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.

Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy

The riots (called civil unrest by Al-Jazeera) are not “criminality pure and simple” as David Cameron called it. Of course, they are criminal and I have no sympathy for those committing the looting and violence. However, characterizing them just as a crime fails to capture the context.

2011 is the year of social movements, from the Arab spring to mass protests in Southern Europe and lately in Israel and now in the UK. The social movements have their origins in the global economic crisis. They might be triggered by the hopelessness of the poor as in Tunisia, the dim prospects of the shrinking middle classes in Israel, Spain or Greece or the lack of perspective for “youth” in many parts of the UK. Of course, not all types of social movements and types of expression are equally legitimate or understandable, but they have similar origins.

Looting is in many ways the most appropriate expression of a social movement in the UK. British society has struck me as more consumer-oriented than in any country I have lived in (save possibly the US), definitely beating the rest of Europe. Shopping is the fun activity to do on Sundays. If you are feeling down, you go for “retail therapy”. If you are politically active, you do or do not buy some product or from some company. Looting is taking a social trend to the logical conclusion where there are members of a society are less and less citizens and increasingly only consumers.

The second striking feature of British society in contrast to most other European countries is the latent and often open violence and aggressiveness or a particular social group (mostly defined by age and social background), visible on Friday and Saturdays in any given British town or city. The often tense and distinctively unpleasant atmosphere in British high streets as dark falls stands in stark contrast to most European down towns. The violence in recent days of course by far exceed this everyday violence and aggression, but those provide the subtext which made the large-scale violence possible.

The riots and looting have been coupling these two trends, a consumerist violence to express an dissatisfaction of a social group which seems unable to clearly articulate either the exact nature of their disgruntlement or the cause (besides the police, the Conservatives and the state in general), but they are sure angry.

While it is a first step to recognize that an underclass exists in the UK that feels like it has little to loose and is socialized to believe that consumerism (including consumerist violence) is both a means of political expression and outlet for grievances (retail therapy of a different type). What is needed is a broader debate about social cohesion in the UK, how consumerism replaced other forms of social engagement and the manner in which public displays of aggression are more acceptable than elsewhere.

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