Kruščica, Bosnia and Herzegovina - © Alem Sabanovic/Shutterstock

Kruščica, Bosnia and Herzegovina- © Alem Sabanovic/Shutterstock

The defence of rivers and water: a highly symbolic struggle which in recent years has successfully mobilised very different layers of the societies of south-eastern Europe, bringing to light both potential and contradictions. An interview

02/04/2024 -  Marco Ranocchiari

The social movement for the defence of rivers, attacked by the "tsunami" of over three thousand hydroelectric power plants, is among the most complex and successful ones in the Balkan countries. These struggles have fuelled hope in a sustainable future for the environment and society throughout south-eastern Europe, including the heroic resistance of the women of Kruščica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, who occupied a bridge for 500 days; the protests in the Balkan mountains in Serbia which, after harsh clashes with the police, became the driving force behind the rebirth of depopulated areas; the Vjosa affair in Albania, where the first river national park in Europe is being created. Capable of mobilising very different groups, these movements are however far from free of contradictions. Ivan Rajković, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna who has studied them extensively in Serbia, called them "ecopopulists".

Ivan Rajković, the objective of these movements is apparently very concrete: to prevent intact river ecosystems, with which the local population still maintains a close relationship, from being compromised in exchange for poor energy yield. Yet, you argue that these struggles are much more universal. What is the symbolism of water and what role does it play in these mobilisations?

Water is never just water. While the protests explicitly state that all life depends on water, in fact the meaning attributed to it is as different as the people who participate in the struggles. I argue that water has become the equivalent of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe called the "floating signifier", an umbrella term for connecting many different social groups, to create a new form of community.

Can you explain some of these meanings?

Since it flows and cannot be stopped, water is seen as the ultimate limit to the privatisation that characterises our time. But its value extends to other injustices, to the right to remain and live in a place, it can mark a symbolic return to the original village of the families of those who protest, especially if they have become unemployed or precarious workers in the city. Then obviously there are those who directly depend on the waterways under attack to survive, such as farmers and shepherds who use them to irrigate and water their livestock. But there is also a highly educated and urban middle class, made up mainly of young people, who sees water as a symbol of the possibility of returning to their ancestral and rural lands after having experienced unemployment in an urban context. Or, more in general, as a symbol of struggle against the party in power in Serbia.

Referring to these movements, you defined them as ecopopulist. Why?

When I say populist, I don't necessarily mean something negative. The better word would perhaps be "popular", but populism remains a very useful term: it means that a certain social movement speaks in the name of the people, and claims that the underprivileged, the oppressed, are more representative of the entire population than their official representatives. In this case, ecology is a vehicle for achieving broader popular universality.

We are used to thinking of environmental movements as rooted in urbanised environments, with middle-class and liberal supporters...

So far these protests have been completely different: they have mainly affected people living in peripheral rural areas or smaller cities. Often these are older people, which disproves the prejudice that only young people want to change things. The fact is that we find ourselves in frontier terrain, the energy transition, some aspects of which are outsourced to different peripheries of the world. Including the Balkans, which for some are nothing more than a forgotten corner of Europe.

New mining excavations, new hydroelectric power plants and so on have often translated into new environmental injustices that have affected rural areas that have been in the throes of demographic decline for decades, and in this vacuum (or at least perceived as such) many investors thought they could easily realise their own projects. All of this has led to what some scholars have described as "poor environmentalism." It does not mean that those who participate are necessarily poor, but that they defend the environment because they actually depend on it, not because they perceive it as something beautiful to enjoy.

Later, another type of environmentalism arrived, that of "discontent": the struggles became the symbol of dissatisfaction with the current political regime, the growing inequalities, the unequal possibilities of social reproduction which determine the impossibility of living life to the full.

Different groups lead to different positions: as you argue, we are not all in the same boat...

Like everything else, environmentalism is not free from broader power relations. Conflicts exist, there are different voices. Highly educated people, whom we might call urban middle-class liberal ecologists, certainly have more symbolic capital to channel than other groups. In the countryside, trivially, there are those who have the money to start an ecotourism business born from the spirit of the protests themselves and those who don't. Employers and the unemployed. And even among those who live from the environment, there is a huge difference between those who have retired after a life in a factory and are trying to get by with a few sheep, and the large, wealthy farmers.

These movements were born from below, but an important role was also played by international NGOs, the academic community, and even brands, albeit environmentally conscious ones, such as Patagonia...

Consider, for example, on the one hand the women of Kruščica in Bosnia, who defended their river strenuously for months. And on the other hand, other women, members of environmental organisations, perhaps living in other cities or even other countries, who helped them with legal support and getting media attention, and tried to articulate their local struggles into something wider. The first group depends directly on the river, the second does not. I also include myself and other academics, you journalists, left-wing environmental groups and everyone who, in some way, is extracting value from what these people are doing. I don't mean to say that we have different agendas, but that how one makes a living influences the profound way in which one becomes an environmental actor. We must always consider the risk that the most powerful groups, which have some type of financial or symbolic capital, will take over the scene at some point.

Let's get to the concrete cases. The protests in defence of the Stara Planina, the Balkan mountains, play a decisive role in the history of these movements. What characterises them most?

I have been following the protests since 2018, in Pirot, and I was immediately struck by how positively the movement allowed differences to emerge. Each speaker spoke as if there were – let's say – fifteen people speaking: they underlined what was specific to them as a person and what characterised the place they came from, without neglecting the generation, class or place of origin, and everyone tried to connect with each other through the imagery of water.

Shortly thereafter, some of the toughest battles were recorded on Stara Planina, leading to historic victories. Topli Do, which we also covered, has become a national case...

When the Topli Do protests were organised, there was already a history of struggles against hydropower. In the village of Temska, along the same stream, there had been much fighting since the 1980s. And then in Rakita, in Vlaška, which are not located on the Stara Planina, but in any case in a neighbouring area, on the border with Bulgaria. The movement has been able to capitalise on those experiences, both in concrete discussions with investors and law enforcement agencies and in communication. Thanks to the work of activists on social networks, Topli Do has become a symbol of larger injustices. For most people, I believe, the events of Stara Planina had great resonance because it was one of the most neglected and depopulated areas, which reminded many of the villages of their parents or grandparents who were abandoned, and also for this turned out to be a victorious struggle.

In the end, did contradictions emerge there too?

I am not a specific expert on Topli Do and I don't want to talk about micro-cases, however – despite it being one of the first victories – in my opinion the story of this village could give pause to other places in the struggle. In this village, in my opinion, after the victory there was a certain type of appropriation of the struggle. Attention soon shifted from the symbolism of water as a common good to the fate of Topli Do itself.

Since then the village has followed a different destiny from the surrounding ones: the rebirth has led to a sort of touristisation, and throughout the area we can already observe a notable increase in prices, which has begun to have an impact on the people, mostly poor, who had resisted depopulation. And an ideological revival of monarchist and capitalist values has also been observed, ideas in open contradiction to the original anti-privatisation sentiments against hydroelectric power plants. The insurgency has become a brand.

A nationalist turn which, from what I have seen, is not shared by the majority of people who participate or sympathise with these protests. What could be a way for these movements to overcome their contradictions?

I think we should stop avoiding these contradictions or, worse, sweeping them under the carpet. On the contrary, we should expose them. Otherwise you face a real risk: you are defending an asset from a large investor, until the fight brings everyone to an agreement. But then a smaller one arrives, who is not hostile or who comes from the same movement, and suddenly you realise that they are speaking on behalf of the others. And they also invest in something that benefit them.

If we want to carry out a new progressive policy of environmentalism we must not necessarily take one side or the other, but admit that we are unequal and that we come from very different positions and perspectives. Populism is not a bad thing, but it poses an inevitable challenge to any authentic pluralist liberation struggle.



This article was produced as part of the Collaborative and Investigative Journalism Initiative (CIJI ), a project co-funded by the European Commission. Responsibility for the contents of this publication lies with Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso Transeuropa and does not in any way reflect the opinion of the European Union. Go to the project page

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