Welcome to the Desert of Transition!: Post-Socialism, the European Union, and a New Left in the Balkans
Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks
The Spring of a New Left?
It started primarily as a “Facebook movement” which gathered the younger, politically confused generation that was unsatisfied with the new government policies. The starting point could be seen as the February 26, 2011 protest in Zagreb’s central square, when war veterans and right-wing groups gathered to oppose the extradition and trial of a former Croatian soldier in Serbia. This ended in a violent conflict between a crowd of mostly football hooligans and the police. However, only two days later a different protest emerged. The “Facebook protests” started to become more specific about the reasons for discontent—namely the disastrous social situation, the lack of confidence in institutions, and the political system which breeds corruption and deepened social inequalities. It was a big surprise to see independent protests uniting groups of various political stripes. Even more surprising were the banners denouncing the European Union and capitalism as such, questioning the party system and, taking everything a step further, demanding direct democracy.
The unexpected emergence of what we could call a new, organized, and indeed original left in Croatia that is actively involved in, and even shaping, the current protest movement must be traced back to 2009. Then an independent student movement articulated a strong resistance to the privatization and commercialization of higher education. In a sort of Hegelian “concrete universality,” their protest against neoliberal reforms in education turned into what was probably the first strong political opposition to not only the government, but the general political and social regime. During thirty-five days in spring and two weeks in autumn that year, more than twenty Croatian universities were occupied by students, who were practically running them.11 In itself, this was nothing new under the sun, but the way the students occupied and ran the universities deserves 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; they did not just debate issues of public importance such as education, but also decided upon the course of their rebellious actions. The most active plenum at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb each evening gathered up to a thousand people who would deliberate on the course of action.12 This event gave rise to the movement for direct democracy as a necessary corrective (and possibly a true alternative) to electoral democracy and partitocracy. The new Croatian left, whose ideas quickly spread around the post-Yugoslav space, does not see direct democracy limited to the referendum practice, but rather as a means of political organization 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 the City”) for the preservation of urban space in downtown Zagreb which had been sold by the city government to big investors. This happened in conjunction with 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 similar sort of directly democratic structure, and this came as a huge surprise to the political elite and the mainstream media.
This Is Not A Color Revolution!
Although the new left was pivotal in shifting the nature of the protests, they did not turn into clearly marked leftist demonstrations, but instead remained a genuine people’s movement. In February, March, and April 2011 up to ten thousand people assembled every other evening in Zagreb, and up to a couple thousand assembled in other cities.13 Besides a rhetorical shift (a strong anti-capitalist discourse unheard of either in independent Croatia or 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 public 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,” in which citizens themselves opened new ways and venues for their subversive actions, and questioned legality in the name of the legitimacy of their demands.14 This was not a classic, static protest anymore and, unlike the famous Belgrade walks in 1996–97, the Zagreb ones were neither aimed only at the government as such, nor only at 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, privatization fund, television and media outlets, etc.). The flags of the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union, the Social Democratic Party (seen as not opposing the neoliberal reforms), and even the European Union (seen as complicit in the elite’s wrongdoings) were burned. The protesters even “visited” the residences of the ruling party politicians, which signalled a widespread belief that their newly acquired wealth was nothing more than legalized robbery.
And this is precisely the novelty of these protests. It is not yet another “color revolution” of the kind the Western media and academia are usually so enthusiastic about (but who are otherwise not interested in following how the “waves of democratization” often do little more than replace one autocrat with another, more cooperative one). The U.S.-sponsored color revolutions never put into question the political or economic system as such, although they did respond to a genuine demand in these societies to get rid of the authoritarian and corrupt elites that had mostly formed in the 1990s. The Croatian example shows that for the first time protests are not driven by anti-government rhetoric per se, but instead are based on 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-organized citizens. No color is needed to mark this kind of revolution which obviously cannot hope for any external help or international media coverage. It did the only thing the dispossessed can do: marched through their cities signalling the topoi of the Regime, which had almost cemented over the last two decades but is susceptible to cracking under the weight of its own contradictions and products, such as expanding poverty. The emergence and nature of these Croatian protests invites us also to rethink the categories used to explain the social, political, and economic situation in the Balkans and elsewhere in post-socialist Eastern Europe.
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