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[EWB Interview] Džihić: The awakening of civic movements has imposed the logic that change is possible

Civic initiatives and protests showed that many citizens in the region are deeply dissatisfied with the lack of accountability of the ruling regimes and ready to actively engage in their societies, stated the brief “Unleashing the Potential for Change through Social Movements and Civic Initiatives”, published by Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).

According to this paper, local civic initiatives and new forms of civic engagement prove to be worthy of further attention for exploring democratization potentials in the region. The authors stressed that, with their focus on tangible and concrete issues that are affecting the daily lives of citizens, they have a high mobilization potential and ability to cut across ethnic divides and enhance citizens’ sense of agency.

We spoke with Vedran Džihić, a member of BiEPAG from the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (OiiP), about civic and social movements in the region, their potential for democratization and the nowdays role of the EU in the Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: As the findings of the BiEPAG brief show, there has been a proliferation of civic movements and initiatives in the last decade. What are the main reasons why the citizens of the region decided to fight for their rights this way, and not through political parties or institutions? 

Vedran Džihić: The democratic promise that came from Europe to our region in the 2000s failed to build confidence that formalized political structures and institutions could offer what the process initially promised – just, free, democratic, and prosperous societies. In the enlargement process for the last 20 years, this normative vision of society has weakened, and on the other hand, the process of autocratisation by corrupt political parties and political institutions has grown and intensified.

Capturing of state and institutions by the ruling political parties has taken place and economic-political clientelistic networks have been set up. Thus, in several countries in the Western Balkans, we have reached a point where we have a facade of democracy, behind which stand the specific personal interests of certain cliques and networks. This has eroded the trust of citizens in the state and politics, and the moment when citizens stop understanding politics and politics as something that should primarily serve the people.

The result is a deepening gap between what this facade democracy and such structures promise and promote – the so-called “great success”, the “golden age”, “the greatest economic growth”, “proud nations”, and that like – and what is happening and what citizens feel on their skin. That gap has become so big that the question then arises as to how it should be channeled and what can it turn into?

What is obvious in the last 10-15 years is the fact that citizens have less and less trust in institutions, formalized political parties and are looking for a valve to give their anger and dissatisfaction with what the ruling political structures offer.

As a result, civic movements have become a place to fill a gap that should not exist in some stable democracies, specifically the lack of opportunities for democratic participation. If elections and formal institutions are captured and occupied, abducted from the citizens, and if the replacement for functioning institutions is the facade and illusion of democratic institutions, and if on the other hand we start from the natural needs and desires of citizens decide on their own lives and participate in decision making, then, of course, looking for a valve and a way to do it. And it is precisely this valve of civic movements, local initiatives, and civic engagement.

EWB: When are civic movements and street protests transformed into an organized political structure that will participate institutionally? Where is the border where you cross from the street to the electoral arena? 

VD: This is an essential question that has always been asked throughout the decades and throughout European history after the Second World War. We had in ’68 great revolutionary movement that did not automatically turn into political parties, but the political and social changes that were then revolutionary slogans were step by step transformed into emancipatory movements that led to democratisation and progressive political change.

During the 1970s and 1980s, green movements emerged in Western Europe, which initially started as current movements in the region. There were concrete problems – the fight against atomic energy, environmental damage, the fight for gender equality, etc…And later they transformed it into political parties.

I think that we are at a time when the anger of the citizens is coming out due to the huge amount of accumulated problems. This became so obvious especially during the covid pandemic, which showed like magnifying glass what kind of problems we have and what problems we are facing.

It is at this point that we come to the expansion, popularisation of this first initial degree of political participation, which essentially takes place on the streets and in the daily struggle in local communities. I think that the next step is the arena of elections and that moment, and we can see that, for example, in Serbia, through the newly formed coalition “Moramo”. “Moramo” relies on “Možemo” which went through the same process from the protest movement to the political party that managed to fight for power in Zagreb and become an important political factor in the Croatian Parliament.

It is essential that for the first time, in such regimes, civic movements have imposed the logic that it is possible to articulate civic needs and interests through protests, that something different is possible, that there is an alternative and that engagement may bring results and change. It is important that citizens feel that there is hope and that the engagement and political struggle for a more just, democratic, solidary, and free society pays off.

This essentially addresses the problem of defeatism and apathy that the regimes in our region are trying to promote. Passivated and depoliticised masses are always easier to manage. It is an essential political step, it addresses politics but also politics in a broader sense. It is a necessary precondition for the next step when the emerging emancipatory and democratic energies can be transformed into strong political movements capable of deconstructing and defeating the logic of authoritarian and undemocratic regimes in the region.

Specifically, we have had various types of movements in Serbia for several years, and that moment of transformation into political parties and entering the political arena has been reached. Of course, only then do completely new problems open up – in the domain of the captured state and captured institutions, elections that are manipulated and illegitimate, controlled media, various types of pressure and open violence, etc. come and fight for a place in political life.

EWB: The published Brief states that civic movements in the region today are a strong factor of democratization. Why and when did the process of European integration cease to be the most important factor for improving the quality of democracy in the Western Balkans? 

VD: At the level of the European Union, the political moment was missed to transform the Union into a political one, which is more self-conscious and decisive from within, and thus radiates and acts towards the environment differently. From the failure of the referendum on the European constitution and then from the global financial crisis to all other crises from then until today, the EU has become increasingly insecure, divided.  There has been an increase in these internal enemies of the EU, within its borders when it comes to values framework of the EU. Today, Hungary, Poland, and right-wing forces in many other EU countries have become de facto advocates and examples of anti-European and undemocratic action and ideology.

In a way, this not only limited but also violated the basic principles of the European Union defined in the framework legal documents, where it is quite clearly defined what the value framework of the Union is. There was the abandonment of consensus on this value framework, which was strengthened through the so-called refugee crisis from 2015, which opened the door to right-wing populism and the fear policy promoted by the right.

At the moment, the EU became completely powerless in its enlargement policy, because in a way it expected by inertia that through a pragmatic technocratic relationship, through some established mechanisms and procedures – through business, as usual, it would automatically achieve results. This proved to be simply impossible, and not only were no results obtained, then opposite results were achieved. Now we have Serbia, which according to all world research the quality of democracy, together with Hungary, Turkey or Brazil, is among the few countries that have become the most autocratic in the last ten years.

Then we must say openly – the enlargement process as we knew it has failed. If there is a process of European enlargement and if new negotiating chapters are opened, and at the same time all indicators show that democracy in a country like Serbia has fallen, it means that such a process and such a policy are not successful, that they have a systematic mistake. The region is now in the “deleted space” of European integration, especially after the French and later Bulgarian veto for North Macedonia and Albania.

De facto is a process that technically goes further but essentially does not exist. And I am afraid that this process will not be unlocked until a substantial decision is made at the European level – how and in what way the EU will position itself on some future major global issues, what is today’s EU mission, what is its universal and ideological mission and what its political finality is.

EWB: In Serbia, we could see that government officials often label civic movements and their representatives as anti-Serbian or less patriotic. They are often asked to comment on Srebrenica or the status of Kosovo… Is it necessary that movements, created mostly on local problems, should declared themselves on fundamental issues for high politics? 

VD: Local problems are the initial capsule for creating these movements, but all these movements are much more complex and contradictory than it seems at first glance. We can talk about one common front if we talk about the problem of Rio Tinto or one common front of dissatisfaction with what regime and the state are doing. But we cannot talk about one common front in ideological and value terms.

There are great differences and great plurality. Of course, at the moment when, from the initial moment, these movements network and become a political party, then the question of ideological or value orientation inevitably arises. Therefore, we can not be a democratic and emancipatory political party and option without deciding on the issue of freedom, justice and democracy. And finally, in terms of facts and truth. Then the question of Srebrenica, Kosovo and every other question arises. There are all political issues from which this region can not escape. We can not escape from the 1990s, neither Serbia, nor BiH, nor Croatia, nor Kosovo.

One can not escape responsibility for the 90s, the facts have been established, there is a truth that is not particular but universal. Of course, any lump sum and generalisation must be avoided. But we know exactly who did what in BiH and in Srebrenica, during the 1990s in Kosovo, but also what happened in Croatia in 1995 in the “Oluja”.

We must return to that, and that will then be essential issues for the new political forces and parties as well. But not in this first moment. Now it is a matter of popularisation, it is matter of creating common front having a common enemy before our eyes that is strong enough to change political and social dynamic and trends.

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