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Between institutional and non-institutional forms of democratic organizing: Towards revolutionary change

Students gather in front of the offices of the Kosovo Electricity Distribution and Supply company (KEDS). Photo by Una Hajdari (Balkan Insight, January 2015).


This is the fourth and final instalment of contributions from the working groups that were set up by the Balkan Forum. The democratisation and participation working group consists of: Arlind Qori, Gal Kirn, Tadej Kurepa, Agon Hamza, Iva Ivšić and Suzana Kunac (coordinator).


We build upon the conclusions of The First Balkan Forum – held in Zagreb (2012) during the Subversive Forum – that there can be no real democracy in the political, social or economic spheres if there is no workers’ control over the means of production in the workplace. Within this framework, the group tried to envisage the institutional and noninstitutional methods of action and organisational forms that would be central to the processes of fundamental change of social and power relations.

Participation is an ambiguous term: on the one hand, it is used by governments to indicate the supposed willingness to engage the “interested public” in formulating amendments, or performing a consultative role, which actually only slightly tackles inequality and often results in a situation in which the exploited participate in their own exploitation. On the other hand, it can also mark a more just and equal participation in work, public discussions, and decision-making processes. It is an internal part of direct democratic practices, which predominantly work in non-institutional forms of organization. Related to this, the concept of democratisation should be pushed beyond mere representative democracy. Participation and democratisation can thus be defined as the political process of revolutionary change, which would achieve the workers’ control of the means of production and reproduction, their socialisation leading to the abolishment of capitalist command.


The end of socialism brought an ideological cliché that real democracy in post-socialist countries started only after 1989. This cliché rests on the presupposition that capitalism, the so called “free market society”, is inherently linked to democracy, while socialism presupposes anti-democratic or totalitarian rule. In fact, “democratic transition” in ex-Yugoslav countries was accompanied by bloody wars, that is, ethnic cleansing and segregation. General discussion about the specific contexts of each state shows that the 1990s brought a massive transfer of social and state assets, a wave of privatisation, which among other things resulted in the dispersal of the working class, dismembering of the trade unions, rising class differences, and poverty and social exclusion. The process of neoliberal transition and primitive accumulation of capital also entailed the recomposition of labour and the emergence and expansion of a cognitive proletariat with new difficulties for political mobilization. If the traditional revolutionary agent, the working class, is dwindling there’s less and less hope for concrete direct democratic actions like the occupation of factories, their self-management etc. In the Balkan region as a whole there has been a long sequence of defeat and demise for the Left, and it has only been in recent years, with popular uprisings and protests, that a new sense of solidarity and political forms emerged.


maribor protests
maribor protests 2012

Slovenia used to be taken as the positive example of the gradual transition into a post-socialist society. However, this perspective neglects the fact that as the country moved towards entrance to the EU and Eurozone, the neoliberal agenda, with its more brutal class stratification and poverty, was implemented. Several recent governments, from centre-left or right-wing, followed the main direction that launched the second and more thorough wave of privatisation that affected the dismantling of welfare state (health, pension, education system) and the transfer of state-owned companies. In light of the recent economic crisis, both domestic policies and dictates from abroad demanded more austerity and privatization of everything that was not yet labelled “private property”. It was during 2012 that the so-called fairy tale of successful transition ended. The level of indebtedness and unemployment (13% total, and much higher among the youth) started growing dramatically, while the web of social services and solidarities started shaking.

It was in late 2012 that the city of Maribor saw mass demonstrations that demanded impeachment of the municipal establishment and a corrupt mayor. This was a small spark in late November, but spread all across the country. Slovenia encountered the first major revolt since its independence, which happened without the organizational help of established institutions (party, trade union, church…). The mass protests created new organizational platforms ranging from liberal-left and more national populist currents (demanding more decent, more moral leaders) to anti-capitalist, communist, anarchist and ecologist elements. The series of protests toppled both the mayor of Maribor and the right-wing government of Janez Janša, which seemed to open a new horizon also in formal representative democratic politics. However, the new transitory government continued with the old policies, while the new mayor of Maribor – coming from the independent, activist circles – does not have enough support in the municipal council.

The most recent development saw the formation of the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS) organized by some members of the Workers-Punks University, that joined forces with the Sustainable Development Party (TRS) and Democratic Party of work (DSD) and formed the ‘United Left’ which presented its list at the 2014 European Parliament elections.


Forcefully subjected to all sorts of neoliberal social and political experiments, Kosovo has become arguably the poorest country in Europe, with a 48% unemployment rate, and around 20-26% of people living on less than 1 euro per day. Following the spectacular rise in the price of electricity (a similar parallel, yet with different consequences, can be drawn with Bulgaria, where popular demonstrations forced the government to resign), protests involving thousands of people were organised by grass-root activists. The protests began in Prishtine and then spread to eight cities in the country. Taking into account the political and ideological conjuncture of the Republic of Kosovo, that is to say, a country that is directly subjected to the economic and political neo-imperialist interventions of the EU, USA as well as Turkey, the recent protests mark a new political awareness and revolt. A minimal, but important goal was achieved: the already-announced electricity price hikes were cancelled. However, even though the electricity rise sparked these protests, they cannot be reduced to that issue alone.

On this note, one should add that the ‘normalisation of relations’ signed by the Republic of Kosovo and the Republic of Serbia has been praised by almost everyone as a ‘historical agreement’. And indeed it is historic – but apparently for completely different reasons than those the EU and other bureaucrats praise it for. From the EU’s view and perception of the Balkans, everything that is not an outburst of our primitive ethnic passions is indeed a historic achievement. Peace is almost considered a state of exception. In this regard, the mere fact that the Kosovo and Serbian Prime Ministers have met is a major victory over the backward tendencies keeping the Balkans as it is, in the permanent state of pre-war explosion. The struggle against the multiethnic conception of the Republic of Kosovo, as well as the struggle against the “historic agreement” signed on 19 April 2013 (and its ratification by the Kosovo Parliament), would be the struggle for the re-politicisation of the Albanian-Serbian question. To summarise the essence of the agreement, we would argue that if it were implemented, the effect would be twofold:

1) It will create a parallel or autonomous ‘province’ within the borders of the Republic of Kosovo. This will be an ethnic ‘province’, with executive and (up to a point) legislative competences of the “Association of Serbian Municipalities.” The closest comparison (albeit not totally accurate) would be that of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2) It will deem necessary ethnically based solutions for the rest of the region. By dividing the country along ethnic lines, in the name of ‘co-existence between different cultures, religions and ethnicities’, it makes it impossible to prevent further division of the country, which will lead to changes in the borders of (at least) a few neighbouring countries. Taking all this into account, the agreement between Thaçi and Dačič is indeed historical, precisely because it negates the emancipatory potential, and promotes the existing state of affairs, that of an ethnically divided country. Its historical importance relies on another missed chance for the true liberating and emancipatory potential in this region.

The material basis of this ruling ideology has rendered political parties, trade unions and other “classic” forms or political organisation impotent (or, at least temporarily impotent) and new forms of political organizations (outside direct state control) are becoming a political imperative. However, this shows the limit of “spontaneous” organisations. These forms of popular dissatisfaction and/or revolt have to be organised in more structured ways. Otherwise, they remain “spontaneous” and apart from a temporary panic in the corridors of the government, nothing emancipatory can come out of them. Therefore, from the experience of the on-going demonstrations, the direct action has to be at least minimally structured.

Serbia: After parliamentary elections in March 2014, the Serbian government is now firmly in the hands of the Serbian Progressive Party, a reformed far right party that tends toward right-wing populism both politically and economically. In all important aspects, it continues with the same politics as the previous government, and even aims at more radical neoliberal reforms and privatisations. Such policies are largely created and drafted by the European Union, within the framework of the so-called Euro-Atlantic integration, and the IMF. The people’s backs were broken several times during the last 30 years, first through the economic crisis in the mid-1980s, and, following the subsequent surge in nationalism, the disintegration of the country, wars and the beginning of privatization practices. After the change of government in 2000 there was a complete destruction of industry which had survived NATO bombings and a ten-year robbery, which is estimated to have cost at least $100bn.

Workers’ unions are particularly weak, with very few possibilities for mobilization, as they were shamelessly lied to and cheated many times over. Other social forces, such as the populist non-parliamentary right, are mainly pacified and disoriented. This also applies to sympathizers of political parties which used to constitute the ruling coalition. The youth of civil (liberal) orientation has been integrated into the NGO sector and EU-sponsored institutions, which are being created, or in the already existing institutions of the center. The left is practically nonexistent, and is reduced to a small heterogeneous movement. One part of this movement is getting closer to the NGO sector, which is a consequence of project financing on behalf of international foundations trying to implement their own agenda, usually with open support for Euro-Atlantic integrations. The potential for the creation of an autonomous workers’ movement exists, and a part of the activist groups in Serbia are engaged in this. The precondition is the creation of a serious direct-democratic organization, which would be the driving force of the movement; as well as a direct-democratic infrastructure through which the movement would act.


Since the early 1990s Albania has gone through a continuous process of neoliberal reforms, whose impacts have been not only socio-economic, but also political. Through mass privatizations, deterioration of working conditions, restructuring of the economic structure, massive unemployment and the dispersion of the working class, Albania is faced not only with imminent economic problems, but also with societal and grass-root political demobilization. On the other hand, educational reforms aim at breaking student self-organization, through raising fees, and more generally transforming the university into a neoliberal structure which breeds individualistic economic competition, and thwarts solidarity in every aspect. In this quasi-atomized society, most people feel discouraged to self-organize, and instead look at more practical forms of collective survival, which in most cases has to do with the revival of pre-modern, or tribal forms of organization. So what we have instead of workers’ –students’ –or more general popular organizations, are micro-tribal entities, which live in urban areas, but through political clientele networks, and hierarchic self-organization, manage to survive and distribute some kind of means of subsistence.

In an atomized and quasi-tribalized society, forms of popular self-organization are hindered even institutionally. Although the Albanian constitution allows popular movements to call for a referendum, so far the only referendums which have taken place in these twenty years, were about the approval of the very constitution. To initiate a referendum from below, the organizers need to collect at least 50,000 signatures, which afterwards are to be certified by the Electoral Commission, whose practice reflects the appetites of the political and economic elites. No larger progressive movement exists in Albania at the moment.


The dominant processes that have marked the last two decades in Croatia have been deindustrialization, privatization processes that involve criminal activities, commercialization of education and health services, deterioration of workers’ rights and the deepening of social and economic inequality. The resistance to those processes among academia, trade unions and different civil society groups has been partial, weak and ineffectual.

Accession of the country to the European Union was presented by governments – centre-right and centre-left with an unconditional support of the mainstream media – as the single-granted alternative. In the past few years there is a strong tendency of the Croatian government (the coalition that has been in power since 2011 is formed by the Social-democrats, the Croatian People’s party, the Party of Pensioners and a regional party) to privatize the remaining state-owned companies such as Croatian railways, Croatian electricity, Croatian airlines, etc. The government is preparing a new legislation on strategic investments, which, if implemented, will allow the sale of the remaining public assets, space and natural resources. Worker’s rights will be further eroded with the near adoption of a new, very troublesome labour law, which is in line with the neoliberal policies of liberalization and deregulation of markets.

The economic and social situation has become even worse since the economic recession that began in 2009. There have been uprisings in a number of firms that are near or already have gone bankrupt; there is a high rate of unemployment (around 20% and more than 50% among the younger generations) and a great number of those not receiving salary for their work (a total of approx. 450,000 people) as well as other forms of poverty and social exclusion. Surveys inform us that the political context is determined by an acute loss of trust in politicians, parties, and political institutions. The public sees political actors, as immoral, or very susceptible to corruption.

Organized resistance against neoliberal capitalism in Croatia mainly arose from among the student movement of 2009. Their contribution, based on direct democratic principles, significantly slowed down the process of commodification of knowledge and its consequences for society. The student movement directly or indirectly influenced the development of different groups, initiatives and organizations on the left. These leftist groups opened the space for social struggle in different areas, especially those concerning economic inequality and workers’ rights that have been neglected all these years.

The methods of political actions: institutional and non-institutional types of organizing

Organization and action, with regard to the different relations with the institutions of the system, can be divided into an institutional and a non-institutional model that strives for transformation. Types of organization falling under the institutional model are the following: radical left-wing political parties emerging from social movements, workers’ unions and civil society organizations representing wider “new social movements” (green, feminist, peace etc.) dealing with public policy change. Types of organization belonging to the non-institutional model are: direct-democratic unions, social movements based on direct democratic governance model or direct-democratic ideological organizations.

Methods of the institutional models are: participation in parliamentary elections, referendum, participatory budgeting, participation in governance, action through the legal system, protests and even legal strikes. Methods of action belonging to the non-institutional type are: protests, wildcat strikes, occupations of government institution buildings and public spaces, occupations of the workplace, general assemblies (in the workplace, the local community, school…). It is important to mention that different types of institutional and noninstitutional organizing can overlap in practice.

Institutional models

Left Party: our group holds generally an affirmative view of party organizing, but with some critical reservation. Apart from criticizing bourgeois, right-wing (also, liberal and conservative) parties, which are at best reformists of the capitalist state, history also teaches us about the Communist Parties, which in certain historical sequences successfully contributed to the revolution (Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cuba, China, Albania). The critique of state socialism today should be quite clear about the problems of democratic centralism, Party internal purges and external repression of opposition. However, the last decade has seen the emergence of a new type of Left Party that moves away from the social-democratic, neoliberal Parties – especially, in South America; in Venezuela, but also in Bolivia and Ecuador a new socialist orientation has been developing with a strong link between progressive movements and left parties.

The left party should not have as its goal to remain in constant opposition or become reformist but to take over the state power. Recently, in respect to the Euro-crisis, despite the fact that millions of people have protested in the streets of Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, and Greece, nothing has changed in terms of economic conditions. However, the decision of Syriza to make a Left front of movements, different parties and groups expands the link between the movement and party. The critical question remains: how does the left party – after taking state power — participate in the process of dissolving, altering or destroying the existing state apparatuses, and how does it remain accountable to its material base and movements? Apart from Greece, and the newly formed ‘United Left’ in Slovenia, it is too early to speak of other left parties in the region.

Participatory budgeting (PB): after the victory of the Workers’ Party in the municipal elections in Brazil, budgeting was implemented as an innovative institutional arrangement from the perspective of economic democracy. Citizens both as individuals and through their civil society organizations participate in all three phases of the local investment budgetary process: the definition of the citizens’ preferences, the translation of these preferences into the investment budget, and the monitoring and control of its execution. In a positive light, we can see this as an attempt at a more just redistribution and widening of participation, especially of the poor people in their right to the city.

However, there are a series of limitations to the idea of participatory budgeting: firstly, the inadequate financial resources of City Hall – there are only a few items of the budget that the participatory councils can decide upon, thus, the PB process cannot really control the whole circulation and investment process. Secondly, it is only concerned with the government budget in economies that are predominantly private. As an important example of the sort of limitations this yields concretely, PB in Porto Alegre produced a very limited number of income generating programs for the low-income population. Thirdly, the inherent weakness of this model is that it deals only with the standpoint of distribution. The process of distribution (which is already limited by the resources) is separated from the realm of production. At best it can improve conditions of urban life, but does not address the relations of exploitation. Thus, without the link to the realm of wages, proper economy, this approach is exposed to the good will of the city council. In Croatia, for example, this practice was imposed from above, with participatory councils ascribed a mere consultative role.

Referendum: The referendum is also an important institutional instrument of most democratic practices; it can be a very important political tool especially in times of economic crisis. However, it should be said that the rights of minorities and human rights should not be decided on referendums. Slovenia’s frequent referendums and Croatia’s recent referendum on same sex marriage show the complexity of referendums in practice. Since June 2013, Croatia witnessed a strong backlash against LGBT rights and freedoms, initiated by an interconnected group of a handful of “civil initiatives” called “In the Name of the Family”, with close ties to the Catholic Church. This initiative collected enough citizens’ signatures to initiate a referendum on introducing a constitutional provision that defines marriage as a life bond achieved exclusively between a man and a woman. They collected roughly 750,000 signatures during a two-week period in May. Once it became clear they would collect far more signatures than necessary, a public debate about the essence of this referendum ensued. Namely, regarding the real intention of this initiative: to preemptively ban same-sex marriage (as constitutional provisions are extremely hard to change once introduced). Although only one third of the citizens turned out to vote at the referendum, more than 65 percent of voters cast their votes in favour of introducing a provision that regulates marriage as the union between a man and a woman into the Constitution, while 33,59 percent or 481,314 voters cast their votes against the inclusion of the provision. However, the best evidence of the manipulation of the referendum question and the complete vagueness of the “In the Name of the Family” initiatives can be seen in the fact that the initiators themselves drastically changed their position with respect to the content and effects of the proposed constitutional alteration. Namely, at the beginning of the process of collecting citizens’ signatures, the initiators of the referendum argued that the concrete constitutional change would not alter anything; as such a provision does not constitute discrimination, and only reaffirms the status quo. Such a claim implied that the proposed constitutional change would not limit the practical rights of same-sex communities, but would only reserve the existing institution of marriage for heterosexual communities in the long-term. Over time, the initiators gave up on this point of view. After the Ministry of Administration initiated the process of public debate regarding the draft proposal of the Civil Partnership Bill, the initiators harshly condemned the expansion of rights for same-sex couples, despite it being a commitment made by the Republic of Croatia according to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights.

On the one hand, the referendum campaign which prompted the unification of 87 civil society organizations, unions, ruling parties and the President of the Republic of Croatia against the introduction of the provision, demonstrated that the Republic of Croatia has conscious, progressive citizens who are committed to human rights. However, on the other hand, it showed that there exist a large number of citizens that are unable to comprehend basic democratic values, such as the respect for the rights of minorities by the majority, and that not much progress has been made in reducing homophobia and transphobia in Croatian society.

For the region it would definitely be a step forward to include the right to a referendum (Kosovo does not have it), or at least make it easier to organize the process of collecting signatures (Croatia, Albania).

(Transition to non-institutional) Workers’ Unions: After World War II, the class compromise in the centre of capitalism between reformed unions and economic elites led to the creation of the welfare state in which the greatest part of the workers’ movement was co-opted by the capitalist system, while its radical part remained isolated and practically destroyed. Today, the ideology, politics, strategy and practice of workers’ unions is founded in the ideology of social dialogue between the state, the employer and the worker, and it is closely tied to particular economic interests of the workers (wages and working conditions) within the nation-state. For this reason, it is necessary to revitalize the workers’ movement in a way to frame it as a fighting organization of the working class which is a clear antagonist of the capitalist socio-economic formation. We consider that the working class must also include the unemployed, precarious workers, the retired, the industrial proletariat, farmers, students and all others who are forced to sell their labour in order to survive. We believe that the revitalization of the workers’ movement can be achieved through the creation of direct-democratic anti-capitalist unions, the formation of autonomous direct-democratic unions independent of union centres, as well as the radicalization of the existing unions through cooperation with anti-capitalist organizations.

Non-institutional models

Direct Democracy: is a principle of collective decision making in which everyone who is interested in the decision can participate, where everyone has the right to vote, and an equal right to participate in the discussion, where the horizontal structure is the base of the system. Delegates who do not have the right to negotiate or decide on behalf of the body they represent, and who are entrusted with the tasks, are responsible for the implementation of decisions. The basic principles on which direct democracy is founded are horizontality, solidarity, openness, voluntariness, interchangeability, awareness and responsibility. Related to direct democracy is the question of mobilization in the political and in the socio-economic sphere (workers’ control etc.), where institutional hindrances are many. It is very common if we ask people about the possibility of their involvement, they would answer that the only thing they want is an honest and caring government, and a more humane owner. We are in the midst of an ideological struggle, which the Right has been winning for some time. People do not believe in their capacities because they are told that either they lack technical competence, or are manipulated by political experts that exploit their grievances in the guise of collective identity. That is why before speaking about the result, we need to stress the necessity of mobilization as a precondition for any kind of mass movement or mass organization. We need to mobilize common people by breaking the neoliberal hegemony, offering them not only new and viable propositions, but also building some kind of emancipatory utopia, part of which is even the self-organizing, the self-ownership and the self-management of the political and the socio-economic sphere. On the other hand we need to mobilize people practically by rethinking the role of emancipatory vanguards, not in the sense of old-style Leninism, but in the sense of trying to connect ourselves as small groups with the general population at large, be part of them, and thus build common struggles together.

General Strike: The general strike is the simultaneous strike of a large number of workers in the majority of the branches of the economy. This is a situation in which the entire society comes to a standstill due to a giant strike. Even though the strike is a form of economic direct action, a general strike always has a distinct political character, as it expresses a fighting unity of the working class, setting demands on behalf of society towards the ruling class, such as the withdrawal of legislation and the abolishing of planned austerity measures. Historically speaking, general strikes have achieved things such as the eight-hour working day, a right to union organizing, etc. Also, general strikes have been used to bring about political change (e.g. the general strike in Serbia in 2000 culminated in the toppling of the Milošević regime), and even revolutionary change (the revolution in Spain started with a general strike in 1936). Even if the general strike starts with small demands, it carries a moment of unpredictability, as there is no possibility of knowing in advance how long the general strike will last and how it will develop, especially if social movements participate as well.

Concluding remarks

From a more theoretical perspective our discussions could be summed up in two visions/models that can bring social and revolutionary change towards workers’ management and control over the means of (re)production: 1) predominantly institutional (Left Parties, trade unions, referendum movements etc.) and 2) predominantly non-institutional, direct democratic mass union organization, autonomous spaces and affinity groups. The profound social transformation arrives only if there is cooperation between these forms.

A possible future for the Balkan political platform should have a set of minimal denominators, without imposing the forms of political actions. These denominators are, at first negative: anti-capitalist struggle (struggle against privatization of commons, of social wealth, of education, health and pension system, public services, etc.), anti-patriarchal, anti-nationalist, anti-fascist, anti-militarist etc. More positive political programmatic points include workers’ control over the means of production and reproduction, movement towards a classless and stateless society based on the principles of equality, justice, and emancipation and the destruction of forms of exploitation and domination.

A more concrete goal ahead for left movements should be the establishment of new anti-capitalist unions, in parallel with the radicalization of the official trade unions to work more in the area of education and youth mobilization to continue ideological and hegemonic struggles, and to struggle for meaningful democratization and participation in politics, society and economy. This should include the building of a true Balkan International to achieve common goals.