On Monday, the 17th of November, around three thousand students demonstrated on the streets of Skopje. Size-wise, this may appear relatively insignificant. On the same day, 700 km southwards, over 20,000 demonstrators joined a rally in Athens to mark the 41st anniversary of a student uprising against the country’s former dictatorship. The news story on the protests in Skopje, as it appeared on Revolution News the following day, only highlights this contrast: merely a handful of stories on Macedonian activism figure on the site. It comes as no surprise that the European section of the site features sub-sections on Bulgaria, Bosnia, Greece, and Serbia, but none on Macedonia (nor on Albania nor Kosovo, for that matter). Yet, what this regional focus fails to pay due attention to are the constraints of the domestic Macedonian context.
Monday’s student protests targeted government proposals to introduce an “external examination system” in universities. If the proposal passes, students will be required to take 2 additional exams, one halfway through their studies and one at the end. The proposal is for the exams to be administered by an authority residing outside of the university. Failure to pass either of these would result in the termination of their studies.
Before plunging into the specifics of Monday’s protest and the student demands, it is worth explaining some of the possible reasons as to why this protest represents such a rarity. The rise of the multi-party system in the early 1990’s in a rather counter-intuitive way unleashed a dynamic that circumscribed the rise of social movements. For starters, those who had belonged to social movements in opposition to the now collapsed (Yugoslav) system lost their motive for such involvement once the process of regime change was launched. When multi-party elections were introduced, this created new rewards for participation in party politics (e.g. winning office), which became more attractive than involvement in social movements. The coming to power in 2006 of the current governing party only exacerbated these dynamics. A strong system of patronage has meant that jobs, favors, and other societal privileges are used as tools to maintain an authoritarian grip on all segments of society. Parties act as employment agencies in order to secure the loyalty of their voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.
I spoke with Mariglen Demiri, member of ‘Studentski Plenum’ – the student movement behind the protests, and Goce Markoski, activist from the Leftist Movement ‘Solidarnost’ to help me understand how these contextual limitations have impacted on this specific protest, and on social movements in general.
A.G.: Why are student protests in Macedonia so small-scale relative to those in neighbouring countries?
G.M: We mustn’t be blind to the conditions of the domestic context, which are not very conducive to the rise of articulated and authentic citizen protests. As an active member and organizer of several initiatives I can only regretfully confirm that the level of “protest culture” is very low. At the same time the citizens demonstrate an extremely high level of tolerance for the political and other centers of power (executives, managers etc.), which attempt to suppress them, breaking along the way their constitutionally guaranteed rights. This is why I believe that we should support and nurture all protests which have the potential to obtain a broader citizen support.
The Protest Organizers
‘Student Plenum’ is the name of the authentic student organization behind the protests. As one of their most active members, Mariglen Demiri, a Philosophy student, told me, they formed the organization at the end of October, in response to the government proposals:
A.G.: How did the ‘Student Plenum’ come into being?
M.D: When we heard the announcements about the proposed reforms, we called for a coordinating meeting through social media. The idea was to create an alternative institutional body, where all students who are affected and conscious of their rights will be able to vocalize and fight for their opinions and rights. ‘Student Plenum’ was that body. The students as well as the student movements have for a longer period been in a state of knockout. This proposal woke them up, especially the most progressive ones.
A.G.: What was it about these proposals specifically that provoked you to protest?
M.D.: Look, we are aware that the question of the external examination is perhaps a relatively minor problem with which the students are faced. The students, especially those who come from outside of Skopje and have to reside in student residences, live in truly appaling conditions, with bad food, bad transport, without elementary conditions for a dignified life, not to mention a good quality curriculum. The situation is equally dire in the universities across the country. Certainly, the poorest students suffer the most from a system that suppresses us all. However, after a longer period of student apathy, the members of the Plenum used this simply as an occassion. We had to start from somewhere. The synergy we created on Monday must evolve, it has to spill over throughout the society. Questions regarding student life, the quality of higher education, the role of students and citizens in society cannot remain of concern exclusively to politicians. Students who lack empathy for the “Other,” who are dissinteresed in social justice, who are not interested in social relations, are not trully students. This student movement should grow proportionally with the injustice which the state and its institutions are inflicting on the students, the poor, the deprived and the marginalized, as well as the citizenry as a whole. We need to restore the dignified dimension of the word “student,” which has long lost its meaning, its glory, its potential to become something productive for the future…
Although fresh from the oven, ‘Studentski Plenum’ have demonstrated a capacity to organize themselves and to mobilize in an orderly manner. The protest act demonstrated the group’s worthiness and sent a clear signal: we don’t need the government to enable us to be orderly; we can do that for ourselves.
On Monday only a tiny fraction of media reported on the protests. This is unsurprising in a state where most critical media outlets have been forced to shut down.
A.G.: How does the media in Macedonia influence the culture of protests?
G.M: In Macedonia, the mainstream and most influential media are under the complete control of the ruling political elites. Their purpose is to deligitimize all outbursts of public dissatisfaction. The most usual methods used is to attach a party-political etiquette (i.e. desperate attempts to demonstrate links between activists and members of the opposition party) to any act of social rebellion.
The Minister of Education
The response of the Minister was along similar lines. On Monday, “Studentski Plenum” communicated their position to the Minister of Education. In it, they listed their contentions with the proposals for an external exam including: A complete disregard of successfully passed exams, unnecessary obstacles to the constitutionally guaranteed right to education, encroachment on the autonomy of the university. Finally, they criticize the Minister’s failure to elaborate on how exactly this proposal is supposed to respond to problems in higher education.
Answering a reporter’s question regarding the letter the following day, the Minister alleged that the student protests have a party-political background, the clue for which he finds in their calls for his resignation. The letter, which has since been circulated on social networks clearly reveals this to be a blatant invention- such requests do not figure in the letter.
Our only membership card is our student ID
The students have in fact preempted such attacks. “Our only membership card is our student ID” was one of the most visible slogans at the protests. Mariglen explains:
M.D.: The party membership card has become a social compass, which opens up opportunities, or at least gives false hopes that one day there will be an opportunity of some sort. We are open to everyone, we do not have a problem accepting members who belong to any political party. However our one and only criterion is always the interests of the students. This “Student Plenum” will not allow any party-political influences. Of course, we have a political dimension, but this is in stark contrast with the party-political dimension. The fact that in our society we have become used to viewing the political uniquely as party-political is another matter. The fight for the social status of the students, the bad quality of education, which produces apathetic individuals, who are dehumanized and lost in society, is manifestly a political struggle. For years now, the students have been de-politicized. At a time of feudal-neoliberalism and partization of the state this represents a huge problem. What can the students do? They can do a lot. One guiding idea can act like a connective tissue. It can gather everyone towards a better and a more humane society. Our consciousness will gain strength and power to create the integrity necessary to nourish the society.
A.G.: What comes next?
M.D.: All our actions are decided jointly at Student Plenums. I personally don’t think we should just stop with these demands, but raise further demands. We, the students, have the need and the right to see these problems solved.
A cautious note of optimism
Whether or not the students from ‘Studentski Plenum’ succeed in stopping the reforms, is irrelevant to their success as a social movement and their potential for inducing social change. One of the most misguided and counterproductive mistakes that can be made with social movements, is to read them instrumentally, as though they were only about tactical efforts to achieve a certain sort of political or economic objective. This misses several key points emphasized by key scholars on social movements (Calhoun, Tilly).
The collective experience that comes from participating in a protest and more importantly from belonging to a wider social movement, helps cement a new student identity. This is of crucial value for building activist and reactive capital in the society.
Secondly, there is a distinction between a protest and a social movement. A protest by itself almost never produces major social change. Social representations on the other hand represent collective challenges to elites, other groups and cultural codes by people with common purposes. (Tarrow) The key distinction is that while protests are ephemeral events, social movements must undertake sustained interactions with elites, opponents and authorities. It is the sustained interaction that produces waves of activism. The protests may represent the peaks of the waves, but they are not their most important elements. What happens between waves is far more crucial. What makes possible each phase of the movement is in large part work that was done when the movement wasn’t very visible, in between. The key question for ‘Student Plenum’ and other movements in the country is how well can they knit together protests and other kinds of activities, over the longer term in order to produce social change.
Adela Gjorgjioska is a Marie Curie Doctoral Student researching social representations and communications, with a focus on socio-dynamics and social change. She is based in Rome.