The period that followed the disappearance of the communist regime was marked by economic hardship and political instability all around the Western Balkans. However, the hope of becoming members of the European Union made people disposed to accept the sacrifices said to be required by the transition to a neoliberal economy and liberal democracy. But the 2008 financial crisis followed by the EU crisis saw people in the region less and less inclined to see the closing of companies, the illegal privatizations, the destruction of public services and the backsliding of democratic institutions as an acceptable price. Popular protests have been erupting in most of the Western Balkan countries since then, starting with a focus on a specific problem but usually quickly expanding to protest against the general situation.
Pavle Bogoevski from the Colorful Revolution in Macedonia, Dobrica Veselinović from “Ne Davimo Beograd” in Serbia and Nikola Baketa from “Croatia Can Do Better” tell their stories.
Balkanoscope:How did you get involved in the movement?
Pavle Bogoevski: It is not something you become part of. It happened after years of human rights activism. I decided to go to the street after our president abolished the prosecution’s investigations [against politicians from the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party for diverse crimes including corruption and electoral fraud, ED.]. The unfortunate violence happened at the first protests and that was not what we wanted… There was no leader in the Colorful revolution but there was still a need for vertical structure, managing the crowd and having security. So, several of us got together and worked on how to manage the crowd better. We came up with the idea of throwing paint at buildings and after that, the worst that happened was three broken windows.
Dobrica Veselinović: I have been involved in civic activism for years, I have initiated and participated in various initiatives concerning the availability of public space, citizen participation in the development of the city and also in the field of independent culture. So getting involved in confronting one megalomaniac project like Belgrade Waterfront [an urban development project on the river bank in Belgrade, including a mall, a skyscraper and luxurious apartments, Ed.] was a natural extension of my interests in the city and urban policies.
Nikola Baketa: I was part of the GOOD Initiative for some time before the whole story regarding Croatia can do better (Hrvatska Može Bolje) started. The main focus of the initiative is the introduction of education to citizenship in the Croatian school system. Besides that, we were monitoring the whole process of the curricular reform and advocated inclusive education within that reform. When minister Šustar and the new Government started to suffocate the whole process we decided that it was necessary to react.
Balkanoscope: How did your implication affect your life?
PB: People were scared of the VMRO-DPMNE. At the beginning, only half a dozen people were throwing paint and most were wearing masks. I knew someone had to show his or her face to encourage other people to join us. So I did. Almost immediately, pro-VMRO media published my name and my home address. There were posters of me in the city saying that I was a traitor. It was a direct call for violence. I have not opened my Facebook messages for months because it is full of threats. I just ignore it. Now I am facing prosecution for throwing paint at the building of the Ministry of Culture.
DV: The change in my life was almost complete. I faced various pressure and defamation in the media, I was the front-page of tabloids, accused of trumped-up affairs, went through financial shocks… And I am facing twenty various misdemeanours and trial.
NB:I was already involved in different initiatives and actions so I was familiar with the civil society scene in Croatia. However, this was one of the largest protests in last 25 years in Croatia (40,000 people gathered in Zagreb and thousands in other towns on 1st of June 2016, Ed.) and I met a lot of wonderful people who selflessly contributed in the organization. There was around 10 of us in the core group, but we had broader support within different spheres of the society (civil society, teachers, academics, artist and so on). The positive energy among people, spark of hope and new friends were the biggest gains. Since this was a very peaceful protest and most of the public described it (some even criticized it) as civilized, there were no troubles with the justice system as far as I know.
Every movement differs in its organization, its goals and strategies. But those movements have proved that traditional political institutions have lost legitimacy and that people are still ready to stand up against their policies (or lack of). Yet, the lack of organization or of clear leadership is as much a strength as a weakness and citizens’ movement cannot be enough to bring change. The capability of developing or transforming the street protest into a different kind of pressure can be essential to determine its success.
Balkanoscope: What happened to the movement? To You?
PB: The Revolution achieved something. In the three months, we were protesting, the abolition was retracted, the elections were postponed and Nikola Gruevski (ex-Prime minister and leader of the VMRO-DPMNE, NDLR) was indicted. If you look at the broader picture, it was not an immediate success. Many things remain to be changed in the country. For my part, I have been elected to be a member of the Parliament. It is a proof that our movement was far from being a failure. Five members of Parliament, including me, are sitting as independent. That is a big change.
DV: At this point, we are having a very serious discussion about the directions and further development of our movement. Of course, after more than two years fighting against Belgrade Waterfront, we are starting to feel the limits of the range of civic engagement and of this type of operation like Ne Davimo Beograd, but we also feel pressured to continue like this. Will the initiative turn into some kind of political movement, that remains to be seen. I can be satisfied with what we have achieved so far, although, as always, we can be “faster, better and stronger”.
NB: After the protests the Government resigned (not as a direct consequence of the protest) and there were new elections. The same parties formed the new Government with the new Minister of education. This brought different problems in focus and they promised that the curricular reform will be continued. However, we are aware that they are still stalling. Since the Croatia Can Do Better was a platform that brought together different organizations and worker unions around one specific goal we were unable to broaden the requests of the platform. Thus, organizations within the GOOD Initiative continued to follow policy process and develop specific tools (such as Education whistle which is focused on mapping weaknesses of so far implemented educational reforms and projects while establishing a critical space of reflection and analysis).
Balkanoscope: How do you feel about the future?
PB: What we need now is a democratic system with balances and independent powers. The fight has gone from the street to the Parliament. There is no reform possible in Macedonia as long as the VMRO does not lose power. We have to make Nikola Gruevski lose in his arena and change the practice of politics. And if I fail, I expect my friends to throw paint at me.
(Ed: Since the interview with Pavle Bogoevski, VMRO-DPMNE lost power and a coalition led by the main opposition party, SDSM, is now in charge. It is the first democratic change in power in more than ten years)
DV: I am very satisfied with what was achieved so far. As this couple of days shows (with the demonstrations against the results of the presidential election of April 2nd 2017, NDLR), we have managed to awaken hope in people and to show that it is extremely important to be rebellious and clearly and loudly express our view on how our society is evolving and where we are going. What will stay is that energy that feels channelling and articulate in some other policies.
NB: After the protest, education became one of the main policy topics and it was in focus of the last elections. This was a big success since before that it was mostly a neglected topic. However, there is no progress regarding curricular reform and most of the leading roles within the education system are in hands of right-conservative people who obstructed the whole process. This leaves us unsatisfied, but we are trying to influence decision-making process and to provide quality inputs in order to show all deficiencies of the current establishment. We are aware that this was not a sprint and we are ready for the marathon.