Activist citizens in the Balkans

Nick Holdstock
Why did they mobilise

‘Why did they mobilise?’- a panel discussion on Social Struggles in Ex-Yugoslavia, a new book that explores the diverse forms of activist citizenship that have swept the region over the last few years. The discussion took place between contributors Boris Kanzleiter, the head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Belgrade office, Andrea Milat, an activist and journalist from Croatia, Primož Krašovec, a Slovenian activist and theorist and its editor Michael G. Kraft. The discussion was chaired by Stipe Ćurković, the editor of the Croatian edition of Le Monde diplomatique, at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb in May 2013.

Both the scholarly and popular literature on the Balkans tends to be skewed towards certain topics. As Michael Kraft commented, “We have a lot of literature about the ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia but nothing exists which documents the recent workers’ struggles and the recent student protests which have been going on in the region over the last couple of years.

He said that another motivation for the book was not to treat the Balkans or ex-Yugoslavia as something separated from the global strife going on right now. The book leads slowly from the global protest cycle to the Balkans and its relationship to the European Union and then moves to the broader frame of current protests in the Balkans. Its last two main sections are on the workers’ struggles in Croatia and Serbia, and on the student struggles and the fight for direct democracy with examples from Slovenia and Croatia.

The book has a special relevance for a German-speaking audience. Boris Kanzleiter argued that in Germany, socialist Yugoslavia had quite a good image “but during the 1990s the whole discourse fell back into a discourse about ethnicity, about one thousand years of ethnic conflict and so on and this discourse is still reproduced in general. Organisations like the European Union, the donor organisations, are directing their funds in the region towards this kind of problem and this is in a way stabilising this unfortunate situation.”

Kraft went on to speak about the discourses that developed in the German left during the breakup of Yugoslavia. “One was about the Milosevic regime because he was seen as the last socialist defending socialism against NATO imperialists and so on – there was no understanding of the internal problems of the late socialist regime and the internal conflict situation which developed from the crisis in the 80s. The other discourse also from the left was actually the adoption of this ethnic discourse; the NATO bombing was seen as the only way to stop the descent into barbarism and to protect civilisation.”

“The result of this is that it’s difficult to connect actors of the socialist struggles in the Balkans with their counterparts in Germany because there is no understanding of the situation that developed in recent years and also no knowledge about trade unions, student movements, and feminist movements.”

Activist citizenship as a unifying force

The social struggles in the former Yugoslavia have brought together many different agents, including students, manual workers, and feminist NGOs. Andrea Milat argued that the involvement of the latter was especially important.

”In the past twenty years feminist organisations haven’t been very involved in workers’ problems and they have also drifted apart from one another so they find it very hard to communicate with each other. Every time they engaged it would be on an individualist level, connecting and working with workers is something that they have just started to do. So I think students did help with this but I think the most important thing is that these situations of solidarity have finally started to occur in more ordinary ways. Student struggles in that way actually helped many NGOs and especially different feminist organisations to develop some sort of class consciousness.”

Primož Krašovec added that “the development of the protest movement, initially for democratic socialism, and previous student struggles are not directly connected but maybe we can see some general connections in the way they all express in different ways, in different modes of organisation, some basic discontent in society in general … The student protests were one of the most physical and intense expressions of the resistance towards cuts in the public sector.”

The growth of activism

As for the causes of citizen mobilisation, Michael Kraft resisted the idea of a single explanation.

“You cannot say people mobilised because they didn’t have jobs and didn't earn any money. We know this from social movements theory that this is simply not the reason why people rebel. There's just something different to it and the interesting thing is that they drew on some legacies which were particular to the Yugoslav system.

The legacy of self-management was some kind of concept they could relate to at a time when no other ways of mobilisation worked, when trade unions were corrupt. They were relating to a past in which they had a different status. Nowadays, any kind of privileged position for workers in ex-Yugoslavia has been pretty much smashed and a lot of workplaces have been destroyed or lost over the last decades.”

In Andrea’s opinion the motivations for the struggles of the past five years have been different.

I think the student movement was the first to articulate its demand for completely free higher education as a political demand, and there have been a lot of accusations towards the movement that it failed. But I think that everything that has been going on since shows otherwise.

I think it is much easier to build on solidarity now than before the economic crisis, it made the necessity for solidarity more visible, not only between workers but also between different NGOs and other social movements.”


But as Primož perceptively noted, one of the main characteristics of social struggles is the oscillations in enthusiasm.

You have mobilisation one day and then an equally massive demobilisation in a couple of months and you have these dreadful period of silences until some mobilisation starts again.

It’s not just about isolating common economic interests. For example, that we all have a stake in defending welfare state institutions and places against privatisation. You also need to find a way to keep people involved, to make them feel welcome, to not test their patience with long meetings and so on.”

He went on to highlight a more structural problem. “All of the neighbouring community workplaces and institutions that were established during the socialist self-management period were destroyed in the last twenty years. So basically we don’t have community councils any more. You still have workers’ councils but they simply don’t have the same function anymore. If you have all of these types of institutions this makes the micro-politics of resistance movements much easier.”

Boris echoed these sentiments, and pointed out the problem that lessons which are learned in struggles are not transferred because there is no continuous or developed organisational structure of networks.

“In Bulgaria there was a big protest wave in March this year, in Slovenia there was another one but the communication between the two is still in a very initial phase. I am sure that one movement could learn from the experiences and reflections from another movement.

We have to work on creating more stable and continuous networks, this is absolutely essential for the transfer of knowledge and experience and the media is absolutely indispensable.”


Photo by Robert Crc.