-called “Western Balkans”, another geo-political construct forged in Brussels, composing the former Yugoslav republics, “minus Slovenia, plus Albania”. This part, on the other hand, has further complex attributes: it was not only the post-socialist, but also the post-partition and the post-conflict region. It has been entirely surrounded by the EU members in a sort of “ghetto” around which the Schengen ring has been slowly deployed, with Slovenia, Hungary and Greece patrolling the Fortress, the role for which Romania and Bulgaria have been, so far unsuccessfully, exercising as well. One could see the Schengen’s enlargement— instead of the EU enlargement —as a continuation of the containment policies from the 1990s when the main aim was to prevent the war in the former Yugoslavia spilling over its former international borders. In this respect, and save for the “minus Slovenia, plus Albania” approach that hides the fact that Slovenia is still deeply involved with its southern brethren and that Albania is primarily close to its Albanian kin in Kosovo, “Yugoslavia” has not disappeared as a geo-political space. A sense of the region’s unity, despite the conflicts, led Tim Judah to invent a new term for this space, “Yugo-sphere”[9]. The term caught on quickly. It does not, however, tell us much about the fact that the “spheres” are formed not only by their internal centripetal forces but also, even more importantly, by their external borders, or the isolation from other spheres.

The security and stabilisation approach was and still is the absolute EU priority, which nonetheless seems to be in deep crisis. Over the last 5 years we have seen another partition (Montenegro leaving short-lived “Solania” as its renewed Union with Serbia was popularly dubbed after the 2003 agreement) and a secession (Kosovo declaring independence from Serbia), which further fragmented the “Yugo-sphere”. Fragmentation is not limited to the former administrative borders between the republics and autonomous provinces of Yugoslavia. The northern Serb-populated part of Kosovo, around the town of Mitrovica, remains governed by Serbia, and new Serb enclaves have been created within Kosovo. The Dayton agreement in Bosnia preserved the inter-ethnic divisions by the ethno-territorial and consociational arrangements and therefore failed to reverse the policies of ethnic cleansing. In Macedonia since the 2001 conflict, the EU-sponsored Ohrid Framework agreement between the Albanian rebels and the Macedonian government induced territorial re-design at the municipal level, further separating the Albanian and Macedonian communities. Therefore, the consociational and ethno-territorial approach that aimed at the stabilisation and achieved it in a short run by stopping violence breeds further divisions and instability in a mid or long run as demonstrated in Bosnia, Kosovo (and therefore necessarily Serbia), and Macedonia.

Unlike in other regions, the EU took direct action in the Balkans. Kosovo is effectively run by the EU, via its Law and Order Mission (EULEX), although five EU member states still refuse to recognise the new state but participate in the mission. This reveals the failure of the US-led and mostly EU-backed Kosovo independence strategy that left the country and its population in limbo of the partial recognition that prevents it from joining any international organisation. Besides Bosnia and Kosovo, the European forces, led by Italy, intervened in Albania in 1997, the EU militaries were also present in Macedonia, and many EU members were involved in the NATO bombings of then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The EU in the Balkans is therefore not only a club that tests its candidates. It is an active player in transforming the region, politically, socially, and economically. Our survey of its Balkanpolitik begs an answer to the question of why it did not succeed in its stabilisation and integration policies?

 

The Empire’s Balkan Crisis

The US (as the leader of the West) in general and the EU in the Balkans in particular dissimulate their dominance through “state-building” “capacity-building” policies and local “ownership”. This is precisely what David Chandler calls “Empire in denial”[10] and offers a convincing argument about neo-colonialism disguised as state-building, the examples of which being Bosnia and Kosovo for some time, but also Iraq and Afghanistan today, and possibly Libya or some other Middle-Eastern country tomorrow. The local ownership strategy in practice means little more than implementing externally dictated reforms but nesting responsibility within the local elites. An “Empire in denial” does not govern directly, due to the cost and unpopularity of this mode of domination, but via friendly regimes that remain responsible for implementing or not implementing the state-building or “EU-member”-building strategies.

However, problems arise when elected local elites avoid cooperating in domains that would cut the branch on which their power sits by reinforcing institutional independence, particularly of the judiciary and the police. The problem is further exacerbated by the ‘Empire in denial’s’ ideological inability to question these elected leaders, although the elections are themselves prone to various pre and post-electoral manipulations by local oligarchies. It insists furthermore on continuous neo-liberal reforms that are supposed to be undertaken by that very same ”democratically-elected”, hugely corrupt and deeply undemocratic elites, that are eventually the only ones to benefit from these reforms.

Turkes and Gokgoz point out that the European commission’s major strategy is precisely “neo-liberal restructuring”, which in practice undermines democratic development, as the stated goal of the EU’s actions, and allows for authoritarian practices[11]. The assumed causal relation between neoliberal economic reforms and the promotion of democracy appears, therefore, to be highly problematic. These two crucial elements of EU strategy towards the Western Balkans, as Turkes and Gokgoz emphasise, “have not fed one another.” Rather, they argue, “the opposite has occurred.” It seems that in a post-conflict situation characterized by close ties between businesses, criminal networks, state security apparatus and political elites, current EU strategy undermines its own stated goal, namely the stabilisation and democratisation of the region.

The trouble is precisely that neo-liberal reforms are opening up more opportunities for corruption and the predatory behaviour of the local elites, as the Croatian case amply shows. The privatisation process that includes infrastructure such as telecommunications, big industries, natural resources such as water, media outlets or even public services, in addition to the foreign bank investments or devastating credit lines, are just some of the “opportunities” rising out of neo-liberal restructuring, as the first phase of the incorporation into the EU-sphere. The case of the former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, praised by the EU and currently in Austrian prison for widespread corruption charges, is a telling example of how the local elites can profit from the “restructuring” process.

 

Rising euro-skepticism

The eventual result is a mutual deligitimisation of the EU and the political elites of the candidate countries or recent member states. EU-backed political elites are delegitimising the EU as whole by implementing unpopular neo-liberal reforms, whereas the EU, with its pressure to continue these reforms, de-legitimise in turn these political elites who happen to be their obvious beneficiaries i.e. the whole political structure that keeps them in power. The result is a recent surge in euro-skepticism in general. This came as a surprise to many observers, political elites and EU functionaries, since for more than two decades EU membership has been the highest goal of almost all political forces in the Balkans. The recent polls showing that up to 40% of people in Croatia oppose integration into the EU, against 40% of those in favour and 20% undecided, come as a logical consequence of a protracted integration which has had negative economic consequences.

This euro-skepticism is not, as expected, only a right-wing nationalist reaction to supra-national integrations or only the leftist critique of how these integrations have been handled and of the EU as mechanism in general. It has to be understood also as a rejection of the teleological narrative of the Transition, with the EU as its sacred end but also as the tutor in this “coming of age” story. Among those recently integrated one finds despair and disorientation; once you supposedly arrived “There”, you discover political emptiness and deep economic inequalities characteristic for capitalist societies but without significant social protection that has been finally destroyed during the same EU-accession process. This creates a further division within the EU since citizens in the richer countries of the core still benefit from welfare policies, albeit receding ones. It is against this general backdrop that one needs to analyse the revitalisation of nationalism in the countries such as Hungary or Poland where, furthermore, the EU membership inadvertently opened “backdoors” for a new nationalist surge.[12] Where the left is still delegitimised, the only possible turn from the mainstream politics, seems to be towards right-wing or extreme-right wing ideologies seen as both “defending the nation” from the supra-national institutions and as producers of political meanings and identities.

Finally, it still seems that, as Turkes and Gogkoz put it, “the European commission strategy [for the Western Balkans] is neither total exclusion nor rapid integration.”[13] One should add here that political integration does not mean—

as the cases of Romania and Bulgaria but also of some other Eastern European states show —integration into the core. “New Europe” and the Balkan candidates to be integrated are (and will remain) the periphery or rather, in the world-system vocabulary, a semi-periphery. They are an enormous source of cheap labour and resources where businesses could be protected by the EU legal shadow (through the adoption of EU laws and/or the Stabilisation and Association Agreements). Stabilising the region is therefore a priority, whereas economic integration via neo-liberal restructuration is or will be achieved without being necessarily followed, and certainly not with the same speed, by full political integration.

 

 

The Winter of Croatian Discontent

 

“Zagreb = Maghreb”. At first it seemed only as a jeu de mots employed by left-leaning media. But soon after the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators the “Facebook protests” started in Croatia as well.[14] There is no simple analogy with the “Arab spring” and it would be indeed erroneous to try to establish one. Though there is a different situation in the Balkans,it exhibits certain commonalities with the wider Middle East, and is fertile ground for an analysis aiming to capture the current mood of discontent and rebellion at the very borders of the West.

Croatia went through a series of transformations since 1990 that involved a brutal war, nationalist autocracy of the 1990s, a “euro-compatible” behaviour of post-Tudjman elites, reluctant to fully clear the mess of the previous decade, that finally brought Croatia to the threshold of the EU. But in what state did Croatia knock on the EU’s door? From the $3 billion foreign debt it inherited from Yugoslavia, it now owes €45 billion, which amount to 97.8% of the GDP that anyhow decreased in 2009 by 5,6% and an additional 1,5% in 2010.[15] From one of the most prosperous and most developed Yugoslav republics, it is left with almost no industry. A dodgy privatisation in the 1990s, facilitated by the war, and the continuous neo-liberal reforms of the 2000s, created enormous social gaps and finally 19% unemployment rate today. As recently as April 2010 the Croatian government put forward the “Programme for Economic Recovery” basically adopting the austerity measures decreasing the number of public sector workers by 5% and the budget for paying them by 10%. It also announced the privatization of big state-owned firms such as the electric company, the woods and the water companies and the railways, all of this on top of already privatised successful state corporations such as Croatian Telecom, the famous pharmaceutical producer Pliva and the petrol company Ina. The tourist paradise of its famous coast hides the destruction of one of Europe’s most advanced shipbuilding industries, the fourth strongest, owning some 1.5 percent of the global market. It employs 12,000 workers with around 35,000 jobs directly linked to it.[16] Croatia has been forced by the EU to stop state subsidies to shipyards which would necessarily entail a huge reduction, if not complete closure, of one of the most successful parts of Croatian industry.

All contradictions from the capitalist core such as financial shocks, reckless consumerism, big media domination, elite-driven politics, democratic deficit or commercialisation of public services are visible together with all political, social and economic problems of the post-socialist, post-partition and post-conflict semi-periphery. Croatia is absolutely dependant on the core in financial (as mentioned above the foreign banks own 90% of the sector), economic (foreign capital dominates all economic activities) and military matters (Croatia joined NATO in 2008). Neoliberal hegemony is coupled with conservative nationalism that practically turned into little less than an unholy alliance of state structures, big businesses and mafia. Until recently it all went unquestioned and then in winter, as if the Levantine echoes had found truly receptive ears on the other side of the Mediterranean, the protesters filled the streets.

 

The Spring of a New Left?

 

It all started primarily as a “Facebook”-movement gathering a younger politically confused generation unsatisfied with the new government policies. Then, on 26 February 2011, which could be seen as the starting point, a protest of war veterans opposing the extradition and trial of a former Croatian soldier in Serbia was organised at the central square in Zagreb. It ended up in a violent conflict between a crowd of mostly football hooligans and the police. However, only two days later we saw a different protest emerging. The “Facebook protests” started displaying more clearly the reasons for discontent, namely the disastrous social situation and a lack of confidence in institutions and a political system breeding corruption and deepening social inequalities. Independent protests uniting groups of various political stripes were a big surprise in itself. It was even more surprising to see banners denouncing the EU and capitalism as such, questioning the party system and, taking everything a step further, demanding a direct democracy.

The unexpected emergence of what we could call a new, organised and indeed original Left in Croatia that is actively involved in and is even shaping the current protest movement must be traced back to 2009.  Back then an independent student movement articulated a strong resistance to the privatisation and commercialisation of higher education. In a sort of Hegelian “concrete universality”, their protest against neoliberal reforms in the field of education turned into probably the first strong political opposition to not only the government, but indeed the general political and social regime. During 35 days in spring and two weeks in autumn that year more then 20 universities all over Croatia were occupied with students practically running them.[17] In itself nothing new under the sun one could say, but the way they occupied and ran the universities deserves our attention for its originality in a much larger context than the one of the Balkans or Eastern Europe.

The students set up citizens’ plenary assemblies—called “plenum”—in which not only students but all citizens were invited to debate issues of public importance such as education and, in addition to that, to decide upon the course of the rebellious actions. The most active plenum at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb each evening gathered up to 1000 individuals deliberating on the course of action.[18] This event gave a rise to the movement for direct democracy as a necessary corrective of electoral democracy and partitocracy and, possibly, a true alternative to it. The new Croatian Left, whose ideas quickly spread around the post-Yugoslav space, do not see direct democracy limited to the referendum practice but rather as a means of political organisation for people from local communes to the national level. The proof that it was not only an idea of marginal groups came very soon after the students’ occupations. Between 2009 and 2011 Croatia witnessed a massive movement (under the name “The Right to City”) for preservation of urban space in downtown Zagreb that had been sold by the city government to big investors[19], but also a wave of workers’ strikes involving the textile industry, shipyards and farmers’ protests. Some of these collective actions used the “plenum” model developed at the universities or a sort of direct democratic actions which came as a huge surprise to the political elite and the mainstream media.

 

This is not a colour revolution!

Although the new left was pivotal in shifting the nature of the current protests, they did not turn into clearly marked leftist demonstrations but into a genuine people’s movement: in February, March and April this year up to 10,000 people assembled every other evening in Zagreb and up to a couple of thousands in other cities. Beside a rhetorical shift (a strong anti-capitalist discourse unheard of in independent Croatia and elsewhere in the Balkans), the crucial point was the rejection of leaders, which gave citizens an opportunity to decide on the direction and the form of their protests. The “Indian revolution” previously limited to squares soon turned into long marches through Zagreb. It was a clear example of how “invited spaces of citizenship”, designed as such by state structures and police for “kettled” expression of discontent, were superseded by “invented spaces of citizenship”[20] when citizens themselves opened new ways and venues for their subversive actions questioning legality in the name of the legitimacy of their demands. This was not a static classical protest anymore and, unlike the famous Belgrade walks from 1996-1997, the Zagreb ones were not concentrated only at the government as such or the ruling party and its boss(es). They acquired a strong anti-systemic critique, exemplified by the fact that protesters were regularly “visiting” the nodal political, social and economic points of contemporary Croatia (political parties, banks, government offices, unions, privatisation fund, TV and media outlets etc.). The flags of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union, the Social-Democratic Party (seen as not opposing the neo-liberal reforms) and even the EU (seen as being complicit in the elite’s wrongdoings) were burned. The protesters even “visited” the residences of the ruling party politicians signalling in that way that their newly acquired wealth is nothing more than a legalised robbery.

And here is precisely the novelty of these protests. This is not yet another “colour revolution” of a kind the Western media and academia are usually so enthusiastic about (but otherwise not interested in following how the “waves of democratisation” often replace one autocrat by the other, more cooperative one). The US-sponsored colour revolutions never put in question the political or economic system as such but responded to a genuine demand of these societies to get rid of the authoritarian and corrupt elites mostly formed in the 1990s. The Croatian example shows that for the first time we do not have an anti-government rhetoric per se but a true anti-Regime sentiment. Not only the state but the whole apparatus on which the current oligarchy is based is put into question by, albeit chaotically, self-organised citizens. And no colour is needed to mark this kind of revolution that obviously cannot hope for any external help or international media coverage. You can just do the only thing the dispossessed could do: marching through your cities signalling the topoi of the Regime almost cemented over last two decades but susceptible to crack under the weight of its own contradictions and products such as, for instance, expanding poverty. The emergence and nature of current Croatian protest invites us to rethink the categories used to explain the social, political and economic situation in the Balkans and elsewhere in post-socialist Eastern Europe.

 

Conclusive remarks: a new dawn in the Balkans?

 

We demonstrated in this analysis how the very concept of transition as an ideological construct based on the narrative of integration of the former socialist Europe into the Western core actually hides a monumental neo-colonial transformation of this region into a dependent semi-periphery. The adjunct concepts of “weak state” or “failed state”, for example, cover the fact that these are not anomalies of the Transition but one of its main products. The famous corruption problem poses a puzzle for observers and scholars bringing many to conclude that, since the liberal system as such is beyond questioning, a widespread corruption must be related to culture or path-dependent behaviour in the “East”. However, corruption in reality seems to be a direct consequence of the post-1989 neo-liberal scramble for Eastern Europe, and, furthermore, a behaviour endemic across the EU itself. In order to understand post-communist, eternal transitional predicament and especially the current political and economic situation in the Balkans one has to go beyond the analysis of the state, its failure and weakness, and engage with the concept of Regime seen as a conglomerate grouping political elites, attached businesses and their Western partners, serving media corporations, NGOs promoting the holy couple of electoral democracy and neoliberal economy, organised crime itself intimately related to political and economic elites, foreign-owned predatory banks and, finally, a corrupt judiciary and controlled unions. Other ideological “apparatuses of the Regime” have their place here as well as helping to cement the results of the big neo-liberal transformation.

And here lies the minimal common denominator between the Balkans today and the Arab spring: all these protest movements, despite their clear differences, are profoundly anti-Regime. Rebelling against post-socialist Regimes is all that much harder because they often do not have a single face, no dictator, no governing families or royalties and are not characterised by open repression and censorship. And yet, the anger is similar. A logical question is thus the following: is a new dawn in Eastern Europe and especially Balkan politics announced in these protests, as Zizek seems to believe? Foucault’s Persian adventure tells us how difficult it is to predict the future of popular movements and uprisings. You do not have to be familiar with the history of the Balkans to know that the possibility of a new revitalised nationalism is not unrealistic. But, on the other hand, to dismiss a new people’s movement because it is heterogeneous and subject to all sorts of developments means not only to abandon the idea of “the will of people”[21] but to stick to the old fantasy about precise mature moments for revolutions. The Arab example shows that the situation remains open even after the People give a significant but not the final blow to the Regime. The example of Croatia demonstrates how a situation that has been initiated by right-wing elements can be turned into its opposite and can be co-opted by newly emerging and imaginative progressive forces. It also demonstrates that a new generation enters politics via direct democratic actions and the street and not political channels of electoral democracy and party politics. The new left we detected within this movement is dissociated both from the past of state socialism and from traditional social-democratic parties. Sometimes in unlikely places such as the Middle East or Croatia, we can see a sudden explosion of original radicality from which many in the West, too comfortable in the structures of liberal “oppressive tolerance”, could learn a great deal about the forms and methods of subversive politics in the 21st century.


[1] For a news report http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12069724

[2] In an interview conducted by Srećko Horvat, published in Croatian weekly Globus on 8 April 2011. For a reference in English see also Žižek’s talk “The Idea of Communism and its Actuality”, Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, 23 March 2011. Available at http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2011/03/slavoj-zizek-masterclass-the-idea-of-communism-and-its-actuality/

[3] In an interview given to the Sarajevo newspaper “Dnevni Avaz”. The content is reported in “Assange: ‘Arab scenario’ could happen in Balkans”, 1 April 2011, http://www.b92.net/eng/news/world-article.php?yyyy=2011&mm=04&dd=01&nav_id=73560

[4] For example, 75.3% in Serbia, 90% in Croatia and up to 95% in Bosnia and Herzegovina. See Yoji Koyama (forthcoming), ‘Impact of the Global Financial Crisis on the Western Balkan Countries: Focusing on Croatia’, in Rosefielde, S., Mizobata, S., and Kuboniwa, M. (eds.), Global Shock Wave, 2011.

[5] A Croatian neoliberal economist and the former minister of finance Borislav Škegro recently gave an interview to the leading Croatian weekly Globus under the title „Škegro’s Manifest for a New Privatisation“, in which he claims that Croatia’s needs to privatize its last „commons“: water, forrests and electricity. He also justifies his role in the first wave of privatizations: „Privatisation is a very difficult operation, and you can not have a clean suit. You have to come out with some stains. But somebody had to do it.“

[6] See Rossen Vasilev, ‘The Tragic Failure of Post-Communism in Eastern Europe’, published at http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=23616, 8 March 2011.

[7] Mitja Velikonja, Titostalgia – A Study of Nostalgia for Josip Broz, Mediawatch, Peace Institute, Ljubljana, 2008, available online at http://mediawatch.mirovni-institut.si/eng/Titostalgia.pdf

[8] Vassilev, op. cit.

[9] Tim Judah, ‘Yugoslavia is dead, long live the Yugosphere’, LSEE papers on South-East Europe, November 2009.

[10] David Chandler, Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-building, Pluto press, London – Ann Arbor, 2006.

[11] Mustafa Türkes and Göksu Gökgöz. ‘The European Union’s strategy towards the Western Balkans: Exclusion or Integration’, East European Politics and Societies 20/4, 2006, pp. 659-690.

[12] Jon E. Cox and Peter Vermeersch, ‘Backdoor nationalism’, European Journal of Sociology, 50/2, 2010.

[13] op. cit. p. 659.

[14] Toni Prug, ‘Croatia protests show failure of political promise’, The Guardian, 2 April 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/02/croatia-protests-economic-slump

[15] For analysis of the Croatian economic situation see Hermine Vidovic, ‘Croatia: Difficult to come out of the crisis’, in: Peter Havlik and al. Recovery – in low gear across though terrain, “Current Analyses and Forecasts 7, Wiener Institut für Internationale Wirtschafstvergleiche,”, February, 2011, p 77.

[16] See Koyama, op. cit.

[17] We have written extensively about the student and civic rebellions that involved occupation of universities but also a defence of public spaces in Zagreb in our book The Right to Rebellion – An Introduction to the Anatomy of Civic Resistance (see footnote 1). For an overview of the student movement see Mate Kapović, ‘Two years of struggle for free education and the development of a new student movement in Croatia’, Slobodni Filozofski, published at http://slobodnifilozofski.org/?p=2216, 4 January 2011.

[18] For a detailed overview of the student actions see The Occupation Cookbook, or the Model of the Occupation of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, Minorcompositions, New York, 2011. See http://www.minorcompositions.info/occupationcookbook.html.

[19] In early April, as we were writing this paper and alongside the general protests, yet another big protest action was organised at the moment of the opening of this commercial centre ending in a police intervention and arrests of activists. For more info: http://news.yahoo.com/nphotos/slideshow/photo//110407/ids_photos_wl/r856133180.jpg/

[20] See Faranak Miraftab, ‘Invented and Invited Spaces of Participation: Neoliberal Citizenship and Feminists Expanded Notion of Politics’, Wagadu 1, Spring 2004.

[21] See Peter Hallward, ‘The will of the people: notes towards a dialectical voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy 155, May/June 2009.

 

 

 

 

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