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This presentation builds on some of my recent work on activisms in the post-Yugoslav space, including ongoing collaboration with Bojan Bilić, and touches on my work on Europeanisation and social policy in Croatia, a collaboration with Siniša Zrinščak. Much of it derives from a recent text on Activism in Croatia which appears in the latest issue of the Croatian journal Polemos. I realise that what I have to say is, at best, tangential to the core themes of the conference and the panel and, certainly, does not look at ‘impact’ as it is usually understood in terms of a linear process of a affecting b. I ask you to bear with me as I explore a slightly different set of questions, relating different waves of what I term “associational activism” in Croatia with different phases of the country’s relationship to a European and European Union imaginary. If it helps, the good news is that I will not take long and, since I live in Zagreb, the organisers incurred no financial costs in getting me here. We will all survive what I have to say, and be able to resume our business as usual after I have finished. In exploring what I term the narratives, shapes, claims and practices of three waves of activism in Croatia at the interface of, broadly speaking, peace, human rights, gender equality and social and environmental justice, I am wondering out loud whether, and if so how, it matters that these coincide with three very different phases of Croatia's relationship to the European Union. Please bear in mind that I am arguing not in terms of causality but rather coincidence or, more accurately, in Foucault’s terms, homology. In the European Union, a lot has changed since late 2004 when Jeffrey Rifkin published his book The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream, seeing the EU, in contrast to the USA, as a beacon of light, ushering in a “new age of inclusivity, diversity, quality of life, sustainability, universal human rights, the rights of nature, and peace on earth”. Living within Angela Merkel’s new European nightmare of disciplinary austerity creating what Slavoj Žižek has recently called “a divided Europe” with one part “reduced to being a zone with a cheaper labour force, outside the safety network of the welfare state, a domain appropriate for outsourcing and tourism” and where “the gap between the developed world and those lagging behind will exist within Europe itself”, is taking us further away from the dream. Luckily, dreams take longer than this to be erased from the memory, so that a kind of ‘cognitive’ or better ‘ideational Europeanisation’ is still occurring, including in Croatia, in which actors, including NGOs and citizens’ movements are more conscious of, more vocal about, better networked around, and more successful in advocating for, certain agendas such as gender equality, social inclusion, and environmental justice, even if the price to pay for ‘EU-isation’ is incorporation into a certain, narrow, technical, managerialist, expert-led, projectised and bureaucratic frame.
But I am jumping ahead here. Let me return to the three waves of activism in Croatia I mentioned earlier. The 'first wave' refers to the various anti-war initiatives which emerged in the Croatian space in the early 1990s, primarily the network of individuals, groups and projects around the „Anti-war Campaign, Croatia“ (ARK). What is, perhaps, of most interest is the argument, best expressed by Bojan Bilić, that the wider anti-war engagement of the period “appropriated the already existing activist networks which were created as a result of trans-Yugoslav political co-operation”, notably 1968 student protests (I would add the Croatian spring of 1971), feminist initiatives from the 1970s and environmental and peace activism from the 1980s. As well as being an antidote to the notion that ‘civil society’ was brought to the region by USAID in 1991 or so, this work of historical recovery points to both the continuities as well as the breaks in activist scripts in newly independent Croatia. Conceived as ‘a network of networks’, ARK can be interpreted through a number of different lenses, as a set of interlinked friendship and solidaristic networks; as an example of civic courage, ‘speaking truth to power’ in terms of keeping alive certain basic values; as a living experiment and site of intense learning which, particularly in its magazine ArkZin, managed to combine a new aesthetics and a new politics; and as initiating explicitly semi-autonomous spin-offs working on diverse aspects of a practical and conceptual response to the wars and the rise of authoritarian nationalisms. The European Union, disengaged politically and involved only in providing humanitarian assistance, was largely irrelevant, although the movement’s embracing of the values of ‘European civilisation’, at a time when they were least in evidence and, indeed, when the trope of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’ and ‘Balkan backwardness’ were being used to justify non-intervention, is striking. The second wave includes some of the ARK spin-offs, and refers to the more professionalised and projectised 'Non-Governmental Organisations' under the influence, to an extent, of external donor funding and preference for particular organisational forms and structures. This coincides with a conjuncture in which the European Union moved from a distant utopia to an achievable technocratic goal. In this conjuncture, far from over, the shape of activism tended to be squeezed, more or less willingly, into a narrow organisational form with real effects on its transformative power. I do not want to be (mis)understood as suggesting that activists completely lost their ‘cutting edge’ in this period: just consider the significant, continued, impact of Platform 112 in shaping the terms of the debate about whether Croatia should be judged as ready to join the European Union. However, as the older generation of activists were joined by those trained in 'capacity building', 'leadership' and 'project planning and management', the idea of a 'third sector' - neither state nor private for profit - as a site of employment, with a particular structure, shape and trajectory, tended to dominate. This was not, for many activists, a move from politics into technocracy; rather, it was the setting for a new kind of ‘technopolitics’ of the kind needed to benefit from significant European Union and other funding, in the form of what Aida Bagić termed 'NGO-isation' tending to reward particular kinds of organisations concentrating on „issuespecific interventions and pragmatic strategies with a strong employment focus“. 2
I have caricatured the second wave, primarily because what is both interesting and, perhaps, surprising, is the rise of a 'third wave', a new group of interlinked activist initiatives and movements including the Zagreb Philosophy Faculty student protests and the Right to the City movement active against the building of a shopping centre in Varšavska in Zagreb, and now against the building of a golf resort in Srđ, Dubrovnik. These movements emphasise struggles against commodification, crony capitalism, and the erosion of the right to public space. Many activists in the third wave oppose Croatia's European Union membership, bringing, therefore, a sense of the need for a different kind of utopia. According to Srećko Horvat and Igor Štiks, the rise of a new, organised, original and critical left in Croatia, influenced by the Arab spring, by anti-austerity movements in Greece, Spain and elsewhere, and opposed to neo-colonial forms of EU disciplinarity in South East Europe forces us to „rethink the categories used to explain the social, political and economic situation in the Balkans“. What are we to make of their argument that the movements are anti-regime, critical of the linkages between political elites, businesses, media corporations, organized crime, predatory (foreign-owned) banks, corrupt judiciary and, most interestingly of all, „corrupt unions“ and „NGOs promoting the holy union of electoral democracy and neoliberal economy“? For most third wave activists, I suggest, the NGO shape is, either irrelevant, part of the problem, or a useful means of attracting project-based funding which can then be used for wider political aims. These ‘new spaces of protest’ are, perhaps, more like ARK in terms of being hotbeds of learning and laboratories for action, more than opportunities for employment. Beyond these simplifications, the message here is that it is dangerous to generalise about associational activisms outside of time, space, scale and focus. It is to question the universalising logic of the discourses of civil society and NGOs, therefore. It is also to recognise, in the words of Leonard Cohen that “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. One current focus, in work with Bojan Bilić, is on LGBTQ activisms where one finds, simultaneously, aspects of NGOisation and more radical, experimental, and political alternatives. In the end, my ongoing research suggests that the kinds of scripts that develop during formative social action tend to be relatively resilient, even in the face of changing political, institutional and historical conditions. The complexities of whether these scripts are locally, nationally, regionally or globally formed, and how these (dis)junctions are lived, is also important. I have suggested that the discursive frames, the modes of analysis, and the repertoire of responses within the three waves of activism in Croatia are sufficiently different as to merit more research. The challenge remains to build associational activisms which combine radicalism and inclusivity, and to create more spaces for genuine inter-generational learning. The really great thing is that social action and social change was not killed off by NGOisation even if, for a while, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ became somewhat conflated. To quote a recent text on peace-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Nebojša Šaviha-Valha, “technology should not be a substitute for, but has to be a 3
complement to, a fundamental understanding of underlying processes and structures in order to make a change in the system”. I am not for a moment suggesting that this is news to any of you; rather that the need for praxis, as the dynamic imperative of social change, is, sometimes, left out of the logical frameworks within which we operate. Thank-you.
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