​The re-birth of the left in the post-socialist Balkans

  • July 22, 2021

Movement & Mobilization

A new Balkan left is struggling against the post-socialist predicament, the disasters of capitalist restoration and the chronic crises that plague the European periphery.

Protest against the austerity measures in Maribor, Slovenija – 9 March 2013. Photo: Uroš Abram.

On the morning of 15 April 2009, students of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb interrupted classes to declare a blockade of the premises. What began as just another student strike against the rampant commercialization of higher education would become the day the left was born — or rather re-born — in the post-socialist Balkans.

Inspired by a short-lived student occupation that had taken place in Belgrade in 2006, the students in Zagreb organized their struggle around a goal (free education), a method (blockade and occupation), and a form (plenary assembly, or the plenum). This cocktail, along with enthusiastic support extended immediately from a variety of civil society, academic, intellectual and cultural actors in Croatia, as well as across the region, transformed this student occupation into a political earthquake.

The student occupation foreshadowed all the hallmarks of the new Balkan left: a broad alliance of left-wing and progressive actors, a struggle for the commons (in this case, education), the elaboration of anti-capitalist critique of the post-socialist condition, and last but certainly not least, the use of horizontal and participative democracy.

Dreams of a humane capitalism

Anyone vaguely acquainted with the interminable “transition” of post-socialist societies towards free market economies and liberal democracies since 1989 will recognize at once how out-of-place and even shocking these events in Zagreb were to people in this region, where both the ideology and modern political movement of socialism were meant to be fated to the dustbin of history.

The collapse of the socialist bloc had not only wiped entire political systems off the map, but also the organizational structures and cultural traditions of socialist and communist labor movements. Literally overnight, the advocacy of movements for solidarity and social equality — including the struggle for free health services, housing and education — was subject to political, social and cultural marginalization. The material symbols and ideology of former regimes were hastily erased through the destruction and removal of monuments, the re-naming of streets and changes in public vocabulary.

Socialist regimes differed considerably when it came to their origins, political organization, social and economic policies and methods of repressing dissent, but collectively they came to be seen as an unwanted historic break, an aberration alien to national traditions. The global zeitgeist of the 1990s, generally dismissive of socialist ideals, bordered on anti-communist hysteria in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

A rage against Stalinist paternalism and oppression involved also a historical revisionism that in some countries was open, or only barely veiled, in its reaffirmation of collaborationist, fascist and Nazi movements and personalities. The domino-like collapse of socialist regimes eroded any notions of possible alternatives, or of a path for these societies now stuck between the defeat of state socialism and the triumph of neoliberal capitalism.

Student protest march against the announced external testing in higher education, Skopje, Macedonia – 17 November 2014. Photo: Vanco Dzambaski.

No one spoke any longer, as former dissidents had, of “socialism with human face,” as everyone hoped instead for “capitalism with human face” — something closer to the image of Swedish social democracy in its heyday than to the deep social inequalities of British and American societies. Either way, the idea of a society based on solidarity and social and economic equality, and thus on a critique of capitalism, had no role to play in this new world order. The proclamation by neoliberalism that capitalism is the “only game in town” and the liberal delusion of the “end of history” both echoed instantly in parts of the Balkans, in Romania, Bulgaria and Albania; and, after a series of devastating wars, in the countries that once formed Yugoslavia.

Not infrequently, elements of the former communist nomenklatura stood in as a new comprador bourgeoisie. Together with political newcomers who were brought to power on the shoulders of democratic movements, they rushed to privatize and even shut down entire industries. The economic and social problems that ensued were primarily interpreted as consequences of previous socialist mismanagement, and by no means as the result of privatization policies and market deregulation, which were understood and accepted by almost everyone, from politicians to scholars, as the only plausible approach to economic strategy.

Even 30 years after the end of socialist regimes in the region, significant portions of the political, intellectual and economic elite, but also much of the general public, still argue that capitalism in its pure form has simply not yet found its way to Southeastern Europe. To explain the pain and misery experienced by a majority of the region’s population in the post-socialist decades, we continue to be told that the culprit is actually “bad capitalism” tainted by clientelism and corruption, which is blocking the development of a true, fair competitive capitalist economy.

Sometimes this is framed as a problem of the post-socialist — and especially the “Balkan” — mentality, but at other times it is the “communists” themselves who are said to be the real puppet masters, deeply hidden within state structures and still actively fighting against the capitalist mode of production.

A political vanguard of social discontent

Only since the early years of the 21st century has new space opened for the critique of neoliberal capitalism and its global consequences, as well as for the social and political articulation of new progressive and left-wing movements and parties.

At the same time, neo-Marxist theories of state, economy and society, previously stifled by intellectual silence, resurfaced with a momentum that could not be ignored even by neoliberal media, especially after the financial crash of 2008.

In this way, the biggest economic crisis of our time — the effects of which are felt to this day, well into this new crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — created a mental and political space for a new global discussion; making it possible to imagine alternatives to “disaster capitalism,” rising inequalities, the environmental emergency and diminishing democracy. The 2008 crisis quickly reached the post-socialist Balkans as it resonated around the world, and the student community, which had already raised its voice against the commodification of higher education (in protests and occupations of the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade in 2006, and in Zagreb in 2008 and 2009), formed a political vanguard in their articulation of social discontent.

In order to understand the emergence of ideas, actors and organizations on the left in this region, it is important to distinguish between the post-Yugoslav space, in which the resurgence of the left is most developed, and other post-socialist Balkan countries such as Albania, Bulgaria and Romania. The reasons for this are historic, but also cultural and linguistic. Despite the brutal break-up of Yugoslavia, the societies of former republics, with the partial exception of Albanian-speaking Kosovo, are still bound by having shared a state, a common language — spoken in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but understood by most Slovenians and Macedonians, many of whom use it — and personal and professional ties.

Moreover, when it comes to the left, another crucial difference separates these once-Yugoslav states from other former socialist countries, as Yugoslavia’s self-managing socialism was arguably the most prosperous socialist state in the 20th century. The Communist Party of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito, enjoyed significant popular support, having formed the most successful anti-fascist movement in Europe, almost single-handedly liberating Yugoslavia from the Nazis and then separating from Stalin’s USSR and the Eastern bloc in 1948.

Combined with Tito’s charisma, the independent and influential foreign policy of Yugoslavia (especially through the Non-Aligned Movement), the rapid modernization of almost the entire country, elevated standards of living, the self-management system — including workers’ control of factories and firms via economic democracy (although never fully realized) — and free movement and open borders helped build a legacy that has prevented the political left and this socialist history from being entirely delegitimized and demonized in post-Yugoslav countries.

Obviously, this differs markedly from Albania, where society almost collapsed after decades of isolationist rule under Enver Hodxa; Romania, which must yet come to terms with the legacy of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s dictatorship, and its brutal end; and Bulgaria, still facing the troubled legacy of its own socialist regime.

The appearance of the new left

As noted, the 2008 financial crash and its global nature facilitated a gradual re-popularization of anti-capitalist critique — in the media and public sphere, but also through various social and political actions — after two decades of near absolute dominance by neoliberal and right-wing ideologies and actors. When the new left appeared on the scene, its ideas were immediately met with broad interest, curiosity and even support among populations exhausted by years of capitalism, neoliberal restructuring, austerity, mass violence and discrimination against minorities, extreme nationalism and authoritarian ruling elites.

In post-Yugoslav states, citizens had experienced a series of devastating wars in the 1990s that claimed up to 130,000 lives in campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass atrocities and war crimes, with millions more displaced, leaving them without homes and jobs. Post-war “recovery” had come in the form of privatization campaigns, offering lucrative deals for foreign companies and banks and giving rise to a new economic oligarchy, tightly connected with and often indistinguishable from the post-socialist political elite. What remained of the economy, and any domestic production capacities, was diminished or destroyed by de-industrialization, privatization and import-based trade.

This imposition of a capitalist mode of production, the enforcement of destructive privatization policies, and the progressive dismantling of any remnants of the welfare state have had a lasting impact on societies in Southeastern Europe. The partial exception to this rule is Slovenia, the only country in former socialist Europe that took a different “transition” path in the 1990s and early 2000s. Still, the entire region espouses an economic strategy based on attracting foreign direct investment and, where possible — such as in Croatia and Montenegro — on “touristification.”

Protest of students from the University of Art in Belgrade and the University of Belgrade, Belgrade, Serbia – 27 November 2009. Photo: Luka Klikovac

To seduce foreign companies and overcome neighboring states in the race for this foreign investment, corporate taxes have been reduced, wages subsidized or cut. However, in most cases, the jobs that result from this investment are in the low wage sector and are either short-term or of an uncertain duration.

It was these conditions, coupled with the global recession, that ushered leftist thinkers and ideas back into the public forum and made it possible for a re-birth of the left in the post-socialist Balkans. To define this new post-socialist left, though, we must clearly distinguish it from both the “old” communist and the “established” post-socialist left.

In former Yugoslav republics, the “old left” refers to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, established in 1919 as the Communist Party of Yugoslavia and renamed in 1952 to reflect its new anti-Stalinist spirit. The League was progressively federalized along with the country itself, from 1945 to 1990, until it disintegrated amid internal nationalist tensions into its federal components. In each Yugoslav republic, the League of Communists was then formally replaced with what we are calling the “established left” of the post-socialist period, which simply rebranded as “social-democratic” or “socialist” parties while fully embracing parliamentary multi-party democracy and a free market economy.

Some of these parties were defeated in the first democratic elections in 1990, as in Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Macedonia; yet would sometimes win later elections in all these countries. In some places, these parties held power until 2000, as in Serbia where the autocrat Slobodan Milošević was eventually deposed through popular uprising; but his Socialist party of Serbia soon regained ground and has participated in every governing coalition since 2008. And in Montenegro, the Democratic Party of Socialists ruled the country for three decades until 2020, when it had to cede the government to an opposition coalition; however, at the time of this writing, its founder and leader Milo Djukanović remains president of the country.

The ideological shift of these nominally-left parties towards the center, and their acceptance of neoliberal doctrine, is now complete. At best, they have become “third-way” parties; at worst, they have moved decidedly to the right, keeping the symbols of the left, such as the color red, but becoming immersed in nationalist rhetoric and warmongering, as with Milošević and his SPS. Nonetheless, all of these parties have retained significant support, largely due to persistent emotional and ideological attachments to the “old” Party. In some countries, this is also driven by opposition to nationalist and conservative right-wing politics. Indeed, except where Milošević’s legacy continues to blur the right-left divide and plague any attempts at genuine leftist politics, these parties are generally seen as non-nationalist and more open to the demands of ethnic or sexual minorities.

Thus, it is mostly the neoliberalism of this “established left” that is contested by the new left, which also takes a critical and balanced look at the “old” communist legacy, tending to praise this “old left” mostly for its social achievements, especially its generous welfare provisions, which so sharply contrast current capitalist realities.

The new Balkan left: internationalist and eurosceptic

So, what is the new Balkan left? We use the term here to encompass not only organizations that openly define themselves as belonging to the left but also progressive political and social movements that share many if not all the values and goals of the left. In other words, we are referring to events, actions, initiatives, movements, groups and actors that are not necessarily a clearly defined and fully organized political entity. Further, some social injustices lead to expressions of indignation and opposition in which protesters do not openly align themselves with the left.

That said, a variety of social actions, public engagement and protests, as well as the radicalization of some protesters and parts of the general citizenry, have contributed to the rise of the new left and to the dissemination of its core tenets, which can be summarized as:

  • A critique of electoral democracy, coupled with experiments in or advocacy for direct, participatory and horizontal democracy;
  • A critique of the neoliberal capitalist transformation of post-socialist societies that has resulted in gaping inequalities and massive unemployment and poverty;
  • A critique of the conservative, religious, patriarchal and nationalist ideological hegemony that has accompanied and facilitated that     transformation;
  • A defense of common, public and natural goods and resources, including remnants of the socialist welfare state, against privatization and     profit-oriented exploitation.
  • An internationalist, anti-nationalist and antifascist approach to the Balkan region.
  • A critical reappropriation and application of Marxist theories, in connection with international intellectual debates.
  • An open resistance to widespread historical revisionism in the region related to the course and outcome of the Second World War and its ideological implications for contemporary Balkan societies.

The new Balkan left can thus be found where we encounter these ideas, attitudes, behaviors and rhetoric. It continues to develop in a region now divided into EU member states (Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria) and EU aspirant states (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo), with the European Union encircling these non-member Western Balkan countries in a sort of ghetto in the midst of Europe.

Despite its internationalist view, the position of the new Balkan left towards the EU oscillates between critical reservation and rejection. Some of the left’s growing scepticism about the EU and its institutions can be attributed to the Troika’s authoritarian policy towards the Syriza government in Greece, which had served as a beacon of hope to many across the Balkans, but even more sobering has been the social and economic hardship suffered by so many in EU member states.

One study found, for example, that in 2015, the difference in GDP between the poorest EU member state Bulgaria and the two richest countries, Luxembourg and Denmark, was 1:14 and 1:7.6, respectively — meaning that EU accession had not delivered immediate recovery to new post-socialist members. At best, it has brought much-needed infrastructural funding to some states; but a lack of anticipated post-integration economic growth has pushed tens of thousands of people to leave their countries. Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria are all losing their populations at rising rates, and a similar migratory pattern is now impacting Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia.

In new member states, EU accession has also failed to contain the threat posed by neo-conservative, nationalist and right-wing political actors, some of whom openly employ historical fascism to inspire support. The trend to institutionally accommodate revisionism regarding the history of the Second World War is particularly worrisome in Croatia, where it is strongly promoted by neo-Ustasha and radical Catholic organizations; but also in Bulgaria, where right-wing extremists often populate the government. And in EU candidate Serbia, the collaborationist Chetniks have been officially redefined as a “second antifascist movement” alongside the Partisans.

It should be of little surprise, therefore, that the Balkan left perceives the EU with ambivalence. Nevertheless, in Balkan EU member states, actors from the new left do take part in European Parliament elections and are working to form pan-European alliances.

The challenge to bring real change

There is no question that the new left has stepped on to the political, social and cultural stage in the post-socialist Balkans. Its first success is simply its very existence. Against all odds, this new internationally-connected, Balkan left, in all its forms, is prepared to struggle against the post-socialist predicament, the disasters of capitalist restoration, and the chronic social and economic crises that plague the European periphery.

The re-birth of the left was a surprise in this region, marked by a legacy of defeated socialist regimes, a disintegrated Yugoslavia, brutal wars, ongoing nationalist conflicts, a punishing capitalist “transition” leading to deindustrialization and impoverishment and demographic devastation.

While the Balkan left has been relatively ineffective when it comes to institutional politics, some notable successes should be underscored. It has formed plenums that functioned as citizens’ assemblies and developed movements struggling for the urban and natural commons. It organized significant street protests, subversing nationalist, conservative, patriarchal and neoliberal hegemony. Finally, in Slovenia and Croatia, the left now has a say in national and municipal parliaments — most notably with the election of the green-left candidate Tomislav Tomašević as mayor in Zagreb in May 2021 — where it opposes not only nationalist right-wing forces, neoliberal pressures and liberal currents, but also centrist social democracy.

Nonetheless, any achievements of the new Balkan left must be tempered by the reality that it is, in most Balkan countries, at best, a vocal marginal force and, at worst, almost non-existent. So far, except in Slovenia and Croatia, the left has met failure or only fragile success in its attempts to build a sustainable, wider movement or stronger political parties that are truly capable of challenging the established order or influencing municipal, regional and state politics. Across the region, many social movements remain local in character or were initiated as an explicitly local response to a concrete problem.

Still, despite the diversity of issues these movements address, it is safe to say that they all tackle two main dilemmas: the appropriation of urban and natural commons by political and business elites, and the exclusion of ordinary citizens from decision-making processes.

As has been true elsewhere and was certainly the case in previous eras, the new Balkan left has traveled here and there, traversing various forms of radical resistance and activist experimentation, confronting ideological infighting to build coalitions and affect institutional politics. In the 2020s, the potential of the Balkan left should be maximized through better networking, greater public visibility and the more effective exchange of knowledge and experiences across the region.

If the Balkan left wishes to effectively address the conflict between capital and labor in the region, and struggle proficiently for social emancipation and democratization, it will have to impose itself as a fully-developed social, cultural and political actor. It must be capable not only of offering sophisticated analysis and critique, creative protest and emphatic indignation, but of bringing real change to the Balkans.


This is an edited version of the introductory and concluding chapters of The New Balkan Left: Struggles, Successes, Failures. The book, co-authored by Igor Štiks and Krunoslav Stojaković, is freely downloadable here.

Krunoslav Stojakovic

Krunoslav Stojakovic is the director of the Belgrade (Serbia) and Tuzla (Bosnia-Herzegovina) offices of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/new-balkan-left/

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