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Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Power of the People: The dynamics and limits of social mobilization in South Eastern Europe

Jessie Hronesova (D.Phil Candidate, St Antony's College, Oxford)

In 2013 and 2014 a wave of protests swept across South Eastern Europe (SEE) and Turkey, taking many by surprise. These events had been long in the making, nourished by similar grievances and disenchantments, though they were triggered by different immediate causes. Despite the fact that not enough time has passed to evaluate their consequences and legacy, an interdisciplinary symposium was put together by Oxford and London-based students to ponder over the lessons from these protests and put forward some tentative propositions about their consequences.

The symposium, organized on the 27th February 2015 at St Antony’s and St John’s College, brought together over 40 students and researchers from all over Europe (especially South Eastern Europe) with different disciplinary backgrounds and methodological approaches to the study of social mobilization. From media analyses of the Gezi protests in Turkey to visual representations of previous protest in Serbia in the 1990s, the day-long event examined the various practical, theoretical, and normative aspects of active citizenship and protests. The comparative nature of this symposium showed that the Balkans cannot be singled out as a worn-torn European periphery but is part of a much wider phenomenon.The conference was preceded by a book launch of a recently published book by Igor Stiks and Srecko Horvat about radical politics in the former Yugoslavia titled Welcome to the Dessert of Socialism: Radical Politics after Yugoslavia.

The keynote speaker Professor Michael Biggs, whose presentation can be downloaded and listened to here, started off with asking the most important question of the day: do protests actually matter in effecting change? His analysis of the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s demonstrated that there is a cumulative effect of different types of active forms of protests – in his study sit ins – and that they have a positive impact on influencing policy and legal changes.

The next two speakers on the keynote panel, Dr Igor Stiks and Srecko Horvat, discussed the role of the Bosnian protests and subsequent citizens’ plena, arguing for their potentially transformative role in conceptualization of more direct forms of democracy in the region. They stressed the negative role of external actors – especially the European Union – in the development of post-war Bosnian democracy by importing excessive and over-burdening market (in terms of an economic shock therapy), which was not suitable for the local context. In their exposition, the overbearing capitalist presence of neo-liberal models of Jeffrey Sachs has led to Bosnian mimicking of the Western approaches to economic growth without adjusting it to the social needs of the post-socialist and post-war Balkan reality.

In the remainder of the day, participants presented a broad expertise of papers in six different panels. The first panel concentrated on some historical cases of social mobilization in the former Yugoslavia and Serbia while the parallel second panel discussed more extreme types of social protests such as self-immolations or different types of radicalization like football hooliganism. In the afternoon sessions, the emphasis was on media and the role of new media platform of activating people but also on NGO work and its effect on influencing policy. Session 5 discussed the developments after protests – especially on the Bosnian and Turkish case, arguing for contained optimism in both cases. The last session closed up the conference by looking specifically at different methodological approaches to studying these topics, closing up with Dr Olga Onuch’s talk about a quantitative survey-based research on the Maidan protests in Ukraine in the winter of 2013 and 2014.

Overall, the speakers noted that there is a much more general – global – popular disenchantment with the current state of democracy and democratic leadership as well as some global phenomena resulting from the economic downturn.

The symposium was funded by the ESRC DTC and St John’s College, with contributions from SEESOX, St Antony’s College, and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL.

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