Tag Archives: democratisation

New authoritarian tendencies_pic

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

 

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.

Слика

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

“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.

photo: Nebojša Gelevski

Macedonia: Anatomy of a crisis

This article originally and integrally appeared on openDemocracy on June 12. Author: Elena B. Stavrevska

From Putin’s Russia, to Erdogan’s Turkey, Orban’s Hungary, Vučić’s Serbia and Gruevski’s Macedonia, new authoritarian regimes have been faking democracy by organising multi-party elections, mimicking democratic institutions and adopting democratic language. Unlike the old authoritarian regimes, these rulers do not need to resort to violence to hold on to power. Rather, they remain in power through the control of information and the manipulation of beliefs, as well as developing neo-patrimonial and neo-prebendal economic systems. A recent study on such regimes identifies four resilience tactics that are usually employed: co-optation, censorship, propaganda, and repression. Importantly, it shows that the regime only uses repression, or violence against the public when mass beliefs cannot be manipulated through the first three tactics. An indication of such a move was witnessed recently in Macedonia.

A mass wiretapping scandal has been unfolding in the country since early February, when the biggest opposition party started broadcasting tapes that point to complete state capture. On May 5, a new set of wiretapped materials provided evidence about a case of fatal police brutality that sparked a mass anti-police brutality protests in 2011. As the anti-police brutality movement was reignited in response to the revelations, thousands gathered to demand resignations and responsibility in front of the Government building. The peaceful protest eventually turned violent, with a number of protesters detained and injured. In addition to using brute force against the protesters, the police also raided a public library harassing students.

The repressive police response backfired, with the protests growing every consecutive day, and spreading throughout the country and the diaspora. They were only interrupted for a few days during the Kumanovo security crisis. This, however, allowed the protesters to crystallise their demands and to unite their actions around a new informal social movement, known as #Protestiram (#IProtest). The protests continued every day until May 17.

The display of citizen dissatisfaction culminated on May 17, when tens of thousands Macedonian citizens demanded resignations from Gruevski and his closest team. Following the protest, which was organised by the coalition called ‘Citizens for Macedonia’, coordinated by the biggest opposition party and a number of NGOs, the coalition set up a protest camp in front of the Government headquarters. On May 18, on the other hand, a large pro-government rally was organised in Skopje, resulting in a government supporters’ camp set up in front of the Parliament building. In reality, both protests were a way for the biggest party leaders, the Prime Minister Gruevski and the opposition leader Zaev, to legitimise themselves and their demands prior to the forthcoming negotiation process.

The negotiations, unfolding mainly in Skopje and Brussels, involve the leaders of the four biggest political parties (two seen as predominantly ethnically Macedonian and the other two as predominantly ethnically Albanian) and is mediated by EU representatives. With the negotiations completely hidden from the public eye and with very little information available to the citizens, the political has been hollowed out of the public domain. Consequently, the protest movement appears to have lost its raison d’être and the camps are on the verge of becoming mere theatrics.

What seems clear is that the negotiations will result in a lose/lose outcome both for the government and the opposition. The opposition has raised the expectations, whereby any outcome that allows Gruevski and his team to keep their offices during the transitional government will be considered unacceptable by those critical of the government. The part of the public that still supports Gruevski, however, would see his leaving as a removing of a legitimately elected country leader.

The EU’s involvement in the process is very important. Beyond any delusional perception of the Union as the Good Samaritan, in this case, it is also EU’s foreign policy actorness that is at stake. The Balkans has always been not only the birthplace of EU’s foreign policy, but also the testing ground for all its instruments in this domain. Many remember the infamous 1991 claim by Jacques Poos, then Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister speaking on behalf of the European Community, that “the hour of Europe has dawn”, shortly before the Yugoslav wars fiasco. The EU foreign policy has come a long way since then, among other things, by contributing to the efforts which prevented an escalation of the 2001 ethnic conflict in Macedonia. In the following years, the EU was a key actor in the process of Macedonian state-building. That said, getting their ‘success story’ in the Balkans back on track to EU membership is paramount for EU’s actorness in foreign matters not being destroyed to ashes. At the same time, wary of opening a can of worms in an unstable neighbourhood and setting precedents, the EU appears mindful of the extent to which it intervenes.

All of this leaves the Union once again giving priority to stabilisation over democratisation, as if the two were not intimately interrelated and could successfully take place in succession. This is an approach of which one can find countless examples in the Balkans. In Macedonia in particular the international community has long been perceiving Gruevski as the ‘stabiliser’, thus turning a blind eye to the democratic backsliding that the country has been experiencing in the last several years. To that end, there are at least three problems with the way the negotiations are carried out at present.

First, there is hardly any transparency in the process. The brief non-informative, often contradictory statements of those involved, including EU representatives, are the only pieces of information the public has. In a society that has been living in a nearly total media blackout for years, the lack of information makes the negotiations and relatedly, the fate of the country, even more distant from the citizens. Needless to say, it also contributes to the perpetuation of the feeling of uncertainty.

Second, there appears to be an assumption that the current authoritarian tendencies, even if never called so explicitly by international representatives, are in a direct opposition to democracy. As if the two constituted a dichotomy and when the current illiberal system collapses, democracy would somehow naturally arise. Like putting a plaster on a wound that has not been cleaned, a deal is being negotiated without much guarantee of its implementation. The failure of the EU-mediated March 2014 agreement, for instance, to bring about any substantial changes or even fully resolve the crisis ought to be a stark reminder of the limits of this approach.

Final and foremost is the problem of representation. The negotiation process postulates the current political crisis as a conflict between political parties rather than a crisis of legitimacy of the institutions. What Macedonia is experiencing is a conflict between the citizenry and the power-holders. There are three important things that the leaders of the political parties perhaps conveniently forget, but the EU representatives must not. First is the fact that the May outburst of public dissatisfaction did not happen in a vacuum and it was not solely a result of the leaked materials. In actuality, the most recent protests come at the heels of months of large protests, starting with the protests of the students at the end of 2014, the contract workers, the media employees, the protests against the Minister of Health following the tragic death of a young girl, the high school students and their parents, etc. The second important fact is that the average election turnout in Macedonia is 57.49%, with a large portion of the country qualified voters deciding not to vote, thereby not being represented by any political party, much less the four biggest. Both of these relate to the third important reality and that is the existence of the genuine grassroots, autonomous, self-organised local agency that the #Protestiram movement is. Up until May 17, the daily protests of #Protestiram had managed to engage a part of the population that is dissatisfied not just with the current government, but with the way politics is done in the country altogether. Believing that the citizens ought to be able to act politically even beyond the political parties, the protesters have demanded accountability to the citizens, not solely to the party members. Through marches and plenums, this local agency, even if unsustainable and with uncertain future, has managed to give a platform for the unrepresented citizens to voice their opinions. Thus, the capacity thereof is something that must be recognised and utilised in the democratisation of the country.

Overall, this is a rare occasion for a ‘restart’ of the system. It is an occasion to rewrite the social contract between the institutions, the government and the citizens. It is an occasion that only occurs after tectonic ruptures, such as wars or massive crises. In Macedonia, this is an opportunity to finally set the foundations of a democratic society and accountable institutions, which will inevitably be a lengthy and laborious process, but it is a process that will help the country move forward at last.

Photo: Nebojša Gelevski

Насловна фотографија

Regular assembly: Urbanisation and the right to the city

On the eve of the first local referendum in Macedonia to preserve the original look of GTC (City Trade Centre), we address the significance of the present moment in which the citizens will be directly shaping their city. Over 43.000 citizens residing in the Centar municipality will be voting in favour of or against the preservation of the original modernist look of GTC. A referendum campaign held in April and a recent publication familiarised the citizens with the significance of preserving the building’s original architectural style.

Arguments in favour or against the referendum question revolve around the function and the significance of GTC. On one hand, supporters of the planned makeover suggest that GTC, fenced off with walls and secured from bad weather conditions, will become a more pleasant space for shoppers. In contrast, various citizen initiatives and the Association of Architects argue that the proposed changes will transform GTC from a space open to diverse – not consumer-only – experiences to a big-box mall.

We here build on existing arguments around the planned makeover, expanding the debate towards the wider concepts of urbanisation, and the possibility and/or necessity for citizens to directly shape their cities. The local referendum is an alternative to public consultations, a mode of participation that is common for urban planning in Macedonia, and is for most part either symbolic or it disenfranchises citizens. Deciding directly about the processes of urbanisation, citizens claim their right to the city— the right to remake collectively the environment that they inhabit. What possibilities, spaces and relations, then, emerge when citizens make direct decisions about the processes of urbanisation? How is this achieved through urban planning and architecture? Can architects, urban planners and institutions in Macedonia support the planning of a city of all and for all its citizens?

Five contributors responded to these questions:

 

Assembly co-ordinators: Mila Shopova and Leonora Grcheva

Photo credits: Leonora Grcheva

The urban planning legislation as a tool for citizen marginalisation

Part of the regular assembly “Urbanisation and the right to the city”. Author: Leonora Grcheva

Urban planning gains popularity in the public debates whenever there are new announcements of the “Skopje 2014” project, or when students are beaten up on the square, or when the corrupted urban plans are the topic of the opposition’s ‘bombs’ or, these days, when the first citizen referendum for GTC (City Trade Centre) is being held. But the systemic consequences of the commercial and political intrusion into spatial planning are much wider than the already destroyed central area of Skopje.

A vast part of the changes in the planning legislation in the past eight years have been either motivated by personal real estate gain of the politicians in power, or passed with the purpose to create conditions for smooth and legally unobstructed realisation of the “Skopje 2014” project. However, the laws apply equally throughout the republic and these overly frequent partial changes of the planning legislation – from 2006, the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning has been changed twelve, and the Law on Building seventeen times – leave catastrophic consequences in all cities, villages, and natural areas. For instance, the law changes passed in order to enable the transformation of the green hills of Vodno into building parcels, at the same time legalised the destruction of green and forested areas throughout the entire country.

But maybe one of the harshest consequences of the hasty law changes has been the gradual abolishment of the civil right to participate in the decision-making processes regarding our own environment. While the planning practice on a global scale is transforming into a localised, inclusive discipline that actively engages citizens, in Macedonia the reverse trend has been developing: centralisation of the decision-making in urban planning and marginalisation of the citizens. The basic tool for participation in local planning, since the beginnings of independent Macedonia, has been the public survey. In the public survey, after a short presentation, the detailed urban plans are exposed, and the citizens have the opportunity to leave written remarks that are then reviewed by a professional commission and eventually, accepted into the final plan. It has been common practice that the plans presented on the public surveys are graphically complex and chaotic, difficult to read even for professional planners, and nearly undecipherable for common citizens. Experience has shown that the turnout on these public surveys is very low, and the percentage of accepted complaints even lower.

Instead of offering the necessary upgrade of the public survey and the introduction of contemporary methods of citizen participation, such as workshops, interactive discussions or debates, the law changes have been vigorously taking away the decision-making power from the citizens and professionals, and handing it over to the city and municipality mayors, or to the Minister. Accordingly, with the changes in the Law on Spatial and Urban Planning, the public survey was shortened from 15 to 10 days for the cities and 5 days for the villages and uninhabited areas. After a successful Constitutional Court initiative in 2010, asking for the annulment of the non-legitimate Detailed urban plan for the central area of Skopje, where the “Skopje 2014” is focused, mechanisms for quick plan-making procedures have been implemented, shortening the dedicated time for professional and general public debate. Furthermore, new unconstitutional forms of urban planning documentations have been introduced, enabling the Government, the Minister or the mayors to make unlimited changes in the urban plans, skipping the common procedures and regulatory frameworks. Responding to the protests of the citizens of central Skopje that would not allow for the ‘baroquisation”’of their buildings’ facades, with the Law on Building, the city and municipality councils were given the power to make detailed decisions regarding the facades of buildings, regardless of the citizens’ feedback, if deemed ‘of importance for the municipality’. In order to encourage the Skopje 2014 ‘baroque’ style for new buildings, on the other hand, investors that build in the architectural style chosen by the municipalities are relieved of 50% of the communal taxes!

All these decisions and law changes progressively centralise the decision-making power regarding the spatial planning and development of our environment, and are gradually completely shutting off the citizens as a decision-making factor. On the day of the first authentic infiltration into the discriminatory urban politics – the local referendum for GTC, we must not forget that the thorough restructuring of the planning legislation must be an inevitable part of the process for re-democratisation of the country and the building of an inclusive society where the citizen participation in the creation of spatial politics will be not only enabled, but actively, legally encouraged.