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Monday, 23 December 2013

Summer of discontent: Citizen unrest and the politics of protest in Southeast Europe

Kerem Öktem (Open Society Research Fellow, European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, Oxford)

The summer of 2013 has been marked by significant citizen mobilization almost all over Southeast Europe. The mass protests of Istanbul's Gezi Park and Sofia's Orlov Most stood out. Yet, as we discussed in the workshop 'Citizen unrest and the politics of protest in Southeast Europe', discontent with populist politics and incomplete democracies had been building up all over the region over the last few years. As Gwendolyn Sasse (Nuffield) and Michael Willis (St Antony's) suggested, neither the Eastern and Southeast European protests, nor the Arab Spring uprisings can be understood as sudden outbursts of frustrated segments of society. As a matter of fact, protests don't just happen, they always have a pre-history, as one participant stated. In all cases discussed, a certain path dependence explains how popular discontent is translated into action or the lack thereof. In Algeria, for instance, protests did not take hold despite immediate proximity to Tunisia and economic problems as pressing, because the memory of the destructive Algerian Civil War is still very much alive. In this pre-history, a series of factors matter: From the levels of public sector employment to the content of IMF rescue packages, from public trust prior to the protests to forms of party mobilization, protests are shaped by these factors.

The discussion of these factors was also at the heart of the panel exploring the case studies of Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey and the Western Balkans. All cases share a level of commonality: The triggers of protests are linked to the political economy, structural adjustment gone wrong and populist modes of politics. Yet, there also marked differences. Othon Anastasakis argued that the unraveling of the social contract of the post-junta years and the demise of Greece's 'rigid family capitalism' was coupled with a loss of sovereignty and the capacity to reform. Protests, as Anastasakis emphasized, are not always progressive, they can also take on a proactive-regressive character, as is the case in racist anti-immigrant violence, which has become virulent in Greece (as well as in Bulgaria). Dimitar Bechev (ECFR Sofia) explored the low levels of legitimacy of political actors in post-socialist countries and suggested that the lack of media freedom and high levels of state-capture in Bulgaria coincided with a step too far of the current government (the since then recalled appointment of media mogul Dejan Peevski) in crossing 'redlines of decency'. Kerem Öktem, in his contribution, discussed the question of the impact of large scale social protest and concluded that much of the initial 'Gezi spirit' (egalitarian forms of politics, gender equality, solidarity with other groups) has dissipated due to government scare tactics on one side and the appropriation of the political moment by existing political parties and movements on the other. Milos Damjanovic (St Antony's College) explored a closely related issue and the question why protest has become much less pronounced in Serbia and the Western Balkans. His answer may be a prognosis for the other case studies, if not a welcome one. In Serbia, a country with a history of mass protest, too many people have seen how little the impact on politics of citizen protest tends to be. Relative passivity can hence be explained as a result of dashed hopes from the past.

The workshop concluded with a panel dedicated to students, who have been present at the protests in Istanbul, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia or witnessed them from afar. Their detailed observations and insights brought to the fore the great transformative potential of social protest but also reminded us of the challenges they face if that transformative potential is to be translated into political change.

Summer of discontent: Citizen unrest and the politics of protest in Southeast Europe (Convened by Othon Anastasakis and Kerem Öktem, 28 November 2013)

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