Can Europe Make It?

What happened to the rebellious youth of Yugoslavia?

Europe has seen a spate of youth protest over the last few years. The Balkans, however, seems to be lacking rebellious momentum. But why?

Milos Davidovic
9 December 2015
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A demonstrator at the 2014 protests in Sarajevo. abzur/flickr. Some rights reserved.Several days ago, Europe saw a massive number of police officers combating crowds of thousands on the streets of Paris. Teargas was flying, filling boulevards with impenetrable smoke. Although many were quick to connect the aforementioned event with a response to the bloody terrorist attacks on the French capital and its people last month, this was, in fact, a protest-gone-violent against the UN Climate Summit meeting to be held that day in Paris. Masses of people, dressed in casual, every day apparel aggregated around a singular cause: that of protesting the lack of political capacity shown by today’s political leadership vis-à-vis one of the most burning questions this generation faces – climate change.

Their desire, conviction and ideals were all very clear. Yet their method in Paris overshadowed all of this. One should not be too quick to judge the violent outburst of these demonstrators, however. As it turns out, the majority of the Paris protesters were in fact quite young. This protest, like many others before it, was a youth protest: a generational outcry over a topic that has become central to young Europeans. It was a spectacle of rebellious spirit, one that was born, nurtured and cherished in the world’s oldest continent - Europe.

The youth of Paris were not the only ones protesting over the last few years. Massive demonstrations have also taken place in Brussels, London, Madrid, Timisoara, Athens, and other capitals and large cities across Europe. The combination of an intrinsic sense of responsibility for our common future combined with an outstanding audacity to act against the authorities is what fuels these protests. These outbursts of public disorder have always managed to send a clear message - European youth is not to be trifled with.

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Scenes from the demonstrations in and around Place de la République in Paris on the day before the COP21 climate talks opened in 2015. Chris Bentley/flickr. Some rights reserved.It seems, however, that youth protests occur more frequently in Western European states than in their Central and Eastern counterparts. Most notably, it seems that one particular region suffers a particular lack of rebellious momentum. You’ve guessed it – it’s the Balkans.

In the past 15 years, ex-Yugoslavian states have seen two massive protests in total, one that occurred in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013; and the other one in Montenegro, a mere month ago. Both of these protests were similar in their essence, a catharsis of public dissatisfaction with little to no effect. Yet, not so long ago, two decades to be precise, tens of thousands of students took to the streets of Belgrade, fighting against Milosevic and his regime. What happened in the meantime? How did this spirit of youth rebellion against authority, a rebellion against illegitimate authority more importantly, disappear from one of the historically most rebellious regions of the world?

There are three fundamental reasons as to why Balkan youth does not participate in a bottom-up democratic process.

The first reason lies within what Kurt Biray masterfully described in his article “Communist Nostalgia in Eastern Europe: Longing for the Past” - inherent interconnectivity between democracy and neoliberalism in Eastern European societies. Young people of Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and to some extent Croatia, know democracy only by its perverted predatory neoliberal extent.

For those born in the early and mid-1990s, democracy means, survival of the fittest, weak institutions and strong will of individuals with dubious past. For them human rights are a term that NGOs use to win foreign aid grants, freedom of press extends only to the farthest reaches of local businessman’s wallet, while rule of law is this nebulous term that lingers between glaring nepotism and shocking levels of widespread corruption.

For these young people, it is not a question of what democracy could be; it is a question of what democracy is. For them, hearing about Yugoslavia is almost surreal. They are bombarded by a concept of welfare that once upon a time existed, yet nowadays is nowhere to be found. As a result, they perceive democracy, or what little of it exists in the Balkans, as a determining factor of their ill fate. In fact, instead of feeling empowered by it, they feel shunned by it. Many of them would say that their destinies are not in their hands.

They feel detached from any type of decision-making process. Politics remains an abstract term – politics is something that happens, not something that can be influenced. It is something that is out of reach. Democracy has never existed in the Balkans; instead, the amalgamation of perverted ideologies and personal interests propelled a ludicrous state of affairs that serves only as a terrible doppelganger.

This leads us to the second point – lack of perspective. Young people in the Balkans, more often than not, lack any kind of true perspective in their lives. Predatory capitalism, which was installed after the break-up of Yugoslavia, created severe class differences amongst the population. It fostered greed, personal connections and semi-criminal behavior as shortcuts to success. As a result, young people often feel worthless.

It is hard to make good choices in completely anarchistic surroundings. Investing in university might seems like a safe bet, yet unlike in other parts of the world, in the Balkans it guarantees no more than a piece of paper worth only as much as your father’s high-school contacts. Many of those who do finish university try to leave the country as soon as possible. For instance, every year 30, 000 people leave Serbia in pursuit of a better life abroad – 15% of whom have a university degree.

This dangerous trend is on the rise and presents a huge challenge to Balkan societies. University graduates understand that only 500-700km away from their homes a world of opportunity waits. They will be able to live a far better life, have a safer future and provide for their families, both new and old. As a result, the new intellectual elite lives almost exclusively abroad. This only deepens the class struggle in Balkan societies, and, more importantly, creates a gap within the leadership potential.

It is important, however, to understand what happens to those who do not pursue university studies or leave the country. Surely they must understand that the outlook for them is not a particularly positive one. Unstable institutions, constant political struggle, a dire economic situation and an everlasting transition narrative leave many frightened and desperate. Clinging to some sort of common identity, young people in the Balkans often find their role models in historically dubious characters, criminals even, ultras groups and so on.

The youth in the Balkans doesn’t contemplate revolutions; it worries about survival. Political parties pray upon new generations, offering them a shortcut to state jobs, ones that can easily be controlled and not so easily lost. Those who decide to take the bait end up in a spiral of party obedience; those who do not, more often than not, end up jobless, bitter and ultimately devastated by their own choices, serving as an example of what not to do.

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A protest in Vitina, monitored by KFOR troops, January 2000. Wikipedia/public domain.So how come no one wants to change anything?

Oh, but they do. The problem is, they lack clear leadership or clear goals. It is nothing new that the political leadership in the Balkans is anything but stellar. The same figures have been rotating on a carousel of “public service” for almost a decade now. In this kind of environment, young people do not see a clear political option that could potentially aggregate their interest, either through informal means of protest or through a formal means of voting. Additionally, through an unparalleled bastardisation of free media, people with any kind of integrity have been completely marginalised. The new intellectual elite is next to non-existent at home, and those who do raise their voices against the situation are often left with no allies in their struggle.

Finally, even if all other conditions were fulfilled, it would still be very difficult to motivate young people to rebel. Serbia, when it was still a part of former Yugoslavia, saw massive protests against Milosevic during the 1990s, resulting in the “Serbian revolution” of 2000, which brought much desired democracy to that part of Europe. The results were, and still are, catastrophic. Young people not only know this, but also feel it on their own skin.

Bosnia and Herzegovina saw massive protests in 2013; the state parliament was set on fire and hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. The result was, once again, a let down. The protest slowly withered away while the political and economic situation remained largely the same. Finally, only a month ago, Montenegro saw massive public demonstrations against the government. This government has, in some shape or form, been in power for more than 20 years now. Although large in scale, once again these protests changed nothing. Montenegro is still governed by the same politicians as always and while many are ready to show their dissatisfaction, few have a clear idea of what needs to be changed.

So, is there any hope for the Balkan youth? This remains to be seen. At the end of the day, both public and, more importantly, youth dissatisfaction is so strong that it might take no more than a spark to fuel another year 2000. On the other hand, young people in the Balkans are so much used to their way of life, that it seems fairly unlikely that anything can change their desire to survive into a desire to live. Like with most things, only time will tell. 

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