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Democratic Potential of Emerging Social Movements in Southeastern Europe

Society; Photo: Pixabay

Social democracy, as a movement and as an ideal, despite being challenged by populist forces prevalent in the Western Balkans and abroad, is said to be an imperative for the future peace and prosperity in both the region and the rest of Europe, as is outlined in the publication by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES)“The Democratic Potential of Emerging Social Movements in Southeastern Europe”, edited by Jasmin Mujanović.

The publication consists of several articles written by local scholars and activists and concentrates on the role of various social movements of the region in the re-politicization of a wider society and the democratic renewal in Southeastern Europe, giving thus a clearer picture of the role the FES should acquire in the future.

Victoria Stoiciu writes about an attempt to re-politicize Romanian public following the 2012 protests and the emergence the #UnitiSalvam social movement, a new network of activists with an informal and diffuse character. The report offers a brief overview of the transition from the, so-called, “social peace”, established following the demise of Communism, where all the wrongdoings of the governing elites were connected to the previous Communist regime, to the revelation of some fundamental antagonisms within the Romanian society whose existence had been obscured during the transition period.

Bulgaria faced a shift in the discourse of civil society, as depicted by Jana Tsoneva. Namely, her report presents a discursive change of the term civil society that had been criticized during the accession of Bulgaria to the EU and in the years following the accession for being distorted by manifold NGOs consisting of various experts. Following the 2013 mass protests, the notion of civil society was no longer used interchangeably with NGOs but rather brought closer to people.

Croatian case was faced with the rise of rather conservative social movements as a response to societal liberalization and political modernization in the period following the end of the war, Dario Čepo writes. He thoroughly explains the factors behind the rise of such movements, their backing by the right and radical right parties, the Diaspora-returnees community, and the enhanced role of the Catholic Church, and the values those movements staunchly advocate for. The youth is seen as being quite receptive to these ideas.

“Due to the general discontent with status quo politics and politicians, Croatian youth are quite prone to accepting populist messages and supporting conservative social movements and civil society organizations”, Čepo notices.

Marko Kmezić offers an overview of the evolution of Serbian civil society within the state tormented by the legacy of a large-scale conflict, which shaped the country’s troublesome transformation, and its pivotal role in the democratization of Serbia. His study focuses on various movements, starting from so-called non-violent peace action and large anti-Milošević movements, a response to an all-encompassing state repression, followed by pro-EU movements that received increased political and financial support and became a relevant player in the policymaking process, to the new, grassroots movements that emerged as a response to the backsliding of democracy and numerous wrongdoings of the government.

However, as these “represent a threat to the status quo in Serbia and the Western Balkans more broadly”, it is necessary to increase the support of the “international democracy promoters (…) for the inclusion of civil society and social movements in Serbia”, Kmezić maintains.

Emin Eminagić explains how a series of protests that commenced in Tuzla in 2014 unleashed simultaneous solidarity actions and the formation of the so-called “citizens’ plenums“ across the country, which marked a discursive shift from traditional ethno-nationalist politics to the social and political issues. In the light of a constant political deadlock and, in author’s words, “multicultural apartheid”, an idea of substantive change seems rather impossible.

Yet, the author refers to the points in the recent history of Bosnia and Herzegovina, when the issues of social and political equality came to the fore.

A short overview of social movements that have played a significant role in the democratisation process in Montenegro is given by Bojan Baća, something that has been neglected by scholars, according to the author. Similarly to Tsoneva, Baća differentiates between externally funded NGOs, which played one of the key roles in both anti-Milošević and pro-independence movements, thus narrowing the activity of the civil society to that of a professionalized civil sector, and those groups that led a series of street rallies in 2012 and criticized both the neoliberal reforms and the semi-authoritarian polity.

Hana Marku depicts in her article evolution of Kosovo’s anti-establishment, grass-roots protest movement Vetëvendosje, which was from the outset in vehement opposition to the Ahtisaari plan and the “technical dialogue“ with Serbia, to the loudest and the most radical opposition group in the Parliament.

The failure to address the needs of ethnic minorities and the staunch support for the veterans of the KLA, including those accused of war crimes, notwithstanding, the author argues that the movement has a potential to act as an encouragement for other protest movements to directly challenge the Parliament and instigate the involvement in the politics “from below“.

“The characterization of Vetevendosje’s actions as fundamentally dangerous to democracy are also problematic, especially as Kosovo’s deeply compromised ruling parties continue to be treated as valued partners by the international community”, Marku notes.

Dona Kosturanova focuses her work on the Macedonian youth, frequently depicted as apathetic and indifferent towards politics, faced with extensive unemployment and a sense of marginalisation and desperation. However, as she outlines, serious wrongdoings and the misuse of its mandate by Gruevski’s government and police brutality led to the emergence of the student plenum in late 2014, which received a widespread support, and to a series of protests marked by a significant degree of multi-ethnic participation.

“Each of these attempts, however, has only further crystallized the genuine need for an active and autonomous civil society sector in Macedonia, especially with respect to the pivotal role of youth,” Kosturanova concludes.

Finally, a mention is made by Tina Oltenau and Dieter Segert about the crisis of representative democracy and the rise of populist elements, which superficially emulate social democratic values but, in fact, lack the key elements of social solidarity. Whereas Social Democrats failed to make use of the failure of neoliberal social policy to respond to the economic crisis in 2008 and offer a suitable political alternative, the authors maintain there was still an opportunity for social democracy.

However, social democratic parties need primarily to rediscover their social democratic core through permanent deliberation on alternative political solutions. In addition, organisations such as FES are called upon to contribute by supporting regional and local organizations, groups, and individuals, in their attempt to revitalise social democratic values.

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