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All you need to know about the commons in Southeast Europe

  • Pioneering theoretical work on the critical commons theory in the see region evolved at the beginning of the 2000s in organisations like the Multimedia Institute (club “MaMa”) from Zagreb and was related to the free culture and free software movement, but also involved translating and publishing critical theory books, especially related to intellectual property. A partner organisation working on the digital commons at the time was Ljudmila Art and Science Laboratory from Ljubljana. Multimedia Institute became a partner of Creative Commons, the famous us non-profit dedicated to creating global cultural commons of creative products, in 2004, while Ljudmila soon followed. The critical theory of the commons was further introduced in the region at the “Subversive Festival”, an annual event of progressive and critical theory, activism and culture happening in Zagreb since 2008. Various guests have given lectures on the commons theory and this was further encouraged by one of the festival’s key partners—the Heinrich Boell Stiftung office in Croatia.

    HBS Croatia in 2010 initiated a separate annual event called Green Academy, designed as a summer school on the island of Vis and continuously featuring critical commons theory from the region and from abroad in its program. Since 2016, Green Academy is organised by the Institute for Political Ecology as a biannual event. Important for critical commons theory was also Pulska grupa, an informal collective of mostly critical architects that built on urban commons theory and translated “commons” as “komunal”. Another important organisation for theoretical development was Grupa 22, a collective of progressive academics, activists and thinkers founded in 2010 in Zagreb.

    It was within this organisation’s working paper series that the most comprehensive theoretical text about the commons within South East Europe context was published. The text, authored by Dolenec and Žitko (2013), compares the self-governance theories of Elinor Ostrom with Branko Horvat, Yugoslav economist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1987. In terms of regional theoretical framing and struggles analysis, the most comprehensive text published so far is Dolenec et al (2014), by the working group within Balkan Forum of the 2013 Subversive Festival. It is a text collaboratively written by six members of the working group from Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia and Bulgaria. In Macedonia, theoretical work and research related to cultural commons was done by the Kontrapunkt and urban commons by the Freedom Square (Ploshtad Sloboda).

    In Serbia culture and digital commons research was done for example by the New Media Center_kuda.org from Novi Sad while urban commons by the Ministry of Space (Ministarstvo prostora), a non-formal group based in Belgrade that organises campaigns and research on urban resources management. It was the cooperation of the Ministry of Space, the creative hub Nova Iskra in Belgrade and the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory from Novi Sad that launched the “Studies of Commons” in 2016. It is a five-month long course on theory and practice of the commons supportedby the Heinrich Boell Stiftung—Belgrade.

    The practice regarding commons in South East Europe can be divided in two categories. The first would be the practice of governing resources by communities of users and not by the state or market, which would mostly fit the classical theory of the commons relying on Elinor Ostrom. These practices were frequent in socialist Yugoslavia and present not only in industrial enterprises, but in health, education, cultural and housing sectors. Few of these practices remained in contemporary capitalist societies and they are largely invisible, so more research is needed to identify them. Some of the commons governance practices, like in the case of Gajna pasture in Eastern Croatia, were governed as commons for more than a century through different political and economic systems. Other practices, like the Recreational Zone in Banja Luka, which is a green area governed as commons by users dissatisfied by the public governance, have only developed in recent years.

    The second category of commons practices in South East Europe are the struggles against a new wave of commodification, privatisation and statisation of resources that should be accessible to all, which fits better with critical activist theory relying on Ugo Mattei. There was a series of such struggles across the see region in the recent decade. Most of them were connected to struggles against the privatisation of physical space important for society at large.

    One of the first of these commons struggles in the region as written by Dolenec et al. (2017) was taken up in 2006 by the Right to the City (Pravo na grad) initiative from Zagreb against the privatisation and devastation of the Cvjetni Square and Varšavska Street, in cooperation with the environmental advocacy organisation Green Action (Zelena akcija). Similar struggles and massive mobilisations continued across Croatia, but the biggest ones were in Dubrovnik, concerning the hill Srđ, and in Pula, over the Muzil peninsula. In Bosnia & Herzegovina the biggest struggle of this kind was over the privatisation and devastation of Picin park in Banja Luka called Park is Ours (Park je naš). Macedonia’s biggest struggle over physical space was led by the Freedom Square and initiative Singing Skopjans (Raspeani Skopjani) against the devastation and statisation of public urban space enforced by the nationalist government implementing the megalomaniac project “Skopje 2014”.

    In Serbia, the devastation and privatisation of the Belgrade waterfront was opposed by the the initiative Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own (Ne da(vi)mo Beograd). It is important to note that such struggles were not disconnected from theoretical work on the commons in the region. Right to the City in Zagreb built on the theoretical work of Multimedia Institute, the initiative “Park is Ours” in Banja Luka built on the work of Centre for Environment (Centar za životnu sredinu) the struggle against Skopje 2014 built on the research work of the Freedom Square, while “Don’t let Belgrade D(r)own” built on the research work of the Ministry of Space group. There were also massive struggles against privatisation and commodification of the education systems in the region, with mobilisations of students in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia and Montenegro.

    In 2014 the initiative We Don’t Give Our Highways (Ne damo naše autoceste), led by a coalition of ngos (among which the Right to the City the most prominent one) and trade unions, managed to collect around 500.000 registered voters’ signatures in just 2 weeks to stop the Croatian government from signing a 40-year private concession for the already built national highways. In 2016, Heinrich Boell Stiftung—Sarajevo organised the conference “Commons!—creative ways of activism and participation” in Banja Luka, gathering around 60 activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Albania.

    It should also be noted that these activist practices of the commons are not disconnected from governance practices of the commons. A good example is Pula, a city that has a decade-long practice of the Rojc Community Centre governing one of city’s biggest buildings as commons. Rojc was also the epicentre of a massive activist struggle against the local government’s plan to grant a private developer a 99-year concession of the Muzil peninsula, which makes up 20% of the city’s surface, for luxurious gated tourism. Commons struggles are often coupled with occupations and commons governance experiments. Struggle for Varšavska Street ended with a one month occupation of the street during which it was governed as commons. Massive student protests against commodification of education system were coupled with occupations of faculties during which they were self-governed as commons with alternative education program organised for several months. Massive citizens’ protests against the government in Slovenia in 2012–2013 and Bosnia and Herzegovina in2014 also initiated direct democracy experiments in governing neighbourhoods in Maribor, factories in Tuzla and other resources.

    The discourse of the commons, in terms of the democratisation of public resources and fight against privatisation/statisation, is more and more present in public in the region. The latest development are new political platforms appearing in the see region, inspired by the success of similar platforms like Barcelona en Comu that embraced the discourse of the commons with new municipalism and won elections in Barcelona. The political platform Zagreb Is Ours (Zagreb je naš) was established in 2017 by activists from all walks of life, as well as citizens who were not active in social movements, and managed to get almost 8% of the votes in Zagreb’s local elections. A similar process is currently happening in Belgrade, where the initiative Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own will run in the local elections with a municipalist, but also, to some extent, commons-based agenda.

    The historical trajectory of South East Europe regarding commons is similar to the one in Western Europe, with one major difference—the experience of self-governing socialism within Yugoslavia during the 2nd half of the 20th century. It was a state-level experiment with self-governance practices in industry, but also culture, science, healthcare, education, social service and housing. Yugoslavia faced many economic and political challenges ending with dissolution and bloody wars in the 1990s. With all the flaws regarding insufficient political and economic democracy in self-governing socialism, what followed in neoliberal transition made many people in newly independent countries of South East Europe nostalgic about socialist Yugoslavia, while nationalist political elites still make some critical but honest evaluation of the self-governance practices impossible. However, since the beginning of the 2000s a new generation of scholars and activists in the region has started embracing critical theory and commons paradigm. Series of theoretical conferences, governance experiments and struggles over the commons initiated by well-connected actors across South East Europe suggests that there is a commons movement in the region.

    Author: Tomislav Tomašević

    *this is an excerpt from IPE- Institute for Political Ecology’s  study entitled “Commons in South East Europe: Case of Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Macedonia”, authored by Tomislav Tomašević, Vedran Horvat, Alma Midžić, Ivana Dragšić and Miodrag Dakić.

    Publisher: IPE – Instutute for Political Ecology


    link to full publication by IPE: Commons in South East Europe

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