On July 15, Solidarnost, joined by other left-wing movements and activists from the Republic of Macedonia will take part in the global day of solidarity with the citizens of Greece. Below, Anastas Vangeli argues why regional solidarity matters more than ever.
Antonio Gramsci’s “the times when the old refuses to die and the new cannot be born, are the times of monsters” is increasingly becoming the most adequate description for the state of Europe today. The third bailout deal for Greece is only the latest confirmation that political institutions, in particular the supranational ones, have become detached from the essence of the social contract, excluding the demos from the equation. This is not the Europe its citizens desire, nor we, the people coming from candidate countries, would wish to be a part of. The old has to die, and the new is yet to emerge. Until then, we are stuck in a time of monstrous politics. And there is no better illustration of this point than the twin crises in the Balkans – in Greece and in Macedonia.
The ongoing events in Greece are very telling of what the future of our region will look like – and it is not pretty: queues in front of ATMs, empty banks, and an ever-growing number of desperate young people. The majority of the Greek population who voted ‘OXI’ to more austerity will nonetheless be the immediate sufferers of whatever happens next.
Syriza itself inherited a devastated economy, a Sisyphean task of repaying a debt that many deem odious. It won a ‘hands-tied’ mandate – before taking any steps, it was bound to negotiate with creditors that did not only want to collect the debt, but were also poised to make an example out of their anti-establishment agenda at times when Syriza’s victory inspired a myriad of anti-austerity and pro-social justice movements across Europe and beyond. It had inspired, among others, the Macedonian Left, which itself has been greatly influenced by the collaboration with Greek activists in the past. Syriza gave hope for ending political cartels elsewhere, as its rise to power was believed to bring an end to the bipartisan establishment that originally created the crisis, embodied in Nea Demokratia and PASOK.
At this stage, we are realizing that this new politics, that puts the people first, is not allowed to be born yet. By employing arm-twisting strategies the unelected transnational elites of Brussels and the IMF put Syriza itself in a position of betraying its voters, and the vast majority that said ‘OXI’ in the referendum. Hence, the political force that was on the streets in solidarity with the Greek citizens during the worst time of the crisis, and was voted in power to bring about a change, might be already neutralized, and the break with the old corrupt elites exercising incompatible policies that brought Greece to the edge might have been only of temporary character. A new Karamanlis, Papandreou, or someone of the likes of Theodorakis, eager to conform to whatever demands the creditors set for it, is patiently waiting for their turn. The worst case scenario from a spectacular failure of the Left could give way to the rise fascist forces of the likes of Golden Dawn, and their equivalents around Europe.
Old, technocratic, pro-big capital, and crypto-colonial international politics threatens to stifle new progressive political forces around Europe and in the Balkans, too. In a more covert way, this is also seen in the case of Macedonia in the last few months.
Macedonia’s crisis is less prominent in the international press, and is less seen as one where the EU bears responsibility. Yet, with Macedonia being an EU candidate country since 2005, the role of the EU and the process of Europeanization have been inseparable from the state- and institution-building processes after the conflict in 2001.
Since 2006, Macedonia is under the rule of VMRO-DPMNE party led by Nikola Gruevski, which has sustained its rule through neopatrimonial economic rule, excessive expenditure and amassing debt (Macedonia is in an alarming debt crisis too), combined with a repertoire of authoritarian strategies ranging from blatant election frauds, illegal mass surveillance and threats to political opponents, controlling the judiciary and the media, murder cover-ups to protect his aides, to staging ethnic tensions. Over the course of the years, however, the EU has remained tacitly supportive of his government’s endeavours.
In 2015, controversies surrounding Gruevski culminated, and so did mass protests. The disoriented Social Democratic opposition (Macedonia’s PASOK), bearing huge responsibility for the devastation of the politics and economy in the past and offering no clear vision for change, did not manage to capitalize on the popular discontent. However, a myriad of pan-ethnic, self-organized social movements, including a vibrant Left, gained momentum instead. As protests started occurring with growing frequency and mobilizing a growing number of people, by the May 5th uprising, Macedonia entered in what for a moment seemed an opening for a breakthrough.
In response to the new setting, however, the EU initiated negotiations between Gruevski, the leaders of the two largest ethnic Albanian parties (both in client-patron relations with him), and the leader of the Social Democrats, Zoran Zaev. The political leaders and the Brussels diplomats absorbed in the negotiations, completely ignored the historic mobilization on the streets of Macedonia that had explicitly asked for immediate release of the captured state and putting an end to the model of opaque cartel-like model of doing politics that has been an obstacle to progress since the independence of the country. The Social Democrats attempted to co-opt and instrumentalize the revolt on the streets, which at the end was counter-productive to say the least.
The negotiation process legitimized the current Macedonian political establishment, while it has completely drained and shut down the social movements and the emerging actors on the political scene that in the past months had been an important source of hope for Macedonia’s citizens. The EU, hence, managed to do the greatest favor for the entrenched political elites: it restored the opaque ‘business as usual’ frame of doing politics. In the meantime, Gruevski had regrouped, and mastering the EU technocratic newspeak he is already implementing an action plan on the remarks expressed in the reports proliferated by the Commission, not only fending off another attack, but also preventing the rise of the new ideas, new actors and new ways of doing politics.
The Balkans has been a venue where political models were devised and collapsed throughout history. There is no reason to doubt that given the chance, our region can be a place where new, progressive ideas can once again be implemented in practice – if only given a chance. Failing to recognize this, the EU has chosen to stifle the new and resuscitate the corrupt ways, by initiating a quick end to the rule of Syriza in Greece, and providing repeated chances to Gruevski in Macedonia, against the very principles of democracy and prosperity on which the European project itself has been founded.
Macedonian and Greek citizens share the same political fate, which trumps whatever differences may have been projected by the corrupt elites in the past. The elites of Nea Demokratia and PASOK – who over the years jointly dismantled the economy of Greece and accumulated the debt, instrumentalized the infamous name dispute to legitimize themselves and to distract the population of Northern Greece from the coming economic collapse, and to have an extra bargaining chip on the international stage. Their Macedonian counterparts, and in particular Gruevski has been doing the same. Gruevski has had an interest in complicating relations with Greece so as to use them as an excuse for his own failures. He has devised new ethnic Macedonian nationalism and built excessively expensive monuments to boost his appeal, but also to compensate for the misery of the present by constructing an image of the glorious past. Moreover, the international community has validated the name dispute, normalizing the condition of damaged regional relations.
Nevertheless, as the clash between Gruevski and Karamanslis was at its peak, in 2008, Macedonian and Greek activists jointly marched and spoke in Skopje, Bitola, Ioannina, Thessaloniki and Athens. Similar joint activities on a smaller have taken place before and after 2008. Youth organizations from Southern Macedonia and Northern Greece have discussed youth unemployment and potentials for overcoming economic hardships. Recently, Macedonian and Greek activists have stood together in solidarity with the migrants crossing their borders. Following such examples of acting together from the past, Greek and Macedonian activists and citizens must seize the opportunity for building ever stronger linkages, and nurture transnational solidarity in times of monsters, laying the grounds for the most important battle, the one for reversing the economic loss that our countries have endured for decades.
At this juncture, we have a precious opportunity to reframe political narratives in the region and pay much bigger attention to the grand questions not only of identity, but rather the ways we do politics and economy. The deepening political crisis in Macedonia, just as the economic crisis in Greece, will further accelerate the decline of the Balkans. In an attempt to change course, the majority of the Greek citizens voiced their support for the new political actors and new forms of politics in the elections earlier this year, and now they will have to struggle to avoid a backsliding. Macedonian citizens, who were given hope by the emerging social movements, still must fight for a democratic opening.
The political cartels the citizens of Greece and Macedonia battle are like the Lernaean Hydra – for each head cut off it grows two new. It takes a Herculean effort to slain it, one which takes regional and international solidarity as its weapon, and upholding the vision of a new time as its energy in the long battle ahead.
We shall overcome!
Anastas Vangeli is a doctoral researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Science, and a long-distance activist of Solidarnost.
This article was originally published on AnalyzeGreece on 14th of July.