Protests from Maribor to Istanbul: Looking back at a year of demonstrations

graz 2014 protest FINAL

Here are some answers for an interview on the protests I gave to the Macedonian daily Dnevnik on the occassion of the conference “Rebellion and Protest from Maribor to Taksim. Social Movements in the Balkans” that will be organised this Thursday through Saturday by the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz.

What signal are the Balkans sending through these social movements: are they waking up, finally?

The protests accross the region, from Maribor to Istanbul show, that civil society is alive and well in many countries. Citizens care about public spaces, are concerned about corruption and austerity and resent the close links between business and politics. Of course, there is great variation in the size of the protests, their duration and their success. I would see the protests in Sofia as the most impressive display of public discontent this year. Their duration is spectacular and their participants are sceptical of the entire political elite, both government and opposition. When the target of the protests is so broad, unlike for example the building a shopping centre in a park as in Istanbul, it is often hard to sustain momentum. There are two clear messages that the protests send. First, citizens do not trust elites, they are seen as not representing the citizens, but private interests. Thus, the message is a call for more democracy and rule of law. Second, in some protests, the economic crisis and the difficult situation many citizens have found themselves in was either a central theme, or a trigger, like high electricity prices in Bulgaria. Overall, citizens in the region have endured much greater economic hardship than elsewhere in Europe without protesting. Economic hardship becomes a key trigger is when the difficult situation is combined with a sense of lack of fairness.

What do all this protests, as you described: from Maribor to Taksim, have in common?

Every protest is individual and has different causes and triggers. Yet, there is a larger pattern, that extends of course beyond Maribor and Istanbul: we have probably seen the largest wave of protests over the last two-three years around the world since 1989. These protests have taken place in democracies like Spain or Greece and in dictatorships like Libya and Syria. Most protests have taken place in the European borderlands of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe (see the current protests in Ukraine). The protests share a sense of frustration with being badly governed and having unresponsive elites. The promise of prosperity and better rule of Europe is close and thus seems possible. This has motivated many protests: the comparison of one’s own government with the possibilities close by. The economic crisis might not always be central to the protests, but the crisis has shed light on corruption and patronage—if there is less money to go around in times of crisis, bad governance becomes more obvious.

 Do you, as an expert, think that this is the right way for the Balkans to make their “dreams come true”?

Protests can achieve their own goal and still fail. Individual demands can be met, governments can resign—as was the case in Bulgaria in February—and yet fundamental change might not happen. Thus not addressing the roots of the problem that brought about the situation in the first place. The key is for protests to lead to institutional forms of civic engagement. I don’t just mean NGOs, but rather movements , political parties and also media that will carry the demands along. This is always a tricky moment, as those working through institutions might be accused of  “selling out” and some indeed might become regular politicians and abandon their original goals. On the other hand, the demands or the underlying grievances of the protests are often  too  large to be addressed right away. When change takes time, it cannot be achieved through protests alone and then invariable the question arises of how to pursue change and reform. A protest can have two functions: it can empower citizens, giving them the feeling that they can achieve change , in the words of banner from protests in Banja Luka to save Picin park, “You are not a slave of the system, you are change”

 What if their problems are not solved as they want and insist?

Disappointment is nearly inevitable: Firstly, protests movements include citizens with many different expectations. In fact, to be succesful a protest movement usually has to draw from different social groups with varying hopes and grievances. Observers noted that the protests in Istanbul brought together gays and lesbians, Kurdish activists, environmentalists and citizens who had not been previously active. They will all have different expectations of the protests and some will find their demands not met. The success or failure of protests is thus not only a function of whether the immediate demands are met, but rather whether the political environment changes—if those who went to the streets realise that they can achieve change and that institutions are responsive. This dynamic sometimes takes time to be visible. The protests in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-7 first seemed like a failure—Milosevic met the formal demands, but continued to rule like before. However, the revolution of 2000 was unimaginable without these earlier protests. Similarly, the protests in Taksim have been repressed with force by the Turkish government and at the moment it does not seem like they were successful. However, as a banner in Istanbul read, “This is just the beginning!”, “From now on, nothing will be the same again!” We do not know what the next form of protest will look like in Turkey, but it clear that many citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo and demand not just a different government, but a different style of governing—and this is a common feature across the region.

A European Journey from Zagreb to Graz

In Graz, everybody discussing Southeastern Europe, including myself, is eager to point out that Zagreb is closer than Vienna. Of course, this might be true in terms of kilometers, but not necessarily if measured by hours travelling. If you take a car, the journey for the less than 200 kilometers is a quick two hours, but if public transport is your choice (or not) things look different.  If one wants to travel directly between the two cities, there is a bus at 6 am, a train at 7.30 and finally one more bus at 23.00. These take a breathtaking four hours to Graz (average speed 50 kilometers per hour)

Those not lucky to catch these trains or buses will have to take a slightly longer journey, as I did today.

The not-too-friendly at the ticket counter give me a flyer with my connection predicting an sobering 7 hour journey. I got on the intercity “Sava” from Belgrade to Munich. I remember the cars of the Yugoslav railways, when I took them for the first time 20 years ago, back than surprisingly how new they were. How could the Yugoslav railways (the Yugoslavia which was just Serbia and Montenegro) have new cars, when everything around it was collapsing, under sanctions. Now, the cars looks appropriately worn. The Yugosphere is alive and well with exchange of crude graffiti between supporters of Delije and Ustasha in the toilets, where they belong.

At the border, the Slovenian carina official kept shouting at a hapless Bulgarian “nešto za prijaviti” and the other passengers gladly repeated after the customs official in both Serbian and Croatian prijaviti, prijaviti. The customs official got increasingly aggressive amidst his disbelief that this word could not be the same in all world languages (or at least all of the ones spoken in the Balkans). After all this, is a Schengen border, the EU begins here and displaying good old habits marking ones national sovereignty with rudeness are now Europeanised.

A friendly Serbian waiter came shouting through the car “restaurant arbeiten—restauran radi”, but not enough time before Zidani Most, a little hamlet in a valley between Celje and Ljubljana. When I first changed trains here two decades ago, I thought I had arrived in the wild gorges of the Balkans, but it is only a charming train stop at the end of the Alps. A place nicer when driving through than when stopping. Mentally preparing for an hour stay here, a train rolls into the station that my Croatian timetable kept from me. Stopping in every village to Maribor, I might even arrive earlier in Graz. Maribor is only an hour and a half away from the stony bridge and Boris Kidrič continues to welcome new arrivals.

An elderly lady sells a little knitted Slovenia map, another one offers a  little kitchy cityscape drawn (or rather burnt) on wood and as additional incentive to make the purchase, engraved on top “Maribor European Capital of Culture 2012”. A few colorful cubes mark the main squares and a two car rail bus slowly moves towards the border, Spielfeld-Strass. In order to honor Maribor become cultural capital, the train connection between Graz and Maribor, some 50 kilometers apart has been cut down to two direct trains a day (despite “EuroregionMaribor-Graz and nice headlines such as Graz and Maribor are getting closer together in the local newspaper).

At the border, the two trains approached each other like for a cold war prisoner exchange. The Slovenian train and the Austrian train meet head to head, spit out their passengers and took the ones from the other side. Nobody was left behind. So when the local train (called Wiesel or in English Weasel) pulled into Graz, it took only five and a half hours instead of the feared seven.

Thus, one year before Croatia joins the European Union, getting from Zagreb to the European capital of culture 2012 and on to Graz is a journey at an average speed of less than 50 kilometers per hour, taking not much more time than the journey did over 100 years ago. My Baedeker Austria-Hungary from 1905 tells me that it take two hours from Agram to Steinbrück (Zidani Most to Zagreb today, one and half hours ) and around three and a half hours from Steinbrück to Gratz (today anywhere between two and a half and three hours).

After the five and a half hours, four trains, three changes, and two cultural capitals, Croatia’s EU integration felt like a virtual world, far removed from the stuffy, torn up trains that make this a journey at the borders, not the centre of Europe as it should be.

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