The Struggle for the Commons in the Balkans


In the coming weeks LeftEast will be featuring texts prepared by the working-groups of the Balkan Forum. This week’s text addresses the growing struggles for the commons in the region. The Balkan Forum’s commons working group consisted of: Danijela Majstorović, Georgi Medarov, Dubravka Sekulić, Vladimir Simović, Tomislav Tomašević and Danijela Dolenec (coordinator).

This paper was prepared for the 2nd Balkan Forum that took place on May 12-14, 2013 at the Subversive Forum in Zagreb. The forum aimed to open a space for social movements in the region to discuss common strategies of resistance and viable alternatives to the current social, political and economic model. Our Working Group analysed the potential of the commons both as discourse and as praxis in forwarding these alternatives.

In this paper we first offer a brief theoretical introduction to the concept of the commons, advancing a critical political approach to its understanding. In the second part of the paper we relate the concept of the commons to an outline of key features of the political economy of post-socialism in the Balkans, while in the third part we present some existing social movements and examples of popular resistance in the region that could be related to the concept of the commons. We conclude by suggesting ways in which the commons could be advanced as a political project for the Left in the Balkans.

Concepts, history and evolution

The commons is becoming a key theoretical concept used by the Left as many authors recognise its unifying potential for many on-going struggles that challenge the current political and economic system. The term ‘commons’ has historically been used to denote natural commons like land and pastures that were used in common. This was the case in England until around the 16th century when the process of enclosure started. Linked to Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, enclosure was fundamental in the formation of capitalist relations because it concomitantly secured the landless labour class and the initial accumulation of capital. However, Harvey (2003) argues that this process of enclosure happens continuously in capitalism, describing it as ‘accumulation by dispossession,’ essentially capturing an on-going process in which the logic of capital extends to ever new domains of society. This can take the form of land grabs and enclosures of previously community owned resources or privatization of formerly public services such as healthcare and education.

In the Balkans, as a European periphery, it may be argued that accumulation by dispossession has been the driving force of expanding capitalist relations, pushing struggles for the commons to the centre of political mobilisation. The current politics of austerity and the accompanying drive for privatization and commodification are jeopardizing public governance both of natural resources such as water and land, and of publicly managed services such as education, healthcare, or the media. Today, across the Balkans many social spheres are exposed to demands for privatization and pressured into demonstrating their short-term economic value, while private ownership is invariably presented as a superior solution. It is against these circumstances that various social movements have emerged across the region, and it is in this context that we aim to develop the commons movement as a political force which questions the fundamentals of current economic relations and proposes progressive alternatives to the status quo.

The concept of commons was introduced to mainstream social science by Elinor Ostrom. From the early 1970s she studied hundreds of cases where local communities managed natural common pool resources, like forests and fisheries, without the interference of either market or state. She wanted to contest Hardin’s (1968) infamous concept of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ which claimed that the only way to avoid the destruction of natural commons was through government regulation or privatisation. Ostrom (1990) showed that there were many cases where communities succeeded in sustainably managing commons without state regulation or private property regimes. However, her work only entered the mainstream when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2009, for challenging ‘the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatised’ (Nobel Prize Committee, 2009). More recently, she expanded her theory from natural to social commons, like knowledge, providing social movements with new arguments that oppose privatisation and experiment with social innovations.

Notwithstanding this, it needs to be noted that Ostrom envisioned the commons as complementary to the existence of markets and states, and that she did not take on a structural critique of capitalist relations. She relied on rational choice institutionalism, analysing individual agency and the successful overcoming of dilemmas of collective action, which is an approach incapable of recognising macro-structural drivers like accumulation by dispossession, which systematically encroach on the commons all over the world. In that sense, we need to build on the legacy of Ostrom’s work, but in a direction that will affirm the values of radical democracy, material sustainability and egalitarianism without forgetting to critically examine capitalism as a site of exploitation and domination. We propose to develop the theory of the commons by securing its link with the Marxian insistence that capitalism be analysed as a mode of production (Dolenec and Žitko, 2013).

The commons have been defined in many ways, but for us it is important to define them as a political concept. Following Harvey (2013), the commons are “about how we develop a common purpose.” Contemporary debates have found it useful to distinguish between the environmental commons, i.e. the natural physical wealth that humans inherited, and the social commons, i.e. the knowledge, culture and other immaterial wealth that humans created (Ostrom i Hess 2007, Hardt 2012, Harvey 2012 and others). While the struggles around the natural commons are based in a deep awareness of material constraints to human life on this planet, the digital commons movement tends to disregard these constraints, and is often less critical of the underlying structural fundamentals of capitalist relations. Similarly, Hardt (2012) notices the different logic between social movements that fight for environmental and those that fight for social justice. Anti-capitalist movements for social justice, which put forward claims that do not have scarcity constraints are as a result more autonomist and longer-term oriented towards radically changing the system. Conversely, environmental movements are engaged in commons which are limited, which makes them more state-oriented in order to regulate their use and more short-term oriented because of urgency of environmental threats like climate change.

A commonality among all these movements is that they oppose property relations, since both material and immaterial commons are destroyed by capitalist property relations. The potential for uniting these types of movements seem particularly fruitful in the Balkans, where currently both types of social movements are growing and there is a need to establish a common platform for action.

A minimal common denominator around current commons movements is that they are critical of neoliberal capitalism and representative democracy. Localising this to our region, new democracies in the Balkans were seen as inept and prejudiced, having ‘remarkably few legal, political, and civic skills’ and there was an almost ‘evangelic belief’ in imposing democracy from above (Knaus and Martin 2003), as a much needed ‘noble experiment’ (Denitch 1996: 60). In effect the political transformation was accompanied with the restoration of capitalist relations, which has not been subjected to serious criticism. No government to our knowledge has been held responsible for the toxic recipe of liberalisation and privatization that contributed to de-industrialisation, high unemployment rates and increasing poverty across the region. A thorough analysis of the political economy of post-communist societies in the Balkans must subject the economic policies of the last two decades to serious criticism, which is why this platform is all the more important.

A radical critical conception of the commons


Citizens protesting in Zagreb’s Varšavska Street, holding up letters that spell “odustanite!” (resign!).

Sometimes the commons are defined as a new sphere that will supplement market and state to buffer both market and state failures. Many initiatives in the commons movement look towards reducing the reach of markets into various social domains, but they are not proposing to transform the underlying logic of capitalism (Dolenec 2012). We propose to advance those strands in the commons movement that reject this conception of the commons as a kind of ‘third way’ (Mattei 2012, De Angelis 2012), refusing to blunt ‘their revolutionary potential and legitimate claims for a radical egalitarian redistribution of resources’ (Mattei 2012:42). Similarly, while sometimes commons are seen as leading to autonomist efforts far removed from the state, for us the transformation of the state is part of the solution; its power must be grasped to be used in the socialist project of expanding the commons.

It is in direct confrontation with the state that we transform public goods into commons. For Helfrich and Bollier (2012) the distinction between these concepts is not in the property regime, but in the fact of effective social control. According to them, public goods are those resources, which are effectively controlled by the state and not by the people, which means that they are usually for the benefit of state elites and not for the people. Harvey (2012) distinguishes between public goods and commons, similarly but differently, through the medium of political action. For example, public space is the space of political power exercised by the state and not necessarily accessible to all, like homeless people for example. It becomes a common space through political action that contests this space like in Varšavska Street in Zagreb, Picin Park in Banja Luka, Peti Park in Belgrade, or Syntagma Square. For Harvey, the commons are inherently political and they are always contested.

De Angelis (2012) warns that capitalism can use the ‘commons fix’ for its further growth, focusing our attention on the need to use the commons to create a social basis for alternative ways of articulating social production. Commons are, in this conception, a vehicle for claiming ownership over conditions needed for life (social and biological) and its reproduction. Therefore, we have two tasks: to defend commons from new enclosures and to create new commons as they become a crucial terrain of struggle. According to De Angelis, ‘whether the avenue ahead is one of commons co-optation or emancipation is not a given.’ Therefore, one should always take a critical position towards the commons and not romanticise them. Communities as commons can be non-democratic and oppressive so we should not use the commons universally as normative, but rather as an analytical, critical and political concept. Harvey (2012), for example, warns how sometimes enclosure of commons by the state could be in common interest, like in the cases of enclosure of Amazonian rainforest by the state to protect it. It is always the question of who will benefit from the commons. We should examine commons critically, on a case by case basis and use it as concept for uniting common struggles but not as a panacea.

Balkans as the European periphery

The post-socialist Balkan states share a common trajectory from socialist to capitalist societies on the European periphery. In the late 1980s socialist countries began the transformation to capitalism and, unlike the on-going attack on the public sector in Western European countries, in our region capital started to spread to all spheres of society, permeating at the same time both the productive and the public service sector.

The last decade of the 20th century in the Balkans was marked by the dismantling of the socialist heritage, privatisation, and implementation of market reforms. The immediate effects have been a dramatic fall in production, rise of unemployment, rapid impoverishment of a large part of the population and the enormous enrichment of a small privileged elite. After a steep decline, the level of GDP Slovenia was the first to reach a level of GDP achieved in 1989 (in 1998). However, some countries such as Serbia and Macedonia are still way below the 1989 level and there is no indication that they will be able to reach this level in near future. Slovenia’s more favourable position is influenced by stronger trade unions, gradual privatization and slower deindustrialization in comparison to other post-socialist countries – banks, public service sector and some parts of infrastructure in this country were not privatised and a low rate of local currency allowed competitiveness of domestic goods in the international market. In the period between 1991 and 2004 Slovenia was not in a better position in comparison to the other post-socialist countries because of its skills in adopting to capitalism but because it had preserved some socialist elements (Krašovec 2013).

The process of restoration of capitalism was almost always followed by lower taxes, such as taxes on corporate profits, or the introduction of a flat tax rate, under the pretext of liberalizing the economy and attracting foreign investors. But even when investors came, it was often because of cheap labour, low taxes and low environmental standards, as well as subsidies that post-socialist countries offered to these foreign investors. Foreign direct investment almost never enabled serious development of the real sector; usually investments were oriented towards services, agriculture, light industry, production of semi-finished goods, or assembly lines.

The devastation of local industry during last two decades further burdened state budgets. As productivity was falling, unemployment and the proportion of socially vulnerable people was rising. This tendency means both lower budget revenues from taxation of wages and the increasing pressure on social welfare systems, which are on the verge of collapse. The transformation from a socialist to a capitalist mode of production means that the profit stands as the centre of the economy and the measure of economic success is GDP growth. However, neither of these two measures tells us much about the wellbeing of the population – a high percentage of GDP growth can be accompanied with an increase in inequality, unemployment, and the degradation of social and environmental standards. Similarly, high profitability can come at the expense of a drastic reduction in wages and taxes and thus an erosion of social services.

In a situation where industry is almost destroyed, the public sector is still relatively large and the credit debt constantly grows, neoliberal-oriented governments are again turning to privatization in order to reduce budget deficits. Different natural resources such as mines, forests, water springs or parts of urban areas are being put up for sale. Exploitation of natural resources often lacks appropriate ecological standards. That is why the costs of remediation of environmental damage may exceed budget revenue. At the same time, in the context of the dominance of neoliberal ideology, the public sector is under constant pressure. It is usually emphasized that this sector of the economy is parasitic in the sense that it only spends budget money. The solution proposed is that the public services should be exposed to market relations in order to be more efficient. The state is, therefore, withdrawing from its role as provider of goods and services and, guided by neoliberal instructions, it appears only as a framework for the establishment of ‘a favourable economic climate,’ in which the market would decide on production and distribution.

Apart from privatization of public service utilities, we are also witnessing the commodification of non-privatized goods. Here it is useful to recall Marx’s emphasis according to which commodity production can never be production for human needs. In other words, the whole logic on which our societies are based today prevents a truly socially oriented production. Through the imperative of economic efficiency ever-new segments of the public sector are being commodified and exposed to market exchange. The fact that companies which remain state-owned – both those engaged in the production of services and those engaged in the production of goods – are often misused by political parties further complicates the problem. This form of exploitation of public property is not rare, but is, in a manner of self-imposed orientalism, usually attributed to some variant of Balkan backwardness. Actually it is capitalism that legitimates greed and creates ‘institutionalised cynicism’ (Streeck 2010) whereby we are all disposed to apply, avoid or circumvent rules for individual benefit. This is why capitalist relations are blind to ideas of the public good or the public interest, and why the claim that further advancement of market relations will reduce corruption is a fable and a myth.

In the Balkans, natural commons were dispossessed mostly through physical space in cities and in attractive real-estate locations where financial capital was invested to maintain the profit rate acquired from primitive accumulation. Cities became the physical space both for the accumulation of new capital and its rent, and for the materialisation of surplus capital in the real-estate market. The global financial crisis hit hard on this region that was deindustrialised and dependant on financial services and real-estate markets. There is strong pressure for further privatisation of public services like health, education, social services, water supply, waste disposal, and even some conventional core state services like defence and police. These measures are intended to reduce budgetary deficits and since monetary policy is impotent, economic growth can be only be assured by new dispossession, mostly through lowering of workers’ wages and through the destruction and privatisation of natural commons which are now under unprecedented pressure. Harvey (2011) explains how capitalism in crisis needs a ‘spatial fix’ so surplus capital can finally be invested in physical space where it can secure a satisfying profit rate so surplus labour (the unemployed) can be put back in the production process. These structural problems cannot be solved from the European periphery. Nevertheless, we can still contest austerity measures, which are a self-destructing social mechanism. We can advocate redistribution from rich to poor, demand change in monetary policy, progressive taxation, economic regionalisation, socialisation of rents from natural resources and Green-Keynesian industrialisation together with democratic economies that are labour-intensive, capital-saving, create big social value and reduce ecological footprints.

A common struggle in the Balkans is possible if we focus on the common ground in existing struggles. It is necessary to connect struggles in the region that oppose privatisation of the commons and public goods like water, forests, agricultural land, factories, healthcare, education, urban public spaces, public transportation and other infrastructure.

Existing commons struggles in the Balkans

Since 2006 social movements for free higher education have appeared in several countries in the Balkans: from Slovenia and Croatia to Serbia. Initiatives like the protest movement ‘Independent Student Initiative’ that emerged in Zagreb in 2008 had an impact not only in Croatia but in the region more broadly. In Fraser’s (2003) terms, the movement did not focus narrowly on furthering particular interests and rights, but advanced a transformative approach, offering a scourging critique both of the capitalist economy and of the limits of representative democracy (Dolenec and Doolan 2012). Though this movement did not explicitly couch itself in the language of the commons, it initiated a radical critique of the political economy of capitalism, and affirmed principles of direct democracy, participation and solidarity that lie at the heart of commons struggles.

In Serbia the largest mobilizations on the topic of the commons happened at Belgrade University. Insufficient budgetary funds and the exposure of faculties to market competition caused a drastic increase in tuition fees that prevented members of poorer strata of society from accessing higher education. However, the problem is not only in direct charges for education, but also in the whole process of commodification in which knowledge is standardized and directed towards the needs of the market. In this situation education loses emancipatory potential and is used only to create an army of qualified and highly adaptive labour power i.e. for producing a highly qualified workforce that is fully subordinated to the demands of capital (Stojanović, Vesić and Simović 2013). Unfortunately, the student movement in Serbia predominantly questioned high tuition fees and demanded reform framed within the Bologna process. What was often left unremarked upon in these students’ struggles was, on the one hand, the structure that determines the commodification of education and, on the other, that this process is not an isolated phenomenon, but a rule which is being implemented at all levels of society. In the fall of 2011, for the first time after a long period of internal conflicts, major trade unions in Serbia gathered in a protest where workers demanded the withdrawal of two legislative proposals concerning public utilities and the introduction of public-private partnership. Though these proposals were soon adopted by the Serbian Parliament, tens of thousands of protesting workers indicate an awareness about the negative effects of these laws.

The ‘Right to the City’ Initiative in Zagreb, which started in mid-2006, was an important engine of civic resistance in the city for over 5 years. Its activities were directed against the usurpation of public space by private interests, most notably in the fight for Varšavska Street in downtown Zagreb. Though that particular struggle was lost to the cosy liaison between Zagreb’s mayor and a private investor, this protest movement has successfully advanced the agenda of the urban commons in Croatia. It introduced several critical issues into the public agenda such as citizen participation in urban planning and sustainable urbanisation, while at the same time exposing narrow economic interests and crony deals that jeopardize the public interest. A similar initiative centred around defending the urban commons emerged in Belgrade, called the ‘Initiative for the Protection of Peti Park’. It emerged in the summer of 2005 after citizens of a Belgrade neighbourhood organised to resist a development project that would have replaced a city park with a multi-storey building. This resistance lasted for three years and it was successful in forcing the city government to protect the city park.

Furthermore, while the most obvious connection between recent struggles for the hill Srđ (in Dubrovnik, Croatia) and the space of the ‘Beko’ factory (Belgrade, Serbia) are the architects doing the development projects, closer inspection unfolds not only more similarities, but focuses analysis on ways in which urban struggles for commons take place in the region. Beko (Belgrade Confection) used to be the largest textile factory in Belgrade, with one of the production complexes situated in the historical centre of the city at the foot of Kalemegdan fortress. Since the mid-1960s it was planned for the factory to be removed and for the park to be extended. The project aimed at connecting the foot of the fortress and the bank of the river Danube. However, the factory stayed where it was, and after the 2000s it went into bankruptcy after which the property of the factory in the city centre was sold to a Greek developer in 2007. The Greek developer started changing the urban plan in order to build a closed mix-use complex consisting of a hotel, shopping mall, housing and sport facilities. It was only in 2011 that this transformation reached the media, thanks to a group of, mostly retired, professionals who protested mainly on the grounds of the height allowed by the new plan and the fact that it would ruin the landmark view of Belgrade fortress. The initiative also stressed that the proposed location should be a park as it was planned and that planning of such an important site should be done in a more participatory manner. Although this issue had the potential to unite a broader coalition of actors that would address issues related to the future of the city and public/common space, little had actually happened. In the next step, one of the most famous architecture bureaus in the world – Zaha Hadid Architects – was hired to design a new master plan. The plan was approved by the City, but it also successfully diverted the public debate from questions of spatial justice and the program planned for the site to questions concerning the aesthetics of the proposed project. The public debate showed the inability of both officials, but also of society to define the public interest for the site, and the future development of the City more broadly. An even more controversial Emirati-funded development project called ‘Belgrade Waterfront’, that would completely alter the urban landscape of the Sava riverbank has been aggressively promoted by the Serbian government.

Srđ is a plateau on a hill above Dubrovnik, overlooking the Old Town, and it became the focus of a civic initiative ‘Srđ is Ours.’ While not entirely owned by the city, the plateau in question is almost the only free space where Dubrovnik can spread and build much-needed public amenities. Regardless of that, the city has been, not so quietly, supporting plans for a Golf Resort that would enclose most of Srđ. Golf is here, following common practices in the world, just an excuse for extensive real-estate development – in this specific case of luxurious residential villas. Although the County had rejected the master plan for development in 2010, support for the project by the political strata has been increasing, often stressing the fact that this project will open many possibilities for employment for the local population, while undermining the investment the city needs to make in order to extend the infrastructure to the sites in question. Like in the case of Beko, in order to try to divert attention from the nature of this investment to aesthetics, Zaha Hadid Architects were hired to design concept villas for the resort. However, the project never managed to stir discussion away from the true nature of this project – the enclosure of the potential commons for Dubrovnik. The well-organized initiative ‘Srđ is Ours’, supported by a national alliance of other activist networks, successfully communicated what a golf course on Srđ would do to the city and the importance of getting involved, even managing to secure a local referendum. While the vast majority of people voted against the project, the problematic Croatian Law on Referendum does not make the vote binding for the Municipality. Although it seemed that the battle for Srđ had been lost, the transformation of a part of the activist initiative ‘Srđ is Ours’ into an independent list ‘Srđ is the City’ for the local elections in 2013 shows how it is possible to build a political platform by using the concept of the commons.

The actors that produce and reproduce the urban built environment are the most likely agents for social change today. The circumstances surrounding Srđ, and struggles focused on social and spatial justice more generally show the possibility of the struggle for the commons to become a platform for larger political articulation. In order for that to happen, it was necessary for those involved to use the commons paradigm as a critical tool in order to understand both national and transnational forces driving the privatization of Srđ and to position their struggle into a broader narrative. The Platform ‘Srđ is Ours’ built its strength upon the work and articulations developed in the Right to the City initiative in Zagreb, and more specifically on issues surrounding Cvjetni trg and Varšavska street, and pushed the struggle against the enclosure of the commons, not only for Dubrovnik, but also for the whole of Croatia a step further into the political sphere.

A larger coalition in which the struggles against privatization of the public/common goods are connected to unions on the one side, and environmental struggles on the other – thus forming a broad network of allies – in the longer run has the potential to redefine the political scene in Croatia. Unfortunately, in Serbia such tendencies are still weak. While the scale of the land grab, especially in Belgrade, had been disclosed by media on various occasions, this has not produced strong public reactions. Activism is isolated to issues of labour addressing the dispossession of workers due to the privatizations and deindustrialization that followed. The struggle against the enclosure of public space, such as the various struggles for public green open spaces (Peti Park and Zvezdara Forest in Belgrade, Aerodrom in Kragujevac) did not address the political arena beyond their particular demands, but only on the grounds of reclaiming the space to its immediate users. A true understanding of the deep connections among the various anti-privatization struggles still needs to happen.

When discussing the potential of the commons, the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina is particularly perplexing since it is a de facto divided society where ethno-nationalist politics, assisted by fear, uncertainty and neo-colonial international community politics (Majstorović 2007, 2013), have resulted in little consensus over who did what in the past to maintain a state of negative peace (Galtung 1996). The country lives in a kind of perpetual transition and state of emergency (Agamben 2005, Pandolfi 2010) while the lack of commonality and understanding of the commons in the aforementioned sense have greatly impeded the processes of anti-capitalist struggle and similar movements in the region. However, non-traditional models such as informal classrooms, like The Public Classroom-The Commons in June 2012, organized by the non-governmental organization ‘Centar Grad’ in Tuzla, and the series of lectures organized by the Language, Ideology and Power group of intellectuals, students and activists at the Banja Luka University (Majstorović 2013) offer hope. These initiatives became a way of regionally and transnationally connecting intellectuals, students and activists protecting the commons by insisting on a politics of memory, anti-fascism, commonality and solidarity under galloping capitalism. The protests that erupted across Bosnia-Herzegovina in February 2014, as well as the establishment of the plenums, citizens’ assemblies, in many cities show the huge political potential of struggles centred around questions of social justice and solidarity.

Direct democracy and the creation of social resistance on the street by grassroots citizens’ associations or no-leadership movements in the last year in major Bosnian and Herzegovinian cities has also given way to expressing the political in non-traditional ways, going beyond nationalist options on offer by parliamentary parties in the country. Citizens’ protest walks in Banja Luka under the slogan ‘(the?) Park is ours’ between May and September 2012 became the first act of collective will against the authorities triggered by the destruction of Picin Park, a favorite hangout for Banjalukans, after the developer Milo Radišić received permits to demolish it in order to build a complex containing businesses and residences without public notice. At the first demonstration, in late May, a thousand people marched and although the number of ‘walkers’ dissipated in the following months, it was the largest protest to take place in Banja Luka after the 1992-1995 war. Activists from a dozen local organizations gathered 6,000 signatures on a petition against the construction project asking for evidence about the procedure that led to the sale of the parkland, and for documentation of the official decision-making process that led to it and delivered them to the city government. In July 2012, once again proving the links between repressive state apparatuses and capital, police brutally reacted against Željko Vulić who was beaten for protecting his own property against the planned development. In July 2013, the construction company ordered the destruction of a part of the road that Vulić family uses as the only access to their home and he practically lost the battle against the President of the Republika Srpska entity, Milorad Dodik, his oligarchy and family-friends’ network. The city authorities did nothing to help his case while state owned media either barely reported on it or constantly held the official side, claiming its apparent legality.

Finally, triggered by the death of the three-month old Belmina Ibrišević from Gračanica, a baby that needed to travel abroad for urgent medical treatment, but couldn’t leave the state because she was not allocated an ID number and could therefore not get a passport, showed that citizens protests in front of state institutions of BiH in Sarajevo were more than the sum of its parts. Starting as protests demanding that the Parliament immediately adopt the law on citizen IDs on the national level, it became an act of collective criticism of the dysfunctional nature of the Dayton peace accords and the ethnic-based violence it legitimated. All of these struggles, and especially mass protests in the Winter and Spring of 2014 linked up in the struggle for the common good, are good examples of debunking and openly challenging the power of dominant political elites in the country and their accumulated wealth and a good sign that, almost twenty years after the war, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is changing.

In Bulgaria, the first serious resistance against commodification of the commons happened in 2007, when the so-called Socialist Party introduced principles of new public management into the public high school system. Teachers and schools were forced to compete with each other. There was a massive strike against the reform that lasted over a month, but in the end was not successful. Currently, these reforms are being deepened through new legislative amendments that enable the redistribution of public money to private schools, legitimated, once again, with the rhetoric of competition, efficiency, individual choice and ‘money follows the student’ arguments, as funding is made dependent on the number of pupils. At the same time, an identical regime is being introduced in the media sector where the government is designing ways of transferring funding from public to private media. Principles of new public management have also been imposed in the healthcare sector, pushing it into a serious crisis. All this has lead to the closing down of dozens of schools and hospitals in rural regions. Currently, there are attempts to privatize the public railroad company, but this was met with strong workers’ resistance, leading to a wave of strikes in 2011. Similarly, there has been strong resistance against the commodification of the digital commons. Attempts to close down torrent sites and to limit file sharing were met with a series of protests. ACTA was opposed by thousands of people marching in the streets in early 2012, forcing the government to back down on its support for the trade agreement. In the protests of early 2013, tens of thousands of people marched around the country against high electricity bills and demanded the nationalization of utility companies. Over time, however, the protests became wider and rather ambivalent and the spontaneous movement against the political system did not bring tangible results.

In Bulgaria social mobilizations around the commons were strongest within the environmental movement. There have been a few attempts to liberalize genetically modified (GM) food production, but all were met with nation-wide resistance and mobilization, forcing the government to back down and effectively limiting the attempted commercialization of the genetic heritage of humanity. Mobilizations against the privatization of natural parks have also been on going since 2006 and have succeeded in protecting them as commons. Moreover, since 2012 these movements were not only maintaining a reactive stance against commodification, but articulating positive proposals and initiatives for new progressive management of the commons. This has taken the form of a new food cooperative movement, inspired by the ideas of community-supported agriculture and Via Campesina’s concept of food sovereignty. After 1999 state land was transferred to municipalities, which in turn often engaged in lucrative sales to private investors. After 2005, regulations regarding the purchasing of land were liberalised, further incentivising enclosures of rural and urban space. Environmental groups mobilized against the destruction of protected land in 2007, and again more recently, in 2012, when demonstrations were organised against the Forestry Act. The legislation was amended in favour of a private investor who wanted to enclose parts of what used to be publicly accessible land in Pirin. As a result of the protests, the Act was vetoed and amended.

In conclusion, like elsewhere in the region, in Bulgaria processes of accumulation by dispossession in the 1990s were not met with serious opposition. Only after 2006 were there wider mobilizations. The ones that were more successful were against the enclosure of the digital commons, against GMOs, and against the privatization of natural parks. Effective workers’ mobilizations proved to be more difficult to organize. The protests in early 2013 against high electricity bills were not able to articulate clear demands. A serious challenge faced by all of those movements is that they find it hard to articulate an adequate language for understanding the political economy of enclosures of the commons since 1989. Instead they often became caught up within liberal ideological clichés of fighting against corruption, against monopolies, for more transparency and so on.

Commoning the struggle


Anti-austerity protest in Sarajevo. The banner reads “You’ve plundered for 20 years. Enough!”

Today the public sector is probably the most important field of our struggle, through this struggle is not without contradictions. The public sector employs a large number of workers who can lose jobs if reforms driven by the logic of austerity measures continue. However, the capacity for mobilization is even greater, because privatization and the reduction of the public sector affects a much wider population. Bonding the interests of workers with those of beneficiaries of services seems to be a key to building a broader and more efficient movement for the defence of the public sector. This potential movement should not forget that a political strategy based only on ‘fighting cuts’ risks giving the impression that it is simply the scale of state expenditure that is being contested, rendering invisible the underlying logic of commodification and the new reality that public services themselves have become a site of accumulation that is crucial for the continuing expansion of international capital (Huws 2012). Therefore we must extend our demand to the issue of how and by whom the public sector should be managed.

With all its flaws, the trade union movement in the public sector, student mobilizations, struggles for urban commons and natural resources like the ones we described should be seen as sparks that could trigger a broader struggle. Awareness of the need to protect the commons across the region is currently low, so any attempt of shaking these sleepy societies into action are more than welcome. However, the creation of a broader movement that will truly be able to shake the foundations of the dominant system is hard. In an impoverished society with high unemployment and rising poverty people are focused on short-term survival. Privatization and the creation of a ‘favourable business climate’ which attracts foreign capital as opposed to the reproduction of the current situation then, at best, seems as the lesser of two evils. Therefore the need for systemic change in society is probably the most important argument in which left-wing groups and individuals have to convince the wider part of the population.

The movement established on a line of defence and taking over of the commons could have considerable potential. It could encompass and articulate the issues that currently fail to initiate mobilizations, even though they attract public attention. Here we can include the issue of privatization of agriculture, mineral resources, forests and water, a range of environmental issues, as well as the privatization and commercialization of public services – from kindergartens to universities, from water supply systems to garbage and electricity. A true understanding of the deep connections among these various struggles for the commons still needs to happen in the region of the Balkans, which is where the political conception of the commons comes into play – as a demand for developing alternative ways of social production, taking effective social control over resources and conditions needed for life and human emancipation. Our political action should be directed at defending the commons from new enclosures and creating new commons, while always being reminded that they should foster human emancipation.

In building effective political alliances, it is important to link regional struggles with global struggles for global commons like the Internet, genetic resources, science, atmosphere, oceans, biodiversity and others. It is also tactically important to join forces with Keynesians and oppose austerity measures which are destroying the welfare state and social reproduction, and which could lead to authoritarian reversals. This includes policy advocacy that tries to stop current trends imposed by the state through legislation and policy making from health to education and urban planning. It is not wise to dogmatically give up on state power so social movements should when possible directly engage into or support democratic progressive and radical left political organisations that compete for state power. Also, it is important to be aware of neoliberal attempts to solve the current multiple crises with what had caused them in the first place, namely more market solutions. This happens for instance in proposing to impose carbon trading schemes as a policy for climate change mitigation, which effectively means privatizing the atmosphere to protect it from pollution.

We need to demonstrate how the Left is not just good at criticising structural forces but that it can offer proposals for an alternative political and economic system. We should directly encourage collective production and consumption on the local level through workers cooperatives, community gardens, communal energy production and consumption systems, consumer/food and agricultural cooperatives, digital and material tools and resources libraries. This social experimentation on the local level and in cyberspace should include experimentation with radical democratic practices that could be reproduced on a larger scale. Finally, the commons seem a more productive concept for common struggle in the Balkans than public goods. Public goods are a narrower concept than the commons and they rely on the state. The commons imply real social control over state-owned resources by the people rather than relying on representational democracy.

We need to engage both in an act of commoning between green and left movements, and across national borders. Common tactics as commons themselves should be diverse to be successful. Sometimes we have to construct new commons as autonomous zones of physical and social reproduction which will logistically strengthen our struggles. Sometimes we have to experiment and innovate commons in order to demonstrate alternatives to the current system. Sometimes we have to directly defend existing commons that are under threat of privatisation and commodification because it will be difficult to recommunise them later. Sometimes we have to expand existing commons in order to enlarge the commons sphere towards the state and market. Sometimes we have to transform current public goods into commons through expanding social control to ensure that they are for the benefit of people. Sometimes we have to lobby the state to support new and existing commons practices through policy and legal changes. Sometimes we have to engage in a battle for state power to make at least part of the political sphere a commons. In other words, what we need are diverse and innovative tactics by social movements that are coordinated within a common platform.

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