Report Protests in former Yugoslavia republics
Demonstrators protest in Skopje on 4 May after president Gjorge Ivanov granted pardon to politicians involved in a wiretapping scandal.

Balkan indignados

The last few months have seen massive citizen movements in the Balkans against the political elite. A report from the ground.

Published on 17 July 2016 at 11:01
RFERL  | Demonstrators protest in Skopje on 4 May after president Gjorge Ivanov granted pardon to politicians involved in a wiretapping scandal.

Dit i Nat is a hipster café in the centre of Pristina and a meeting point in the cosmopolitan part of Kosovo. Besa, a journalist, talks to us about the worrying political crisis in her new country, the worst since its independence in 2008; it becomes clear she is disappointed. Like many young Kosovans with her level of education and outlook, Besa opposes the regime approved by the international community. It is a government where the same old faces pop up time and again, like a shuffled pack of cards, some of whom have historic links to the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK, in Albanian) and to its criminal past – like the President, Hashim Thaçi.

Cesa and many others want their country to close the chapter on this “tribe” of ex-guerillas and the current reign of corruption. Her reading of the situation and her social profile have made her a supporter of the Vetevendosje (self-determination) Party, feared by the West, and which these days is known for throwing gas bombs into the Pristina parliament and boycotting events like Thaçi’s own inauguration some weeks ago.

Vetevendosje is calling for full sovereignty for Kosovo, believing the country to be under the perpetual tutelage of international powers, and for an end to the EU-brokered dialogue with Serbia. It has placed its hopes on a settlement that would be less biased against Kosovo and would avoid the establishment of a “mini-Serbia” in the north of the country, as the Dayton accords did in Bosnia. Its charismatic leader, Albin Kurti, has proposed the union of Kosovo with Albania, a red line for the EU and the US. Not even the Albanians themselves are not committed to the project (nor, for that matter, are many Kosovans). Vetevendosje is behind the country’s current semi-revolutionary mood, organising street protests to overthrow the current government. A reasonable percentage of young Kosovans like Besa, who are not nationalists, either see it as virtually the only alternative to a corrupt political class, or have no faith in institutional politics to enact change in Kosovo.

While she does not sympathise with the populist methods of Kurti and his followers, Besa is also critical of the international community’s collusion with Kosovo’s elite. Using words that chime with what you might hear in the streets of Athens or Madrid, or in the speeches of Syriza or Podemos representatives, Besa argues that the EU and US are “dictating” agreements like the one between Kosovo and Serbia (the Belgrade-Pristina agreement, in diplomatic jargon) without giving her country any freedom to explore other alternatives that better meet its interests. She is concerned that if Kosovo is not consolidated as a state, then nationalism is likely to grow. A government minister, who we meet later in an office adorned with the EU flag, agrees, highlighting the risk of radical Islam (until now a minority religion in the country) and the need for progress in Kosovo’s European integration, above all in tangible aspects like visas.

Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday

In a rainy Podgorica, 159 km for Pristina, a local activist named Milica talks about the protests against the government of Milo Đukanović – who, switching between Prime Minister and President, has ruled Montenegro from decades. The protests grew out of the democratic crisis in this country identified as a candidate for EU accession and currently in the process of joining NATO. Corruption, control of the state by the powerful elite and stalled reforms – despite the EU’s ‘progress reports’ – are common themes in Montenegro, and in all the countries theoretically moving towards the EU.

But civil society activists like Milica are rejecting opposition groups active during the recent protests – like the Democratic Front – which are said to have turned a civic, rights-based movement into pro-Russian, anti-NATO protests about ethnicity (defending Serbs in Montenegro). Heroic pictures of Putin and Russian flags have become ever more common here and in similar large gatherings in Belgrade and the Srpska Republic, the majority-Serb enclave in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In Skopje, Vanya (not their real name) talks in detail about a conspiracy to wiretap 20,000 people, including opposition and civil society leaders, claiming members of Nikola Gruevski’s government are implicated. The wiretap revelation and the sense of general anti-democratic abuses brought thousands of people to the streets of the Macedonian capital last month. Vanya and other activists see little progress from the agreement between the government and the opposition, facilitated in 2015 by the EU, which involved new elections and a special public prosecutor to investigate the wiretaps, and no possibility of Gruevski or other former leaders being charged.

These sources stress that a country with no press freedoms or separation of powers is a breeding ground for authoritarianism. Balkan authoritarianism through a nationalist lens is now inspired by models that have begun to be known as ‘Putinism’ or ‘Erdoganism’, given the attraction of Balkan autocrats for the ‘illiberal’ political systems in Russia and Turkey. Vanya agrees with Brussels-based diplomats that the EU wavered for years before this ‘train crash’ in Macedonia, a candidate country for EU and NATO accession.

The recent decision by President Ivanov to grant pardons to all the politicians involved in the wiretaps has pushed Macedonia yet further towards the abyss and will probably bring people out to the streets once again.

“Kad sam gladan, ni sam svoj” (you lose control when you are hungry). Sumejana, a Bosnian lawyer specialising in prisoner rights, used this phrase to sum up the ‘Bosnian Spring’, when two years ago citizens assembled in Sarajevo’s Avenue Marsala Tita, just near to where we meet. Dressed in skinny jeans and plimsolls, she spent those days going between police departments, pursuing cases of violence against protestors, and the nights in assemblies or “plenums” where people of all ages sought to carry out direct democracy, tackling issues like privatisation of factories, social scarcity, and a new constitution for Bosnia that would not be based on nationalities.

Unlike the initially peaceful Euromaidan in Ukraine, which at that time was moving towards the ultimate bout of violence that would lead to the fall of President Yanukovich, the uprisings began violently in Tuzla and Sarajevo. Bosnian politicians saw their cars thrown into the river, while public buildings were set ablaze. The events caused much international concern that a larger conflict would break out, and there were attempts to manipulate ethnic differences to delegitimise those protestors motivated not by ethnicity but by years of frustration and despair. Sumejana bitterly compared those hundreds of people with the huge number of cafés in Sarajeco or with the million-odd Bosnians employed in a bloated public administration, dependent on one politician or another and on “stela”. Stela, or influence, is a term that refers to the contacts often needed to find a job in the public sector. Bosnia, she concluded, was “a starving country that has lost its dignity”.

Today it is impossible to travel in the Balkans and not run into Balkan indignados, the region’s new reality. Often they perceive the region through an ethnic or nationalist lens, with the lingering spectre of conflict. This is, unfortunately, commonplace. But other factors have contributed: the Hague acquitted Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, of war crimes, and he could now return to the Belgrade parliament in the upcoming elections. But these indignados and some of the protests of the last few years confirm that there are other narratives, with a class and generational aspect. The social profile of young activists on Facebook, small in number but highly visible, is similar to what you might find in Tunisia, the Ukrainian Euromaidán and in our own countries.

Generalised discontent has affected most levels in society and is steadily rising thanks to the brutal clash of parallel realities. On the one hand, the reality of the elites and the so-called “untouchables” (who wield the power and escape democratic and judicial processes); then comes the narrative of “progress” and enlargement promised by EU institutions and, finally, the real country and society where little changes on the ground. These are the Balkans inhabited by the Besas, Milicas, Vanyas and those even worse off, who have few future prospects unless they enter the circle of the “untouchables”, or else emigrate.

The Balkan indignados add another element of complexity to the region’s problems. For the EU and its member states it poses a number of dilemmas, starting with the enormous risk to law and order when faced with real political change and pluralism. The perception is that the EU, caught up in its own crises and tackling emergencies like Syria or ISIS, has little reason to entangle itself further in the Balkans and sometimes courts the elites (sidestepping the democratic deficits of our “partners”) at the expense of the poor. This has contributed to loss of credibility among reformers, caught between autocrats and more radical options. On the other hand, the spectre of those protests is varied and is evolving rapidly.

There are elements similar to the ‘colour revolutions’, which took place across the former Soviet Union in the 2000s, in some cases (as in Skopje), while others have had a more radical and even anti-European tinge (as recently in Montenegro), as political polarisation grows. In these circumstances, a diplomatic stance that casually supports one side over the other is not realistic. Nor is encouraging revolutions. But it is equally deluded to hope for gradual, stable progress that follows the European model, especially since the elites in power do not seek real European democratic integration (where they could lose this power and their current impunity) and at a time when this model, in the EU and beyond, has suffered an unprecedented blow to its credibility.

For now in the Balkans, the fact of the matter is that actors like Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia are winning the competition between political systems in their bids to attract citizens. Very clearly so in Serbia, as surveys illustrate and where highly visible ultranationalist and anti-European forces are demanding “Savez sa Rusijom” – an alliance with Russia. The EU is losing credibility. Society identifies it with support for autocrats or the imposition of ‘foreign’ standards like LGBT rights.

Instead of selling out, Europe as a whole must start acting in accordance with its own principles if it truly wants to foster democracy in the Balkans. Otherwise, if it remains tied or dependent on Balkan autocrats and their spiraling abuses, crimes and irresponsibility, it will end up importing them into an already fragile Union. In the meantime, the Balkans will move in other directions and will continue to be Europe’s own heart of darkness.

Was this article useful? If so we are delighted!

It is freely available because we believe that the right to free and independent information is essential for democracy. But this right is not guaranteed forever, and independence comes at a cost. We need your support in order to continue publishing independent, multilingual news for all Europeans.

Discover our subscription offers and their exclusive benefits and become a member of our community now!

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Join our community!

On the same topic