The Balkan Indignados

We tend to look at the Balkans through the prism of ethnicity or nationalism, with the phantom of conflict always lurking behind. But these outraged citizens who have been protesting across the region signal the existence of other narratives, drawing on class and generational elements.

I meet Besa at a hipster cafe in the center of Prishtina where cosmopolitan Kosovans hang out. She is frustrated about the political crisis afflicting the young country, the worst since independence was declared in 2008. Like many young Kosovans of her educational and vision, Besa is opposed to the current government, which is backed by the international community, and is composed of many of the same people who fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Besa and many others would like the country to turn a new page, away from this ruling elite, today identified with corruption and nepotism. This reading of the situation and her social profile make Besa a probable sympathizer of the Vetevendosje (Self-determination) Movement. This is a party generally disliked by the West and which these days makes headlines for setting off tear gas in Pristina’s parliament and boycotting events such as Hashim Thaçi’s presidential election in early April.

Vetevendosje wants full sovereignty for Kosovo – as opposed to what is perceived as a continuing international tutelage – and an end to the current process of dialogue with Serbia under the aegis of the EU. The party demands a process which is less “imbalanced” against Kosovo and which prevents, in the words of some of its leaders, the formation of a “mini Serbia” in the north of the country, along the lines of the Dayton Agreement in Bosnia and the Serb majority entity it legitimized, the Republika Sprska. Its charismatic leader, Albin Kurti, backs the idea of a union between Kosovo and Albania, a red line for the United States and EU, and something neither Albania, nor many Kosovars show a real interest in so far. Vetevendosje is the quasi-revolutionary driving force in the street, from where it is attempting to bring down the current government. The truth is that a sizeable portion of young non-nationalist Kosovans like Besa either see Vetevendosje as virtually the only alternative to a corrupt political class, or they no longer have faith in institutional politics as a tool to bring about change.

Although she does not approve of Kurti and his supporters’ populist methods, Besa criticises the international community’s connivance with Kosovo’s elite as she takes elegant drags on her cigarette. In a language redolent of what has been said over and over on the streets of Madrid and Athens in recent years, or expressed by politicians from Syriza or Podemos, Besa states that the US and the EU “dictate” agreements such as the one between Kosovo and Serbia (Belgrade-Pristina in diplomatic terms) without leaving any leeway for her country to explore other alternatives which, in her view, could better serve their interests. She fears that if Kosovo cannot consolidate itself as a state, nationalism will eventually surge. This same fear was expressed to me a little later by a government minister in an office decorated by EU flags, who also mentioned the risk posed by radical Islam and the need to advance Kosovo’s integration into Europe, particularly in tangible aspects such as the granting of visas.

In a rainy Podgorica, only 159 kilometres from Prishtina, but half a day’s journey on flights via Istanbul due to the region’s appalling transport links, I struck up a conversation with Biserka, a local activist. She told me that the protests against the government led by Milo Djukanovic, who, either as prime minister or president, has ruled Montenegro for decades, have their roots in the stalled democratic progress of this EU and NATO bound country. This is despite the official narrative of reports of “progress” by the EU, a shared state of affairs to all of the Balkan countries, which are all theoretically EU bound. But members of civil society such as Milica reject the political views and methods of some opposition groups within the protests, especially those of the pro-Russian Democratic Front. The latter would only have tainted the originally civic protests anti-government protests with anti-NATO  sentiments and even ethnic symbolism (in support of Montenegro’s Serbs).

Indeed, images of Putin in heroic poses and Russian flags are increasingly evident here as well as in similarly massive protests in Belgrade, or in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.            

In Skopje, Vanya (not his real name) talked in detail about the wiretapping scheme affecting some 20,000 people, including opposition figures and representatives of civil society, and which is alleged to go right to the top of Nikola Gruevski’s government. The surveillance scandal and a general sense of protracted undemocratic abuse of power saw thousands take to the streets of the Macedonian capital in May last year.

Vanya and other activists hold out little hope for the 2015 EU-brokered deal between the government and opposition which includes new elections, the appointment of a special attorney general to investigate the wiretaps, and zero possibility of Gruevski and other top officials ever being charged. These sources stress that in the absence of a free press or proper separation of powers, authoritarianism is on the rise. This is Balkan authoritarianism with nationalistic overtones, inspired by models which, on the ground, have started to become known as “Putinism” and “Erdoganism,” thanks to the incentives Balkan autocrats see in the illiberal political systems in Russia and Turkey.

Vanya agrees with some diplomats in Brussels who criticize the way the EU has dithered for years over the evident “train wreck” in Macedonia, a candidate state for membership of both NATO and the EU. President Ivanov’s brazen decision to pardon all of the politicians involved in the wiretapping scandal pushes Macedonia a little closer to the edge of the abyss, reactivating the street politics option.

Kad sam gladan, nisam svoj

“Kad sam gladan, ni sam svoj”, which in B/C/S translates as “when I am hungry, I’m not myself”. Two years ago in Sarajevo, a Bosnian human rights lawyer called Sumeja summarised the so-called Bosnian Spring with that slogan, popular among the citizens who joined the demonstrations in nearby Marsala Tita avenue. This young woman in jeans and trainers spent those days running to and fro between police stations following up cases of violence against demonstrators, and night assemblies or “plenums.” It was here that people of all ages experimented with direct democracy and tackled outright issues ranging from the privatisation of factories and social deprivation to a new constitutional basis for Bosnia, one that was not based on ethnicity.

Those Bosnian revolts burst violently into life in Tuzla and Sarajevo. Bosnian politicians saw their cars thrown into rivers and public buildings blazed. Their fear was echoed by the international community, concerned about the ethnic conflict boogeyman. There were also cynical efforts by the usual spoilers to manipulate the tension along ethnic lines in order to delegitimise protests which had nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with accumulated disenchantment and desperation.

Sumeja compared bitterly the different human scale between these hundreds of people and the packed café terraces in Sarajevo or the million-plus Bosnians employed in a disproportionately large public administration, with so many depending on this or that politician and the “stela.” Stela, or influence, is the term used to describe the contacts upon which so many public positions often depend. Bosnia, she concluded, was “a hungry country which has lost its dignity.”

Today one cannot move around the Balkans without hearing these voices of indignation and running into protests by these Indignados, the new reality.

We tend to look at the Balkans through the prism of ethnicity or nationalism, with the phantom of conflict always lurking behind. Sadly, much of this is still present and it is reinforced by events such as the Hague court’s acquittal of Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party who is slated to be back in Belgrade’s parliament after April 24 elections. But these outraged citizens and some of the protests in recent years signal the existence of other narratives, drawing on class and generational elements. The social profile of these young Facebook-generation activists (a minority but a significant one) is somewhat similar to that of protesters in Tunisia, at Ukraine’s Euromaidan and in our own countries. Joining different social classes beyond this sector, though, the general discontent largely stems from a brutal clash of parallel realities.

On the one hand, that of the elites and the so-called “untouchables” (who hold all the power and evade any democratic or judicial accountability); the official narrative of “progress” and enlargement touted by EU institutions in summits and meetings with Balkan leaders; and, finally, the reality of a country and a society in which little changes. The latter reality are the Balkans of the Besas, Biserkas, Vanyas and others worse off, deprived of future prospects unless they get near the untouchables’ power circle or emigrate.   

EU’s juggling between Balkan strongmen, protests and geopolitics

These protests and the Balkan indignados add a new ingredient to the complexity of this problematic region. It poses a series of dilemmas for the EU and its member states, not least the difficult juggling of the goals of maintaining security and order with that of promoting real political change and pluralism. The perception is that the EU community tends to take the easy way out and prioritise the former over the latter, brushing the democratic deficits of its partners under the carpet because it has such a big crisis of its own and cannot afford to get too entangled in the Balkans with emergencies such as Syria or ISIS.

This damages the EU’s reputation among reformist forces, hemmed in between autocrats who play a sort of geopolitical blackmail (with fears of Russia encroaching in the region, instability, etc.), overlooking glaring democratic pitfalls, and more radical alternatives, such as Vetevendosje. It is also true that the spectrum of these protests is broad and tends to evolve quickly. There are elements of colour revolutions in some (Skopje) and more radical and even anti-European strains elsewhere (lately in Montenegro) as political polarisation grows. In diplomatic terms, it is not realistic in such circumstances to blindly support one side against the other, nor to merely support revolutions. But nor is it realistic to expect gradual progress, without a bit of instability, along the lines of the European model to deliver any real Leap Forward in democracy or rule of law. This is especially the case when, on the one hand, many elites holding power do not want real European integration if that would eventually entail open political systems with accountability (and thus losing the current power and impunity), and, on the other hand, the model is suffering from unprecedented discrediting, eroded within the EU and beyond.

The fact is that in today’s fight in the Balkans over political systems and for the hearts and minds of peoples – and players such as Putin’s Russia and Turkey’s Erdogan are making headway in some corners. This could be the case in Serbia, demonstrated by opinion polls and the greater visibility of the ultranationalist and anti-European forces who are demanding “Savez sa Rusijom”: alliance with Russia. The EU is losing credibility, identified as it is – according to the social sector – with connivance and weakness towards the autocrats, for some, or the imposition of “foreign” concepts such as LGBT rights (that “Gayropa” idea which the Kremlin gets so much mileage out of, even in the EU itself), for others.

If Europe as a whole really wants to promote democracy in the Balkans, it cannot haggle over its own standards. It must be consistent, both inside and outside the EU. It has to change its relationship with the “untouchables”. Otherwise, it will remain beholden to these Balkan autocrats and their spiral of abuses, crimes and irresponsibility, importing them to an EU struggling for cohesion. Meanwhile, the Balkans will de facto strike off in different directions, a strategic black hole in Europe’s very midst.          

Francisco de Borja Lasheras is the Associate Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Madrid Office and the author of the recent paper, “Return to Instability: How migration and great power politics threaten the Western Balkans.” Follow him on Twitter: @LasherasBorja

This is an English adaptation of an op-ed published in the Spanish weekly, Ahora Semanal, on April 15 2016.

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