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Waving ‘Democracy’ From Ukraine to the Balkans

Slovo14 February 2014

Anti-government demonstrations in Bulgaria, revolution in Ukraine and now the uprising in Bosnia – Nikolay Nikolov looks at the common trends across the Eastern European unrest and examines the critical juncture of these facade democracies.

Some time ago now (1991), Samuel Huntington published The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. The idea is that democracy spreads around the world from its core countries in Europe and the US, where developed over a long period of time, eventually extending to the peripheries, which experienced quick transitions from various forms of non-democratic regimes to ranging paths of democratization. Post-communist countries were the third-wave final push with their unseen before dual transitions to a market economy and initiation of democratic processes. The Arab Spring and the easing of the Myanmar dictatorship tickled some to consider the rise of a potential Fourth Wave.

But back in 2002, Michael McFaul sealed the term ‘Fourth Wave’ in a World Politics journal article called ‘The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship’. And dictatorship. This is really important. In fact, scholars of democratization like Larry Diamond, Guillermo O’Donnell, Ivan Krastev, Andreas Schedler, to name but a few, have been arguing for a very long time that to speak of waves, of linear progress to democracy and consolidation is empirically and theoretically false. What we see in Eastern Europe, for example, are façade democracy, suspended political authority, lack of civic engagement, media manipulation, questionable (post)Cold-War geopolitical relations – in a word – hybrid regimes, to use Diamond’s term.

Bulgaria, Ukraine, and now Bosnia and Kosovo. A clear path from peaceful protests to chaos and bloodshed. In Europe. Twenty-four (or so) years after the end of the various forms of totalitarianism.

At certain moments, all these nations showed signs of ending their democratic standstill. In Bulgaria, it was the ‘region’s most hailed’ reform period from 1997-2001; in Ukraine, it was the Colored Revolution; for Kosovo and Bosnia – the situation is more complex. But one thing is for certain now, according to Anne Applebaum, the ‘colored revolution’ model is dead: i.e. “the belief that peaceful demonstrators, aided by a bit of Western media training, will eventually rise up and nonviolently overthrow the corrupt oligarchies that have run most of the post-Soviet orbit since 1991.”

The sense of shock and disbelief at what happened in Kiev over the past months has spread to Bosnia and Kosovo last week.

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Government Building ablaze in Tuzla

Bosnia is ablaze since Tuesday, when violence erupted in the northern town of Tuzla, a former industrial town, after 10,000 workers were laid off. Their factory was privatized – its investors sold its assets and declared bankruptcy. This, as it seems, was the final straw to an arrogant oligarchic model visible in many post-communist countries. Since then, the protests have spread to more than 20 cities and at least 300 people have been injured. Yesterday, when the municipality building was set on fire, police-officers in Tuzla took their helmets off and joined the protests claiming they “could not hurt the kids”.

Today is a day of clearing the rubble. But it seems that a breaking point has been reached as the monument of the burnt architecture of all that which resembles the ‘corrupt and unaccountable State’ remains.

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

Photo: Lyla Bernstein

“We haven’t seen violent scenes like this since the war in the 1990s,” says Srecko Latal, an analyst at the Social Overview Service, for the New York Times. Why now? Why not 6 months ago; why not one year ago? These are question that were directed at the protests in Bulgaria, which reached their largest numbers in the summer. Clearly, the situation is so dire that either nothing or anything could trigger public outrage. In Bulgaria, it was the atrocious appointment of corruption-linked and manipulative- mass-media owner Delyan Peevski, that really did it. It seems that in Bosnia – it is the factory closure in Tuzla that has done it.

Over the past years, the country has suffered one crisis after another – political instability have reduced its chances of joining the EU, ethnic divisions are crippling the functioning of democratic institutions, economic hardship has been sustained by a powerful (un)official oligarchic model. Around 30% are unemployed. Many do not have the time or the energy to sustain a peaceful protest and endure a slow, cultural progres towards a functioning democracy and economy.

Of course violence cannot be the answer. It’s destructive. But desperation clearly takes precedence over dialogue in this case. As one student from Tuzla, Lyla Bernstein, told me today: violence is not the answer but ”just the product of collected rage” gathered over the past twenty years. It’s simple – for the people protesting, the assumption of patience is nonexistent. And it is understandable. There is a level of tolerance that is, as has been shown over and over again in the 20th century, very flexible and malleable among human beings. But it has its limits. And within the Balkan countries this year, the sense of tolerance has been exhausted by the outright public arrogance of the Untouchables – call them mafia men, ex-communist, business elites. It makes no difference. Their capacity to flaunt their economic dominance is one thing, but their increasing ability to enforce their political and legal immunity is apparently too much. It has been, for a long time, a fact that democracy is very dysfunctional. People know that and that has been reflected in enduring low-confidence in the public institutions and voting-rates. Bulgaria is the perfect example. But you can look to Bosnia or Albania as well: all countries where the discourse of corruption and ‘the mafia’ has become ubiquitous.

In Kosovo, it was another matter that reached the breaking point of this sense of tolerance. In Pristina, students occupied the University seven days ago. They have been protesting for weeks after reports showed the Head of the University, among other scholars, to have published articles in fake online journals looking for academic credentials. The Parliament subsequently failed to pass a vote on forcing the resignation of the Head of the University. Clashes became violent on Friday as students threw stones and splashed paint on police-officers in Pristina.

In line with Bosnia, Kosovo is hard-hit with soaring unemployment rates (around 40%) and is often reminded that it is one of the poorest countries in Europe since gaining independence six years ago.

And like in Bulgaria, where the ‘Early Rising’ students occupied the Sofia University (twice) in the past 3 months, the message is the same: ‘Enough. Enough with the circus that the government can claim legitimacy, that the judiciary system is free and fair; this cannot continue any longer.

Unlike Ukraine, a country divided into pro-European western Ukraine, and Russia-dominated eastern Ukraine, where #Euromaidan was a direct reaction to steps taken to further isolate the nations from the EU and where the fight is, literally, one of life and death, with clear sides and clear visions of the future, Bosnia and Kosovo and the current signs of violence are a case in point of something else. They have no normative ideal, like the EU for the protesters in Ukraine, which can be emulated; no vision for the future that looks hopeful. The transition period is widely regarded as a fiction only benefiting ‘the few’; and by extension democracy does not literally mean democracy, as it is construed as a mechanism for personal gain and independence.

In Ukraine, the fight is over destroying the foreign influence of a political system; getting rid of the post-totalitarian continuation of the old totalitarian practices.

In the Balkan nations, the fight is about changing the system from the inside. But how can that be done when the people who attempt to do it are marginalized, excluded, silenced, and finally, met with force. In Bulgaria, the biggest weapon against those wanting to rip of the façade of the pseudo-democracy, those who are forcing reform, is the manipulation of the media and the alteration of the truth. Truth is not objective and access is limited. I can see something similar present in Bosnia as the media today are suffocating the public discourse with reports of ‘drug-abuse’, ‘looting’, ‘theft of important archives’, ‘vandalism’.

Bulgaria is in the EU and change is slowly happening, mostly from above with increasingly pressure by the President and, more importantly, by the European institutions. The seven-months long daily protest movement has not as yet managed to force the government’s resignation but has been firstly ignored, then excluded, then ridiculed, and all through-out lied about in the media. Logically, the numbers since the summer have fallen and there is a growing sense of helplessness. But the protesting citizens are not alone; like the protesting citizens in Ukraine are not alone. That does not amount to much, as can be clearly seen today, but it is something that is not present, it seems, in either Bosnia or Kosovo. There, the feeling of desperation at the state of their societies and the feeling of being isolated and alone, is clearly overwhelming. It has lead to a violent escalation. It has brought the international community’s attention back to them. How successful it will be in forcing change is a difficult question, but there has to be a start somewhere. Progress has a point of initiation and that point usually comes with civic (re)engagement.

One thing is clear – democracy does not flow linearly forward. In fact, in many ways it has been altered by the given post-totalitarian regimes, in order to continue the practices of repression from the past. Under the loose notion of democracy, different elites seem able to continue to dominate – either economically, and/or politically, and/or culturally; the one thing they all do is perpetuate the existential crisis caused by the emptiness of the individual transition periods. From Ukraine to the Balkans, the last twenty-four years (give or take) have been an almost uninterrupted period of preaching that yellow is green. “Here, now you have a democracy;” you are free now!” is the visible stream, while the underwater current has been one of underwriting each and every single democratic institution, atomizing individuals through economic hardships and bad politics, and reducing freedom to pseudo-political independence.

So what is a potential step-forward? Realizing just how deep this underwater current runs in the given society; understanding just how much of a façade there is, how much of a hybrid regime one is facing, and after that really getting back to the basics of democracy, literally: ‘rule (kratos) of the people (dēmos).’ One such initiative that is gaining ground in Bulgaria is an initiative boycotting buying goods from the corporate ‘corner-shop’ Lafka, which is co-owned by Head of the National Security Agency to be Delyan Peevski. Another is the student occupation, which gained incredible public support (almost 80%) after its initiation last year. This seems to be working in Pristina as well but we should wait and see how that develops over the coming weeks.

When the government is unaccountable, when there is an oligarchic economic model, when the media are not independent, when you are a poor European nation, the only way to overcome the incredibly diverse forces of post-totalitarian repression is to actively, collectively, and in a decentralized manner, negate, oppose, ridicule the status quo. Alternative paths to reform need to be tried out and peaceful resolution, obviously, requires precedence. A counter-discourse against the alteration of truth in the public domain must pursue – Facebook seems to be a successful tool for that, for now. That has already happened in Bulgaria and Ukraine. The next step is national engagement – we can see that currently happening in Bosnia. Eventually, the forces will become too strong. The biggest obstacle of isolation from the political process and the reduction of democracy to pseudo-elections can be overcome. One thing that is certain is that when change is forced through, it will not presuppose progress immediately. It will, however, level the playing field, initiate a process of political healing and jumpstart the institutionalization of democracy. One step at a time.

By Nikolay Nikolov

For more from Nikolay visit http://banitza.net/

 

Breaking from Bosnia: Ethnicity in Critical Condition Due to Self-inflicted Wounds

Slovo11 February 2014

0,,17418743_303,00 In the past few days, Bosnia-Herzegovina has experienced the most extensive unrest since the end of the war in 1995. The demonstrations were markedly violent in the first days, but on Sunday acquired a more peaceful nature. Milorad Dodik tried to argue that the protests were limited to the Muslim-Croat Federation and thus were the product of problems specific to the Federation, very subtly hinting at the superiority of Republika Srpska’s political achievements. Unfortunately for him, this argument does not stand up to scrutiny, as the main frustrations the protestors have been giving voice to are related to the overall impotence and inherent corruption of the country’s political system as it came into being after the Dayton Accords of 1995. The various lists of demands released by protest groups from Tuzla, Bihać and Sarajevo all specifically state that the protests are opposing the self-enriching policies of the political elites, the reality of which is just as true for Republika Srpska as it is for the Federation.

Indeed, protests got underway on Friday in Banja Luka and in Bijeljina on Sunday – the capital of Republika Srpska and its second city, respectively – indicating that the inhabitants of that part of the country identify with the struggle of their neighbours in the Federation. Although these early signs of solidarity between the people of the two entities are encouraging, it is not a decided matter at all if things will continue to develop in this direction. The demonstration in Bijeljina was met by a counter-demonstration of Serbian nationalist youth chanting “No protests in [Republika] Srpska” and “No spreading fire from the Federation of BiH to Republika Srpska” (atvbl.com, 9 February), a sign of tensions within Republika Srpska and a possible hint at future confrontation. Still, the unprecedented cross-country protests may just galvanize the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina and be the start of the development toward a more inclusive social, political and economic system.

The international community has an important role to play in channelling the protests into positive, rather than destructive, directions, and the attitude of ever more populist EU/NATO governments will be based to a significant extent on the opinion of their electorates. It is for that reason that I want to give a short overview of the reactions to the demonstrations by some of the largest media, both populist/tabloid and independent/broadsheet, from several different EU countries, as well as the United States and Norway. All translations into English, wherever relevant, are mine. The countries represented are: the USA, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria and, finally, the UK.

In the United States, CNN blames the rampant unemployment most of all, while the New York Times identifies the incompetence of the federal and local governments to overcome petty inter-ethnic struggles as the cause of people’s disenchantment. Surprisingly enough, even Fox News puts the focus on protesters anger over politicians’ inter-ethnic quarrelling.

In France, Le Monde writes that “the origins of the dispute are not ethnic, not religious, but political and social.” (lemonde.fr, 8 February) Le Figaro puts the blame on the disillusionment of people caused by corruption and political in-fighting.

In Germany, the tabloid Bild does not report on the protests at all; Süddeutsche Zeitung focuses on people’s mistrust of the government and anger over widespread unemployment and poverty; Die Welt mentions political stagnation and the inefficiency of the system with a manifoldness of government agencies; while the subtitle of the Frankfurter Allgemeine article from 10 February is: “The social unrest in Bosnia is the largest since the war. For the first time these protests are shared over ethnic borders.”

In the Netherlands, the broadsheet NRC explicitly states that the protests are not caused by ethnic antagonisms, while tabloid De Telegraaf names unemployment and political impotence as prime causes of the protests, without mentioning ethnicity. De Volkskrant and Trouw echo this analysis.

In Norway, Aftenposten focuses on socio-economic dissatisfaction and both semi-tabloids VG and Dagbladet blame corruption and unemployment.

In Austria, populist Krone sees the failure of Dayton and unemployment as the sources of the demonstrations, Kleine Zeitung zooms in on corruption and Kurier finds fault in the en-masse privatization of companies, poverty and the self-enrichment of politicians.

Finally, in the UK, the Daily Mail does not report on the protests, while the Daily Express starts out unpromisingly with the title of the article: “Hundreds of police hurt protecting government buildings as Bosnia’s civil war rages on” (9 February). It then pulls a personal emotional quote relating to the 1992-1995 siege from a Sarajevo resident and gets somewhat constricted in its terminology by talking about the “Croat-Muslim Bosniak half of the country” (either Muslim or Bosniak, but not both). All the same, it goes on to mention that there are some protests in Republika Srpska as well and that the demonstrations seem to be caused by disillusionment with the political system. How they are a continuation of the Bosnian civil war, we are all left to wonder, but this is besides the current point. The BBC gives an in-depth report of older Bosnians joining the young protesters to fight for the latter’s future, disproving the possible assumption that it’s just young hooligans out there. The Guardian specifically ascribes the origin of people’s disaffection with the system to the ethnically divided construction of the state and notes the protest in Banja Luka.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Image courtesy of Reuters/Dado Ruvic

It is clear that all of the surveyed media locate the origins of the demonstrations in people’s disillusionment with the system as a whole, even though the depth of analysis varies. I am thus cautiously positive about the reporting of the international media so far, seeing as not a single one of them represents the causes of the protests as illegitimate. But most importantly, none of them see the protests in terms of ethnic hatred. Most of them explicitly reject this possibility, while some even discern signs that these protests might just overcome inter-ethnic suspicions and bind the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina together in a struggle for a better life, as many seem to realize that the ethnic division of the country is one of the main reasons that got them into this mess in the first place.

If the people are swayed by the media and the governments are swayed by the people, it seems that Bosnians might just get some actual support in the right direction this time around.

By Joris Zantvoort

Sochi 2014: In Anticipation of Disasters?

Slovo7 February 2014

Winter Olympic Games

There is this rather worrying trend with news: media loves disasters, global or personal. Failures, catastrophes, accidents, public embarrassment or someone’s dramatic tabloid undoing following a chain of scandalous events… The astute modern thinker Alain de Botton brings this media fascination with disasters to a decent analysis in his latest book The News. An equally curious phenomenon, he says, is how often we find disaster stories incredibly uplifting and exciting. So it is of no surprise that media garlands of socio-economic disaster stories, i.e. the embarrassing infrastructure of Sochi, its ignorant mayor and LGBT discrimination in Russia, overshadow the Sochi Winter Olympic Games this year.

The Olympic rings are seen in front of the airport of Sochi, the host city for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics

Some 2014 Winter Olympic Games slogans, which satellite the event:

“Sochi mayor tells BBC: no gay people in our town” (bbc.co.uk)

“More Olympic-Linked Furor Over Russia Anti-Gay Law” (abcnews.go.com)

“And the gold medal for the most vile thing at Sochi goes to . . .? (Clue: it’s not Putin) Olympic visitors’ horror at hotels awash with stray dogs, brown water, bugs and no light bulbs” (dailymail.co.uk)

“Baffled Olympic journalists tweet surprising, gross finds” (euronews.com)

“Sochi: Hotel Horros Haunt Olympic Journalists” (hollywoodreporter.com)

 

The Games, commencing on February 7th and running until February 23rd, are hosted by Russia’s biggest resort-city – Sochi. Gracing the lush Black Sea coast, this longest city in both Europe and Russia has come to be known colloquially as the summer capital of Russia. Its famously overcrowded beaches of infinite human bodies, without a penny to be dropped, definitely support the expectations one would have of such a place. That is to say, it isn’t your average provincial Russian town. But as with many “peripheral” places in Russia, anything which isn’t Moscow pretty much, they remain a very different world – a phenomenon that some find as shocking as fascinating. In Russia, one doesn’t need to go on a gap year abroad to experience “the exotic Other”. One doesn’t need to wait for the Olympic Games in Sochi to realise that infrastructure is not a Russian forte. But then, of course, an ambitious project in a country as rightfully known for its space pioneering is just asking for trouble if things go wrong.

What about the problem of gay rights in Russia – big news, anyone? It’s been like this for a good number of centuries, bar Lenin’s de-criminalisation of gay rights. It’s understandable that a glamorous national event seems a good place to start… crashing the classical satellites of Olympics: national pride, ambition and success. Yet, the event is also inter-national, in fact – a leading global international event.  The anti-gay propaganda law against promotion of homosexuality to minors has been passed on in the run-up to Olympics, causing a global resonance, boycotting and petitions to cancel the Games in a country, which is clearly too barbaric and intolerant. Yet, it’s fascinating to see things in perspective, with the World Wars being the only times when Olympic Games have been suspended; the Cold War period limiting the participation of the athletes. Let’s sincerely hope, that none of these are happening at the moment (at least not yet, or at least only subtly…).

The Olympic Games, set to celebrate the possibilities and splendour of human bodies internationally, have become exceedingly politicised, an excuse for media’s spilling of all held-back opinions over the years. It has long stopped being the peaceful ancient ritual of human achievement, uniting the five inhabited continents in the intertwined bewilderment of the Olympic rings. Dare I say, it seems somewhat out of place to mingle the Olympic Games with LGBT rights, essentially sport and sex. Not to say, that LGBT policy is unproblematic in Russia. But as a topic about relationships (no matter what kind), essentially sexual in nature, should it define the games and by default the sportsmen involved? It is a known amongst professional sportsmen that psychologically and physiologically sex is a disarming expenditure of energy, detrimental to success in sports. Many coaches prohibit intercourse, as well as expression of sexuality, for some time prior to competitions. Sex is about love, relaxation and leisure. Sport is about competitive anger, tension and hard work. The clue, from an American athlete Marty Liquori, seems rather simple: “Sex makes you happy, and happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile”. I guess my point is that it is rather unfair (and ironic) to sexualise the Games, as it is unfair to pose next to collapsed curtains in your hotel room in Sochi. Come on, you’ve been waiting for it! But then again, it seems, it’s not the first time media has been anticipating disasters and problems with such glee. Citius, Altius, Fortius!

By Eugenia Ellanskaya