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Small is Beautiful: Citizens’ Movements Are Bringing Democratic Change to Balkans
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Small is Beautiful: Citizens’ Movements Are Bringing Democratic Change to Balkans

National politics in the Balkans may remain in the grip of a class of authoritarian male leaders – but local community initiatives are keeping a vision of transforming the region alive.

In most parts of the Western Balkans, politics seems to remain firmly in the hands of older male politicians, deeply entrenched in the party power structures and mostly engaged in fighting change and preserving the old.

However, even in these countries, the challenges are huge and are not made easier by the fact that the whole region remains volatile – and that a spirit of corruption, authoritarianism and power-politics remains vivid in so many parts of the Western Balkans.

On top of that, it has to be acknowledged, even if it hurts, that the European vision for the region has seen better days.

Some argue that the EU is rapidly losing ground in the region and is facing proactive and clearly anti-democratic competition from China or Russia.

If this is true, the question is what is happening with democracy, freedom, justice and equality – with all these principles that are the cornerstones of efforts to democratize and Europeanize societies.

And the answer is – they are still very much alive – within engaged citizens assembled around local initiatives, social movements, free and independent media, social businesses, free media, or simply within brave and courageous individuals.

We all remember the protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013 and 2014, the so called “Bosnian Spring”, when, for the first time since the 1992-5 war, Bosnian citizens actually felt able to exercise pressure on the responsible authorities.

They felt that a transformative power was an integrative part of their demands and that their joint uprising had the potential to lead to long overdue changes in Bosnia’s gridlocked political and economic systems.

It was in Bosnia that the new dimension of deliberation was practiced for the first time in the region – the citizens’ “plena”.

Even though the Bosnian plena in the end collapsed, it created new narratives that can be mobilized in future. It paved a way for new platforms for civic activism and encouraged people to initiate changes within even via small initiatives at a local level.

Many other protests and civic initiatives followed the Bosnian pattern of challenging corrupt and irresponsible authorities and demanding democratic change.

The “Colourful Revolution” in North Macedonia was one, as was the “Justice for David” [Dragicevic] movement in Bosnia and the “Ne davimo Beograd” (We won’t Let Belgrade D(r)own”) in Serbia.

What is also important are many recently established local initiatives initiated around very concrete and local problems.

The Rakita resistance in Serbia, for example, united villagers by organizing direct actions to stop the construction of a hydropower plant on the Rakita river.

The Brave Women of Kruščica movement from Bosnia was organized around similar issues. The resistance of citizens on Mt Sinjajevina in Montenegro is another example. In Albania, citizens stood up against the demolition of the old National Theatre in Tirana.

We could go on in listing and honoring all those brave, courageous, and engaged citizens across the region. It is precisely the local contexts that in a specific way are encouraging activism in the community, providing innovative examples of mobilization and organization.

These local initiatives manifest a will to democratize societies. Throughout the region, we are seeing great examples of people organising in their neighbourhoods, coming together to fight for their rivers, parks, and cities, overcoming the old ethnic narratives and divisions and recognizing themselves as citizens.

They represent a genuine call for democracy from the ground, and carry the potential for democratic renewal by opening up new avenues and methods for participation and democratic experimentation.

Whether they are bigger movements, smaller local initiatives or brave journalists standing up against “captured” states and societies,  they all share, nurture and fight for the idea of building a better, more just society. Like sparkles, put together, they will light up the Balkans.

Withing the Engaged Democracy Initiative, EDI, we have learned and exchanged with dozens of representatives of local initiatives from all across the region. Engaged citizens, local initiatives and movements throughout the region have shown that there is an energy and a will for change, and that people are ready to invest their time, as well as their integrity, in fighting for concrete changes and building trust within their communities.

The vision behind EDI is the joint engagement of local movements’ representatives, academic community, media and social entrepreneurship to foster the narrative that, Yes, we can benefit from networking throughout the region and, Yes, we can show that positive examples exist.

Throughout our participation in and exchange with civic initiatives in the region, we have learned to appreciate the power of equal, solidary and common action among individuals and groups without the old hierarchical and power games we all know by heart from the political arena.

Looking for a powerful metaphor for this kind of horizontal process of working and acting together equally, and without hierarchies, we rediscovered the term “rhizome”.

In biology, it stands for a plant stem that grows horizontally, often under the ground, producing a multiplicity of roots and leaves. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze used the positive connotations of the term and the metaphor to develop an entire philosophical concept of “rhizome”, focusing on principles of connections, multiplicities of our relations to other people, and also a principle of possible ruptures – even when a rhizome breaks it starts to grow again along its old or new lines.

This is what we want to achieve with EDI and what EDI stands for – establishing equal connections, sharing knowledge and experiences, showing solidarity with others and never giving up the fight for a better society.

Aleksandra Tomanic is Executive Director at the European Fund for the Balkans. Gazela Pudar-Drasko is Director at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade and a member of Executive Board at the Institute for Democratic Engagement Southeast Europe. Vedran Dzihic is a Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs (oiip) and a member of Executive Board, at the Institute for Democratic Engagement Southeast Europe.

The European Fund for the Balkans (EFB) and the Institute for Democratic Engagement Southeast Europe (IDESE) joined forces and created the Engaged Democracy Initiative (EDI).  EDI aims to involve local movements and organizations, researchers, social businesses, engaged citizens and journalists in a hierarchless and horizontal regional network (rhizome) for supporting, promoting and pursuing values of open, solidary and democratic societies across our region.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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