Tag Archives: European Union

(Euro)Maidan is over, the Revolution of Dignity goes on

Part of the ad-hoc assembly “Civil resistance: cohesion, growth, representation”. Author: Olga Zelinska

In the winter of 2013/2014, Ukraine got into the headlines of international news. (Euro)Maidan was the second, after the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’, all-national contention in the country’s short history. In both cases people were driven to the streets by the sense of growing injustice (disrespect of the authorities, ignorance to people’s needs and flourishing corruption), accompanied by a deepened socio-economic crisis.

Before the actual events, sociologists revealed high and stable levels of dissatisfaction and readiness to protest. These were ignored by Yanukovych. Earlier attempts of protests (against taxes, language policy, police cover-ups and judicial corruption) had no chances of expanding under his repressive regime. In the spring of 2013, the opposition failed in getting sufficient support for the ‘Raise Ukraine’ campaign. So, when people actually took to the streets of Kyiv, it came as a surprise to the government, the opposition, and the analysts.

The postponement of a EU-Ukraine deal was the trigger for the first ‘civic’ Maidan on the Independence Square, which brought together civic activists, students, and ordinary Kyivites. The reaction of the opposition was quick – it could not ignore such a promising element of a pre-electoral PR. Few days later, a ‘political’ Maidan emerged just 300 meters down the street, on European Square. For a week, the leaders of both Maidans discussed plans for joining the efforts. In the end, it was the brutal beating of the students which brought them together, as well as thousands of others, arriving from numerous protesting cities of both the East and the West.

As the regime hardened its grip with police attacks and legal repressions, protesters persistently arrived to Kyiv, took shifts, build barricades and learned self-defence. Surveys show that 70% of Kyiv Maidan participants came there on their own, 12% through NGOs, and only 12 to 13% (in different periods) through a political party. They were, thus, not inclined to obey any institution and, at the same time, bore the responsibility for own actions.

The opposition had to ask Maidan for a ‘mandate’ to negotiate with the authorities. This was no easy job. 83% of the protesters were determined to stay on Maidan until all the demands were met. The claims were quite extensive, especially after the police opened fire on the demonstrators, and included the resignation of the President, the Parliament, the Government and a major ‘power reload’ through snap elections. Considering the authorities were ready for minor concessions only, the negotiators faced a ‘mission impossible’. So it happened.

After the opposition-presented ‘round table’ results were booed by the crowd, the leader of one of the Maidan units got on stage and announced an ultimatum to the President – ‘resign by tomorrow, 10 a.m’. Yanukovych did not need to be asked twice – he fled the country the same night.

It was no ‘happy end’, however. The Maidan is over, but the Revolution of Dignity goes on. The country went through presidential and parliamentary elections, and there have been struggles with the Crimea annexation and a sore conflict with Russia in the East. Reforms are going slowly, expectations border disillusionment. If the underlying reasons of protest keep being ignored, Maidan-3, the experts say, is possible.

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

Neoliberalism: A rat race to the bottom

Part of the virtual assembly “Labour rights in a neoliberal and post-socialist Macedonia” Author: Goran Lazarevski

One of the chief aims of the neoliberal-inspired transition to a free market economy was the deregulation of the labour market. In order to achieve this ideal a large number of labour rights and protections, formerly granted under socialism, were stripped away, unions were suppressed, minimum wage laws repealed (for an in-depth analysis of this process, see the excellent study by Lenka, “Devaluation of labour”). Decades later, the results are disenfranchised workers, laid-off workers and workers earning subsistence wages. Even the ideologues of this transition agree that large costs in human suffering were sustained, but they claim these were necessary in order to achieve competitiveness with the rest of the world. What this competitiveness means in practice is actually a rat race to the bottom, where the countries of the world compete among themselves which one would offer more precarious labour conditions and lower wages in order to attract foreign investors to build manufacturing plants. Thus, our government’s commitment to attracting FDI is an ideological commitment to participate in this race to the bottom, which is why we see the emergence of so called “free economic zones” – areas with taxes plummeting to 0% and wages also glued to the bottom.

The neoliberal globalisation project, however, had a self-defeating flaw in its very design, and that is the problem of generating aggregate demand that Keynes predicted long ago. If the developing world’s vast population is forced to slave away in factories for extremely low wages, then who will buy all those fancy products that these factories are supposed to produce? The answer was, of course, the Western (primarily US) consumer, so this consumer was encouraged to spend money (s)he did not have in order to keep the global economy going. These free-flowing “easy” money in turn helped produce the housing bubble which eventually collapsed and thus we are in the mess where we are today.

Unless sufficient internal demand is generated in major markets in the developing world, global imbalances, instability and economic stagnation are but guaranteed to persist in the future. But for this to happen, it is crucial for all countries to give up the rat race, i.e. strengthen their unions and introduce generous minimum wage laws that will guarantee their workers decent wages and thus purchasing power to sustain that domestic demand. The EU is in a unique position to pursue this agenda due to the ability to enact legislation to coordinate such pro-labour policies among all its member-states, reducing the credibility of the threat by investors to flee a market with stronger labour protection. So far the EU has been successful at this strategy to a certain degree, hence no surprise that standards of living in Europe are on par with those in the US.

It should be the economic imperative of all European countries to get under this labour rights umbrella and protect their workers from exploitation from multinationals, and thereby generate domestic demand and spur economic activity. But first we need their leaders to forget about their ideological commitment to the neoliberal mantra: “low taxes, low wages, and attract FDI”, and we need them to start focusing on developing the productive and purchasing potentials of their own economies.

In the particular case of Macedonia, these recommendations need to be tempered somewhat due to the country’s extremely high unemployment rate. In this sense, a flexible labour market is crucial for incentivising employment, however the central point remains – eliminating the minimum wage and weakening the labour unions has not brought the country any closer to prosperity. On the contrary, poverty and inequality have soared since its independence like never before in history. That is why the minimum wage raise expected to take place in 2014-2016 is most welcome and further steps in this direction should be encouraged. Additionally, strong and independent from political interference labour unions are a necessary partner in an economically prosperous society, and not a drag to the economy as they are usually viewed by our ruling elites.