Seven Theses on Neobalkanism and NGOization in Transitional Serbia

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Seven Theses on Neobalkanism and NGOization in Transitional Serbia


Tamara Vukov


As in other post-socialist and ‘developing’ area contexts, and commencing with the years of political strife and war that led to the dissolution of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, the ongoing transition to capitalism in post-Yugoslav Serbia has been accompanied by the explosion of the so-called Third Sector, civil society, or ‘the Other Serbia’ (‘Druga Srbija’). The predominant image presented in the West of the civil society/NGO sector is that of a major progressive force countering the crude nationalism of the general public and leading Serbia on the road to eventual European Union membership. Yet this chapter argues that much of the sector has in fact played a compromised, coopted, and at times destructive role in preparing the ground for and reinforcing neoliberal restructuring, legitimizing the so-called democracy promotion of empire (what Michael Ignatieff (2003) approvingly calls ‘empire lite’), and entrenching the political ‘dance’ between neoliberalism and nationalism that squeezes out all other alternatives from accepted political discourse in the region. Certain actors in this sector have also worked to counter, diffuse, and marginalize grassroots and autonomous resistance to neoliberalism in the region, although growing instances of the latter have emerged and will be something I gesture towards at the end of the chapter.


Building upon the theoretical and political groundwork laid down in a series of panels on ‘Balkanism’ convened by members of the Global Balkans network at the 2008 and 2009 Critical Race and Anti-Colonial Studies Conferences (held in Toronto and Montreal respectively), this chapter offers seven theses that attempt to elucidate the complex yet intimate relations between the racialized discourse of balkanism, NGOization, and the post-Yugoslav economic and political transition. This reflection piece emerges out of some of the concrete political struggles and organizing dilemmas I have engaged with as a participant in the informal Global Balkans network, as well as a filmmaker working on an independent documentary film project in collaboration with Global Balkans and activist groups in the region on how the post-Yugoslav transition is being lived by workers and displaced people in Serbia.


Grounded in my engagement with grassroots movements in Serbia through the Global Balkans network and practices of militant investigation (Shukaitis, Graeber, & Biddle, 2007) that I undertook over the 5 years (2006–2011) I spent filming the documentary film project Tranzicija/Transition (forthcoming, 2014), I draw upon interviews with grassroots actors in the region in thesis 5 to weave together some of the primary forms and critiques of this NGOization of social and political space in Serbia over this period. Building on the grounded analysis emerging from these interviews, I sketch out some of the ways through which NGOs have come to act as both the ‘swords’ and ‘soft power of empire’ (Bartholomew & Breakspear, 2004, p. 124). I close with a brief consideration of emerging political energies and networks working beyond the compromised model of NGOization to build and support autonomous grassroots resistance to the destructive impacts that balkanism, military humanitarianism, and the neoliberal economic transition have wrought in the region.


The New Balkanism


One particularity of both military humanitarianism and NGOization in the region is the extent to which it has been introduced and buttressed via imperial rhetorics of neobalkanism. Following the works of such writers as Maria Todorova (1997) and Vesna Goldsworthy (1998), balkanism has come to be understood as a persistent and recalcitrant imperialist discourse that frames the Balkan region as a volatile, primitive, and savage land of primordial hatreds and nationalist backwardness requiring some form of imperial oversight. If we trace the history and periodic recurrence of balkanism, it becomes clear that the re-emergence and reactivation of balkanism and a corresponding discourse of humanitarian intervention in relation to the wars amongst the successor states of the former socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s and 2000s carried specific traits. Tracing the parameters and effects of this ‘new balkanism’ is a larger project. Two key parallel and symbiotic discourses to the new balkanism of the past 20 years include the ‘new’ and highly visible politics of militaristic humanitarianism, which has operated and been mobilized in close concert with the erasure and invisibility on a global stage of the dramatic impacts of neoliberalism in the region. The persistent occlusion of the latter has in many ways been enabled by this spectacle of western military humanitarianism, of a benevolent west bringing order to a chaotic, brutal local culture. This obscures the extent to which the violent neoliberal restructuring of the region from its earlier days in the guise of the shock therapy of the late 1980s and early 1990s (under the counsel of Jeffrey Sachs) has impacted and generated the conditions for war, for the rise of the nationalisms and violent militarisms that shaped the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (see Woodward, 1995). Through the lens of the new balkanism, neoliberalism is euphemized into a triumphalist discourse of ‘transition’, of the coming of humanitarian aid, democracy and progress to the region, a way to cleanse and purify it of its indigenous backwardness by westernizing and promising to bring it into the European family. As Horvat and Stiks (2012) argue, ‘the very concept of Transition – as an ideological construct of domination based on the narrative of integration of the former socialist Europe into the Western core – actually hides the monumental neo-colonial transformation of this region into a dependent semi-periphery’.


Empire lite: Military humanitarianism


The post-Yugoslav Balkans have been the testing ground for a series of innovations and shifts in coalescing imperial projects that have played a crucial role in the latest manifestations and mutations of humanitarian imperialism on a global stage. The neoliberal economic program known as shock therapy that was introduced in the region in 1990 was just one of these experiments. The shift from a development-based model of humanitarianism, however paternalistic, to a newly militarized form of humanitarian intervention during the 1999 NATO bombing strikes in Yugoslavia and Kosovo was a key turning point that shaped the trajectory of later military incursions elsewhere in the world (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya).


One of the key proponents and ideologues of this emergent form of human rights imperialism, Michael Ignatieff, has written quite boldly, some might say triumphally, of the intimate relationship that has developed and been increasingly mobilized between humanitarianism and imperialism. In his paean to what he approvingly calls ‘empire lite’, Ignatieff is forthright in his assertion that this is a positive thing (2003). As he notes,


I focus on nation-building in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan because they are laboratories in which a new imperium is taking shape, in which American military power, European money and humanitarian motive have combined to produce a form of imperial rule for a post-imperial age (p. 18).


The progression from Bosnia and Kosovo to Afghanistan, and, on the eve of the US intervention when the text was written, Iraq, is important here. The arenas for these humanitarian military adventures are figured by Ignatieff as barbarian frontier zones of failed states and ethnic conflict, zones that will remain ungovernable, prey to disorder and violent chaos, but for the intervention of a benevolent imperial hegemony. This is what he calls ‘temporary imperialism’, a limited occupation necessary for the establishment of democracy and the imposition of responsibility onto local elites who are otherwise incapable of self-government. Ignatieff argues that ‘Bosnia after Dayton offered laboratory conditions in which to experiment with nation-building’ that became the precedent for the later interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq (p. 31). Yet he also rather baldly notes that ‘the reconstruction of the Balkans has not been an exercise in humanitarian social work, it has always been an imperial project’ (p. 27). He does not mean this as a form of critique. In fact, he is quite enthusiastic about the promise of progress that this ‘imperial kernel at the heart of the humanitarian enterprise’ imposes (p. 36). As he puts it, ‘nation-building is the kind of imperialism you get in a human rights era’ (p. 90).


Ignatieff’s liberal apologetics are bold in their defense of what some would consider a cynical vision of humanitarianism. In this vision, humanitarianism is more or less reduced to imperialism, and the ostensible motive of great powers to ‘do good’ in the world is always doubled by the convergence between ‘doing good’ and a calculated self-interest. But Ignatieff’s defense of ‘empire lite’ does have the virtue of directly stating the terms of this approach in an open equation of what he calls ‘the humanitarian as imperialist’.


Ignatieff is also clear on the sequence of events called upon in this scenario – beginning with what he terms a barbarian threat in a zone of strategic imperial interest, moving to the need for a humanitarian intervention that is both military and moral on the part of an imperial power (whether in its multilateral or unilateral guise), to the arrival of humanitarian aid, NGOs and nation-building in the liberal democratic image of the intervening power. Nevertheless, this happy scenario of a benevolent humanitarian empire intervening in the name of democracy obscures several critical factors:


(1) firstly, the implication of the same imperial powers in producing conditions that contribute to the destabilization, violence and disorder of the so-called frontier zones;


(2) secondly, the ostensibly surgical yet often brutal violence and ‘collateral damage’ of militarized humanitarianism;


(3) and thirdly, the extent to which the promotion and advent of liberal democracy, or in the case of the post-socialist Balkans, neoliberal democracy, is motivated by the simultaneous imposition of market capitalism in conditions of what would classically be referred to as primitive accumulation, or what David Harvey (2003) calls accumulation by dispossession.


As Neda Atanasoski has argued (2006), the spectre of Eastern European, and more specifically, Balkan barbarism, re-emerged in the 1990s through a US discourse on Eastern Europe’s racial backwardness, whereby an image of primitive racism and ethnic conflicts in Eastern European as well as non-European nations such as Iraq constitute a displacement of the US’s anxieties about its own unresolved racial inequalities onto so-called ethnic conflicts in ‘underdeveloped’ regions. This displacement helped to secure an image of the US’s humanitarian role as leader and exemplar of racial tolerance as part of a liberal multiculturalist mode of democracy promotion. At the same time, it obscures the extent to which the ‘US promotion of Western human rights ideals [in these regions] goes hand in hand with its stakes in fostering the budding free market economies of Eastern Europe’ that only exacerbate existing ethnic, racial, and other inequalities (p. 225).


Swords of empire: NGOization, democracy promotion and the new balkanism


There are many continuities between the new balkanism and its historical forms in the way that both frame the region as a kind of liminal space between Europe and orient, a zone of ethnic impurity, instability and irrationality. But in relation to the post-Yugoslav geopolitical space of the 1990s and 2000s, the new balkanism has its own distinct features and apparatuses that have emerged over the course of the past twenty years. The modes of imperial intervention it has taken are multiple, and include legal, military, economic, academic, cultural, visual and media spheres. The new military humanitarianism has been the vehicle and modus operandi through which a transitional form of imperial governmental oversight has been installed in the post-Yugoslav region, both militarily and politically. Its forms of governance are no less effective or continuous for being heterogeneous (or polyarchic as William Robinson (1996) has argued) and encompassing competing agendas and tensions within the range of national and supranational forms they take: from the new neoliberal and residual nationalist elites governing the successor states, the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Union, and special tribunals; to NATO, KFOR (the Kosovo Force of NATO), protectorate forms of governance such as the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia, UNMiK (the UN Mission in Kosovo), and EULEX (European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, which replaces UNMiK).


Concomitantly, a particularly pervasive and often deceptive agent of the new balkanist humanitarianism comes in the political form of the NGO. Since the emergence of the first NGOs in Serbia in the late 1980s and early 1990s (Vetta 2009, p. 29), the pace of NGOization has accelerated, with 2,000 NGOs registered in the decade between 1990–2000, and a further explosion after the regime change in 2000, when 8,500 NGOs were registered between 2000 and 2006 (Vetta, 2009, p. 29). Steven Sampson (2002) argues that the project teams, directors, and managers of NGO and humanitarian aid projects have become an important component of what he terms the new comprador bourgeois elites in ‘post-postsocialist’ countries. They act as pliable, effective cosmopolitan agents for the political and economic ‘democracy promotion’ programs of Western metropoles as part of a modernizing mission to propel a ‘backward’ society (understood in balkanist terms) on the road to democracy and (capitalist) progress (p. 299–300; see also Mandel, 2002). If, as Arundhati Roy (2004) has argued, NGOs are indicator species for the ravages wrought by neoliberalism in non-western countries, the NGOization of the post-Yugoslav space, financed by USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Soros’ Open Society Institute and various European governments, has played a key role in the cooptation and control of permissible political discourse in the region, largely by controlling and channeling anti-nationalist discourses into a pro-neoliberal, pro-EU (European Union) project that continuously foments balkanist tropes of internal primitivism and barbarism to sustain itself.


In the context of the post-Yugoslav neoliberal transition, the shadow side of military humanitarianism that is rarely spoken of or covered in the Western media is neoliberal democracy promotion by imperial powers (Guilhot, 2005). And central to militarized democracy promotion as an extended project in the region, human rights largely take on the character of what Amy Bartholomew and Jennifer Breakspear (2004) in their critique of Ignatieff call ‘swords of empire’ in specific instances, and of the ‘soft power’ of empire in others (and sometimes both simultaneously) (p. 124). While a growing literature is critically assessing the contradictions and limitations (as well as the uses) of human rights as formalistic legal instruments in Western liberal democracies that leave fundamental social and economic inequalities intact (Brown, 2002; Kennedy, 2002a and 2002b), the tactical specificities and impacts of the transposition of Western legalistic notions of human rights into post-socialist contexts can only be fully assessed and grasped in their indissociability from the wider projects of democracy promotion, military cosmopolitanism (Kurasawa, 2006, p. 299) and the neoliberal implantation of market capitalism at play.


It is in liberalism’s classical severing of any material considerations of access to food and income from the purview of individual rights that the full irony of the simultaneous legal introduction of truncated formal human rights, and NGOization alongside legal mechanisms for the material dispossession of the majority living in post-socialist contexts becomes most acute. In terms of the historical political enactment of this liberal evacuation of human rights of basic material guarantees, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2008) has traced the emergence of a humanitarian instrumentalization of human rights for imperialist goals to the Helsinki Declaration of 1975. With the passage of the declaration, previous efforts by ‘third world’ and socialist countries to entrench the rights to food, guaranteed income, health care, housing and free education as basic human rights in such initiatives as the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights passed at the UN General Assembly in 1966 (but unratified by countries such as the United States) were politically marginalized and defeated. As Irina Ceric (2009) further argues,


although it is portrayed as neutral, benevolent international aid, democracy promotion and rule of law promotion, when viewed through the lens of ‘balkanism’, ought to be understood as intervention which facilitates the linkage of ‘freedom and democracy … to the presence of markets … [T]he invocation of the rule of law, the deployment of the language of rights, and the expansion of NGOs helps cement the connection.