BALKAN CHRONICLES: Is a 'Balkan Spring' looming?

BALKAN CHRONICLES: Is a 'Balkan Spring' looming?
Anti-government protesters on the streets of Skopje.
By Alex Young in Belgrade May 18, 2016

Spring is often deemed to be the best time to be in the Balkans – unless, that is, you happen to be a politician accused of gross mismanagement and incompetence. From Belgrade to Banja Luka, Pristina to Skopje, protests against incumbent regimes have mobilized around different and disparate causes. But whilst the pretexts for protest may be different, the common underlying motivation is one of deep-seated dissatisfaction with the failure to stem declining living standards. Though largely peaceful thus far, such protests contain within them the seeds of future destabilization, especially as the region’s European perspective evaporates before it's very eyes. 

Back in 2014 Bosnia & Herzegovina was gripped by protests that drew comparisons to the Arab Spring. Governments fell and ministers fled, before catastrophic flooding washed away much of this newfound energy. The country’s smaller, Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, largely avoided the fallout – more through foul means than fair. Two years on, however, protests by a newly-united opposition – including the Party of Democratic Progress of Serb presidency member, Mladen Ivanic – forced the government to initiate its own counter-gathering.

Each accused the other of being traitors, whilst proclaiming themselves the bigger patriots. Party members were bussed into the entity’s capital Banja Luka, with public sector employees threatened with consequences for failing to attend. Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president and head of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), sang: “No one can harm us, we are stronger than fate”. But with corruption allegations growing and the political context no longer playing to Dodik’s tune, he will be increasingly forced to draw upon the entity’s special police, whom the Russians have offered to train.

Meanwhile in Macedonia…

Skopje’s protesters have shunned song for paint bombs and pyrotechnics. Government buildings and a number of the city’s statues have served as canvases for Warhol-inspired revolutionaries. The surprise move by Macedonia’s president, Gjorge Ivanov, to suspend prosecutions against 56 ruling and opposition individuals embroiled in the long-running wiretapping scandal ignited renewed protests. The presidential office was demolished and its furniture burnt in the streets. Elections are scheduled for June 5, but only the ruling VMRO DPMNE of former prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, has registered to run. The “Colourful Revolution”, as it has been prematurely dubbed, is sceptical about the prospects for change through the ballot box.

To date, the Kosovo opposition’s weapon of choice – teargas and Albanian flags – have achieved little, save for garnering international embarrassment. A split between the more hardline Vetevendosje and the AAK-NISMA coalition (Alliance for the Future of Kosovo and the Initiative for Kosovo) was expected to deflate the anti-government protests. But if anything, they’ve allowed a more constructive front to emerge. Freed from Vetevendosje’s nationalism, AAK’s leader, Ramush Haradinaj, has shunned violence and promised to confront corruption. There is genuine appetite for such a movement, with a recent police corruption operation against Azem Syla (a leading politician within President Hasim Thaci’s Democratic Party of Kosovo) and others garnering immense public support. With the Kosovo government largely mothballed due to splits within the governing coalition, protests should continue into the summer.   

In Belgrade, little plastic yellow ducks have become the symbol of resistance to Belgrade Waterfront (‘Beograd na vodi’), whose signs were temporarily subverted to read ‘Belgrade Waterfraud’. The nocturnal destruction of properties on land earmarked for the luxurious property development by balaclaved men during election night sparked a new wave of protests, assembled by the ‘Don’t Drown Belgrade’ movement. The project is quickly becoming Belgrade’s own Gezi Park.

With allegations of electoral irregularities leading to pragmatic, yet questionable alliances between hardliners (such as the DSS-Dveri coalition) and liberals, and with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic having promised extensive cuts to the public sector, there is a new sense of nervousness in Belgrade. Even in one of the region’s more politically stable countries, currently basking in the glow of international support, there is simmering unrest. The government will only hope that Serbia’s amnesia about the success of Otpor in overthrowing the former dictator Slobodan Milosevic continues to contribute to wide-scale passivity.

Failed transitions

Weak institutions across the former Yugoslavia, lacking in democratic capability and (increasingly) legitimacy, are incapable of mediating or resolving the political tensions created by failed transitions. Citizens will tolerate diminished democracy when their living standards are rising, but not when their stagnant salaries have less and less purchasing power each year. As civil society matures, so people are mobilized around an ever-growing number of issues – waterfront developments, corruption, abuse of office scandals, presidential pardons – using any number of means and symbols like teargas, plastic ducks, parody and paint bombs.   

Whether the familiar faces now opposing rather than occupying government – such as Haradinaj (Kosovo’s former prime minister), Boris Tadic (Serbia’s former president) and Dragan Cavic (former president of the Republika Srpska) – can project themselves as viable alternatives remains highly-doubtful. Each is scarred by their own periods in office and for many voters they represent themselves, not the interests of an increasingly-frustrated population. The region still struggles to identify and elevate a new political elite untainted by the past.     

In such contexts, politicians quickly turn to the tried-and-tested card of nationalism, wrapping themselves in their nation’s flags and colours and castigating others as traitors. Instability is attributed to malign external influences, intent on overthrowing governments to serve their own agendas. Paranoia and mistrust infuses and flavours politics, and governments resort to the usual responses: threats, arrests, intimidation (especially of the media) and the curtailment of fundamental rights and freedoms.

As the European perspective vanishes into thin air, so governments are deprived of the inflatable vest that has previously kept them afloat. And as investors are deterred by instability, so the desert of transition grows ever drier. In the absence of an oasis, so the region’s politicians are likely to turn to greater authoritarianism to safeguard their grip on power.