Tuesday, June 11, 2013

mixed messages from the balkans




The protests that spread from the relatively small and rather underused Gezi park in Istanbul to a host of cities and towns throughout Turkey are not likely to overthrow the AKP government. As I was pointing out in another note, the demonstrations had a dual effect. On the one hand they were an indictment of the the arrogance and contempt for dissenting opinion displayed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and an expression of increasing unease at the way the party has been introducing issues of public morality in the political agenda as new alcohol regulations and the Ankara Metro protests indicate. And, it is becoming increasingly clear that they constituted a condemnation of the alliance of the AKP with particular corporate elites that seem to benefit from the capitalist development model the party has promoted. On the other hand, they inadvertently exposed the irrelevance and lack of vision of the opposition parties.

The protests are likely to fizzle out, the AKP will probably stay on to complete its full term in office but the events will have left an indelible mark on the Turkish political system; different factions (and personalities) within the AKP but also within the 'secular' opposition will be reflecting on this outburst of social protest and the reaction of Turkey's political class to it.



At the very same time Turkey was experiencing the shockwaves of grassroots politics, Bosnia-Herzegovina was witnessing the emergence of a protest movement that was largely overshadowed by the magnitude of the protest in Turkey. Sparked by the case of baby Belmina Ibrisevic, whose life was endangered as obstructionist tactics in the parliament meant that legislation necessary for the production of the documents that would allow her to travel abroad for treatment was not forthcoming Bosnia's Baby Revolution stirred the stagnant waters of the country's byzantine politics. Within days several thousand protesters were outside the parliament demanding that their representatives abandoned grandstanding and passed this and other legislation that would start addressing some of the pressing needs of the citizens.  Just as in Turkey, a 'localized' issue became the rallying point for a broader protest movement which, notably, has transcended ethnic lines. The Sarajevo protests were followed by protests in the towns of Prijedor, Banja Luka, Mostar and Zenica conveying the message that ethnic politics and divides can be overcome by a sense of common citizenship forged in the process of the pursuit of solutions to common problems and challenges and, ultimately, of a better future.

The mood in nearby Macedonia, on the other hand, is not upbeat. The governing VMRO-DMPNE is preparing for the grand finale of its Skopje 2014 transformation of the country's capital. I have commented elsewhere on the controversial character of the project, so I will just point out that the project does not possess only an aesthetic component as the government often suggests but constitutes an intervention in the social imaginary of the country as it constitutes a veritable exercise in grafting a particular kind of memory, of history, in the physical space upon which social imaginaries are built. In a way reminiscent of Turkey, after over a decade in office, VMRO-DMPNE has grown arrogant and has sought to discredit and criminalize dissent and opposition at every opportunity. Recent examples include the new law on abortion, welcomed by the Orthodox Church and placating ultra-nationalist factions within the party, concerned at the demographic decline of the Macedonian nation which was passed by the narrowest of majorities, and the storming of a Skopje City Hall municipality by supporters of the government-approved plan to build an imposing Church in Skopje's Centar after rumours that the city's new, opposition, Mayor, Andrej Zernovski was planning to demolish it. The polarization of Macedonian politics was echoed in the slogans used by the mob who called the mayor's supporters “Communist Scum!” and “Muslims!”.

But here the analogy with Turkey's political turmoil ends. Despite the inventiveness of grassroots movements in Macedonia, the prevailing mood is one of resignation. There is no sign of a robust response to the massive and ambitious intervention of the government ideologues in everyday life and the erosion of spaces where dissent and difference can be articulated.

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