Social change in the Balkans Rastko Močnik

How shall we describe the Balkans? As a region divided by the defense-walls of Fortress Europe? We have seen that before, and have seen the Balkan countries survive the empires that contended over them; only this time, it seems that the dividing border is internal to the Empire1 and is part and parcel of its global construction. It is a region where all the modern political forms have been tried out, over the last hundred years, from empire to revolutionary republic, from multinational federation to nation-state to protectorate; a series repeated in the last decade of the 20th century in an abridged (though not more successful) edition, skipping the revolutionary republic while adding a self-imposed bantustan. That would however testify more to the crisis and decline of modern political invention than to any specificity of the Balkans. Shall we describe it as a region where internal conflict and external assistance have combined to bring down national economies and to enhance the informal sector, excelling in the traffic of arms, drugs, and people? But this would hardly be an original feature in the contemporary world.

The features invoked certainly belong to the Balkans of today; and yet, in no way do they distinguish the Balkans either from their own past or from certain other parts of the world. These features (and one could add more) are not specific to the Balkans in either the temporal or the spatial dimension. Rather, they point to long-term processes evolving over larger spatial extensions; they invite us to insert the contemporary Balkans into a wider time-space perspective.2

There are two parameters that remain stable across the Balkan countries: poverty is increasing and inequality is increasing. Apologists of the current policies have been arguing that inequality propels economic growth, or is at least its quasi-necessary side-effect. Economists will tell you that inequality depends on a society’s tolerance of inequality; and they will add that inequalities are, as a rule, small in economically successful and rich countries, and great in economically unsuccessful and poor countries. As long as inequality goes on increasing in the Balkan countries, their developmental chances will decrease. But then, inequality is increasing not only in the Balkans; it is a common feature of all the postsocialist countries. And so is the increase in poverty.

The gross domestic product (GDP) declined sharply after 1991 in all the postsocialist countries. In Central and Eastern Europe, GDP went on falling until 1994, eventually reaching an index of 65 (1991 being 100); afterward, the trend stabilized and in 1997 reached an index of slightly over 75. In the Baltics, the fall was sharper (index of 43 in 1994), and stabilization after 1994 was at a much lower level (slightly above 50 in 1997). In the former Soviet Union (Commonwealth of Independent States) the decline was still underway in 1997, when the index was around 50.3 In 1997, only two postsocialist countries reached a positive index of GDP compared with their GNP in 1990: Poland (125.2) and Slovenia (104.1).

The cost of this relative success was hard; but then, the cost of failure in the other postsocialist countries was harder. The percentage of the population at poverty level ranges from around one-fifth to an extreme of three-fifths (in Azerbaijan), with the exception of the Baltics (less than one-tenth). The share of the shadow economy seems important everywhere, although the data are scarce and unreliable.4

An increase in inequality is a uniform feature of all the postsocialist countries, and also of the Balkans. The Gini coefficient trends speak for themselves.5 Slovenia, a marginal case as to GDP, has been able to restrain the rise of inequality—and still overtook Denmark in 1994, with an increase still on its way.6

Economic growth, at least in Slovenia, clearly seems to be achieved at the expense of those who work—and also at the expense of those who are deprived of a chance to work, the unemployed.7 But then, it would seem that the postsocialist countries are only catching up with a process that the “developed” countries of the world went through a couple of decades earlier.8

This is usually referred to as “the cost of transition.” Quite wrongly so, for if a country has changed its social structure, the new social structure is where the transition has led it. The costs of such a transition from a low level of inequality and poverty to more of both are the deaths which would otherwise not have occurred, educational courses not pursued, childhoods spoiled by hunger … but then, one would rather speak of consequences.

Speaking of “costs” is an oversimplification, since it misleadingly suggests that the unlucky consequences of “transition” are a sort of “investment” which will quasi-automatically “pay back” at some point in the future. A case in point is unemployment; it is produced by at least three processes of different natures. One process is a change in social domination: the dominating classes are no longer held under an obligation to secure total employment. Another process is the politics of neoliberal globalization: “national economies” are forced, by different international arrangements and pressures, to “compete” on the world market. The third process is the third “industrial revolution” which makes whole classes of the population “redundant.”9 The combined result is the present unemployment, steady in all the postsocialist countries, drastic in some, including most Balkan ones, and such that major sections of those unemployed at present will never work again.10

Inequality cannot remain an isolated social phenomenon. It seems to be directly related to such complex social dimensions as social health and life expectancy. Countries with a lower rate of inequality typically have a higher life expectancy.11 Even more importantly, trends in relative poverty correlate with changes in life expectancy.12

Population trends are an indicator of the well-being of a society. They are negative in the Balkan countries; typically, though, this is not caused by an increase in the death rate, but a decrease in the birth rate. This is what leads to the negative population trends in the Balkans. The exceptions are Bulgaria and Romania, which combine an increase in the death rate with a major decrease in the birth rate.13

Consequently, population trends are negative in the Balkans—as they are in other postsocialist countries. Comparatively, the Balkans are doing well in this respect.14

It would seem that, generally speaking, the Balkan countries have difficulties securing “social ties” or social cohesion. To express this in a less academic way, their networks of social solidarity are faltering—not only the institutions of the welfare state, but other more long-term social mechanisms like the extended family, the neighborhood, and other types of communities connected by locality, profession or age … the optimistic account speaks about the dissolution of traditional structures and “modernization.”

“Premodern” networks have been taking care of those who have been temporarily or permanently excluded from the sphere of “productive work”: the ill, the unemployed, etc. What is happening in the Balkans now is that not only are the “traditional structures” disappearing, but “productive work” has been sharply redefined; the only productive work is that which contributes to the accumulation of capital. One should immediately add that, within present institutional arrangements, housework is not included in this definition.

In the “premodern” context, now withering away, these dimensions of social solidarity have been secured by what the classics called the reciprocal exchange.15 But in every society, there are two groups whose social contribution is either nil or very specific, certainly not such as to be covered by the modern definition of “productive work”: the very young and the (very) old. Traditionally, these two groups have been integrated by means of transgenerational exchange or delayed exchange.16 That which I have received from my parents in my infancy, I will render to my children; I will support my parents in their old age and expect my children to support me when I am old. With the disappearance of “premodern” social forms, this mechanism breaks down. The problem of children is easily dealt with by not bringing them into the world; old people, meanwhile, are a tougher problem necessitating a solution involving “pension reform.”

Even with the young it does not seem to be easy. Not only is the birthrate generally declining; one should also pay attention to the accelerated integration of adolescent age groups into the ways of the adult society: educational systems are becoming increasingly competitive and selective, and serving more and more to propagate the reproduction of existing social classes.

Social solidarity in both its dimensions—the horizontal dimension of “reciprocal exchange” and the vertical dimension of “delayed” intergenerational exchange—is severely threatened in the Balkans, as it is in other postsocialist countries. Common trends in “transitional countries” have been listed as follows:17

— declining economic activity;

— rising unemployment;

— rising youth unemployment (in connection with “dropping out”);

— a declining in standard of living;

— increasing poverty;

— changes in the value system (rise of individualism);

— the emergence of social groups at risk: youth, unemployed, poor.

We have already noted unemployment and poverty, and touched upon the young as a newly established group which is at risk.18 If nothing radically changes, young people are likely to run even worse risks in the future. The high percentage of secondary-school-age children not enrolled in school is not a promising indicator (note the rather striking figures for Bulgaria, 40%, and Croatia, 34%).19

The Balkans have in fact the lowest basic enrolment ratios (age group 6/7–14/15) even among the postsocialist countries.20 The proportion of GDP spent on public education, at least in some cases (Albania, Bulgaria), is low and is not rising.21

In general terms then, we can say that the Balkan societies are failing in the dimensions of reciprocal exchange (the ties of communal solidarity) and of delayed exchange (the ties of intergenerational solidarity). This produces serious social anomie, whose most serious effects are the widening of social inequality and increasing poverty on one hand and, on the other, the emergence of new groups at risk on a generational basis—the young and the old, and others on the basis of unemployment (the long-term and permanently unemployed).

What remains as a mechanism of social cohesion? The dominant modern form of exchange—the generalized commodity exchange. After 500 years of domination by the capitalist mode, one should not be surprised. Or should one?

Should we agree with those who claim that this is only a temporary and a basically benevolent shock, just a collateral effect of “modernity” finally coming to the Balkans?22 But then we should also say that “modernity” is coming to where it historically began—to Western Europe. For the rich and developed countries of Western Europe are at present equally concerned with faltering of “social ties,” the disappearance of mechanisms of solidarity, the commoditization of vital aspects of human life. This concern is so keen that Pierre Bourdieu appealed to people to fight “against the destruction of a civilization.”23

It would seem then that the Balkan countries are caught, together with the whole of the mankind, within contemporary global processes, and in the form these processes take in the peripheral and semi-peripheral regions of the world system, of which the region of the Balkans is only one among many. What seems specific to the Balkans, though, should be sought in the particular ideological form in which these processes are lived, and which predominantly determines the way the region responds to them: this form is best condensed in the term “transition.

Again, “transition” is a popular catchword in all postsocialist countries. Its basic effect is the same everywhere: it normalizes the processes I have sketched. What is perceived in Western Europe as a threat to “civilization” is celebrated, in the “transition-charmed” countries, as an ascension toward civilization. In the Balkans specifically, “transition” styles itself in Orientalist terms, in the terms of an imperative to “join Europe.” While “in Europe, and elsewhere in the world, more and more people reject the false alternative: liberalism or barbarism,”24 the people of the Balkans are being submitted to neoliberal policies in the name of shedding their Balkan barbarism. “Transition ideology” generally and its local Balkan-Orientalist elaboration have indeed been propagated by certain fractions of the native political classes, but they have only ascended to the present hegemonic position after having been “authenticated” by egregious speakers on behalf of the “international community” — i.e., by representatives of West European and US high politics and transnational business.

In this respect, those in Europe who disagree with Bourdieu and agree with the Balkan-Orientalist ideology, actually honor only a specific tradition of modern Europe. Not the discredited tradition of Orientalism, but the honorable tradition of the modern democratic constitution by social contract.

The problem as posed by “transition” ideology is how to build democratic political and social institutions among peoples presumably without any political culture. Since a democratic culture can only be achieved through the centuries-long practice of democratic institutions, the enterprise is trapped in a vicious circle. The problem is not new in Europe, and has been developed precisely as a question of civilization and culture:

Pour qu’un peuple naissant pût goûter les saines maximes de la politique et suivre les règles fondamentales de la raison d’Etat, il faudrait que l’effet pût devenir la cause, que l’esprit social qui doit être l’ouvrage de l’institution presidât à l’institution même, et que les hommes fussent avant les lois ce qu’ils doivent devenir par elles.25

For an emergent people to sample the healthy principles of politics and to follow the basic rules of the reason for the state, it would be necessary for the effect to become the cause, for the social spirit which should be the work of the institution to precede the institution itself, and for humans to be before the laws what they should become through them.

The vicious circle has to be broken from the outside. Rousseau invented a supplementary function which sets the process of political institution-cultivation in motion by an external intervention. This function is performed by the “Legislator.”26 The Legislator, according to Rousseau’s myth of origin, writes the laws and presents them to the people. The people examine the laws and find them good, and, in their capacity as the “Sovereign,” adopt them by their own free will. It is in this process of examination, assessment, and adoption of the law that the people cultivate themselves, and become a political nation. As historical examples, Rousseau quotes Lycurgus, “modern Italian republics,” and Geneva; as a counter-example, he evokes Rome. He could not have dreamed that he was in fact writing the story of the acquis communautaire.27

“Transition” ideology, now materialized in local institutions and international arrangements, deproblematizes current historical processes and thus cripples the social imagination, inhibits active intervention, and favors “spontaneous” developments as managed by the hegemonic forces of the world. If the “transition” ideology is combined, as it is in the Balkans, with local varieties of Orientalism, it infuses an additional overdose of illusion and naïveté into the social mind.

Where do these processes lead us, if abandoned to their “spontaneity”? While analysts agree that the world system is in crisis, their interpretations diverge. Immanuel Wallerstein holds that this is the final crisis of capitalism.28 André Gunder Frank thinks that what is coming to its end is only the bicentenary crisis of the Asian economy, which is therefore, as a consequence, the much mystified “rise of the West.”29 According to Pierre-Noël Giraud,30 it is just an exceptional peculiarity of the 20th century that is withering away; while differences between the regions of the world were growing drastically during the 20th century, internal differences within the rich nations have been dramatically reduced. In the future, Giraud expects that the countries with low wages and high technological capacity (India, China, South East Asia, Eastern Europe) will increasingly catch up with those who are rich at present, while internal differences in the rich countries will start irresistibly to grow again.

According to Giovanni Arrighi’s theory,31 the capitalist system oscillates in cycles where material expansion alternates with financial expansion. Every cycle is marked by the hegemony of a world-power capable of establishing an alliance between the state and capital. The cycle which is presently approaching its end was dominated by the US hegemony. The United States still have political and military supremacy, while the available capital has moved to East Asia. If the state and capital, although dislocated, establish their alliance again, a new capitalist cycle is likely to begin. If this does not happen, then capitalism will come to its end. The new system will either be an empire without a market, or a market without an empire.

These are some possible scenarios if the dominating logic of the present extends into the future. At present, this logic is basically circular and still reproduces the existing relations of domination. The World Bank has recently given a nutshell example of this logic: it voiced its stand that “tobacco presents a serious threat to global economy.”32 The argument seems to be the following: “global economy” creates contexts inducing to substance use; and substance use, in turn, “threatens global economy.” The response, from within the horizon of the presently dominating logic, comes fast: “You have to choose: either smoking or health. You can’t have both.”33

The domain of “substance use” has long been the pioneering realm of this kind of alternative,34 which pushes its addressee against a civilizational wall and into a no-choice position. Now that the whole world has been presented with the presumably “civilizational” alternative, “either security or freedoms and liberties,”35 we can see better how this ideological trap supports the reproduction of the presently dominating “logic,” including the present “global economy.” This type of alternative legitimizes repression and forces the addressee to submit to technologies of “knowledge.” It establishes an ideal synthesis of savoir-pouvoir, of power and knowledge. It deploys, as “natural, necessary, inevitable,” the field of application of the two main, if not actually exclusive, modes of operation presently common to great political institutions, from the state through international organizations to international parainstitutions … It legalizes, albeit on a “protolegal” level, the use of force, which would otherwise remain unwarranted; it introduces an oppressive use of knowledge which otherwise could be exercised within emancipatory projects. As an ideological discourse addressed to individuals, alternatives of the type “security or freedom” make them lose both. As ideologies materialized in contemporary institutions, though, they make the great institutions of today gain on both fronts: on the front of “sovereignty”36 and repression, and on the front of “governmentality”37 and social management.

We should therefore call for strategies that will break the horizon of the alienating alternatives and the corresponding alienating processes. Such endeavors and strategies have already been practiced—we should not forget that they were practiced in the Balkans of the 1980s. The alternative practices and discourses of the 1980s have opened fresh perspectives, initiated emancipatory practices over vast domains which had previously been occupied by technologies of control and discipline. To some extent, the alternative has challenged “total institutions” and initiated many enlightened, self-critical practices of deinstitutionalization.38 At the present moment, the peoples of the Balkans would do well to reflect upon the wider lessons we can draw from these past endeavors, insights and attitudes.


1 / Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Empire, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 2000.

2 / Immanuel Wallerstein, Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms, Polity Press and Blackwell, Cambridge and Oxford 1991 and 1995. For the world-system approach to the Balkans, see Milan Popovic, Balkanska postmoderna: Zargon periferije, author’s edition, Podgorica 1994, p. 1–3; Milan Popovic, Posle hladnog rata, Kulturni centar, Bar 1996; Milan Popovic, Politicki aparthejd, Monitor, Podgorica 1997.

3 / United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “The World Economy at the Beginning of 1998,” Human Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS 1999, United Nations Development Program.

4 / United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS 1999.

5 / Ibid.

6 / Marta Gregorcic, Matjaz Hanzek, “Gospodarska rast ne izboljsuje clovekovega zivljenja,” Revija Srp, Ljublana, 8/37–38 (6–2000).

7 / Ibid.

8 / For example, as illustration, the widening of income differences in the UK. In Richard G. Wilkinson, Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality, Routledge, New York 1997.

9 / The first industrial revolution produced railways and destroyed much of the peasantry; the second industrial revolution producd automobiles and aircraft, and, with the great agrarian crisis at the end of the 19th century, completed the social effects of the first revolution. Our industrial revolution, the third one, is the “informational revolution” which gave us personal computer, virtual reality, and “instant” global markets. See Daniel Cohen, Richesse du monde, pauvreté des nations, Flammarion, Paris 1997.

10 / United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS 1999.

11 / Wilkinson, Unhealthy Societies.

12 / Ibid.

13 / United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS 1999.

14 / Ibid.

15 / Marcel Mauss, “Essai sur le don: Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques,” L’Année sociologique (1923–1924).

16 / Marcel Mauss, “Essai sur le don.”

17 / Copernicus Project, “Global Approach to Drugs,” review of the Existing National Quantitative Studies, the Cases of Finland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Romania, Faculty of Social Studies, Ljubljana 2001.

18 / Sociological terminology is somewhat cynical: we keep it to provoke reflection—both on the phenomenon and on the jargon of social sciences. What does it mean that everybody has to pass through the status of an “at-risk” group as early as their tender youth!?

19 / See United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report for Central and Eastern Europe and the CIS 1999.

20 / Ibid.

21 / Ibid.

22 / Even an otherwise perspicacious scholar of the Balkans seems to entertain the idea that the Balkans are to “wither away” with the “Europeanizing, modernizing” processes now under way: “Contrary to the Orient, the Balkans have a concrete historical existence … Not only did part of southeastern Europe acquire a new name—Balkans—during the Ottoman period, it has been chiefly the Ottoman elements or the ones perceived as such that have mostly invoked the current stereotypes … It seems that the conclusion that the Balkans are the Ottoman legacy is not an overstatement … It may well be that what we are witnessing today, wrongly attributed to some Balkan essence, is the ultimate Europeanization of the Balkans. If the Balkans are, as I think they are, tantamount to their Ottoman legacy, this is an advanced stage of the end of the Balkans.” See Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford UP, Oxford 1997, p. 12—13. See also my “The Balkans as a Grenzbegriff,” in Europa zwischen Krieg und Frieden, Österreichisches Studienzentrum für Frieden und Konfliktlösung, Münster 1999.

23 / In his address to the workers on strike at the Gare de Lyon, December 1995: “Je suis ici pour dire notre soutien à tous ceux qui luttent … contre la destruction d’une civilisation, associée à l’existence du service public, celle de l’égalité républicaine des droits, droits à l’éducation, à la santé, à la culture, à la recherche, à l’art, et, par dessus tout, au travail.” See Pierre Bourdieu, Contre-feux: Propos politique sur le capialisme sauvage, Raison d’agir, Paris 1998, p. 30.

24 / Bourdieu, Contre-feux, p. 32.

25 / Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le contrat social, livre II (1762), p. 7. Also Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Du contrat social ou Principes du droit politique, Garnier, Paris 1960, p. 262. Circularity is stated three times: 1. for un peuple naissant (nowadays, the expression is “an emergent political nation”) to rise to the healthy principles of a civilized constitution, before the state of law its members should already be what they can only become through it; 2. the civilized social mind should produce the institutions, while it is only through these very institutions that civilized social mind can eventually come into being; 3. in short, for an emergent political nation to endow itself with political institutions, the effect should precede the cause, il faudrait que l’effet put devenir la cause.

26 / Rousseau is precise and consistent: “Le législateur est à tous égards un homme extraordinaire dans l’Etat. S’il doit l’être par son génie, il ne l’est pas moins par son emploi. Ce n’est point magistrature, ce n’est point souveraineté. Cet emploi, qui constitue la république, n’entre point dans sa constitution; c’est une fonction particulière et supérieure qui n’a rien de commun avec l’empire humain; car si celui qui commande aux hommes (the executive) ne doit pas commander aux lois (the legislative), celui qui commande aux lois (the Legislator) ne doit pas commander aux hommes.” (Ibid., p. 261; my italics.)

27 / Although the Acquis communautaire is a Diktat, the candidate countries for EU fake a genuine legislative procedure to fulfill it.

28 / See T.K. Hopkins and I. Wallerstein, The Age of Transition. Trajectory of the World-System, 1945–2025, Zed Books, London 1996.

29 / Andre Gunder Frank, ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, University of California Press, Berkeley 1998.

30 / Pierre-Noel Giraud, L’inégalite du monde. Economie du monde contemporain, Gallimard, Paris 1996.

31 / Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, Verso, London 1994.

32 / Kenneth E. Warner, consultant to the World Bank, at the ministerial conference “Europe without Tobacco” organized by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, in Warsaw, February 18–19, 2002, as reported in Delo, Ljubljana, on February 20, 2002.

33 / Report from the Warsaw conference, ibid.

34 / Their theoretical concept was presented by Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, Livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Seuil, Paris 1973, p. 16, where he proposes to term them “vel-alternatives.”

35 / If you choose “security,” then you will have life without freedom; if you choose “freedom,” you lose both.

36 / In retrospect, we now see how contemporary political practices have replaced the revolutionary idea of the “sovereignty of the people” by the silent violence of practicing sovereignty in the spirit of Carl Schmitt’s trite definition: “the sovereign is the one who decides about the exception.” Accordingly, contemporary political apparatuses present themselves, in a large part, as machines to produce “emergencies” and “states of exception.”

37 / As defined by Michel Foucault: “the entire set of practices used to constitute, define, organize, and instrumentalize the strategies that individuals, in their freedom, can have toward each other.” (Michel Foucault, “L’éthique du souci de soi comme pratique de la liberté,” interview with H. Becker, R. Forner-Betancourt and A. Gomez-Mueller, Dits et ecrits IV, Gallimard, Paris 1994, p. 728.) Also see Michel Foucault, “Governmentality,” in The Foucault Effect. Studies in Governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell et al., Harvester/Wheatsheaf, London 1991.

38 / For both—deconstruction of the “total institution,” and reflexive questioning of deinstitutionalization—see: Vito Flaker, Odpiranje norosti. Vzpo in padec totalnih ustanov, Zalozba, Ljubljana 1998.


Rastko Močnik, “Social Change in the Balkans,” Eurozine (March 20, 2003),