European Western Balkans

Social movements in the Balkans

Protests in Podgorica; Photo: Twitter/@citydiplomat

Over the last decade Maribor, Istanbul, Bucharest and many other cities in the European (semi-)periphery have witnessed the steep rise of popular social movements into powerful political actors. Currently, it is Serbia that is seeing large-scale protests against the autocratic rule of president Aleksander Vučić taking place, not just in Belgrade, but all over the country. In academic circles, these protests may not have received as much global attention – with the exception of Gezi Park – as Occupy Wall Street in the USA or the protests at Tahrir Square in Egypt, but they have without doubt established themselves at the very centre of political struggle in Southeast Europe.

It was this latest and still ongoing wave of protests by social movements all over the region that was the initiator for our edited volume Social Movements in the Balkans. Rebellion and Protest from Maribor to Taksim published in 2018. As the final product of an international conference organised by the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, its aim was to illustrate and encompass the wide range of grievances that have been driving these protests as well as to offer an explanation for their successes and failures.

Through its contributions, the volume mirrors the wide range of social issues – austerity, the privatisation of public space, the (non-)provision of welfare and public utilities, poverty, corruption, bureaucratic inefficiency, environmental concerns, authoritarian tendencies, and others – responsible for triggering protests that at times shook the very basis of established political systems in the entire region.

While the initial reasons for many of the protests seemed ostensibly “apolitical” and directed against tangible issues, it was these specific topics that served as a catalysing moment for the articulation of much broader political discontent. That was how, for example, an initially local protest against ticketing practices in Maribor could transform into a nation-wide fundamental disagreement with the entire reigning political culture. In October 2012 the mayor of Maribor, Franc Kangler, signed a partnership with a private company to establish a traffic safety system with most profits remaining with the company. The result was that soon after, thousands of Maribor citizens started receiving gratuitous fines, almost 25,000 traffic offences in the first few days after implementation. The protests were immediate. However, what started as the “Maribor Uprising” soon morphed into what became known as the “Slovenian Uprising”, a nation-wide protest directed at the political class accused of corruption. Ever since we have witnessed a similar progression of protests all over Southeast Europe. The contributors to our edited volume thus aimed to tackle these multifaceted phenomena from a number of disciplines covering a region from Slovenia to Turkey.

When organising the initial conference and compiling the edited volume, we noticed a significant gap in the scholarship. Despite their significance for the local, national and regional political context, academic studies of European social movements were overwhelmingly omitting large parts of Southeast Europe from their analyses. We thus wanted the volume to illustrate that, despite being heterogenous in nature and impact and despite the need to understand them as part of a much larger global formation of social movements, this latest wave of protests nonetheless ties together as a regional phenomenon. We postulate that the protest movements in question all share (at least) one particular sense of grievance: the common good. Or in other words, the way in which both democratic and authoritarian political elites have been (mis-)administering the common good. In our opinion this is also a major difference between this recent wave of protests and previous waves, which rarely articulated political demands that extended beyond those of the labour movement or the identity-politics focus of the new social movements during the 1980s.

Authored by Florian Bieber, Professor of Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), and Dario Brantin, a University Assistant at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

This opinion piece was originally published at Erste Stiftung website.

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