The Theft of the Commons of Eastern Europe

To my readers -- my apologies for my infrequent posts over recent weeks.  I’ve been overwhelmed with a writing deadline on my Commons Law Project, happily sidetracked by a vacation, and attending a conference.  But I promise to be posting more frequently in coming weeks and months.

My visit to the Vis Green Academy in Croatia last week taught me more about the transnational scourge of enclosure and the potential of the commons as a lingua franca for resistance.  The occasion was a major gathering of 200-plus Green Party activists and elected officials throughout eastern Europe, but especially Croatia.  Held on the lovely island of Vis, a former Yugoslavian military base until 1992, the gathering was entitled, “The Crisis of Political Imagination – and the Transformation of Green Politics."

The recurrent pattern of enclosure in Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Herezogovina and other parts of the region is commercial development of urban public spaces and government collusion with speculators and developers in giving away prime coastal real estate.  Corruption is rife.  Political transparency is rare.  Civil society is weak.

While “the street” often blames the former “communists” for betraying the public interest, an astute conference participant pointed out that the real culprits are the elites of state capitalism.  Sounds familiar, no?  In the Balkans, it simply has different historical and cultural inflections.

“Selling land is seen as the easiest way to spur development,” said one activist from Zagreb.  “And there is a belief that tourism is an economic panacea even though there are rarely studies or analyses that support that claim.”  And so it goes that the most attractive coastal lands, previously controlled by the Tito government, are being sold off to speculators registered as offshore corporations, who intend only to sell the land later for a handsome profit.

There are citizen critics of such deals, most notably Green Party activists and some elected officials.  But because the formal legal and bureaucratic systems, where they exist, can be ignored with impunity, the privatization of common wealth proceeds without impediment.  This may be the unfortunate cultural legacy of the former Yugoslavia:  an underdeveloped civil society, a crony capitalism eager to grab while the getting is good, and a nostalgic nationalism that serves as a convenient cover for crimes against the commons. 

There have been some notable acts of resistance to the neoliberal takeover/makeover of Croatian cities.  In Zagreb, a developer simply took over a public street to build a 100 million euro shopping mall, apartments and a private garage.  The brazen appropriation of public space spurred thousands of citizens to publicly protest, resulting in the arrest of some 150 people.  When the shopping mall eventually opened, there were as many protesters as shoppers, making it difficult for police to identify who was a shopper and who was a protester.

The truly dispiriting thing is that public protests, even on a massive scale, are not necessarily effective, at least in the short term.  In Sarajevo, reported an elected official from that city, private interests are so aggressive and certain that the authorities will do nothing, that they simply start construction without permission, confident that they can later make things legal through political deals or payoffs. 

The Zagreb protests inspired such huge crowds of demonstrators because they realized what is truly at stake:  the future of democfratic sovereignty.  Citizens realize that the loss of public spaces to private owners, the unholy public/private partnerships over resources, and the sale of municipal financial instruments on international markets, is siphoning away citizen control over their own city’s future. 

This, indeed, is the most dangerous aspect to the neoliberal takeover of the city.  Without a Tahrir Square in which to gather and protest – without commons of parks and public spaces – citizens cannot even express their collective outrage against government abuses.  Malls and office towers instead dictate that people remain atomistic and isolated, and focused on their roles as dutiful consumers.

“We are losing even the ability to legitimize our public fights,” lamented a sociologist from Zagrab.  In Skopje, Macedonia, government officials have used the cloak of nationalism to ram through development plans that banish diverse public art and cultural pluralism.  At great public expense, they have instead resinstated orthodox religious sculpture and art, including an all-male roster of historical and religious eminences. 

The media seldom report critically on these struggles by commoners, and the public is distressingly disengaged on many occasions.  However, the highly visible Zagreb protests have alerted the region to their own democratic potential, and to the actual stakes for societies.  The Zagreb protests have also inspired a fresh determination to develop more imaginative responses to official corruption.  Clearly this is a long-term struggle to reinvent civil society, or more accurately, to reinvent the commons as a vehicle for saving the common wealth of Croatia. 

I will have more on the Croatian commons in future posts.  For now, I am stranded, trying to find a flight home after Hurricane Irene canceled air travel to Boston. 


David, it was great to have

David, it was great to have you in the Green Academy on Vis. I do believe that the discourse of the commons has potential, as you say, of bringing together the so far largely disassociated acts of protest.

I am also happy to read how you have been intrigued by the patterns of enclosing the commons in Croatia and elsewhere in the region. I will be interested in reading your posts.

Danijela Dolenec