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New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?

Political parties that serve as employment agencies and hence engender and perpetuate entrenched corruption and clientelism, weak state institutions, political control over the media, rampant inequality, dismantling of the welfare state. The ‘authoritarian temptation’ proved too big for most of the new post-Yugoslav elites to resist. While across the political spectrum, to varying degrees, there have been prominent tendencies of portraying the socialist past as a deviation and essentially criminalising it, neglecting it or purposefully erasing it from the public space and public history/memory, there has been an uncritical appropriation in intellectual and media discourse of a linear, simplistic narrative – common in the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe – ascribing all contemporary negative phenomena to the ‘totalitarian’ socialist past.

The Yugoslav successor states have not been immune to what can be termed nesting anti-communism. In Macedonia, all the while insisting on the undemocratic nature of the socialist ‘regime’, the ruling political elite engineered (through a highly controversial Lustration Law, the establishment of a Museum to the victims of communism and the deliberate destruction of the socialist/modernist architectural legacy in the capital) a hegemonic official memory regime which in many ways mirrors the worst practices of the system they seek to demonise. Nevertheless, the question of whether and to what extent the new authoritarian political culture in the region is a legacy of the one-party, socialist past is worth asking.

Generally, and in the Macedonian case more specifically, ascribing the blame for contemporary ills and for a 21st century authoritarianism to Tito, his comrades, or ‘communism’ is nothing but an easy way of self-vindication for the appallingly corrupt and irresponsibly elites. What is shocking is that in some crucial aspects, Macedonia in 2015 is doing far worse that it did 40 years ago. The income inequality (Gini) index rose from 28.1 in 1998 to 43.6; almost a third of the population lives below the poverty line; the country plummeted from 34th in 2009 to 117th place in 2015 in the World Press Freedom Index; around a quarter of the population emigrated abroad; and it has become impossible to find employment without connections and party membership (contrary to popular opinion that even in socialist Yugoslavia Party membership was crucial, as a matter of fact, the League of Communist of Yugoslavia for most of its existence had around 1 million members).

Pointing out some of the positive features of the socialist period does not imply an uncritical glorification or idealisation of that system; it is above all an attempt to emphasise the fact that what was positive in it (the emancipatory practices, workers’ rights, social protection and solidarity, equality, social mobility, relative meritocracy, active foreign policy and highly competent diplomacy) has been severely diminished or completely destroyed, while that which was negative (political authoritarianism, personality cult, lack of freedom of speech) has been amplified and ‘perfected’. Hence, Nancy Fraser’s vision of ‘another “postsocialism”’ – ‘one that incorporates, rather than repudiates, the best of socialism’ – still seems pertinent.

This assembly brings four perspectives that zero in on the post-Yugoslav space:

Assembly editor: Ljubica Spaskovska

Photo: Ljubica Spaskovska

 

Forwards to the legacies of ‘post-communism’ in the Balkans!

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

In the years following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Soviet bloc and Yugoslavia were subjected to a major experiment. Treated as a tabula rasa, these societies became a laboratory for neoliberalism. The recipe is now familiar to most of us: privatisation, liberal democracy, debt-driven export orientation, European integration… The question was not whether to apply these measures, but how much, at what pace, by which interest groups, using what kind of institutions. It soon became clear, however, that major divergences between countries were emerging, often unrelated to substantial policy differences. Thus, a new science began to emerge: how to explain these differences according to differing legacies, often legacies of Communism.

In the Balkans, and particularly Yugoslavia, the legacies of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire came to the fore, but so too did the particular legacies of so-called ’communist ethno-federalism’, ’workers’ self-management’, ’the withering away of the state’, etc. What had been seen as sources of relative ’liberalism’ in the ’Communist’ world now turned to major disadvantages in terms of ’transition’. Thus weak states could not establish strong democratic governance, property rights and rule of law. Ethnic diversity initially slowed down the strengthening of democratic process or even derailed it as different groups tried to assert, often violently, national exclusivity to territorially granted rights. Welfarist instincts in the mass of the population prevented full economic liberalisation giving rise to populist and authoritarian leaders who craved power and disregarded due process.

Much of the wisdom therefore turns to the need for further external intervention to fix the problem. What is particularly necessary in the new orthodoxy is the need for the EU to use various sticks and carrots to lure elites and civil societies away from their recalcitrant ways, and often their flirtation with their age-old Great Power sponsors in Moscow or Istanbul, towards true democracy. If only the EU were tougher on bad leaders, more generous with good civil society initiatives, and more willing to expand quickly, then the sources of backwardness would be expunged, and the Balkans brought closer to Europe, as had occurred with East-Central Europe or the Baltic states. Perhaps this also explains why so many East-Central European and Baltic states ironically backed Germany in the recent struggle to make Greece accept the rules of the Eurozone or quit and become Balkan once more.

The trouble is precisely that, when we look up from the neoliberal textbook at the realities of Europe as a whole, what we see is that Europe itself is at odds with democracy and is ever more reminiscent of an undemocratic, post-modern Austria-Hungary, where the elites of the core countries and the bureaucracy they use to rule the empire, far from liberating peoples of national feelings, are in fact reinforcing old national divisions in new ways. Digging deeper, we even find that this European project has in fact been around for much longer than the last quarter of a century. Yugoslavia’s trade links with Germany and Italy were dominant through the twentieth century, not excluding the so-called Communist period. Yugoslavia’s dependency on American credits started as early as 1949, and its first of many IMF arrangements came in the mid-1960s. Several other bloc countries followed suit in the 1970s and 1980s as part of détente. European integration stretches back many decades.

Unsurprisingly, workers often rebelled against so-called workers’ states, Poland being the most famous example, but Yugoslavia following close behind in the number of strikes in the 1980s. As modernisation resembled in many ways what had gone on in the West too, workers popularly joked that, in capitalism, man exploits man, but in communism, it is the other way around. Now another transition-era joke appears ever more pertinent: that what the communists had told us about communism had all turned out to be false, but what they had told us about capitalism is coming true. It should be unsurprising that many communist parties became proponents of neoliberal transformation, only to be electorally eclipsed since. This is again not unlike the parties of the centre-left in Western Europe, like Greece’s PASOK. The authoritarianism that grew up with corportatist responses* to Europe’s failures is therefore only tangentially a legacy of ‘Communism’ – or its failure, and the popular belief that there is no alternative. As new generations enter the political arena, they come to realise that an alternative is necessary, since capitalism works against democracy, not just in Greece or Spain, but also in Macedonia and Slovenia. They may even realise that Europe means austerity and nationalism, while the Balkans can mean solidarity and diversity. New generations do not need to go backwards to a past that is widely discredited, though for more complex reasons than mainstream commentators would have it. Instead, they can recover forgotten forms of resistance to previous authoritarian rounds of European integration before European integration. And they can move forward in confidence, towards the legacies of ‘post-communism’: the rebirth of an authentic left in opposition to capitalism and the overdue death of the myth of Europe.

* corportatism, rooted in the Latin word corpus, meaning body, refers to the sociopolitical organisation and control of a society by large interest groups.

Longing for lost agency

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Tanja Petrović

Croatian philosopher Boris Buden speaks about post-socialist subjects as children of communism, warning that it is not a metaphor, but a symptom of an imagination in which transition to democracy as a radical reconstruction starts from scratch: ‘Eastern Europe after 1989 resembles a landscape of historical ruins that is inhabited only by children, immature people unable to organise their lives democratically without guidance from another.’

This image of post-socialist individuals as helpless, immature and dependent children resonates very often with the ways people in the former Yugoslav societies are approached from very different positions of power: by representatives on the ‘international community’, who see these societies as tabula rasa, a polygon to exercise all sorts of social and political experiments, as well as by new local elites, who place the responsibility for the disastrous economic situation on citizens themselves, accusing them for inability or unwillingness to adapt to the new, market-driven reality, which demands individual initiative and self-reliance. Very often, the reasons for this inability or unwillingness ‘to take care of oneself’ are found in the problematic legacy of socialism, when people lived believing that the state, or someone else, should and will take care of them.

Such view on socialism not only supports the rapid dismantling of the welfare state in the post-Yugoslav societies, it often serves as a handy explanation for all sorts of reactionary political attitudes found in this region from the 1990s onwards. The ‘children of communism’, the argument goes, not only need guidance, protection and supervision, but also strive for a strong, all-controlling leader who would take care of everything – an authoritative father figure which they had in Josip Broz Tito during Yugoslav socialism. In this light, any kind of nostalgia or positive attitude towards socialism is understood as a sign of moral weakness, irrationality and inability to find one’s way in the ongoing social and economic transformations. It is seen as a ‘result of a feeling of having lost out in the transition from communism to democracy,’ as political scientists Joakim Ekman and Jonas Linde put it.

But if we take the positive references of citizens of the post-Yugoslav societies more seriously, in line with what American anthropologist Dominic Boyer suggests, we will see that when people talk about the positive aspects of their socialist experiences it is not only about the lost safety net, social welfare and having someone to take care of everything. It is much more about a lost sense of agency and self-perception of being an actor in both one’s own life and in the broader economic and social processes. In contrast with what prevalent neoliberal and ‘transitional’ political discourses on socialism suggest, citizens perceived themselves as agents during socialism much more than today, when they feel incapable of transforming their desires and visions into action. In the case of post-socialist Serbia, Maja Petrović Šteger describes how her interviewees ‘would often state that the everyday facts of their lives made it hard for them to imagine themselves actively participating in remaking, or just in contesting, the political and economic fabric in contemporary Serbia.’

That is why rare and extraordinary events in which citizens manage to resume some degree of agency – such as the mass mobilisations for extending help and solidarity during the disastrous floods in the region in May 2014, or the citizens’ plenums as forms of direct democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina – are abundant with references to the forms of social organisation and action that were characteristic of Yugoslav socialism.

Seen in this light, as longing for a lost agency, nostalgia for socialism is not a reactionary, irrational and pro-totalitarian sentiment, but a practice with a mobilising, legitimising, and even an emancipatory character. It is a reminder not only of the past, but also of the values necessary for imagining the future, such as both an intergenerational and a universal solidarity, responsibility, communality, the value of work as such, and perhaps, above all, a personal and a collective autonomy.

New authoritarianism and new struggles against ‘old demons’

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Gëzim Krasniqi

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, authoritarian and semi-authoritarian tendencies and practices remain very much present in the post-Yugoslav states and even wider. Scholars and local commentators attribute this either to the lack of a liberal democratic tradition, in particular when it comes to civil society, the long lasting legacy of communism or, worse, revert to the well-known self-orientalising tendency that sees the region incapable of modern state-building and democratisation. Although causes of the present phenomenon of limited democratisation are multiple and complex, this is often seen through the lens of historical determinism in general, and communist legacy in particular.

Irrespective of the fact that one cannot dismiss half of century of communist rule in the analysis of the current situation, it nevertheless does not suffice. Moreover, it represents an oversimplified view of the past and present situation and the determining socio-economic factors. The direct correlation that is often built between the pervious system and current (semi) authoritarian regimes is misleading for a number of reasons. Firstly, this view is mostly embraced by right wing, anti-communist and nationalist parties and their affiliates whose raison d’être has become opposition to ideological ‘other’, i.e. socialist Yugoslavia, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) and its respective successor parties. As such, their discourse implies that what we have today is only a different version of the old party system and its institutions. However, in practice, across the post-Yugoslav political space, anti-communist and right wing parties have particularly embodied authoritarian tendencies.

Secondly, and most importantly, today’s political systems in the region often display worse tendencies of monopolisation and centralisation than in the socialist period. For the most part, post-Yugoslav countries have established a façade of institutional democracy. With the exception of Slovenia and to a certain extent Croatia, the other states are what Lucan Way and Steven Levitsky (2010) defined as ‘competitive authoritarian regimes’, i.e. civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Mostly nationalist right wing parties and ‘strongmen’ have managed to create an illusion of multi-party democracy at the local and national levels while effectively stripping elections of efficacy. Due to state-capture, media control, vote buying, fragmentation of opposition they have violated one of the key principles of democracy – unpredictability of the electoral process and change of power. Moreover, monopolisation of power by the current tiny economic, political and often criminal elites in the region is far wider and deeper than in socialism. Clearly, in socialism there were no multi-party elections, but the social, political and economic institutional setting was in many respects far more inclusive, decentralised and fair.

Ultimately, this leads to a wider paradox related to post-communism. On the eve of major systemic changes in the late 1980s, anti-communist forces in Yugoslavia promised democratisation and freedom, to be installed through free multi-party elections, and economic prosperity to be realised through liberal economic reforms and privatization. 25 years down the road, none of these promises have been materialised. Open and democratic institutions exist only on paper; civil society is reduced to a handful of foreign-funded NGOs; the gap between a tiny minority of rich people and a struggling majority increases constantly. At the centre of all this is the new ‘post-communist’ type of party that has its members and voters in public institutions, media, economic enterprises, police, army, diplomatic service, schools and universities. In a word, the post-communist elites brought neither democratisation nor economic progress. The only real change is in the economic sphere with the introduction of economic policies of privatisation and deregulation, championed by the ‘New Right’ in the 1980s. But this is not something right-wing parties can be proud of. Ironically, China’s and Vietnam’s Communist Parties have proven even more capable of managing state capitalist economies than right-wing parties in post-Yugoslav multi-party systems.

This pattern of all-powerful and omnipresent parties than run competitive authoritarian regimes is present throughout the region, with different degrees and nuances. As regards Kosovo, the most complex and atypical post-Yugoslav state, both the post-1989 ‘Kosovar Alternative’ led by LDK (Democratic League of Kosovo) and Ibrahim Rugova and the Kosovo Liberation Army (UÇK) and its successor party PDK (Democratic Party of Kosovo) had a clear anti-Yugoslav and anti-communist attitude. Due to Kosovo’s unique history in Yugoslavia as well as developments in the late 1980s, socialist Yugoslavia, Serbia and communism came to be seen almost as synonymous. LDK emerged as a popular and national movement that opposed both a Yugoslav state that does not treat Kosovo equally and communism in the name of Democracy, Freedom and Independence. Yet, irrespective of its unmatched restraint and commitment to peaceful resistance, in practice it demonstrated a rather authoritarian tendency to control the whole Kosovo Albanian ‘parallel system’ in the 1990s. Although its power was very limited under the total Serbian police and military control, it was not very tolerant to dissenting voices from inside. Similarly, UÇK’s and then later on PDK’s leadership has shown increasing tendencies of controlling political, public and economic institutions.

Nonetheless, state-capture and authoritarianism in Kosovo is less consolidated than in countries like Macedonia, Serbia or Montenegro. However, this does not stem from the open-mindedness and commitment to democratic values of Kosovo’s present politicians. Rather, it is a result of international supervision, a fragmented political scene and a proportional representation electoral system (with one constituency).

In sum, current authoritarian regimes do not stem directly from the communist past. Rather, they are a product of a failed democratisation process that brought national conflicts, economic and social stagnation and a new type of political parties that have managed to capture the state while projecting an illusion of a multi-party democracy.

Authoritarian tendencies in the region between “then” and “now”: the lacking visibility of materiality of regional authoritarianism

Part of the regular assembly “New authoritarian tendencies – a legacy of the past?“. Author: Danijela Majstorović

When thinking about authoritarian tendencies in the Balkans, one inevitably envisages the regional ‘strongmen’, who, despite their intrinsic differences, will here for a moment be thought of as amalgamated. One thinks of them as pandering to the populist temptation, living luxurious lives and doing shady business without being accountable to the public, and some liberal democratic telos, which, if reached, will be a cure for it. Ascribing these tendencies to the socialist, one-party Yugoslav past is a mistake that too easily dismisses not only the socialist political imaginary as an important repository of reflexive nostalgia and a way of imagining otherwise but also gravely obfuscates the material, politico-economic aspects of the current political elites in the region, their coming to power, and their cold and calculated interest to do anything it takes to remain in power. It also runs contrary to the truth on the ground.

Any psychologising on authoritarianism or its reduction to ‘a history that repeats’ without accounting for the context is deeply problematic because it lacks the concrete materiality that can be best explained through a combination of political economy analysis and critique of ideology. What secures the power of ethno-nationalist elites, and Izetbegović’s or Dodik’s power, to use the Bosnian-Herzegovinian example, is not their authoritarianism, but the Dayton Peace Agreement. It did bring peace to BiH but it also, because of its complex power-sharing mechanism, created a state of exception in which disorder constantly need to be managed, both domestically and internationally. Notwithstanding some international politicians’ profiting off of Bosnia, the local oligarchs have kept and expanded their property, acquired both through the combat and shadow economy, by being exempt from the state’s criminal code and answerable to no one, solely on the basis of Dayton.

During the first decade after Dayton, resources were redistributed from publically-owned to state-owned or dominant party-owned. The years between 2006-2014, saw a weakened international community influence while the ethno-nationalist elites influence, based on shady privatisations of strategic enterprises, grew stronger. Simultaneously, it was coupled by the exclusionary, nationalist, proto-patriarchal rhetoric as it helped obfuscate the postwar elites coming to money during the war and transition hiding the capitalist motivation behind the war, which was to either destroy or privatise the public property and the commons, but also commonly shared pasts, traumas, economies and futures.

Additionally, the war and privatisation devastated former industrial giants as well as smaller enterprises stripping the BiH workers of their ownership over their enterprises and depriving them of their basic economic abilities through mass layoffs. In most ‘post-conflict reconstruction’ plans for BiH, privatisation was a key component of market reform without even considering the social consequences. Both the international community and the local elites worked hard to securely tether the transition to capitalism and to obliterate any memory of the existing socialism. During these years, the authoritarianism of the local ethno-nationalist elites grew stronger and more entrenched, which was relatively easy given the lack of more democratic action and civic participation in public life. All this time, it looked as the war between different ethnic groups was still discursively on as after 20 years of peace there was almost no consensus on the past and no serious questioning of what ever happened to the commons.

The painful awakening in February 2014 in BiH and in May 2015 in Macedonia, visible in the protests and plenums managed at least temporarily to resist the entrenched privatisation and war-fuelled nationalism. This was no longer ‘about Dayton’ as protesters for a moment halted their own complicity and participation in the ethno-partocracy and clientelism emerging as indignant subjects who in insecure times insisted on a form of direct democracy, partly through violence and partly through people’s ability to self-organise realising the failing State. Workers of Tuzla’s detergent factory Dita, for instance, protested for years and even hid their means of production hoping for a moment when they would start using it again to make and sell detergent and be able to live off of their work.

In the wake of all these changes, we saw authoritarian tendencies deeply shaken. Only this time, it was not because of some Western-learned democratisation practice aiming at countering the former socialist ideological rut. It was not because the complex power-sharing suddenly worked. It was after the failed state-socialism of Yugoslavia, the vestiges of which crumbled in the war. It was after our traumas and economies could no longer be silenced and it was in spite of the nationalism that replaced the previously known brotherhood and unity. I hope it was a lesson learned running counter to everything we have known after the 1990s war – that the only way to counter the authoritarianism of the few was to denounce their riches and capillary governmentality-demanding socialism forevermore.

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Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation (part two)

The second part of this ad-hoc assembly engages different experiences of political organising and civil resistance against the ruling regime in Republic of Macedonia.

The call for this assembly is inspired by the mass protests in Macedonia that kicked off May 5, 2015. That day people rallied for justice and against police brutality. Protests persisted on each consecutive day and grew with demands for resignation of the entire government and criminal charges, building on a years of public outcry over the unjust and discriminating policies and actions by the Macedonian government. Citizens-activists and different organisations had already opened fronts of struggle demanding greater control by the people over institutions that politicians use to make decisions on their behalf. For years now, protests had been held against police brutality, urbanisation, pollution, in defense of students rights and for access to quality public education, demanding equality before public institutions, in the name of social justice and workers’ rights, against homophobia and heteronormative laws and for media freedom.

The goal of the second part of this assembly is to engage experiences that critically address questions about the growth of civil resistance, the cohesion and modes of representation (who speaks, on whose behalf and towards what were actions directed). In the first part we presented international experiences, while the second part zeroes in on civil resistance experiences in Macedonia. We ask, what has civil resistance been directed against and how has it build up, as it has been in the making?

The second part of this assembly presents four perspectives:

Assembly editors: Elena B. StavrevskaMila Shopova, and Anastas Vangeli

Photo: Nebojša Gelevski

The urban protest: Waging an ecological war

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Arianit Xhaferi

The winter season is usually the time when people lock up in the comfort of their homes and ‘hibernate’ for some time, while foregoing many outdoor activities. It is also the time when the air is polluted the most due to many different factors and contributors. It was on December 2013 when a group of concerned citizens of different professional backgrounds (now known as Eco Guerilla) decided to do something about the polluted air while calling on a protest which was meant to wake up the ‘hibernating’ citizens of Tetovo and the Pollog region.

The local and national media were informing the viewers on the very high concentration of carcinogenic particles in the air of Skopje and Bitola, but nothing was being said about Tetovo, which indeed was even more polluted compared to the other cities of Macedonia, according to data publicly provided by the Ministry of Environment and Physical Planning. Eco Guerilla (then called ‘the Council’) decided it was time to do something in this regard. We met and discussed the forms of pollution and the potential contributors to each form, identified the biggest regional polluters, checked the Constitution and the regulations, and realised that there was a major violation of the national Constitution and many other laws and international agreements our country had signed, and which were related to environmental protection. Once we had enough information, we created a list of demands directed to the responsible authorities (both central and local) where we asked them to do something about the problem. In order to raise people’s awareness, we called a protest in December 2013. (For the exact dates and more details about all the protests, see www.ecoguerilla.mk). It was the very first time that some 200 people turned up at a protest which had nothing to do with national or political agenda. Although we considered this a fiasco, it helped get the attention of the local and at least one national media, thus more people got informed. As we also failed to bring more people to the second protest in a row (January 2014), we decided it was time that we built a new strategy which would raise awareness faster and wider, and which proved to be successful.

At first, it was difficult to get all the people to work together and voluntarily in this series of activities, but eventually we managed to ‘recruit’ many doctors, lawyers, journalists, and hundreds of field activists, to whom we were very honest as we spent lots of energy and time sharing all the information with each one of them. Journalists wrote about the problem as they were informed by doctors on all the health issues that air pollution brings, lawyers prepared different documents and acts as per our Constitution, activists made sure the information was disseminated as much as possible.

Neither ruling nor opposition political parties showed interest in our demands or activities, until we ‘took the war’ to their skin. It was only then that some opposition MPs spoke up and said a few words to the media. In general, Eco Guerilla has found more support and understanding with the opposition political parties that have no representatives in the National Assembly yet.

As mentioned above, Eco Guerilla’s strategy was to align doctors, journalists, lawyers and activists all together, in order to have the word spread the most. People only react out of personal interest or fear. The air is a very abstract concept for many to understand or tell the pollution, thus we focused on telling the citizens what damage the pollution causes to their health. Of course, we used official data when informing them about the 80% jump of carcinogenic diseases in three years, the raise of asthmatic and other respiratory related illnesses, the increasing number of miscarriages and the infertility rate of our fellow citizens, and many other health issues. The reaction was immediate. The protests organised later in 2014 had a much bigger attendance then any protests before, and the numbers rose even more with every other event.

Eco Guerilla has yet to succeed in making the government force the polluters to apply ecological standards and stop contaminating our air, water and soil. Yet, we must be proud and happy to say that we have managed to create a critical mass. The citizens of Tetovo are now much aware of the quality of air they breathe, and they are not happy with it. However, the political turmoil and the security related issues that have recently occurred in our country have thrown the whole ecological war in a secondary position, and the government has totally lost track of environmental issues.

“From May 5, until the end”

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Biljana Ginova

On May 5th, the leader of the opposition publicly presented the 29th set of leaked materials, or the 29th ‘bomb’, in which we heard a confirmation of all that we suspected regarding the murder of Neshkoski and against which we protested for days in 2011. That was the trigger to get out on the streets, but the revolt of the citizens gathered there was much older than Zaev’s ‘bombs’. The anger that we swallowed for years, condensed like a big lump in the throat that will not let you utter a word without your whole body twitching in pain erupted in jumping the barricades and occupying the government yard.

Thousands of people, crossing the fence were crossing their own expected boundaries and by occupying the government yard they were taking the political responsibility back into their own hands. That day, every inch of anger amassed through the oppressive history of independent Macedonia was released: from the Bucharest disappointment and the pain from the blows on the architecture students, through the hunger strike of the workers laid off due to bankruptcy in front of the Parliament and the anger of the murder of Martin Neshkoski, to the oppression with one after another bad laws for protection against discrimination, for abortion, for honoraria, for higher education, for everything to culminate with the meaningless of the human life for the ruling elite.

The protests that started on May 5th united thousands of citizens in the movement which was both individual and universal at the same time – #Protestiram. The people in this movement, each with their own story, came to the fore as politically responsible subjects, dedicated to the changes we want to see in this country. As the movement came into being, the demands were defined at a street plenum and united all the personal struggles and aspirations in the given context. Even though the natural partner in the realisation of those demands was the party opposition, a big part of the citizens were skeptical of their methods and their dedication to a complete revision and democratisation of the society.

Just like for many others, May 5th was also a surprise for the opposition. It turned out that they wanted people on the streets, but people who would give them bargaining power and would follow their plan and pace, not self-organised citizens who will finally demand a substantial change. As a result, even though understandable, instead of joining the self-organised civi resistance, after May 17th the opposition attempted to place the revolt under one umbrella and to direct it towards the partisan resistance in the form of a camp in front of the government building. In addition to that came the ad hominem attacks and labelling by the activists gravitating towards this resistance in an attempt to delegitimise #Protestiram and the activists who criticised the (lack of) influence of the negotiations that started in the meantime.

The negotiations among the four leaders of the biggest political parties took place far from the public eye, without any civic participation and without guarantee that the citizens’ demands will be represented in the talks. Having no insight into the negotiations, the only source of information were the leaders’ statements following the meetings which were often different, and sometimes opposite to each other. The June 2 agreement, on the other hand, which was expected to provide the framework for further negotiations, left many questions unanswered. What was also noticeable in the agreement was the absence of the key citizens’ demands. With the start of the negotiations, the sense of resistance on the streets was lost and the panic among the ruling elite that we witnesses with the very announcement of Zaev’s ‘bombs’ was gone. The negotiations were concluded by all negotiating parties claiming victory. At the negotiations, however, at no moment in time, in no way was there an involvement of the citizens who were not represented by the political parties whose leaders negotiated until the very end.

Despite the challenges and the suffocation of the protest, I consider them successful. They made the street a place for political articulation of the citizens, but they also showed that in the current context of the country, the resistance should separate from the party opposition and should evolve in a different form of political participation. We will see in the coming days what form that will take, but I will certainly like to see a positioning of as many citizens in the country as possible as independent political subjects, offering a personal vision without or regardless of party affiliation.

 

The citizens in the midst of politics – old struggle for new values

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Bojan Marichikj

The few massive student demonstrations and the free student zones at universities across Macedonia towards the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 encouraged multiple disparate groups of citizens (journalists, workers without permanent contracts, etc.) to organise protests occupying the streets as spaces of political activism. In this article I elaborate on the most massive form of civil resistance against the government in Macedonia and Gruevism as a model of governance, which emerged from this wave of activism – the coalition “The citizens for Macedonia”.

Why “The citizens for Macedonia”?

The publication of a series of so-called bombs by the opposition party SDSM confirmed the long-held fears and assumptions of the majority of civil activists and civil organisations. The recordings showed, namely, that the institutions have been hijacked by a small clique of power-holders, that the ruling parties control all branches of power (legislative, executive and judicial), that there is practically no single institution, independent body or a political process in which the citizens can place their trust or upon which they could have any influence.

The expected role of civil society in democratic societies is to be a corrective of government policies on behalf of the public, thereby not participating directly in political power struggles. This is the key distinction between the viewpoint of the civil society and that of the political parties, who realise the public, but also the particular interest of their ideological platform via the political and electoral process to ensure influence in the institutions of the representative democracy. However, in abnormal circumstances whereby civil organisations and activists are constant targets of demonisation, hate speech, institutional repression, and media lynching, it is impossible not to blur the delineation between political and party activism, at least temporarily.

The need for unification of the opposition front against Gruevski and his political clique arises from the impotence of any single political group (regardless of whether they fight for votes or influence on behalf of the public interest) to independently form a wide and successful front that would surpass the limits of their own activism hitherto, in conditions of total control over media, captured institutions, and orchestrated repression by the government. Since the Macedonian society is no longer a democratic one, and the government refuses to change its course, the last remaining option was to form a civil coalition of political parties in opposition led by SDSM and civil organisations and activist groups (as well as individual activists), which was launched in May 2015 under the name “The citizens for Macedonia” and issued a common declaration.

New values created by the struggle

The coalition “The citizens for Macedonia” enabled the unification of the most part of those smaller fronts against Gruevski and Gruevism as a concept into a large front that neither Gruevski nor the international community would be able to ignore anymore. Furthermore, the camp in front of the Government building became a symbol for endurance and resolution of the common struggle against the current regime. The presence of a significant number of citizens in this camp, that do not necessarily come only from the opposition parties, put pressure on Gruevski and his collaborators who now have to face the citizens’ revolt every day. This is not the only pressure point of revolt, but it is the only one that lasts for 24 hours a day on a single visible space.

Furthermore, it is a symbolic space which was held shut for civil protests from May 6th to May 17th, the period during which citizens protested every day following the publication of the recordings in which the government tried to hide details about the tragic murder of Martin Neshkoski in June 2011. With the reclaiming of this space from May 17th onwards, the government was forced to accept that the people will not accept the existence of “forbidden zones” limiting their right to protest and that the citizens’ revolt will be expressed every day just below the window of the man in power.

“The citizens for Macedonia” as a concept encouraged many who see themselves as “neutral”, “apolitical”, “undecided”, and yet at the same time extremely unsatisfied by the current government. In this sense, the concept showed that the confrontation with the clique in power goes beyond an ordinary inter-party struggle for power between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM. This platform has shown that a fundamental clash is actually taking place – between the majority of citizens demanding democracy, freedom, and social justice on one side and Gruevski and his party and ruling elite on the other, who use anti-democratic methods and abuse power in order to stay in power.

The coalition “The citizens for Macedonia” gave birth to a new civil spirit of community that overcomes the usual ethnic, religious, gender, moral, ideological differences, and goes even beyond special interests politics. The decision to not display party flags at the massive civil protest is more than purely symbolic. It also proves the readiness to sacrifice the domination of political parties within the opposition camp and to open a forum for unified activism without any conditions or blackmailing. The camp also provided space for different people with the same goal to be on the same spot to learn from one another; it enabled communication between citizens from Skopje and other cities, people from different ethnic affiliations, people ready for open discussion and action that would contribute to the democratic process.

“The citizens for Macedonia” is the largest and the most powerful front with over 15 political parties and over 80 civil organisations or activist groups. This front is not, nor does it pretend to be the only one in the fight against Gruevism as a method of governance. The side fronts outside “The citizens for Macedonia” can only help us comprehend the multiplicity of the fight against the ruling regime in Macedonia.

One of the messages of “The citizens for Macedonia” is that the power of any future government has to be decreased and that conditions, support and motivation must be created for active, vocal and critical citizens. This means that every future government must give up use of the available repressive instruments against political opponents as well as its methods for quenching any criticism and civil activism via media, institutional or non-institutional interventions.

Lastly, the duration of this coalition is limited by the fall of Gruevski. The harder part of exterminating Gruevism as a method of ruling remains to be a common goal of all subjects in “The citizens for Macedonia”. However, that struggle will be led independently by each subject – we will act from our position of citizens that are self-organised to fight for the public interest at large without any aspirations to power, whereas the parties will fight in the political arena to realise their political platforms. This coalition will not be an obstacle for the civil organisations to criticise SDSM as a future ruling party, on the contrary. The civil society has an obligation to show that it does not give up on politics nor does it leave it only up to politicians to manage, and it will always be there to criticise and control those who hold power.

David versus Goliath

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation“. Author: Jordan Šišovski

After May 17th, the resistance entered in a deep crisis. The protests deflated and the awaited turnaround did not happen. To be able to even consider the strategic course of action we first have to examine the identity of the resistance and the nature of its crisis.

The rally on May 17th only showed what has been evident for many for a long time: SDSM has neither strategy, nor vision, nor strength to cause a substantial change in the society. The long-awaited ‘bombs’ unfoundedly raised the expectations of a desired change, while at the same time the leadership of the party, of the coalition parties and of the coalition non-governmental organisations, united under the “Umbrella”, completely failed in their assessment of: (1) the strength and the determination of the regime, (2) their own forces and capacity, (3) the interest of the ‘international community’ in the democracy in the country, and (4) the trust of the people. The last and most important assessment error indicated that the people are fully aware of the extent of corruption of the elites and that having been continuous faced with choosing between two evils, they no longer intend to choose evil, even if it was the lesser one! The people chose resignation. The rally was announced as a pompous event with the pathetic “We are coming!” There were many people on the streets on the day of the event, but their expectations of change were deceived. SDSM showed they did not know why they took so many people to the street. In the days that followed, the uninspired project managers of the ‘Freedom camp’ managed to transform the false hope into apathy.

It is in light of this that we ought to consider the nature of the crisis in the resistance that showed great energy on May 5th and soon took the form of the #Protestiram movement. Even in the first days after May 5th, the identity problems within this movement were apparent. It was an ideologically incoherent body. On the one hand there were activists who gravitate towards SDSM and on the other, there were activists who tried to suppress their distrust of SDSM in the name of the struggle against the greater evil – the authoritarian regime. The main disadvantage of the movement was in the fundamental unsustainability of the idea of ​​burying all differences until the fall of the regime. It became evident that the differences were substantial and ideological. While some showed strong liberal and anti-authoritarian tendencies, the pro-SDSM group acted in quite an authoritarian fashion. The constant insistence on a complete and blind support of the SDSM leadership, the ‘you are either with us or against us’ logic, and the demonisation of everyone who did not give their wholehearted support to SDSM with the derogatory “neutrals” only went to show the authoritarian tendencies in the ranks of the pro-SDSM wing of the resistance.

With the pompous “We are coming!” on May 17th, the pro-SDSM wing was completely drawn into a false victorious euphoria resulting from the disastrous assessment of SDSM. The false sense of size and strength stemmed from wrong Hegelian assumption that the quantity by itself turns into quality. The impressive number of citizens on the streets was not a guarantee that they were also motivated for action. This was perfectly estimated by the security forces – while on May 5th, there were thousands of special forces, so called “turtles”, on the streets of Skopje, on May 17th and the period after the government was ‘kept safe’ by a ridiculously small number of policemen. The ‘coming’ actually meant replacing the political with a politically impotent spectacle. The massive rally with its gravity completely pulled much of the (pro-SDSM) activist core into the orbit of SDSM/GM. It got a false aura of triumphalism and before the regime had even fallen, they started with a vulturous tearing apart of the ‘pie’ of the projected power and a calculation of the projected contenders to the ‘throne’. This thwarted its last, desperate battle with the regime.

 

Moral. People have completely lost confidence in the political caste. They are not willing to invest themselves once again in replacing one evil with a lesser evil. ‘The internationals’ are not ready to risk a change of the status quo in Macedonia. The regime shows a high degree of rational self-interest, flexibility and power to remain in place at all costs, while completely lacking morality, responsibility, and interest in the future of the country. SDSM and the ‘Citizens for Macedonia’ coalition show a complete absence of strategy, vision, and power to change both themselves and the society. This is also evident in the Przino agreement of July 15th, which is a mere technical agreement on the division of power between the coalition partners. In it, there is not even a mention of the values ​​such as freedom, democracy, justice! It follows that all progressive and liberal forces in the society should prepare for a long David-against-Goliath battle. SDSM is a futile political apolitical entity that is neither a useful ally, nor a worthy opponent. The struggle against the regime is not a struggle against a person or a group. It is a struggle agains two-decade long authoritarian and reactionary tendencies. This devaluation should be resisted by a force with clear liberal and progressive values. Only by practicing radical liberty, democracy, and transparency of the actions can the rigid authoritarian logic of the political caste be ruffled. It is necessary to open new venues of resistance, to politicise the quiet majority, and encourage grassroots and one’s own resistance.

We will need mad hope and faith in the power of our weakness!

We shall overcome!