BOOK REVIEW: New radical movements in the Balkans

By bne IntelliNews July 1, 2015

Clare Nuttall in Bucharest -


Published in advance of the anniversary of 70 years since Yugoslavia became socialist, and 25 years since the introduction of liberal democracy and the free market economy, “Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics After Yugoslavia” looks at political and economic events in the region that have led to “a sudden explosion of original radicalism”.

The growing number of popular protests and uprisings in the past two years “are diversified in their struggles, ideological orientations, and type of actions”, but the book’s editors – writer and activist Igor Štiks and philosopher Srećko Horvat – point out that they also have a common thread in that “they are mostly reacting to the deteriorating social and economic situation and the numerous abuses of power by political elites.”

From the anti-austerity movement in Slovenia – the region’s first EU member state and only Eurozone member – amid the near collapse of the banking system in 2013, to the violent protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2014, when government buildings were burned down and self-governing assemblies set up in several cities, the authors argue that anti-government rhetoric has shifted to anti-regime sentiment.

The profile of the new radicals has also changed. High unemployment and less secure working conditions have eroded the influence of the unions, which were often at the forefront of earlier pro-democracy movements. Today, workers and students are joined by a diverse range of groups and individuals, while as in other countries protest action is often organised over social media.

The trend seen over the previous two years has continued since the book’s publication in December 2014. It foreshadows the events of first half of 2015, when one of the region’s largest anti-government movements gathered momentum in Macedonia, where tens of thousands joined demonstrations in May. Although Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski eventually bowed to opposition pressure, offering early elections, the country’s political crisis continues.

Elsewhere in the Western Balkans, it helps shed light on the protests that have been organised on issues ranging from anti-privatisation in Slovenia and the plight of Swiss franc debtors in Croatia and other countries, to the mass demonstrations in Kosovo in January that resulted in the most serious unrest since independence in 2008.

Transition pains

The book from London-based radical publisher Verso questions the core aims of the former Yugoslavian states, namely the transition to a free market economy and the quest for EU membership, and looks at how pursuing these goals has contributed to popular discontent.

Economically, the authors claim there have been “devastating consequences” of the transition to capitalism, listing poverty, public and private indebtedness, population decline, industrial collapse and unemployment that has reached as high as 50% in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Debt had been mounting within Yugoslavia since Belgrade turned to the west in the aftermath of the split from the Soviet Union back in 1949. However, Yugoslavia’s debts at the end of the cold war are now dwarfed by the combined debts of the former Yugoslavian states. In addition, the majority of loans are linked to or denominated in euros, Swiss francs or other foreign currencies.

With the economic situation across the region worsening during the recent international economic crisis, “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 ... This is how radical politics was reborn in the rebel peninsula.”

The book also questions the goal of EU membership, the primary objective in countries across the region. Resentment in would-be member states striving for accession is growing, as for many there appears to be no end in sight. The book argues that these countries are condemned to a period of “eternal transition” from which they seemingly never emerge. 25 years on from the collapse of Yugoslavia, “The wandering in the desert seems to be endless.”

Meanwhile, politically the process of Western integration has helped to whitewash local elites that rose to power either at the tail end of the socialist period or in the years of war and economic turmoil that followed. This has seen the evolution of “thieves into businessmen” or “fascists into democrats”, while according to Štiks and Horvat “post-socialist citizens today feel largely excluded from decision-making processes”. As a result, citizens are turning to options other than the ballot box for a chance to make their voices heard.

Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism: Radical Politics After Yugoslavia, eds. Igor Štiks and Srećko Horvat, Verso, December (2014).

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