Radical Politics in the Desert of Transition
In Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism, Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks bring together a series of profound analyses of post-socialist economic and political transformation in the Balkans, and the new movements struggling to realize radically democratic visions of society. We present the editors' introduction below.
Over the last couple of years we have regularly witnessed popular protests and uprisings in the post-socialist Balkans. The well-known mobilisations, struggles and street violence in the southern part of the peninsula, in Greece and recently Turkey, have a constant and yet under-reported echo in other Balkan states. These have had a different historical trajectory: after the disappearance of the state socialist regimes, in all of these states, most dramatically across the former Yugoslavia, a period of violence, conflict or general instability and economic misery has been followed by a seemingly endless transition to liberal democracy and neoliberal economy. During this process some countries have joined the European Union (Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia), further marginalising the ‘latecomers’ and ‘laggards’ in the long process of ‘European integration’ (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania), all of which are now encircled by the EU border.
The usual story about the post-socialist Balkans revolves mostly around the following tropes: oscillation between liberalisation and authoritarianism; the complex relationship between the state, organised crime and the economy; corruption; the achievements and shortcomings of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; regional cooperation or disputes, successes and failures in the EU accession process.
This story is constantly repeated not only by local and international media but also by scholarship. Up until recently, only rarely did we hear about the devastating consequences of the ‘transition’ to capitalism, such as general impoverishment, huge public and private indebtedness facilitated by a flow of foreign credit, widespread deindustrialisation, social degradation, depopulation through diminished life expectancy and emigration, and general unemployment (ranging between 20 and 30 per cent and even reaching 50 per cent in countries like Bosnia and Kosovo, especially amongst younger generations). It was no surprise that protests started erupting, movements began to form, and diverse groups and individuals commenced openly to question the post-socialist transition that led to brutal capitalism and diminished democracy. In their efforts to defend the remnants of the socialist state (primarily in education and health), natural and social resources (water, electricity, internet), and jobs (remaining industries, the public sector), they also began to formulate a profoundly anti-capitalist and radically democratic vision of their societies. This is how radical politics was reborn in the rebel peninsula.
Although many of the contributions in this volume refer to other Balkan countries, its focus is on the post-Yugoslav states. The anti-fascist struggle, the rebellion against Stalin, experiments in economic democracy (i.e. socialist self-management), multinational federal composition, and international influence (the Non-Aligned Movement) secured a special place for Yugoslavia (1945–90), and even a certain prestige, in the general history of socialist movements. Understanding radical politics ‘after Yugoslavia’ necessarily entails a critical re-evaluation of socialist Yugoslavia, its successes and its failures, as well as of the post-socialist, post-partition and often post-conflict predicament of these societies today.
Apart from occasional reports, often by activists themselves or their sympathisers, and rare attempts to analyse current struggles, the changing situation in the Balkans and the growth of local social movements has been under-researched and is still largely unknown to a global audience. Mainstream Balkan scholarship still focuses on either obsessively explaining the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the wars and their consequences, or on monitoring the EU integration of the region (invariably understood as a natural and unquestionable political and economic process). This volume challenges the existing scholarship and its failure to take into account the disastrous consequences of the introduction of neoliberal capitalism and the deep socio-economic transformation this entailed, resulting in drastic inequalities between a tiny layer of the newly rich, diminishing middle class and the increasingly populous poor strata. In addition, the volume challenges the failure of the social and political sciences to account for the emergence of new movements and political subjectivities outside the established political system and electoral procedures. Another big challenge is directed towards wider international left forces, movements and intellectuals and their frequently, often obstinately, held view that there is nothing much to look at in Eastern Europe in general, and especially in the Balkans. These regions have been seen as a lost cause for progressive forces after 1989 and prone only to right-wing politics and extremism, support of pro-US and pro-NATO policies, and unconditional surrender to neoliberalism. We believe that the contributions in this volume will not only challenge but change these superficial and now largely obsolete views.
We believe that this volume makes four major contributions both to general radical thought and to scholarship on the Balkans. First, it offers a critical examination of the Yugoslav socialist experience, including the experiment in self-management and the political economy. It rejects folkish nostalgia while interrogating activist accounts of the socialist heritage for experiences that can help us develop a political stance towards our present and think about alternatives. Second, it offers a critical deconstruction of the Balkan imaginary, the persistent forms of seeing and understanding the peninsula through the orientalist lenses which perceive the region as a repository of ethnic conflicts, moral, economic and political corruption, and a violence that requires containment and external tutelage. Third, the volume undertakes a critical analysis of post-socialist economic and political transformation and its outcomes, involving unequal societies, neoliberal economies and oligarchic ‘democracies’. Finally, it offers an account of contemporary radical politics in the Balkans, after the disappearance of Yugoslavia from the political map.
In the Desert of Transition
None of these changes, events and political subjects can be fully comprehended without an initial examination of the twenty-year-old experiment in political, social and economic engineering known as the transition. Nowhere are its consequences so painfully obvious as in the Balkans. The state of this region, encompassing almost 60 million people, allows us to question the whole teleological narrative of the post-socialist transition and its underlying political and economic ideology. In this huge transformation, with equally colossal social and economic consequences, the leading role was reserved for the European Union. This huge enterprise is in a deep crisis today not only as an institution but within the Balkans as well. To understand these crises and their possible ramifications, one has to take into account the wide range of mechanisms used by the EU to pacify, stabilise and incorporate (without necessarily fully integrating) the Balkans. Nowhere else did the EU experiment so extensively with its ‘transformative power’, often producing many unwanted results.
In spite of the democratic promise of 1989 and the final arrival of ‘the End of History’, post-socialist citizens today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes: most elections have turned out to be little more than a reshuffling of the same political oligarchy with no serious differences in political programmes or rhetoric. Many lost their jobs (during the ‘privatisation’ campaigns) or saw their labour conditions worsen and their pensions evaporate; most of the previously guaranteed social benefits (such as free education and health care) gradually disappeared. In addition, citizens are heavily in debt, owing money to foreign-owned banks that proliferated in the Balkans to the point of controlling its whole financial sector. After the series of devastating wars across the former Yugoslavia that claimed up to 130,000 lives, the ‘democratic promise’ was unfulfilled for a second time after the end of the authoritarian rule of Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tuđman in 1999/2000. The last decade brought another wave of impoverishment, this time managed by ‘Euro-compatible’ elites ready to implement further neoliberal 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 state apparatus. This process usually entailed the dismantling of existing social protection 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 EU, along with several international organisations such as the WTO and the IMF, favoured 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 the local elites to channel previously socially owned or state-owned capital into private hands – their own or their networks’ members – 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. In practice that meant transforming the institutionalised ethno-national groups into competitors whose predatory elites were eager to grab and control as many resources as possible in order to secure a better position in the ‘transitional game’. The story is yet to be written of ‘ethnic conflicts’ initiated by the incorporation of Eastern Europe into a Westerndominated capitalist economy that activated existing federal ethno-territorial institutional arrangements and encouraged land-grabbing as a type of primitive accumulation by ethno-nationalist elites. So far, we have mostly heard about the consequences without questioning how local political entrepreneurs saw the relationship between their ethnic groups and territory and the economic exploitation from, and exchange 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 is 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’ after four decades of ‘slavery’. Although liberal democratic practices were introduced immediately after 1989 and free market policies started appearing from the early 1990s, transition turned into a never-ending process. Its ‘varieties’ generated an enormous amount of intellectual work, from journalism to the mountains of scholarly products involving hundreds of PhD theses, newly established departments and chairs, all aimed at observing this colossal transformation. And even today, more than 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 to the capitalist core, 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 in place. In spite of that, the notion of an incomplete transition still dominates the media and academic discourse, while political elites are using it to justify yet another wave of privatisation. It is as if no one dares to say that the transition as such is long over. There is nothing to ‘transit’ to anymore. In our view, there are two main factors inherent in the rhetoric of incomplete transition: the avoidance of a full confrontation with the consequences of transition, and the 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 to another transitional phenomenon: the appearance of a ‘communist nostalgia’. 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’, even, as now, when 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 were offering 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 the capitalist free-market economy go wrong? Was there any other possibility? And why is it not getting any better? Since ‘communist nostalgia’ does not generate any political movement or programme, the answer has to be found in a widespread feeling that something is not working in the new system and that it should be changed according to the ideals that lay behind the generous social policies of the former socialist states. Those who cannot or who refuse to acknowledge these feelings are turning a blind eye to the growing discontent and social demands that are putting transition into question, both as a process of reform and as the teleological-ideological construct of dominance.
The European Union in the Balkans
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). The reality, however, has 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 from ‘new’ Europe, breaking the promise of equal European citizenship. Moreover, there was even a need for further ‘monitoring’ of the ‘Eastern Balkan’ countries.
The EU has been the most powerful political and economic agent in a post-socialist Balkans whose political landscape is more varied than any other place in Europe. Nowhere else on this peninsula is the EU’s mission civilisatrice so evident. Though it fully integrated Slovenia in 2004, it has been ‘monitoring’ Romania and Bulgaria, which have been heavily criticised and sanctioned (especially Bulgaria, which lost millions in EU funds) for not being able to ‘catch up’ since they joined the EU in 2007. Four years after integration, these countries have been hit hard by the economic crisis. The newcomer to the club is Croatia, which joined in July 2013 and was immediately ranked as the third poorest EU member, with a problematic economic record and an enormous debt. The EU not only supervises the ‘Western Balkan’ candidates (‘negotiations’ being a euphemism for a one-way communication process amounting to little more than the ‘translate-paste’ operations employed during the adoption of the acquis communautaire), but actually maintains two semi-protectorates (Bosnia and Kosovo). The EU has developed varied approaches: disciplining and punishing certain members (Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia), bilaterally negotiating membership by punishing and rewarding (Montenegro, Serbia and Albania), managing (Bosnia), practically governing (Kosovo), and, finally, ignoring (Macedonia blocked in the naming dispute with Greece).
“Social gloom reigns today over the so-called Western Balkans, a geopolitical construct forged in Brussels, composed of the former Yugoslav republics that have still not joined the EU, ‘plus Albania’. 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, a role for which Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia have also been practising. One could see the Schengen Area’s enlargement – instead of the EU enlargement – as a continuation of the containment policies of 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 ‘Western Balkans’ approach that hides the fact that Slovenia and Croatia are still deeply involved with their southern brethren and that Albania is primarily close to its kin in Kosovo – ‘Yugoslavia’ or, as Tim Judah puts it, the ‘Yugosphere’, has not disappeared as a geopolitical space.
The EU took direct action in the Balkans. It effectively runs Kosovo, via its Law and Order Mission (EULEX), although five EU member states still refuse to recognise the new state even while participating 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 the limbo of a partial recognition that prevents it from joining international organisations. 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 the 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.
‘Stabilising’ the region is thus a priority, whereas economic integration via neoliberal restructuration is or will be achieved without being necessarily followed, and certainly not with the same speed, by full political integration. The EU insists furthermore on continuous neoliberal reforms – and lately on austerity measures – that are supposed to be undertaken by the very same ‘democratically elected’, hugely corrupt and deeply undemocratic elites, who will be the only ones to benefit from these reforms. The trouble is that neoliberal reforms are opening up more opportunities for corruption and predatory behaviour by local elites, as the Croatian case amply shows. The privatisation process includes infrastructure such as telecommunications, big industries, natural resources such as water or energy, media outlets and public services, as well as foreign bank investments and devastating credit lines, representing just some of the ‘opportunities’ arising from neoliberal restructuring, as the first phase of incorporation into the EU sphere. The case of the former Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, praised by the EU at one time and now serving a long prison sentence for widespread corruption schemes involving many European partners, is a telling example of how the local elites can profit from the ‘restructuring’ process.
The eventual result is a mutual delegitimisation of the EU and the political elites of the candidate countries or recent member states. EU-backed political elites are delegitimising the EU as a whole by implementing unpopular neoliberal reforms, while the EU, with its pressure to continue these reforms, in turn delegitimises the political elites who happen to be their obvious beneficiaries, along with the whole political structure that keeps them in power. The result is a recent surge in Euro-scepticism 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. This Euro-scepticism is not, as might be expected, merely a right-wing nationalist reaction to supra-national integrations, or merely a radical leftist critique of how these integrations have been handled and of the EU as a mechanism in general. It has to be understood also as a refusal 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.
New Rebels: Mapping the New Movements
Given the multi-faceted situation described above, it is unsurprising that the protest movements are diversified in their struggles, ideological orientations, and type of actions. They are mostly reacting to the deteriorating social and economic situation and the numerous abuses of power by political elites. Nonetheless, they often serve as hubs for new ideas and more proactive projects offering a progressive vision of their societies. Here we sketch a typology of these movements and actions by dividing them into five main blocs: anti-regime protests, mobilisations for the commons, student movements, various workers’ struggles and, last but not least, hegemonic cultural and intellectual efforts.
Anti-regime protests erupt regularly across the Balkans. In Croatia in spring 2011, up to 10,000 people marched across Zagreb every evening for a whole month, denouncing the political system and all political parties. In Slovenia in 2012 and 2013 general ‘uprisings’ mobilised the whole country, contributing to the fall of the right-wing government and a number of corrupt officials. In Bulgaria in spring 2013 huge protests triggered by rising electricity bills brought thousands to the streets, only to be followed after the general elections by even larger protests in the summer. For weeks, the masses protested against corrupt political elites and their ties to powerful mafia and media moguls. In Romania protests have been sporadically erupting since 2010, in response to unbearable social conditions and continuing austerity measures. In June 2013, even divided Bosnia-Herzegovina saw protests that began as a means to put pressure on politicians to resolve the issue of citizens’ registration numbers – exploited like many other things in this country by nationalist politicians – before turning into general anti-elite protests across all communities and all sub-state units. Similar types of protests, with differing intensity, have been seen in Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.
All these examples show that for the first time we have more than anti-government rhetoric per se – instead there is a true anti-regime sentiment. Not only the state but the whole apparatus on which the current oligarchy is based is called into question by self-organised citizens (albeit chaotically). And no colour is needed to mark this kind of revolution that obviously cannot hope for any external help and that rarely gets international media coverage. The emergence and nature of these protests invite us to rethink the categories used to explain the social, political and economic situation in the Balkans, and elsewhere in post-socialist Eastern Europe. They also compel us to understand the nature not only of state institutions, in their weakness or failure, but the nature of the post-socialist regime (almost) cemented over the last two decades but susceptible to cracking under the weight of its own contradictions and products, such as, for instance, rampant poverty. Rebelling against these regimes is that much harder because they often have no single face, no dictator, no governing families, and are not characterised by open repression and censorship. These occasional expressions of anger are indeed the seeds of new political and social dynamics. However, they are also characterised by volatility and by random triggers, and are usually followed by confusing and often contradictory political messages.
Among the most developed struggles are those concerning the commons – the defence of public and common goods such as public spaces (often parks), nature (water, forests, hills, landscape), urban spaces and public utility infrastructure (electricity, railways, etc.). Examples are abundant: ‘The Right to the City’ movement in 2009/2010 in Croatia mobilised thousands in defence of a square in downtown Zagreb; in Dubrovnik citizens organised to defend a nearby hill from being turned into a golf resort; in Bosnia’s second largest city, Banja Luka, citizens tried to defend one of the few public parks; in Belgrade smaller mobilisations were triggered by the cutting down of old trees in one of the main streets so as to obtain more parking space, or by the destruction of a neighbourhood park; in Bulgaria in 2012 people demonstrated against the privatisation of forests, and in Romania in 2012 against the privatisation of emergency services, etc. These single-issue movements, although rarely successful, proved to be channels of general public dissatisfaction and enjoyed support from the vast majority of citizens who see the privatisation of the commons and the neglect of public interest as intolerable practices.
To these we should add the strong student movements that have developed since 2009 in Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, and to a certain extent in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. The trigger is the commercialisation of public education, which many see as the ultimate common and social good. While students mostly protest in classic ways in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro (by marches and petitions), in Slovenia, Serbia and, especially, Croatia, the student movements extensively experiment with occupations and direct democracy.
It is worth paying special attention to the Croatian case, where an independent student movement articulated a strong resistance to the privatisation and commercialisation of higher education. Their protest against neoliberal reforms in the field of education turned into probably the first strong political opposition not only to the government, but to the general political and social regime. For thirty-five days in spring and two weeks in autumn in 2009 more than twenty universities all over Croatia were occupied, with students practically running them. In itself, this was nothing new, one might say, but the way they occupied and ran the universities deserves our attention for its originality in a much larger context than that of the Balkans or Eastern Europe. The students set up citizens’ plenary assemblies – called ‘plenums’ – in which not only students but all citizens were invited to debate issues of public importance such as education and, in addition, to decide upon the course of the rebellious actions. The most active plenum at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb gathered up to 1,000 individuals each evening to deliberate on the course of action. This event gave rise to the movement for direct democracy, which was seen as a necessary corrective of electoral democracy and ‘partitocracy’ and, possibly, as a true alternative to it. The new Croatian left, whose ideas quickly spread around the post-Yugoslav space, sees direct democracy not as limited to referendum practice but rather as a means of political organisation for citizens from local communes to the national level. This horizontal model has been used since then during many collective actions across post-Yugoslav space (from occupy movements to street marches, workers’ strikes and farmers’ protests).
The recent period has also been marked by reinvigorated workers’ struggles. They are not uniform and range from classic strikes, workers influencing companies in majority state ownership and defending them from further privatisations (e.g. the Petrokemija factory in Croatia), examples of workers’ successful and unsuccessful takeovers (e.g. Jadrankamen and TDZ in Croatia), and models of workers’ shareholdership (the most famous being Jugoremedija in Serbia). We are also witnessing a new cooperation between different social movements, such as students and workers, in building a common anti-capitalist strategy.
Finally, there is another type of struggle deserving attention: that of hegemonic cultural and intellectual efforts whose aim is to change the general public climate, challenge dominant media discourses, and reintroduce progressive ideas into wider society. Its primary goal is to undermine the (neo)liberal hegemony that since 1989 has successfully delegitimised left traditions and promoted multi-party electoral democracy – although often ending up in autocracies – and the free market as the only game in town. In the post-Yugoslav context, this general post-socialist orientation was coupled, not always harmoniously, with nationalist-conservative, right-wing extremist and anti-communist dominance. It clashed, however, with liberal attempts at ‘democratising’ these societies, which focused mostly on institutional reforms and the EU integration process that problematised only criminal privatisations and practices but not the general neoliberal orientation.
Introducing a progressive agenda and radical thinking into the dominant discourse was an almost impossible task until fairly recently. The 2008 economic and financial shocks followed by the crisis of the EU opened a space for hitherto marginal movements to articulate their critique of the current political and economic regime. These attempts range from public gatherings, forums and festivals (such as the Mayday school in Ljubljana, the Subversive Festival in Zagreb, and Antifest in Sarajevo), summer schools, activist and academic workshops and conferences, to newspapers, reviews and online magazines (from Zarez and Le Monde diplomatique in Croatia to CriticAttac in Romania or Mladina in Ljubljana).
Indeed, these Gramscian hegemonic struggles have proved to be as necessary as concrete mobilisations. They pave the way for new rebels and allow them to articulate a clear political agenda. However, their political strategies remain for now confined to occasional protests and occupations – often marked by rejection of representative democracy in the name of horizontality – petitions and even referendum initiatives. Although the model offered by Syriza, a coalition of movements ready to engage in parliamentary politics, is widely appreciated, we cannot detect so far any serious attempt at taking these struggles towards institutional politics.
We have shown here that the very concept of transition as an ideological construct based on the narrative of integration of the former socialist European countries 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, conceal 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 leading many to conclude that, since the liberal system as such is beyond questioning, the widespread corruption must be related to culture- or path-dependent behaviour in the ‘East’, or whatever is, in the good orientalist tradition, understood under the term ‘the Balkans’.
However, corruption in reality seems to be a direct consequence of the post-1989 neoliberal scramble for Eastern Europe, and, furthermore, a behaviour endemic across the EU itself. In order to understand the post-communist, eternal transitional predicament, and especially the current political and economic situation in the Balkans, we suggest that one has to go beyond the analysis of the state, its failures and weaknesses, and engage with the concept of regime. The post-socialist regime is a conglomerate grouping political elites, attached businesses and their Western partners, media corporations, NGOs promoting the holy couple of electoral democracy and neoliberal economy, organised crime (itself intimately related to political and economic elites), predatory foreign-owned 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 neoliberal transformation.
However, as this volume shows, this transformation is now being openly challenged by the rise of new social movements and by the return of radical politics in the post-Yugoslav and wider Balkan region. A new generation enters politics via direct democratic actions and the street and not through political channels of electoral democracy and classic party politics. The new left we detect within these movements is dissociated both from the past of state socialism and from traditional social-democratic parties. Sometimes in unlikely places, such as the post-socialist and post-conflict Balkans, we can see a sudden explosion of original radicalism from which many similar movements across the globe could learn a great deal about the forms and methods of subversive and rebellious politics in the twenty-first century.
Postscript: The Future of Radical Politics in the Balkans - Protests, Plenums, Parties
The year 2015 brings two significant anniversaries: the seventieth anniversary of the establishment of socialist Yugoslavia, and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the introduction of liberal democracy and a free market economy (which signalled not only the end of the socialist project but also, soon after, the end of Yugoslavia itself). These anniversaries offer the chance to reflect on both legacies, their successes and failures, and to consider the ideology and practice of both socialist and liberal-democratic regimes. On the one hand, the critical reflections in this volume provide us with an ample amount of material for a much-needed confrontation with the twentieth century, with our current predicament, and with the future social, economic and political development of both the Balkans and Europe in general. On the other hand, this volume testifies to the definitive return of radical, left and progressive politics in the Balkans via protest movements, experiments with horizontal democracy, and other mostly non-institutional ways of political organising and action. A clear proof of this return came during the preparation of the volume itself.
After the submission of the manuscript, probably the most important social upheaval in the post-socialist Balkans erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 2014. Only eight months after the 2013 protests that for the first time significantly transcended imposed ethnic divisions, on 5 February 2014 workers from several factories that had been privatised or destroyed united on the streets of Tuzla to demand their unpaid salaries and pensions. They were soon joined by students and other citizens from all walks of life. Clashes with police resulted in the burning of government buildings in Tuzla, which was then replicated in other cities such as Mostar, Zenica and Sarajevo. And while the media and political class were denouncing ‘hooliganism’ and ‘vandalism’, the protesters were busy establishing ‘plenums’, self-governed citizens’ assemblies that spread throughout the country, from Tuzla itself where the first plenum was formed, to the capital Sarajevo, regional centres such as Mostar and Zenica, and smaller cities such as Bugojno, Bihać, Brčko, Travnik and others. Most canton governments resigned and the canton assemblies mostly accepted the main demands of the plenums – although their implementation remains another issue. After long deliberations open to all citizens, almost uniformly, although with some regional variety, they demanded the revision of privatisations, an end to politicians’ excessive benefits, and the formation of new state-level and local governments made up of people with proven expertise and no record of corruption.
In our view, the plenums in Bosnia represent the most radical experiment in non-institutional politics that can be found across the Balkans since the collapse of Yugoslavia. Their form is clearly radical, although the participants themselves are of various political stripes and cannot be easily identified as left-leaning or belonging to the left. Enraged citizens simply rebelled against the degrading conditions of social and political life and spontaneously adopted citizens’ assemblies and horizontal forms of democracy as a way to articulate their demands and organise themselves autonomously. The plenum movement shook the foundations of post-war Bosnia and the wider post-Yugoslav region, surprising both the ethno-nationalist political elites and the international community, and opening up new spaces for social and political action. The plenums were operational for three months, with varying success depending on the local situation. In various forms, via working groups, many plenums are still active. Engaged citizens now understand that plenums represent a precious instrument that can be easily reactivated. To sum up, a growing social movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina came out of the protests and the plenums, redefining the public sphere and imposing a new political agenda, this time centred on the question of social justice and equality coupled with a profound critique of the disastrous capitalist economy implemented in this post-conflict country.
Nevertheless, what the current protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and elsewhere in the Balkans, clearly show is that protest energy can soon dissipate and give way to an even greater despair, or what Walter Benjamin called the ‘melancholy of the Left’. But if the protests can be developed into some sort of institutionalised politics – be it self-created parallel institutions such as citizen-led assemblies and/or new political parties that are ready to face electoral struggles – then the progressive movements’ potential for a wider social and political impact can remain strong. Without the protests, the plenums would lose their capacity to apply pressure, and without the plenums, the protests would lose their legitimacy and articulation. In turn, any future attempt at party or representative politics will have to be based on, inspired and guided by social movements. In other words, in order to transcend its ‘current impotence’, what the left must rethink is the complex dialectics between the three Ps: protests, plenums, parties. Instead of being overwhelmed by ‘new spring(s)’, what we need more than ever is long-term political and social work that will combine a variety of organisational forms and remain open to changing local and global circumstances. Hopefully this volume will serve as a modest contribution to this ongoing task.