The 1st Balkan Forum took place within the 2012 Subversive Forum in Zagreb on May 17th and 18th and gathered up to 40 progressive organisations and movements from across the region. During two days of intensive discussion panel participants and audience members analysed current social struggles in the Balkans, identified the neuralgic spots of the widespread crisis of both neo-liberal economic order and representative democracy in this region and, finally, defined possible strategies of resistance and political action. To paraphrase the slogan of the World Social Forum, it is clear that “another Balkans is possible!” The participants launched a process that will allow the Balkan Forum to act as a platform for mutual cooperation that can generate concrete social, economic and political proposals.
The 1st Balkan Forum prioritised the following issues: social justice, resistance to the neo-liberal agenda, the struggle for the commons, economic relations, deindustrialization and workers’ struggles and, finally, the crisis of representative democracy and the need for deep democratization of Balkan societies.
The last two decades of the post-socialist ‘transition’ to a free market economy have been marked by the devastating effects of neoliberal policies, manifested in massive privatization of socially or state owned industries and public resources. In addition, the promotion of reckless consumerism has gone hand in hand with rising private and public debt, which in turn has undermined the capacity of Balkan states for autonomous economic governance. The austerity measures are nothing new for the Balkans: its peoples have been living for decades through severe austerity regimes. Many people’s lives have been based on deprivation and dispossession, and in the case of violent conflict, on harsh conditions and tragedies, with the result that a generalized political apathy has developed. The current austerity measures imposed via the EU or pressure from the IMF have strengthened nationalist, exclusionary and extreme-right movements, a trend that has to be countered with anti-nationalist and solidarity networks.
On the EU’s periphery one can see the destruction of the last remnants of publicly managed resources (energy, water, infrastructure) and of heavy industries such as shipyards and steel plants. In this situation, a wave of strikes and protests has recently swept from Romania and Croatia to Slovenia and Montenegro. However, the ongoing social struggles are still isolated and lack a common narrative that can bring them together and thus have a stronger political and social impact. The Balkan Forum confirms that a common ground exists and that there is an urgent need for the alliance of leftist political organizations and movements. Artificial boundaries within the Balkans are to be rejected in the current struggles, whether they be between the ‘eastern’ or ‘western’ Balkans, or between EU members, EU candidates and internationally supervised (semi)protectorates. Shared problems require common trans-border actions based on shared values of social justice and deep democratisation. Spontaneous and grass-roots movements must join forces with progressive and emancipatory actors to exert joint pressure on the detrimental status quo in the political-economic system. In addition, issues such as the protection of human rights, anti-nationalism, anti-fascism, the promotion of minorities’ rights and the struggle for gender equality must remain an integral part of the overall strategy of the Left.
Although the same neoliberal policies are being applied across the Balkans, they vary in severity depending on local circumstances, due to different socialist and post-socialist legacies and ethno-national conflicts. It is thus crucial to understand how the implementations of neoliberal policies are articulated and ideologically legitimized in the public spheres of different Balkan countries. The euro-integration process has been used by local political actors to justify further neo-liberal reforms and has even been encouraged from Brussels in the name of creating free market economies without state or public interference.
In many Balkan countries one of the main obstacles to meaningful resistance is still the strength of nationalism, both as a conservative and discriminatory ideology and as a mobilising force. We can see at an every-day level a rampant historic revisionism, the rise of fascist groups, as well as an openly racist discourse targeting ethnic minorities, especially the Roma.
However, we can also identify a strong resistance from below in all Balkan states. For the first time in more than 20 years, citizens are strongly claiming the public sphere, especially urban space, in order to articulate their demands. The new resistance movements are seeking a change in power relations and challenging the dominant public and media discourse that promotes neoliberal economic policies and at the same time seeks to politically demobilise citizens. Their role in ‘democracy’ has been reduced to occasional electoral participation that in itself has been monopolized by the governing oligarchies.
Some of the most successful mobilizations have been over single-issue struggles. They certainly have to be maintained but, in order to be successful, it is crucial to establish mutual cooperation. It is thus encouraging to see protestors uniting against privatization, austerity measures, labour conditions, the commodification of education, corrupt governments, diminishing democracy (by demanding ‘real’ and even direct democracy) and police brutality and violence across the Balkans. Contacts, and successful joint actions, have occasionally been established between students, workers, peasants and urban and ecologist activists. These movements possess a huge energy but are often painfully lacking the political infrastructure to decisively influence the current political system.
The Commons are a rallying point for social struggle and social movements throughout the Balkans. Privatizations, commercialisations and enclosures of public water systems, public utilities, medical systems, higher education, agricultural land, public space, and natural resources have put people’s livelihoods and the environment at risk. Over the last few decades our societies have seen a criminal transfer of nationally owned industries, resources and wealth into private hands, often concealed behind the ravages of nationalism and ethnic conflict. With the recent economic crisis, private capital has been pushing to expand more radically than ever into the non-commodified system of social welfare and common resources, expecting to extract monopoly profits and create market exclusions from fundamental social services for wide segments of the population. It is no surprise that very different and disparate social groups, sometimes working hard to overcome the social fragmentation exerted by capital and conflicting priorities, are now coming together in defence of those services and resources.
With its talk of non-proprietary resources, collective management and the creation of new forms of social organization, the notion of the commons offers new perspectives and ways of mobilization, signalling a space of action beyond a binary notion of public and private, beyond the dichotomy of state and market. The goal is the socialization and re-socialization of services and resources run for the public and by the public, where the aim is both social justice and sustainability.
In other words, the progressive forces oppose current property relations, contracts and markets that govern and exploit common and public goods across the Balkans and advocate forms of community governance instead. It is crucial to reintroduce social norms, trust and solidarity into our thinking about how cities should be governed, how the education system should be run or ways in which the Internet should be regulated. By building alliances among existing movements defending the commons, the Balkan forum wants to strengthen sustainable, democratic and equitable collective practices.
The privatisation campaigns that have swept the region with differing intensity over the last two decades have been economically and socially disastrous. Work conditions have been degraded, and there has been a corresponding destruction of human knowledge and capacities. Workers in all sectors have been put into competition against one another in an ever diminishing labour market. This situation has often led to desperate actions. Temporary work is becoming more widespread, which has an especially negative effect on women who are more often than not put in a difficult position due to double oppression: difficult work conditions (as well as the gender pay gap) and subjugation in their household work. Solidarity among workers’ unions, organisations, independent actors, scholars, temporary workers, as well as the unemployed, is needed more than ever.
Despite the media campaigns against independent unions and activists, there is growing public support for workers’ struggles. It is important to counter the media’s negative campaign (often owned by local or foreign corporations), inactive academic communities, and the biased state apparatus controlled by the main parties that are in turn more often than not related to various business circles and even the mafia. In spite of these difficulties, we can witness different successful models of workers’ struggles against deindustrialisation and privatisations such as workers’ share-holding and active management of their workplaces (e.g. Jugoremedija in Serbia) or the anti-privatisation pressure that results in partnership between the state (as the main share holder) and the workers as part of production and management process in their enterprises (such as Petrokemija in Croatia).
However, under the veil of ‘social dialogue’ in which workers in all sectors have been continually defeated, fragmented and betrayed, the real class struggle intensifies. We can observe continuous strikes, blockades and occupations, sometimes inspired by Latin American examples, but also repressive actions of the state (such as the recent arrests in Croatia of the Jadrankamen workers who occupied their factory). The issue of ownership and democratic management has returned to the table as the crucial question of our future.
In the context of diminishing democracy around the world, the result of imposed ‘technocratic’ governments with no democratic legitimacy and accountability, and the enormous influence of banking and the business sector on political processes, the question of democracy, its meaning and models, must be put on the agenda across the Balkans as well. The model of electoral and parliamentary democracy introduced and practiced in the post-socialist Balkans over the last 20 years has turned out be nothing more than corrupt partitocracy and the unchallenged rule of political and economic oligarchies.
Many left and progressive movements and actors are experimenting successfully with models of radical democracy. The experience of rebelling students in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Bosnia is a valuable example of self-governance and political action, through which we can witness the reestablishment of social ties and solidarity. The struggle for deeper forms of democracy is a gradual process of both intensive socialisation and of empowering social actors. Different forms of radical democratic methods create new political subjectivities and as such are to be encouraged. Direct democracy is an innovative method that needs to be constantly re-defined. The inclusive character of these models and the rejection of simple majority rule promote the wide inclusion not only of citizens but also of minority groups such as LGBT, the Roma, immigrants, ethnic minorities etc. Direct and participatory democracy has to come in a variety of forms, from citizens’ plenary assemblies in occupied spaces (squares, universities, factories) or at municipal and regional levels that can decide on everyday governance, municipal participatory budgets, and concrete actions such as petitions for referenda on crucial social, political and economic issues such as the Labour law or the regulation of the commons. The ideals or direct democracy as a decision-making process nevertheless often meet difficult procedural and organizational problems. The delegation of particular work seems to be needed for productive direct democratic processes in the forms of working groups and some executive powers of appointed delegates accountable to direct democratic bodies and public scrutiny. These models cannot be made in advance but have to be developed, in specific contexts, by the practice itself and the reflection on this practice.
The Balkan Forum underlines the fact that one of the most crucial fronts of struggles for democracy is widening participation in the economy, industry and the workplace. There can be no real democracy in the political or social sphere if there is no participation at the workplace, which is usually hierarchically organised, and is where the majority of us spend most of our lives. In other words, no real democracy is possible without the development of models of economic and industrial democracy.
Real, ever-deepening and radical democracy remains the ideal of progressive and leftist forces around the world, including the Balkans, an ideal that takes different forms depending on the concrete social and political circumstances of the places (states, regions, institutions, workplaces) where it is applied. The Balkan Forum sees radical democratic practices as an alternative and applicable model that might serve as a much-needed corrective and counter-weight to the dominant model of representative electoral democracy that has been hit by a crisis of legitimacy. At this given historical moment, the political forces of the Left should also envisage models in which democratic pressure from below and the independence of horizontally-organized movements and actors is combined with use of the existing structures of the current representative system. The Balkan Forum emphasises that true democratic practices remain a necessary part of the struggle to bring about or influence wider social, economic and political change.
The 2nd Balkan Forum will take place in Zagreb between May 12th and 18th, 2013, and will further define concrete answers and strategies to tackle the above-discussed issues.